Interview with guitarist and vocalist Jouni Valjakka
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: May 7, 2016
Finnish samurais, Whispered, are back with war-painted faces – and back with a new album, titled Metsutan - Songs of the Void – which also marks the band's third release.
Metsutan - Songs of the Void, is unsurprisingly about some ancient Japanese mythologies – samurai warriors, dragons, life and death, pride and glory, and a host of other things. Musically, the band isn't afraid of pushing some boundaries either: besides cleverly employing all kinds of Metal elements, they also boldly incorporate some traditional Japanese instruments and big, orchestral parts. Expect no less than a pretty darn breath-taking musical adventure with Whispered through the ancient lands of epic Japanese tales and stories, covered finely and exclusively by these Finnish Samurai metallers.
Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, Jouni Valjakka, reveals more about Metsutan - Songs of the Void, and just much more. Read on...
Luxi: So Jouni, do you feel making Whispered's third album, Metsutan - Songs of the Void, was like building up the Church of Isaak, taking almost an eternity to get it fully constructed, piece by piece?
Jouni: Somewhat, yes. In music like this with so much dynamics and even some uncharted horizons you bet you have to work your ass off. With this album, besides composing, singing and playing, I also took uttermost responsibility of programming the orchestrations and ethnic instruments, so this was really the biggest project I've ever been involved with. I also learned more about everything than ever before, and I'm already fired up to make more Whispered, but I think I gotta lie down for a couple of weeks first.
Luxi: How would you say making this album was different compared to the times of your previous album, Shogunate Macabre, which was released in February 2014? Obviously you did learn a thing or two from those songwriting/recording sessions, didn't you?
Jouni: Well Metsutan was made as you said, piece by piece, so that was a new method for us. Lots of the recordings were done in different locations. That's something we haven't done before, so we learned a lot of new things. Most of the sessions were done at MSTR-studio with the amazing Jussi Kulomaa and some things were done at Mikko's summer cabin (Sahalahti Shrine) and couple of other places. This kind of flow really gave us time to reflect upon the compositions, sound and everything else so that was quite nice. With Shogunate Macabre we lived in the studio for about two months and that gave us a nice pace to the project, but making and polishing everything with more time might be better for the result.
Luxi: Delving deeper conceptually into the realm of Metsutan - Songs of the Void, it isn't a concept album in the sense of a concept album but has many stories about warriors, Japanese mythology overall and stuff, instead. Would you kindly enlighten us about the stories being told on that record?
Jouni: Like with our last album, we go to several places with the lyrics. We have songs about mythology, commitment, war, arts, life and death. Only one song on the album follows an actual myth quite precisely and that is "Bloodred Shores of Enoshima." The song emphasizes a very famous story of the island of Enoshima, involving a five-headed dragon and the goddess Benzaiten. Much of blood, love and redemption. Good ol' Shakespeare. Another song that I will mention is "Exile of the Floating World", which was inspired by the famous woodblock print artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, who painted a very popular and extremely brutal collection of pieces named "28 Murders with a Verse". One thing they say about him is that he despised the modern arts. In that song I really tried to see the world through an eventually maddening artist who's starting to hate the world around him. Quite easy actually! I won't open everything about the album now (we'd run out of ink) but I'm quite sure a vigilant listener with Google skills will find some other historical relations too.
Luxi: Did it even cross your mind at some point that it would be cool to write a concept album in which each song is connected to each other, in one way or the other? Do you believe this whole concept album thing may happen in the future perhaps?
Jouni: That'd be an extremely interesting thing to do, but how I see what that kind of album would demand in both musically and thematically, I'm quite sure that won't happen anytime soon. A great concept album should be solid as a great symphony. Few songs forming a one concept would sound something that I'd like to do again. With our first album, Thousand Swords, which was a loose concept album, we had a story flowing through the first and the last song and that was a really interesting thing to do.
Luxi: Whenever you get into this certain songwriting mood, do you think it's important to challenge yourself constantly within this whole process so that you would get at least this special feeling of giving everything out of yourself, for whatever project you have in the works? Do you also feel with Metsutan the same way that this album is your best and most satisfying work to this very date?
Jouni: I always like to challenge myself with all kinds of projects. I've been doing some short films and some other musical projects and I always want to give everything that I can in the work. Constant challenging sounds very hazardous. Like you'll never get anything finished... Finding the balance between aiming to perfection and evolving is the key to the great results I think. Though there's still much to improve and work upon, I truly think that Metsutan is the best Whispered there is. I think we got a nice equilibrium with the band, lyrics, orchestrations and Japanese influences. There's too much everything without sounding that there is too much everything. If that makes any sense to anyone!
Luxi: Could you open up a bit more about what Metsutan is all about? I am quite sure many of us are interested in knowing more about this new album title...
Jouni: Metsutan as a word is partly a bit older Japanese and could be translated to "deathtales" or "poems of destruction" and that's quite what the album is. Songs about all kinds of void through demise and void of the mind. Since none of us really speaks Japanese, our trusted Japanese graphic artist TOK confirmed that we're correct with the title and not naming the album something like "Ten Pounds of Rice - Songs of the Void".
Luxi: The album's longest song is "Bloodred Shores of Enoshima", which you said is based on a Japanese mythology telling of a certain dragon and the goddess Benzaiten. How was it to make this particular song from start to finish? Did it make you scratch your head more than normal, and would you say it's absolutely one of the most ambitious songs that you have ever created with Whispered?
Jouni: The whole song started off with this cool triplet riff I was jamming with my guitar at our rehearsal. When I started to build stuff around that riff I was in horror because I thought, "Oh shit... Here we go again..." The song seemed to have a mind of its own and once again I was building over ten minutes of epic failure.
I was halfway through writing the damned song when I read about the story of Enoshima I mentioned earlier and the whole concept fit the song so perfectly that I was stunned because in that point I had no idea what the song could be about. I'd say it's the most ambitious composition we've ever done and I would have wanted much more time to work with it.
Luxi: Metsutan - Songs of the Void, will be released in Europe on May 20, 2016. What will happen after that? Undoubtedly you may have some touring plans being sketched down on your diary already, just to support the album's release, right?
Jouni: Actually, none whatsoever. We lack the connections to the European booking agencies and we're very open to all kinds of opportunities. We're not attached to a roster of a major label, so organizing worthy shows outside of Finland is a bit tricky stuff. We have some shows booked in Finland, but most of the gigs will be played in the fall. We truly hope that we'll be able to tour abroad as soon as possible, since fans constantly ask us to come and play shows all across the globe. So S.O.S. to all you European gig shoguns!
Luxi: Since Whispered are known for their strong addiction to the Japanese mythology, samurai warriors and everything else related to those ancient Japanese folklore and stuff, will you also have some extra songs meant for the Japanese edition of Metsutan - Songs of the Void as bonuses, sort of showing your gratitude for inspiring you about these Japanese themes?
Jouni: We'll see what we can bring on the table with the Japanese release. It'd be fun to cover something exceptionally Japanese like Marty Friedman has done couple of times, but we'll see.
Luxi: You also used this Japanese artist named TOK to not only provide the fitting illustration for this record but also letting her work as a welcome mentor for you, and letting her guide you to get the correct spirit and themes incorporated into the songs on Metsutan. Did you see it as very vital for Whispered to get some native Japanese person's guidance for this third album?
Jouni: TOK has been with us since our first album and she has always been very excited and supportive of our vision. Her input with the thematic has been truly exceptional and if we're not sure about something, we always ask her. Artistic freedom, of course, reigns on the both sides because we're not writing a history book here, but in our case I think it's always good to display your vision in a decent and respectful way.
Luxi: Are you aiming to bring a special stage setting for your future shows that could be based on the Metsutan album? Obviously you also want Whispered to be visually as breathtaking as your albums are, content-wise, or am I completely mistaken in here?
Jouni: We have some plans, but nothing extremely huge. I think the shows should match the music, so I think everything at least live-wise will get eventually bigger. We're a long way from having a Viking ship or a tank on stage, but I think we'll get there at some point!
Luxi: Without any question, when Whispered performed live in Japan, it must always feel a bit more special for you due to your thematic connection to the ancient Japanese culture, mythology, etc. I was just wondering whenever you played in the front of your Japanese crowd, did these people radiate the kind of feeling back to you that you feel very homey straight away when climbing up on the stage?
Jouni: Actually we didn't have any idea what to expect when the crowd there would see these Finnish, partly bloated dudes in a Kabuki -face paint entering the stage. Would we be doing something "extremely uncool" or whatever? Gladly everything was a blast and the audience was going crazy from the first second of the intro to the last bow of the band. We met a lot of fans there and gained a bunch of new ones. Discussing our themes and stuff with the locals was very interesting! Apparently some people thought that we'd be "kabuki rokkusu (Kabuki Rock)", sort of Glam Rock of Japan where the bands wear the same kind of traditional Kumadori-painting in their faces, but nothing wasn't too strange for anyone I think. I hope we'll get a chance to get there again.Needless to say, that was a very important and curious thing for me.
Luxi: What, from your point of view, makes the Japanese mythology more interesting and exciting to sing about than, let's say, some other ancient mythologies, tales, whatever? Where did you get your original inspiration to dive deeper and even deeper into some of themes that the ancient Japanese mythology has to offer?
Jouni: I love all kinds of cultures and mythologies and such, to a point that I could even say I could make music about any culture with the same devotion. During the years, however, one comes to realize that putting one thing in paramount to the others, is the best way to go. Original inspiration comes from childhood (the deep teachings of Master Splinter) and at some point my early childhood dream of becoming a ninja transformed to a passion to write this kind of music.
Luxi: A lyric video for "Sakura Omen" was released in June 2015, just to give people a fair sneak peek into the time after Shogunate Macabre, and let them know the "Finnish samurais" are getting rearmed again with some new tricks, treats and gifts. Do you have any plans to shoot a new video for one of the songs off Metsutan in the near future?
Jouni: We're actually filming one right now. We're going with the same team we went with "Jikininki" -video, and that is me directing and editing, and couple of my very talented friends shooting, making the post-production and stuff. Tremendous amount of work with that too, but I won't give out any details yet.Except that there will be swords and guitars. I hope we'll have a fuckton of money for a video someday since I have a fuckton of ideas that cost a fuckton of money! And by fuckton I mean a usual budget for a music video with slightly bigger bands.
Luxi: Have some people felt it kind of strange yet even bizarre when they found out at some point that all this kind of samurais-oozing act called Whispered actually comes from Finland and not Japan as they may have originally thought? Must have been quite a shock for them to realize this, I assume.
Jouni: Yeah, I've heard and met some surprised or confused people. Some have even said that "you can't make this kind of music since you're not Japanese!" and that's probably the stupidest shit I've ever heard. I wonder if people have ever said same kinds of things to Nile?
Japan seems to grow strong reactions, culture-wise, in different kinds of communities, and no wonder since western culture has been exploiting the Japanese culture in all kinds of ways for a really long time. Overall the reactions have been 99% positive and people really seem to understand what we're trying to do here. In the end, we just do what we love.
Luxi: As Whispered seems to be employing very well and professionally almost everything that is related to big, epic tales about the times when the samurai-warriors ruled the lands, choosing death before dishonor – and such things – do you believe Whispered still have much to learn from those particular themes, as well as will have lots to offer fans when talking about the band's both visual and lyrical approach?
Jouni: Great to hear that you feel that way. We're no experts on Asian history, samurai or anything like that, but we're trying our best with Whispered's thematic upon everything that we bring forth. I think we still have loads to learn and I think we've only scratched the surface both lyrically and musically. For me Japanese culture and aesthetics are almost a bottomless pit of inspiration to work with, and I hope I'll always feel that way. If I don't, we'll probably do something completely different in the future.
Luxi: Well, one last question and we have reached the goal: if Whispered had to design toilet paper for people, what type of figures and/or patterns would it contain? Now feel free to use your imagination the best you can...
Jouni: Whispered toilet paper sounds rad. It'd have to be made of a rice paper for maximum inconvenience and patterns should be something super cute to boost the sales. Maybe little cat-samurai or something.
Luxi: Thank you for your time Jouni, and shall your samurai swords shine brightly in the light of the sun. I guess the closing comments belong rightfully to you, so go ahead – be my guest...
Jouni: Thank you so much for a truly great interview! Everyone get ready for Metsutan - Songs of the Void and be sure to get all other official warrior gear involved!
|Other information about Whispered on this site|
|Review: Metsutan - Songs of the Void|
|Interview with vocalist and guitarist Jouni Valjakka on May 3, 2014 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
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