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Interviews Insomnium

Interview with bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen

Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen

Date online: March 23, 2024


Live pic by TiinaMoi Photography

Finland's Insomnium, born from the fertile womb of melodic death metal in 1997, has come a long way since its inception. The band's debut album, In the Halls of Awaiting, saw the light of day in 2002, these young Finnish metallers' baptism in fire. Fortunately, the album achieved quite a lot of success, cementing the fact that metal fans would see them making new music and doing gigs from those days on.

Twenty-seven long years later and they are still here, with nine studio albums in their catalog. The band's latest album, Anno 1696, released in February 2023, put them on a long tour, one where they are still promoting the new album.

On March 8, 2024, the Insomnium caravan reached the capital of Finland, Helsinki. We managed to catch up with the band's bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen a few hours prior to their showtime and had a nice conversation about some of the latest happenings of the band, what's to come and also even reminisced about a band that put a smile of satisfaction on Niilo's face. Read on...

Good to see you, Niilo, after such a long while. How have these few gigs in Finland gone for you so far? Have any exceeded your expectations in terms of audience numbers?

Niilo: I would say they have sold very well, pretty much the way I expected. For example, at Pakkahuone in Tampere, we had approximately 900+ attendees, which was a very good number for us; the best crowd on this tour here in Finland so far. Also, this gig here at Vanha Ylioppilastalo, in Helsinki is sold out, with approximately 900-something people, so the numbers are great, which is awesome. We have had a couple of other gigs that were also sold out, so all in all, everything's been great for us, according to the plan.

THE ONGOING TOUR IN FINLAND

The focus of your concerts here in Finland has naturally been your latest full-length, Anno 1696, from which you have been playing five songs, if I didn't get confused in my calculations. How well do you think these songs have been received live versus your older material like "While We Sleep" and "Heart Like a Grave"?

Niilo: I think these new songs have been received really well by our audience. For example, the song "Lilian" off this new album became an instant success live. The crowd seems to dig it a lot. What it so great about our audience is they seem to like our newer songs as much as they dig the older songs that we play live. It's been over a year since the Anno 1696 album came out, so the fans have apparently got the songs firmly in their minds, I guess.

It's a completely different thing to listen to studio versions vs. hearing them live for the first time. When you started rehearsing the songs from your latest album for the live set, did you have any challenges getting them to fit or did this go painlessly?

Niilo: I would say it was a pretty painless process to get these new songs rehearsed and fitted into a live situation. When we do a new song, we tend to think in advance how it will sound live, and not just as a studio version. In our rehearsal space, we test how the final arrangement of a song sounds before entering the studio and at the same we time we get a good feel for whether it might work live the way the song is originally arranged. Rehearsals are a good testing ground for that.

All in all, our songs in general can be bent into live versions, I think. The only challenge may be some of our longer songs that we haven't planned to play live yet.

So, you haven't had to make any decisions about modifying some song arrangements to make them sound better live versus the original studio versions?

Niilo: No. Fortunately we have managed to keep our songs pretty much intact in the live situation. Of course, some intro parts we may be cut shorter when we play them live, like the intro part on "Songs of the Dusk," for example, just to get it going a bit quicker, so to speak. But otherwise, we have kept the original arrangements from the studio versions.

WHAT'S ON THE MENU

A new album always brings the challenge of fitting new songs into a band's live set. That also means that some songs have to be left out of the setlist, whether the fans like it or not. Did you have any trouble with this matter when you started to think about which songs would be part of your setlist and which would be left out?

Niilo: Good question. Of course, we go through some friendly discussions about this matter inside the band and so far we have always agreed which songs should be thrown in and which should be dropped off our setlists, so there's not been any reason for some serious arm wrestling or such as far as this matter is concerned.

How does changing the songs in your setlist affect the fact that everything you do in a live situation may feel a little bit fresher you when you change the songs or even the song order?

Niilo: It's important for us to change the songs in our setlist from time to time because it overall makes things more interesting for us. Then again, "While We Sleep" seems to be the kind of song that we play every time since it was first released on our Shadows of the Dying Sun album in 2014. The rest of the songs on our set lists have pretty much changed every once in a while, and then after a while, some of them come back. We have recorded nine studio albums thus far, so some compromises need to be made as far as the aspect is concerned, meaning we cannot play every fan's favorite song every time, which is just a cold fact. Plus, the promotional aspect of a new record is also something that we cannot ignore; it's something that we always take into serious consideration and that's why bands tend to play live, to promote their new releases. It's all about making some compromises, although we always try to please our fans, playing something old and something new in good balance.

Have you ever let your fans vote on which songs they'd like to hear live and based on those results, build up your setlist according to the votes of your fans?

Niilo: Hmm... we may have once done it that way, probably about 10 years ago or so. It may be a single occasion only, but then again, my memory may not be serving me well now. I cannot say right now if I am 100% sure about this, but it's a good idea. Of course, this type of a set list might obviously turn out to the kind of a set list that would feature all our so-called "hit songs", so...

... but I guess that wouldn't do any harm to the fans of the band, right?

Niilo: Haha... nope, it wouldn't. Plus, of course, it would give us a challenge to relearn some of those songs again that we haven't performed live in a long time. For example, "Lose to Night", a song some of our fans have asked us to play live, I believe we have never played live, with the exception of performing it via a livestream during the COVID times. But other than that, we haven't played the song live.

I think we do have some rare songs that we could consider taking into our live set at some point that we have seldomly performed live.

NORTH AMERICA – HERE WE COME AGAIN

You have a North American tour starting next month, including about 25 gigs in the USA and in Canada. Are there going to be any minor modifications to your set list for this tour?

Niilo: We haven't nailed down yet which songs we are about to perform on this tour. We already visited that part of the world with the Anno 1696 album, so we kind of know what people like over there. I believe "Song of the Dusk" will be included as a part of the set list because our record company released that 3-song EP last November. Century Media was excited about the fact that song got so many hits on several digital music platforms, although the fact is the song itself is nearly 10 minutes in length. The staff of our record label was positively puzzled about this strange fact the song appeared in so many playlists around the world, which, of course, was great for us. I think it became such a hit song for us in autumn 2023, so we thought that we cannot ignore it completely even if it's a lengthy song.

As Insomnium is a very experienced live band, have you noticed any differences between audiences in terms of what songs may hit better in one part of the world versus other parts?

Niilo: Hmm... off the top of my head I cannot tell if I have noticed that some of our songs melt the ground, if you will, better in some parts of the world than somewhere else. I have realized that the crowds in different countries may differ from each other quite a lot. For example, in some Eastern or Southern European countries the crowds are a tad wilder than some more restrained Middle European countries. Also, both in the States and in Canada, it really depends on where we play. Some places are wilder, some less. In Canada, for example, we normally have very good crowds who are really into what we do on stage.

In a country like The Netherlands, people tend to be high on drugs, so most often they just stand in the crowd and calmly follow us performing. I remember when we visited that country for the first time and at first I couldn't understand what was wrong with all of these people because they acted so calm way at our concerts. I figured perhaps that's how they normally behave at a metal concert, i.e., standing in the crowd peacefully and simply watching our performance until I realized, "OK, there's this funny smell coming out from them, so they all must be smoking weed..." That's one of the reasons they act so calm at our gigs in The Netherlands, haha! But in recent years, that has changed a little bit in this country because we do see some wild moshpits at our concerts every now and then.

Regarding this forthcoming North American tour, you are going with a slightly special lineup: Nick Cordle (Omnium Gatherum) will join you for the first four shows, after which he will be replaced by Brandon Ellis (The Black Dahlia Murder) until the end of the tour. Were there some twists and turns in persuading them or were the guys immediately ready to join when you asked?

Niilo: Nick has been our touring guitarist many times in the past, plus he is a permanent guitarist in Omnium Gatherum nowadays. We thought it would not really work if he did a double shift in both bands, hence we started to think it would be better if we simply recruited another guitarist for this North American tour. We asked Brandon, who's Nick's good friend as well as a friend of ours. It appeared that he's almost immediately into our suggestion and it was really no brainer to get him on this upcoming US/Canada tour.

PLANS FOR SUMMER-FALL 2024

After this North American tour, you have quite a lot of festivals and other gigs to be done in Europe. What about after that? Have you set a definite stop for when you don't accept any more tours this year so you can start concentrating on your new album?

Niilo: Nope, we haven't set strict plans yet. In fact, I believe we may head to some, let's just say, exotic countries this year, plus most likely we may do another tour in Europe at the beginning of 2025. Those are some of our plans that we have on the table at the moment.

I am sure that your fans are curious to know which lineup you will use to work on Insomnium's next album. Is this something you can reveal at this point?

Niilo: Unfortunately, this is a tough question at this point. I cannot tell you what our lineup will be when it's time to start figuring out who will do what. Let's leave this mystery up in the air for the time being. At the moment, the Insomnium lineup comprises four members.

Making a concept album is always much more challenging than making individual songs for a record. Since this previous album of yours was a concept album, will the story continue from Anno 1696 to the next album?

Niilo: Good question. As you surely know by now, I just recently put out my first novel called "Ikitalven Polku" on February 28, 2024, which allowed me to be in the storytelling mode for a long time, and which continues the story from our album Winter's Gate. It may well be the next album will have no clear theme or storyline going through the songs. It may be more of a "regular" album, in which each song tells its own story, without linking to other songs in any way. I have no compelling urge to make concept albums. Let's see what the future will bring as we haven't made any decisions yet whether the next album will a conceptual album or not. But we'll see...

THE FIRST NOVEL – IKITALVEN POLKU

As you mentioned, your first book, "Ikitalven Polku," was just released and it's already become very evident that the storytelling goes well for you. As for the story behind your first novel, unfortunately, I haven't got a hold of your book yet, so would you briefly enlighten us about the main story in this book. I only know that a guy named Orfeus somehow plays a central role in it.

Niilo: Yes. The first part of "Ikitalven Polku" novel came out last month and the second part should come sometime next year. I first had the intention to write just one novel but soon it turned out to be so massive, I simply had to cut the story into two different parts. This friendly request came from the publisher as they told me it'll be way easier and lighter for people to read a less massive book instead of making one book the size of a brick. Each book has 400+ pages, so I guess that's a more optimal size for readers to digest.

As for the story itself, it combines both medieval history and mythology, continuing the story of the Winter's Gate album. I have been pondering for a long time how could I continue the story on a wider scale. A reader jumps into the world that reflects the story of Winter's Gate, story-wise. Those of you who have already read the story behind Winter's Gate can also find some familiar characters and elements from the story itself. Several characters play their own roles in the storyline, but a hapless drunkard musician named Orfeus is the character who steals the main spotlight. He's nobody's hero and makes deals with the wrong people in Constantinople. Eventually, through some unfortunate coincidences, he ends up taking care of a mystic child, which takes them into a long and exciting adventure and that's where the book's story starts evolving further.

I don't want to spoil too much but I can assure you there are some epic adventures to be found.

I hear you. How far are you with the writing process of the sequel? Is it already written?

Niilo: To be honest with you, I have rewritten the whole story like three times from start to finish and I am in the process of honing some details of the second part of the book at the moment so that it will form as entertaining a whole as possible. I firmly believe it will be ready for publishing within a year. I mean, I don't have to scratch my head too much for how the story of this book ends because I already have the whole script deeply sketched in my head. It just needs to be refined a little bit, that's all.

I started writing different stories when I was still in elementary school, inspired by Tolkien's fantasy books on Middle-Earth, way before I became interested in making music. So, writing stories extends way back to my past; it's nothing new to me.

Then, when the COVID times started, I realized as we cannot play any gigs with the band, why not sit down and focus on writing stories instead? I used that momentum, and from then on got in a good writing mode and have been there for the past four years or so.

WHAT A JOURNEY...

When you look at Insomnium, from the demo times until now, what kind of journey has it been from your point of view?

Niilo: Yes, it's been quite a ride indeed. As young teenagers, naturally we had hopes that we'd become something one day, without thinking too big in the very beginning and keeping our feet on the ground. At first, it was basically modest pondering like it would be nice to get a gig arranged somewhere and play for some people, or it would be cool if we got a chance to make a demo. Of course, once you achieve those goals, you naturally become even hungrier. Getting a record deal and having this opportunity to record in a real studio were the next steps that also became true for us.

Fast forward to today, nine studio albums, several tours all around the world, and having turned into middle-aged musicians over the years later, it's been a long but a very rewarding journey for us, for which we all are grateful, of course! I hope each of us has grown as people, at least a little, since our journey started way back in 1997.

Having a certain amount of determination and sincerely believing in what you do, those things may carry you far...

Niilo: Indeed. In this game you need to be determined and truly believe in your vision of what you do; otherwise, you go nowhere. So many bands have dropped from the picture, so I guess we have had enough belief in our doings for all these decades.

WATCH ME FALL

OK, I have one last question for you and then I will let you go grab a snack before your gig. What kind of memories does this record (Worn by Watch Me Fall) of your early band bring up today, in which you operated between 1999 and 2003?

Niilo: Oh, wow...! Didn't expect this. The funny thing is that I just ate with Ville Vänni a while ago who played on this album but was also in Insomnium for about 10 years or so. I've kept in contact with him for many years and we are still good friends, even today.

As for your question, the years with Watch Me Fall were such good and memorable times, first and foremost because I got to know him when he was in this band. I joined the band later and when the band stated slowly fading away, I formed Insomnium and grabbed Ville to join me, and he stayed 10 years, and that's why he's such a significant person to me. Worn was the very first full-length album that I had a chance to be a part of. This album was released in 2001 while Insomnium's debut saw the light of day a year later, in 2002. It was an Oulu-based record label KTOK Records that released W.M.F.'s only album and I have no idea whether that label still exists or not (Kimmo Korkkala's, ex-Mythos, label, which has been long dead and buried – Luxi). I assume not so many people even knew about W.M.F., let alone heard the band's debut album but those were good years to us nonetheless.

I could say Watch Me Fall was Ville's band as he had mostly done the songs for Worn, and I did some lyrics. The songs on the album were ready when I joined, so in that sense I didn't have that much artistic impact on the band at all. We did some gigs, though, plus, of course, got this album released, which was my very first experience doing a full-length studio album. I also remember that I did all my vocals parts for this album in just one day. I spent 10 hours at the studio nonstop and growled my guts out, haha! That would not be possible for me nowadays at this age. But when you are young, full of sheer enthusiasm, even the impossible seemed to be possible.

Alright, that's it. Thank you, Niilo, for your time again and have a great gig tonight.

Niilo: Thank you very much.

Other information about Insomnium on this site
Review: Across the Dark
Review: One for Sorrow
Review: Anno 1696
Interview with bassist and vocalist Niilo Sevänen on August 10, 2018 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)
Interview with vocalist and bassist Niilo Sevänen on August 7, 2021 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)




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