An Endless Metal Summer From Afar - Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum

Ever heard of a guy that won a Battle of the Bands as well as coming second AND third? We haven't either - but Sami Hinkka of Finnish folk metallers Ensiferum could have, if he really wanted. He also talks tours, bass and "From Afar."

There’s one thing that Sami Hinkka, bassist of Finnish power metal megastars Ensiferum wants to clarify – once and for all. And that’s how to pronounce the band’s name.

“It’s EN-si-FEH-ruum – it’s in Latin.” he says, cheerfully. (It means 'sword bearing' by the way)

Why wouldn’t you feel cheerful – after success in North America as part of the Summer Slaughter tour and a fresh new album entitled From Afar ready to go, it’s all part of a non-stop party for the Finnish folk fivesome. He also has one more thing to clear up as far as his band’s image is concerned; despite the often ostentatious and Norse-inspired costumes they wear as part of their live show, Sami doesn’t consider Ensiferum a Viking metal band.

“Let’s get this straight. We’re not a Viking metal band. We have one song that’s really about Vikings. I think we’re more folk metal if anything. Fantasy based stuff. I mean we have been labelled as a Viking metal band before. I mean, it’s okay, but really, no – we aren’t a Viking metal band. I think Amon Amarth is a Viking metal band. I truly respect that band. They’re very nice guys and a great band. [That said] we aren’t like them.”

The band usually draws on folk but also touches on Western themes; which means singing about horses, gunfights and the classic staple of the Wild West; Whiskey. With one such line appearing the title track from their second full-length Iron – ‘There’s nothing that whiskey can’t cure’ – sparks a memory in Sami.

“I remember back in 2003 when we were promoting Iron in Germany and everyone was drunk as hell,” he reminisces. “There were these two huge guys and they had a big glass of whiskey. When we sung the line, they took a big sip of it and when we saw it we just all started laughing.”

Curiously enough, Sami was talking to me from the Northernmost Viking territory of Helsinki, Finland and was practically beaming his excitement down the telephone line while talking about their upcoming release, From Afar; fans can expect quite a treat.

“Of course there’s a lot of the traditional heavy metal stuff,” Sami describes to me. “But there’s no point in doing the same album over and over again. Writing the same kind of songs. We added some new spices, some new arrangements that are totally different to what we’ve done before.”

“Its something old and something new and something blue.” He muses. “The blue would be the [color of] the cover.” He laughs.

I joke that if he borrowed something it would be like a “metal wedding.”

“Yes, exactly,” he quips back, “It’s a perfect wedding gift.”

From Afar was in production even before the final master tape was finished on Victory Songs as Sami reveals; the band made a pact with themselves to “do some stuff” on their tour with Amon Amarth last year, solidly committing themselves to write and eventually record new material as Sami recalls.

“We had some melodies and some riffs that we weren’t happy with so we put them aside. So on the tour we bought some little Marshall amps that work with 9-volt batteries; we were jamming almost every night.

“So on the bus during the day we would write new songs and record melodies to my phone, actually,” he says with a chuckle. “I also wrote some lyrics there too. Then we got back home and got ourselves set up in Markus Toivoinen’s (guitarist) home and convinced Markus to leave his day job.

“We wrote new material every day; like for eight to ten hours at a time. We would sit in Markus’ home and work with new stuff. So then we took all the raw ideas to rehearsal and arranged them together as a band.”

The band even abandoned their post-show partying to stay focused on the record – a tough ask for any metal band.

“Yeah,” Sami adds, “I would say we would go back and rehearse 90% of the time. We made a deal with ourselves; if we didn’t do anything on the tour we wouldn’t record in April. We would leave it until Autumn 2009 instead. But we had shitloads of material and we did demos in February.

“It was a very good situation for us.”

The situation seems to just improve for the band, despite having one of the most merciless and grueling touring schedules in metal; they played a string of festivals in Europe in the first part of this year before embarking upon the prestigious Summer Slaughter tour with such luminaries as Suffocation in North America. It almost seems like Sami and the crew will forget what the harsh Finnish winter feels like.

“Well,” he says, “It’s all the same to me. As long as there are gigs and good times, I don’t really care if its summer or winter or whatever.”

“I mean the Summer Slaughter was great; it was a good opportunity for us to reach new listeners. Most of the bands [we played with] were pure death metal. Our melody and folk-oriented stuff and guys wearing kilts as well as being hopeless on stage; it was definitely something that people would remember,” he laughs. “The guys and girls were great in every band. I personally became a fan of Darkest Hour.” He remarks.

What was the most notable difference between playing in Europe and the US, he says?

“I think the Europeans are more drunk all the time,” he laughs. “I don’t think there’s a big difference. I really don’t.”

Taking Ensiferum further from their acclimations, the band will also play Screamfest in Sydney, Australia on New Year's Eve this year, marking their first ever trip Down Under – and Sami can’t wait to get there.

“Oh, It’s going to be one of my dreams come true!” he says excitedly.  “Personally Australia is one of the places I really want to go; I’ve been thinking of going there like, two weeks ahead for a small vacation if that’s possible. As a band it’s a great new possibility to reach new listeners. Hopefully we can convince them that we’re a good band,” he laughs. “I hope maybe once we’re finished a promoter will bring us back there again.”

As for Sami, taking on melodic, folk-inspired power metal was encroaching into uncharted territory usually tackling the bass-heavy, hard-edged and extreme styles, as he explains.

“For me as a bassist I usually like punk music and all those kinds of styles; I mean I always like playing with all kinds of people; it doesn’t really matter who it is.

“In Ensiferum for me it can seem kind of basic. But there’s so many things happening on the album. There’s tons of real folk instruments and melodies and harmonies but I see bass as an element that really keeps everything together. I think that’s my role as a bass player in Ensiferum." 

Picking up the bass in the first place was a family affair, lead into it by his guitarist brother at the rather young age of eleven he reveals.

“Well my brother, who was about six years older than me had already picked up the guitar and was quite good at it when I started thinking of playing an instrument. I was really into Iron Maiden at the time, so two words – Steve Harris. I’ve never been a guitar player myself. Usually when I compose I use a bass or an acoustic guitar. I very rarely take my electric guitar off the guitar rack. Bass always just seemed obvious to me.”

Playing bass, it seemed for Sami, was a full time gig, having been in several bands previous to his first “real” band, Rapture – a death/doom hybrid band from his youth. Even when I mentioned it to him, he exclaimed:

“Ahh, Rapture! At last, somebody knows about RaptureI was lucky because everybody wanted to be a guitar hero. So in my town or village there were about two bass players. I even remember there was a band contest when I was about sixteen or something like that, there were seven bands in this contest. I played bass for five of them. There was metal and there was pop and there was punk…it was a pretty funny situation.”

“But as for Rapture, I remember calling Petri (Eskelinen, current Rapture vocalist), [whom] I had known through school and other things, saying that ‘these bands aren’t going anywhere, we have one gig a year…’ and he was working at [Finnish metal label] Spinefarm [Records].

“I asked him if there were any bands in need of a bass player and he said ‘Yeah! Rapture are recording their second album; come play bass with us. There was this big talk about doing a tour with My Dying Bride but those never came into reality. But that’s how I got to play with Rapture."

Although Rapture seemingly stagnated, Sami and Ensiferum are content with their upward direction – as well as lyrical and artistic - without the band even thinking about it too much.

“The music we’re doing and the lyrics we’re [writing] just comes naturally,” he says. “I read a lot and watch a lot of movies and maybe that’s why it comes naturally I guess.”

“There’s even a Western-style song on From Afar, so we’re always doing something different without realizing. I think that’s cool. That’s what Ensiferum’s all about.”

Photo credit: Jaraid