Interview with bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: August 10, 2018
The John Smith Festival is Finland's most beautiful and scenic Metal and Rock festival and was held for the third time on 20th and 21st of July 2018. The festival organizers once again booked an interesting set of bands; Amorphis, Wolfheart, Dark Tranquillity and Leverage among others, which made this small and cozy festival one of the best summer festivals in Finland. North Karelia's pride, melodic Death Metal messiahs Insomnium, added an extra dose of muscle to the bill.
Insomnium have recorded seven full-length albums since forming in 1997 and just finished a North American tour with a show in Worcester on June 24th. The band has been on tour to support their latest album, Winter's Gate, a single-song epic that has put many fans in a trance while they watch the band perform the song live. If you missed them on this tour, that's too bad because this band truly delivers onstage, I assure you.
The Metal Crypt invaded the festival full of excitement to see the band on the first day of the festival. Yours truly was fortunate to meet the band's vocalist and bassist Niilo Sevänen at the hotel/spa a few hours before showtime. Niilo was eager to talk about what they have been up to lately, what their plans are for the coming months and much more...
Luxi: For starters, what's new in the Insomnium camp?
Niilo: We have basically been doing festival shows. In fact, we had three weekend festivals in a row and this is the last one before we take a little break. In Autumn, we have one more gig booked for Switzerland and it's going to be a special show; we will do the entire Above the Weeping World album with a few other songs. Then, of course, we will concentrate on our next album. We are on the verge of finishing the touring cycle for Winter's Gate, so it's time to move on and concentrate on making songs for our next album.
NORTH AMERICAN INVASION
Luxi: You did a pretty extensive tour in North America during May and June this year. How would you summarize that tour? Was it successful?
Niilo: Overall, it was a very successful tour. We are all very pleased with how turned out. It also was sort of a relaxing experience because our touring mates in Oceans of Slumber that shared the same bus, were all very nice and down-to-earth fellows. There's no drama whatsoever, so in that sense, things went very well. Lots of people attended the shows, many more than we originally hoped for, which is always a great thing. But yeah, like I already mentioned, every one of us was very happy with how this tour turned out for us.
Luxi: What size venues did you play?
Niilo: Our biggest show happened in New York where we played in front of nearly 600 people, and as far as I can remember the smallest attendance was perhaps in Des Moines where we had approx. 100 there. So, those were two extremes, but overall, I would say that we had 200-300 coming to our shows. The biggest cities naturally drew more people and smaller cities somewhere in the Midwest had less. However, some of those smaller gigs were pretty intense which is always a positive surprise.
Luxi: What were some of your favorite cities or venues?
Niilo: I would say that in Canada we had very intense and supportive crowds. All four gigs in Canada were memorable for sure; Montreal, Toronto, Québec and Vancouver.
Luxi: Your show in Toronto was sold out in advance, correct?
Niilo. Yes, as did our gig in Québec, which was great! In Montreal, we had a bigger crowd, even if it wasn't completely sold-out. We played at a bit bigger venue in Montreal though.
Luxi: Undoubtedly you met many fans during this tour. Can you remember the most memorable compliment that you heard after a show?
Niilo: Well, that's a tough one. Of course, we hear all kinds of stories on the road and it's quite common for fans to tell us how our music has helped them through some difficult period in their lives or something like that. It's always great to hear such touching stories and we do appreciate our fans.
We are doing the best possible music, putting lots of sweat, emotion and heart into it. And if our music helps someone to cope with difficult periods in life, that's great!
I remember when we toured the States last time, there's one special story that stuck in my mind. There was a guy in his twenties and he had been in Iraq and lost some of his fingers in a military operation. He told us how our music helped him through the most difficult times in his life when he was struggling in a deep depression and stuff. I remember he got very emotional when he was telling his story to me. This type of story is something that leaves a mark in your memory bank.
Luxi: On this recent tour you played the massive, 40-minute "Winter's Gate" song from start to finish with some older Insomnium stuff. Did you notice any die-hard Insomnium fans in the crowd that knew all the words for each of your songs, even singing "Winter's Gate" with you from start to finish?
Niilo: [*chuckles*] Yes, we do have some diehards who know all the words to our songs and sing along when we perform live, including "Winter's Gate". What I have noticed though is that our fans act a bit differently when we play "Winter's Gate". They look like they are in some sort of trance or something, really focusing on that song and trying to follow what's happening within the song. After it's over, and we start playing our shorter songs, they kind of awake from this trance and start acting "normally" again by moshing and banging their heads like that's what they were supposed to do in the first place [*laughter*]. The latter part of our show brings our fans back on firm ground again while the "Winter's Gate" song somehow triggers them to follow it intensively, guiding the fans in some state of trance.
It's kind of funny to watch our fans when playing "Winter's Gate" and putting them into the trance then waking them up by playing our regular songs. The same thing has happened from one gig to another.
Luxi: What about taking care of your vocals during long tours, like the one you just did. It's been said many times that the best way to take care of your vocals is to enough rest. Do you agree this is the most important thing and do you have any useful tips and/or tricks how to maintain the quality of your vocals during long tours?
Niilo: Well, what I do before a tour starts is begin "warming up" my voice little by little. That way I assure my voice will work the way it should. I have been pretty lucky as I have never had that many problems with my vocals. Of course, if you get sick during the tour, it may fuck up your voice totally, or in the worst-case scenario, you may lose your vocals totally. That would be a bad thing really.
When a tour is going on, I don't really have any special methods or tricks to keep my voice in shape.
Luxi: Do you warm up your voice before the actual show?
Niilo: Not really. A week or so before a tour is about to kick off, I do my regular vocal routines, trying to find the right technique to growl and stuff. Perhaps if I didn't any of that and went on tour without my vocal routines, I might well be in trouble.
So far, I have noticed that I can pull off one and a half hours every night on a longer tour, without suffering any vocal problems, which is great. Probably when I get older, I may face some problems, who knows? So far so good.
WHEN SHIT IS MEANT TO HAPPEN ON THE ROAD, IT DOES HAPPEN
Luxi: Anything can happen, good and bad, on the road. Can you remember any funny or hilarious episodes from this last tour in North America?
Niilo: [*takes a hilarious glance at the floor*] I guess anything can happen during a tour; nothing necessarily goes as planned, that's for sure. I remember one episode that happened to us when we played North Carolina. The venue where we played was humid and hot as hell, making it feel like the whole gig was arranged in a (Turkish) sauna. I cannot remember ever playing in such a hot and humid place in our history. This caused some issues during our gig. Due to all the humidity and heat inside the venue, the sound guy had a lot of problems keeping our sound in some sort of balance. Eventually, we lost the guitars completely, forcing us to end before we had reached the last songs in our set. It didn't make us laugh at all I can tell you. Also, when we played our last gig in Worcester, the bass sound just went silent all of a sudden. It was its own little episode. I remember our tour bus was without any air conditioner for two days, but happily it was fixed. When it broke down for those two days, we were in the middle of the Arizona desert, of course! Everyone in the tour bus tried to get as comfortable as possible, trying to find cooler spots in the bus. The view inside the tour bus on those two hot-as-hell mornings must have been hilarious from an outsider's point of view for sure; everyone lying around bare naked, suffering through the heat and humidity during the night. That was just crazy.
Those we probably the biggest setbacks we had on this last tour. Fortunately, we didn't face any major issues. Otherwise, it was a very nice and successful tour for everyone.
Luxi: You had a session guy named Nick Cordle on second guitar, replacing Ville (Friman). How did he end up joining this tour?
Niilo: Yes, we had Nick on this tour with us and he also toured with us three years ago when we were doing a tour in the States. We got to know the guy when he played in Arch Enemy and we played with them. He's an incredibly skilled guitarist. We asked him to join our previous US tour and he was happy to do it. That previous tour went really well, as did this tour. Nick is a true pro with his guitar playing and he's also a very nice, down-to-earth type of a guy. We couldn't have possibly found a better replacement for these two US tours. He replaced Ville due to Ville's work commitment. It's pretty tough for him to get things sorted out for longer tours, so that's why we have Nick in our touring line-up right now. If Ville wants to keep his job, he has no other choice but to let someone else does his job on these longer tours, for time being at least.
Luxi: So now whenever there's a longer tour, Ville's backup guy is always Nick?
Niilo: Hmm... I think we have to wait and see how this will be solved in the future. We may have something planned regarding this matter, but unfortunately, it'd be better if I didn't talk about it yet.
ABOUT WORKING WITH NEW STUFF
Luxi: Ok understood. Let's move on and talk about your new material as I assume you have at least some demo stuff done already. Anything that you'd like to reveal about it? Will this new material contain perhaps some "surprise factor" that might be a bit out of your comfort zone musically?
Niilo: Well, I have to disappoint you because there's not much to tell about our new stuff yet. But when we fully start writing our new stuff, we surely don't plan which direction we should take musically or anything like that. We just start writing our new stuff spontaneously to see what type of stuff we can come up with. Then we will see what our next album might need. Basing my opinion on some of the stuff that we have already been demoing, I would say it sounds pretty good so far. I have a very good feeling regarding our next album. I have no doubts whatsoever we can get a solid album put together.
Luxi: How much stuff do you already have demoed so far?
Niilo: I think we have raw material ready for four or five songs and I am sure some of this stuff will be modified a little bit over time when we start shaping up the songs later on. In my opinion, we do have a good start on the songwriting process of our next album. If we plan on going to a recording studio in the spring, at least we do have enough time to get our songs finished before the actual recording sessions.
Luxi: Do you have some specific time or season in a year when your creative juices start flowing and new material comes out of your songwriting cauldron just like that?
Niilo: No, my creativity isn't dependent on any particular season at all. I think it's more a question about having enough time to sit down and just concentrate on writing new stuff: grabbing your guitar and start jamming to see whether my song ideas are about to become more concrete. It's all about getting focused on the songwriting because time is needed when you are trying out different things for a song, which might work and which not. I myself cannot work against any strict deadlines because it basically kills my creativity if I am forced to do something quickly, possibly against some tight deadline. It just doesn't work that way at all. There has to be enough time to work with your new stuff in peace. Otherwise, you really don't go anywhere and just end up getting frustrated eventually.
When we tour, we want to concentrate on touring only. It's impossible for us to write songs on a tour; it just doesn't work, not for us at least.
Luxi: Some musicians write stuff on the road, but obviously that's not something that works for every band.
Niilo: No. I haven't seen any of us ever writing songs when we are on tour. At max, we may be trying different mixes for some already finished song but that's about it. Creating something new in the tour situation isn't for us. Being on tour is hectic enough so we just try to concentrate on doing a tour properly, and when we are off the tour, we need a peaceful space for getting into the songwriting mood. Multitasking isn't our thing I am afraid. When we tour, we tour - and when we write songs, we write songs.
Luxi: A good melody or a good riff may spring up anytime and anywhere, in a hotel room in the middle of the night when touring. And when that happens, some musicians carry their pocket recorders or iPhones or whatever just to be ready for capturing those inspirational moments for a later use. I bet you can also relate to those types of "magical moments" so to speak, correct?
Niilo: Sure. It has happened to me many times. When you get some melody line or killer riff haunting the back of your mind, you get this urgent need to get it saved somehow. But to be honest with you, this has happened to me just very seldom on a tour because touring itself sucks so much energy, keeping my pool of inspirations dry as far as coming up with new stuff is concerned anyway. You get tired easily when touring and when I am tired, I for one can say my personal level of getting inspired is very low. On tour, all I need is to rest enough so that I can perform as well as possible every night. To get enough sleep is very important for me on longer tours; coming up with new stuff isn't for me while I am on the road and performing live for the crowds.
Luxi: Have you noticed any specific things that trigger you to get inspired and start composing new material, being it a movie or a book or whatever? Somehow, I believe when doing as heavy and dark music as Insomnium's is, I can hardly see you getting inspired by some soap operas à la Emmerdale or The Bold and the Beautiful...
Niilo: Any good music, of course, can be a trigger for me to get inspired. It doesn't have to be Metal music at all. It can be a memorable melody, cool sound or whatever. It can really be anything, even a song that is utter crap from start to finish but still has that one cool thing in it that catches my attention. In a way, I can find inspiration in any type of music, but most often, besides heavier music, it's some dark and eerie sounding movie soundtrack that works for me. In fact, I have been listening to a lot of music soundtracks lately.
Luxi: Winter's Gate as an album as well as a single track, was a radical move and set the bar of innovation and pompousness very high. I can hardly imagine that you would return to those epic and lengthy songs any time soon or does it still sound tempting to try those types of massive songs?
Niilo: I believe we are done with those overly lengthy songs for now. Our next album is sort of back-on-form type of an album that will contain "standard length songs" like we have done on past albums. We do have a couple of demo songs that are between 5 and 8 minutes in length. It's very natural for us to have lengthy songs; they just come easy for us.
On the Winter's Gate album, we were pretty ambitious, trying to find out if we could pull off such a lengthy song. Fortunately, we succeeded in creating such an epic record with just one song on it. This time we want to make a normal, standard length album because there is no point recording two similar albums in a row. Perhaps we'll return to the lengthy form sometime in the future, but that remains to be seen.
MOVING TO CENTURY MEDIA'S ROSTER
Luxi: You recorded four full-length studio albums for Candlelight Records and then in 2011 you moved to Century Media Records where you have been ever since. What kinds of things changed after you signed with Century Media?
Niilo: It was a big step for us to join the Century Media family. Everything is better regarding promotion and the business side. Communication has been smoother and they simply have more resources for their bands. They seem to know how to promote us in different ways, so in that sense, things have changed for the better for us.
Candlelight Records didn't have these resources and the label was never considered that big, so switching from them to Century Media also put us on another level I have to admit. It was the right decision and I think we were lucky they signed us in 2011. When they first contacted us, they showed great interest but then they backed off. After a while, one of their representatives saw us playing live and they contacted us again and this time they were more serious and offered us a recording deal.
Luxi: Were there other labels that were negotiating with you?
Niilo: Yes, we did have a few labels but I won't mention any names. We had a couple of good options to choose from, but Century Media stood above the other labels. They proved to us that they were committed to us and wanted to work with us. We went through long discussions with the label about long-term plans and how they see our potential and such. They gave us a really good picture of how the label works and what they wanted from us. It all made sense to us, so eventually we decided to pick up their offer.
They also have a bunch of reliable and trustworthy people on their staff that have been important to our band and who have become friends over the years and we can always count on them. They proved right from the beginning that they were serious about working with us and we can 100% trust them. I have nothing but great things to say about Century Media. They have been really good to us ever since we signed to them.
Luxi: They don't pressure you for a new Insomnium album every year or two?
Niilo: No. There are no such pressures. They let us do things on our own terms. They are confident and trust us, knowing that we don't rest on our laurels too long but are a pretty hard-working band. Forcing bands to go the studio within a set time frame isn't fruitful for any of the parties involved, that's for sure. The label knows we need time to do things our own way. For example, when we suggested doing an album with just one song on it, they were behind our idea right off the bat, saying it's a very cool idea because none of their bands had ever done that. Other labels would probably have told us to "reconsider" our crazy vision guided us to record songs that were suitable for Spotify and platforms like that.
However, Century Media was sold on our idea of having just one song on the album and let us go ahead with our megalomaniacal idea.
Luxi: Have you given any thought to when Insomnium might enter the studio to record your eighth album or has Century Media expressed when they would like to see you guys entering the studio?
Niilo: Century Media hasn't expressed anything related to our next studio visit. Our booking agencies are hoping that our next album will come out relatively soon so they can start booking the next tour. We will record it as soon as the time is right but we don't want to rush things too much. We want our next album to sound 100% perfect. That's very important to us. I am hoping the next Insomnium album will be out sometime in 2019.
Luxi: As we all know, strict deadlines can kill your creativity due to rushing things and the final result may be completely different than what you originally hoped for...
Nillo: Yes, that's partly true, but it's still good to have some sort of a targeted deadline because that forces you to take things more seriously.
Luxi: Knowing all this, surely motivates you to get yourself activated again creativity-wise...
Niilo: Indeed, it does. As long as the timetable isn't too strict, then it's all good. If we shoot to enter the studio in the spring of 2019, I believe that is realistic.
BACK ON THE HOMEGROUND - JOHN SMITH
Luxi: You will be playing here at John Smith festival in a few hours and I assume it must feel great to play in front of your home crowd after being away for quite some time. What are some of your feelings being here and playing on your home turf again?
Niilo: It feels great! I mean, John Smith appears to be a very nice and well-organized festival all in all. To be honest, I haven't walked around the festival site at all, I just looked through the window and my first impression of the festival is that it's in a very nice location. I think that the people from other countries feel the same way. This must be something really special for all of them. Festivals take place in many different locations around the globe, and not all of them look as great as this one here in Laukaa, Finland. I am sure this location must feel very exotic for many (foreign) visitors and I have no doubts about pulling off a good show tonight. This will be our last show this summer, so it is nice to do it here. After this, we will take some time off from everything and concentrate on relaxing a little bit.
Luxi: And after your "holiday" is over, I assume you will start to concentrate on doing material for your next album?
Niilo: True. That's the plan for us. Happily, we still have enough time on our hands to put the material together for the next Insomnium album. Every one of us will start working on this new material at some point for sure. We are all motivated, no doubt.
Luxi: Alright. Until your next album is out, which I am personally eagerly waiting for already, I want to thank you Niilo for this chat and wish you all the best for your tonight's show.
Niilo: Thanks to you too, and see you later!
|Other information about Insomnium on this site|
|Review: Across the Dark|
|Review: One for Sorrow|
|Video: Down With the Sun|
|Video: Through The Shadows|
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