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Interviews Wintersun

Interview with vocalist Jari Mäenpää

Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen

Date online: July 12, 2017


Live pictures at Tuska 20th Anniversary festival taken by Terhi Lahtinen.

Thanks to Silke Yli-Sirniö (Tough Enough Promotion) for arranging the interview.

Wintersun's second studio album, Time I, was released back in 2012 and fans have been waiting to get their hands on the sequel ever since. 

The road leading to the completion of Time II hasn't been easy for Jari Mäenpää, the man behind Wintersun. It is a massive undertaking, a delusion of grandeur as some people have put it. The whole project has been put on ice for the time being and Jari wanted to record a different type of Wintersun album, starting from a clean slate, as it were. The Forest Seasons was created with four lengthy new songs thematically forming the four seasons of a forest. A massive crowdfunding campaign was launched, partly to get Wintersun's headquarters (i.e. studio) financed. The campaign turned out to be a huge success despite some suspicious and skeptical opinions. 

On July 21st the fans' wait will finally be over because that's the worldwide release date for The Forest Seasons. The Metal Crypt met Jari Mäenpää on the verge of Wintersun's summer festival season (Nummirock festival, Tuska festival, etc.) to talk about the new album and what's ahead of the band after the album is released.

Luxi: The release of The Forest Season, Wintersun's third full-length album, is drawing nearer day by day. What kind of feelings do you have about your fans getting some new Wintersun material to be digested?   

Jari: I have very good feelings and vibes about it though I would be lying if I told you I wasn't a little bit nervous. In the same breath I can also say that I am 100% behind this album; I feel completely happy with how it turned out. I think the album captures the perfect sound for the theme of The Forest Seasons. I could say that I am excited as to how our fans will receive it and the kind of feedback we will eventually get. Anyways, like I already said I am 100% pleased with it.

Luxi: While I was following your studio diary about The Forest Seasons on your official Facebook page, I couldn't help noticing how your fans loved all of the snippets that you posted. The response from the fans seemed to be overwhelming which must have given you even more confidence about how the album was progressing, right?

Jari: Yes. It remains to be seen how our fans will receive this record because it's so different compared to what we have done before. The vision I see for Wintersun and our albums is that each will be a little bit different from the previous one. I love to challenge myself all the time when it comes to my songwriting. In fact, I believe if I repeated myself over and over on each Wintersun release I would probably grow tired of doing this very soon. I respect musicians like Devin Townsend or bands like Judas Priest that have the balls to break their own musical formula from one album to another. Even Metallica put their Load and St. Anger albums out, which takes some balls. I respect artists and bands that have that drive to create something a bit out of their own comfort zone.

MAKING IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE - THE SUCCESS OF THE CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN

Luxi: Before you launched the crowdfunding campaign for The Forest Seasons I am sure there were all kinds of skeptical thoughts and feelings at the back of your mind like what IF this and that. Do you think you made the impossible possible by reaching (and exceeding) your targeted goal?

Jari: Yes, that's indeed what happened and we couldn't be more pleased about the whole campaign. I was working my butt off for almost three years for this album, sometimes 16 hours per day, so it also demanded a lot from me. I feel like this was more or less a sort of DIY project for me; I did nearly everything by myself from start to finish, including the album's booklet. During these three years I started learning photography and how to do some basic graphics. I started from scratch so in that sense I am very proud of myself for what I eventually achieved. 

As for the crowdfunding thing itself, we noticed that not just ourselves but many others were pretty suspicious and skeptical about the whole project at first but as soon as we launched the campaign with all the studio diary video clips and stuff, we noticed the tide really turned in a positive way, which felt great naturally. People seemed to understand why we were doing this. We wanted to be as honest as possible with our fans by committing fully to the campaign. This hasn't anything to do with any charity type of thing for us as we had done so much work for this in advance, we were just trying hard to create a win-win scenario for everyone involved; the fans and us.

Luxi: How much did your very detailed studio diary have to do with why this crowdfunding campaign turned out so successfully? 

Jari: The success of this campaign had a lot of to do with all that and the effort we put into it. The main idea was to launch this campaign to run for one month and have something done for each day. I think we did the right thing because we noticed this in the Indiegogo statistics; every time we put up a new video the sales for the The Forest Seasons package peaked. We were preparing and doing these videos for many months for this campaign, really exposing ourselves and going out of our comfort zone so to speak. To be honest with you I am a relatively shy guy and it isn't easy for me to talk in front of cameras. This campaign didn't leave many options; we just had to expose ourselves in front of the cameras as we were determined to do this crowdfunding thing gloriously right to the end. I am also determined to get all further Wintersun albums done in the future and they need just tons of (financial) resources naturally. That's why we made this crowdfunding campaign as big as we did - and fortunately succeeded very well.

Luxi: I guess you need to be as transparent as possible for your fans, sort of making you feel naked in front of them, right?

Jari: Heheh...That's indeed very true. As I mentioned, we made very clear why we started doing this; the reasons and our motivations behind this whole campaign and what we want to do with all the money that would be gathered. What was a bit weird and even funny from our point of view was that when we talked about this crowdfunding campaign as honestly and transparently as possible it actually made some people pissed off toward us. Would it have been better if we hadn't told to people where all the money would go? Hmm...I don't think that would have been a good idea either. In my opinion, that doesn't sound like a very smart thing at all. Would that latter option make people less "pissed off" toward us then? I don't believe so. 

Luxi: It's kind of odd that if you are über-honest and über-transparent some people still see something wrong. It's completely beyond my understanding...

Jari: True. Do many companies tell us where all the money goes to when we buy their products? I don't think so. 

Luxi: Your ultimate goal is to gather 750,000 euros by crowdfunding and the first campaign alone brought you over 460,000 which is, simply said, amazing. Have you talked within the band about how you will fund the remaining amount, possible perks and so on? Anything you can reveal at this point?

Jari: Well, we told our fans via our Facebook page that we have plans to do three separate crowdfunding campaigns to collect enough funds for our Wintersun headquarters (i.e. Wintersun's own studio). But as this first campaign exceeded all of our expectations, it might well be possible that we'll achieve the final goal with our second campaign already, making it possible for us to start building up the studio after that.

In fact, we do have some items for our 2nd campaign available already, but I cannot reveal them at this point. The main point, however, is that each of our crowdfunding campaigns will include a new Wintersun record. When we'll record the next Wintersun album after The Forest Seasons, I have no idea yet though...

Luxi: Time will tell... ;o)

Jari: Hahah... Exactly.

THE FOUR SEASONS OF THE FOREST

Luxi: I was privileged to hear The Forest Seasons in advance a few days ago and first I must admit that I have never been a die-hard Wintersun fanboy or anything but The Forest Seasons sounded darn impressive all in all. All four epic songs just seem to be working well as a whole - and this was not meant to kiss your butt! 

Jari: Thank you for your kind words. But yeah, I am extremely happy with this album, how the songs on it are supported by the perfect soundscape. The songs on The Forest Seasons, of course, make me personally very happy how they turned out for this album.

Luxi: Also, just my opinion, but I think on The Forest Seasons the band's music is also very well represented from extreme and fast Black Metal whirlwinds to epic and pompous orchestrated parts to extremely melancholic and melodic folk sections that make you hum the songs without even realizing. The strength of this record, however, is those four songs, the four seasons that are tied up perfectly by this detailed concept that you have carefully built. Do you feel that you managed to describe each season musically in the way you wanted it to sound in the end?

Jari: Yes, definitely! The first song, "The Forest That Weeps (Summer)", was made before I had a definite concept. The "four seasons" concept came later on when I wanted to do more material to go with this track. I did have some raw material for three other songs that all sounded different from each other. They all had a different feeling and vibe incorporated into them and I felt like they all should form a part of one whole. I also felt like this album might sound a bit more primitive than what our fans have been used to hearing from us but it still maintained the familiar Wintersun sound. After a while I started pondering more in-depth the type of feelings these songs gave back to me. "The Forest That Weeps" was easy for me to think of as the album's summer concept song. The opening riff in "Eternal Darkness" on the other hand, is dark and brutal and that made me think about the time in Finland that could be described as a depressive and gloomy season. That's autumn, of course, at least for myself; autumns in Finland are just depressive times. My father died during the autumn. These two elements sort of triggered my mind to write about death and my innermost feelings about my father's death and autumn as this depressive season in Finland. Also, this song has its special twist because lyrically it's been written how death sees life on earth, providing an opposite view into this world, from death's own point of view. Death sees life as a thing that should not even be, or happen at all; like an ultimate error in the whole universe. Lyrically death is determined to get rid of it all in this song, "Eternal Darkness".

As for the winter theme on The Forest Seasons, one of the raw song structures that I had composed had this cold and melancholic feeling and became "Loneliness", the album's closer. The album's opener, "Awaken from the Dark Slumber", which represents spring, was put together in two separate sections. The first part of the song tells about when nature is still in a state of slumber; still a bit frozen and dead but slowly awakening. In the second part of the song nature fully awakes, in a sort of pompous way, delivering life and making all of us feel energized again. It's the same with me that after a long and dark winter I always feel more energized when the spring comes.

Luxi: Talking about Wintersun's sound, one of the key elements is the absolutely striking melody lines. I have always wondered how you find all of those catchy and strong melodies for every Wintersun song that you have composed. What are your personal sources of inspiration for finding them?

Jari: Most often it just happens when I grab my acoustic guitar and start jamming. I may hum some melody and then try to repeat it with my guitar. And when I find some cool melody line, I start working with it, trying to link it with some other fitting melody parts in order to get a song built up. It's kinda hard to explain. But anyways, what may explain my sense for melodies in general is that I have listened to lots of music during my life, especially melodic music. I have also tried to learn and understand how to come up with cool and nice sounding melodies and harmonies by listening to everything from movie soundtracks to classic 80s Heavy Metal music. I think 80s Heavy Metal has produced some of the best melodies ever and that has been a big inspiration for my own songwriting. In a way I know when I have a good and catchy melody line in my head. I just keep on jamming with my (acoustic) guitar and at some point I know when I have come up with the kind of melody that I want to keep and record it for a further use in a song. Sometimes, however, I may find the right melody right away - just like that, but then again sometimes it takes more time and effort to really achieve the melody I want to use for a song.        

Luxi: As for non-musical sources of inspiration, I bet nature and especially Finnish nature, has played an important role where you can get inspired, escape from reality and put aside all negative feelings for a short while and just and get energized by it.

Jari: Yes, that's very true. When I was younger, I didn't think much about nature; not in the way it means to me these days that's for sure. Nature itself, or going out into nature, has become very important to me over the years. For example, in 2014 I was suffering from burnout due to all difficulties that I had making Time II. Eventually I felt like I just had to put it aside for time being and try to come up with something else for Wintersun. I took long walks in the forest near me and found inspiration for The Forest Seasons. Going to the forest for long walks or going to the seashore and feeling nature is a relaxing experience and takes pressure off of me. It has this purifying and healing effect on me. I have this jogging route in the forest near me where I have been going somewhat regularly and this forest really inspired the hell out of me, even in doing the booklet for the album with the forest theme. I bought a camera and took it with me from time to time when going to this forest, for wandering and jogging and just relaxing and being inspired. I started taking photos of all kinds of roots, pine cones, etc. and I found inspiration to get the forest-themed album done. The four seasons came later in my mind when I had raw material ready for the four separate songs that all sounded different from each other. Then I just figured out which season would fit best for which song and that was basically that. 

Luxi: Did you find recording your vocal parts for this album more challenging than on previous Wintersun albums? The Forest Seasons represents some of the most diverse material - from mean Black Metal shrieks to powerfully sung vocal parts and harmonies. This is especially apparent on the last song "Loneliness", which sounds pretty demanding as far as your vocal parts are concerned. How do you see this vocal aspect yourself?

Jari: You just nailed it actually. It was a very demanding and challenging album for me vocally. Like you just mentioned, "Loneliness" has some fragile, may I even say intimate, singing especially in the chorus where I went pretty high vocally. Its the kind of level one could imagine from a singer like Bruce Dickinson for example; long signing notes with a good vocal vibrato. I have sung some Iron Maiden stuff just for fun, trying to learn the right signing techniques. In Wintersun I had never done anything like I did in "Loneliness" and I must say it really did challenge me a lot. I even remember putting this one post on Facebook, in which I said something like, "In this song I would like to drop from the key of D tuning to C, even if in D it sounds a whole lot better...". I was asking for some help from the fans as to what they would have thought of it, because I was kind of stuck and couldn't decide what I should do. The fans told me to keep it in the key of D. Perhaps in the live situation I will have to drop it to C though. That remains to be seen.

Luxi: I assume you have paid more and more attention to your vocal techniques over the years like how to maintain good vocal techniques and how to challenge your limits.

Jari: Yes, especially during the past few years I have tried to learn how to sing the clean vocal part properly. I dig singing that way because I love singing melodies plus, by bringing out those melodies with your voice you are able to interpret yourself emotionally and say more on an emotional level. I have jammed with an acoustic guitar a lot in my life, using it when training my voice by singing everything from "Bohemian Rhapsody" to "November Rain". Many times when I have been at a summer cabin with some of my friends we have sung together this type of stuff around a campfire. That's how this clean singing has been teaching me the right techniques of how to use the whole scale of my voice by trying out different types of songs, even Pop songs, while jamming with my acoustic guitar. All this has helped me with this clean singing style that I can use to interpret different types of emotions through my songs in Wintersun.

I have also learned to warm up my voice a little bit before going on stage. In the very same breath I also have to admit that I love watching singing competitions on TV and every time the coaches and judges seem to underline this one fact that you need to be one with the lyrics that you sing; really understand what you are singing about and don't just spit out words one by one. This is also one of those facts that I have learned over the past years. If you give it all to a song then performing it that way for your audience you feel you are a part of the song. This has also helped me to find my own style, and may I even say, find more soulfulness for my performance as well.

Luxi: What about the other Wintersun members? How much did of their ideas passed through this main filter named Mr. Mäenpää, on The Forest Seasons?

Jari: Well, to be really honest with you pretty much 0%. I mean, I am of course open for ideas as far as Wintersun's songwriting process is concerned, but I must admit that I had these four songs almost completely ready before the other guys entered to record their instruments for the album. It could be said that The Forest Seasons is basically my own solo album, kind of. I asked Teemu and Jukka to sing some background vocals/growls for the album and I am especially glad that Jukka, our bassist, managed to use his growling vocals more than ever before. This album needed some of those growling vocals parts; more brutal elements - and I honestly think Jukka is the best Death Metal growler out there nowadays.

Anyways, I had composed and arranged everything for The Forest Seasons in advance so the album was done all by me. I just needed to the other guys' help for some extra vocals parts and I am darned happy how everything turned out. We also did this Expendables Choir Session thing for the album, which consisted of many known and less known Finnish musicians in addition to Heri Joensen (Týr). It was a hell of a fun session to do actually, and I think we pretty much nailed this massive choir in the second track ("The Forest That Weeps"). This choir part is really powerful and I have always liked these big, very masculine-sounding choirs that bands like Summoning have used a lot on their albums; these Lord of the Rings type of epic, big choirs. I wanted to make a really big choir for this album, which I did and it ended up on "The Forest That Weeps".

Luxi: So there's no leftover material from the Forest sessions that could be used for Time II?

Jari: No. All the material for Time II is ready but needs to be mixed at a professional studio, and for example re-amping some guitars. That's been a real headache for me to get exactly the right guitar sound created with the amount of orchestration that the album is going to have. I can tell you as a fact recording the guitars in a small room with the equipment that I had was basically a born-dead idea. I was trying it for years but after a while I simply had to accept the fact that recording them with scarce equipment was not going anywhere. I just put an end to it once and for all, without causing more headaches for either myself or anyone else for that matter. Time I sounded ok to my ears, production-wise, which I still decided to remaster for the crowdfunding campaign, just to get it sounding even a bit tighter. To accomplish everything perfectly, i.e. in order to reach my "true vision" on Time II, our own Wintersun studio is absolutely that thing that I need to make it happen.

HANDING THE AXE TO A NEW GUY 

Luxi: You had an audition for a second guitarist during this spring and a guy named Asim Searah (also in Cantilena, Damnation Plan, etc.) was chosen for the job. His own trial by fire, live wise, happened at Sweden Rock festival on June 8th this year. How has he fit in with the band overall?

Jari: Amazingly well I must say. He's a positively energetic fellow; he looks good on stage and of course plays his guitar really well. Before he joined Wintersun officially, we had long, in-depth conversations about guitar playing - talking about those things that drove us to play guitar in the very first place. When we both were kids, we sat in our own rooms and played guitar and forgot everything else around us. It was addictive for both of us. Asim told me that he was trying to learn the same guitar techniques and style that I have used in Wintersun; trying to learn a thing or two from my playing style. It was a very cool thing to hear that from him.  Then again, we noticed that he has also brought something of his very own for his guitar playing, which we liked a lot of course. He can shred like a maniac and has a lot of personality in his playing style as well. His first gig experience at Sweden Rock festival this year with us went really well. He just had some minor, little things here and there that need some fine-tuning but nothing major. There were a couple of other fuck-ups at our gig in Sweden Rock that had nothing to do with Asim but the rest of us instead. Asim looked at us like if he was missing something though, hahah!

Luxi: Did you grab your guitar at Sweden Rock and play a song or two perhaps?

Jari: No. We just did a couple of "stunt things" while we were there on stage. Both happened in the song "Sleeping Stars" at the end where both Asim and Jukka came in front of me and I crossed my hands over their guitar necks and all three of us played a part of that song together. It was a fun thing to do actually. 

Luxi: Have you felt "half-naked" in the live situation now one of your main tools is missing, i.e. guitar?

Jari: Nah, I felt like all went very naturally for me. In fact, I do enjoy this new situation of mine a whole lot better as I can concentrate on only singing plus I can be more interactive with the audience at the same time. It's really damn cool I must say. Also, I have done shows before without my guitar so in that sense it wasn't a completely new thing to me either. We rehearsed this quite a bit before Sweden Rock but it was a no-brainer for me after all to go on stage without my guitar.   

Luxi: Then again, you can always grab your air guitar and play that or use microphone stands the way Chuck Billy does in Testament.

Jari: Hahah...I guess it's way better for me if I just tried to avoid those things when I am on stage with this band. I honestly think it just wouldn't work for me much at all.

Luxi: As you already played at Sweden Rock this June, did you play any material off this new Wintersun opus, testing how the audience reacted?

Jari: Yes, we played the opening song off The Forest Seasons there, "Awaken from the Dark Slumber". In fact, we started our set with that song and the crowd's reaction was incredible, which warmed our hearts of course. We also have both back and side drops ready, based on the theme of The Forest Seasons. The side drops, "animal trees" as we call them, are something special on the stage because you cannot find them in the booklet. The same artist who made the artwork for The Forest Seasons album made them for us. They look really good as a part of our stage set.

Luxi: I was counting and you have about 10 festival shows this year with Kai Hahto out of the band for time being due to his hand injury and Timo Häkkinen (Sotajumala, Serocs, etc.) replacing him. How has the healing process of his arm gone? Is it possible that he'll be joining you for some of your later festival shows? 

Jari: We are really hoping so. It was really unfortunate that he injured his left hand just before these festival dates this summer.  He even had a year off from his duties in Nightwish, so it's a true bummer that he cannot play with us at the moment. It's better that he gets enough time to get his hand healed in peace though, before joining us again. 

ABOUT FUTURE TOURS AND NEW CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN 

Luxi: What will happen in the Wintersun camp after these summer festival dates? Any headlining tours coming up perhaps?

Jari: We have a whole year booked, but some of these plans are not officially nailed down yet. We have this club tour coming up in Finland at the end of August/beginning of September this year. We will do a headlining tour in Europe, although nothing has been officially announced about this, but soon I hope. Plus, we'll be touring pretty much 'til next summer, and after that we may start working with our next crowdfunding campaign, including our next album, and so forth... 

Touring is of course important for us, to support this new Wintersun album. We always try to make some sort of plans for the future; sort of schedule what will happen this month, next month - or even next year. 

Luxi: ... and who knows perhaps Time II may even follow within a few years?

Jari: That's hard to tell at this point, but what I can already promise there's new Wintersun material coming out anyway, and we won't let you down.

Luxi: Is the door open for the other guys to contribute the band's future songwriting process?

Jari: Absolutely! I am fully open for any ideas they may have regarding Wintersun's forthcoming material. They, however, may be kinda occupied with many other things in their life - work, families. etc., so that remains to be seen if they want to sacrifice their time for composing and stuff. But I am still open for any ideas they may have up their sleeves though.

Luxi: Okay, I guess that was it I had in my mind. Thanks for your time Jari and all the best with any future endeavors with Wintersun.

Jari: Thank you, too.

Other information about Wintersun on this site
Review: Wintersun
Review: Time I




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