More than just a Blood-smeared Face - Olli Vanska of Turisas

Fans of the Finnish battle metallers, Turisas, dominated the crowds on Wednesday night of the 70000tons of Metal cruise. Metal as Fuck sat down with their charismatic violinist, Olli Vanska, to find out what listeners can expect from the fourth studio album due in May 2013.

There is a sticky blood red substance on the cover of my notebook. I attribute this to the hoards of metalheads covered in a mixture of black greasepaint and sticky red stage blood, strolling the ship last night after Turisas' second set . I check, and yes it's corn syrup stage blood smudged on the cover and over the notes on the band's energetic blood encrusted set. Hailing from  Hämeenlinna in Finland, these warriors of the metal world grace the stage in Mad-Max-esque costumes and full 'warpaint'. They are followed by a loyal legion of fans painted 'red as blood and black as night' and after an early set last night, it was hard to miss who had boarded this ship to hear the Finnish battle metallers ahead of their North and South American Guards of Glory tour.


Olli Vänskä sits opposite me in a stateroom of the Majesty of the Seas fresh from educating a packed room full of fans with his violin clinic, clean of warpaint but still bearing his characteristic cheeky grin. The band have boarded the ship straight from a winter of recording their fourth studio album, and I am keen to find out more. However, I am not going to get away with any of the basic interview questions today, "You know the all the specifics," he points out.


As it happens, I do. Including that the recording of the album has continued in one of the band's staterooms onboard the cruise ship. "Robert [Engstrand] was doing some synths and stuff," Olli explains. "Mathias [Nygard] was dead drunk last night and he was supposed to do some remixes for the listening session, but I don't know how successful he was. But he's been working otherwise hard on them in the cabin. There are vocal harmonies still to do, I think it will go into mix on the 6th of February. So it's about a week. A lot of fun going to be on the tour bus and here hopefully. What can I say, interesting stuff coming out."


Turisas have set themselves an ambitious schedule for the writing and recording of their fourth full-length studio album, entering the studio in November last year. Olli believes this pressure will benefit the follow-up album to the successful 2011 release Stand Up and Fight. "It's good for us, we could easily spend three to four years if it was up to Mathias, who is producing this album. He's such a guy that he needs to paint himself into a corner, so to say, have some deadlines that he has to meet. There was no better way than to do it before the tour, because it created some hassles. Then again there are other bands with deadlines that they have to meet. I think it kind of makes you really think straight and leave the clutter out. To not focus on every small detail that nobody hears. I mean we are not doing mediocre work or anything like that, but it's mainly a philosophy of how much you really invest in fine-polishing something. He's a perfectionist, so he's been glad about the whole thing and I think everybody else as well."


Ten years ago, Turisas was a fur covered, blood smeared motley band of barbarians. Now their image is more refined, along with their sound. The differences between the first album, Battle Metal, and the most recent Stand Up and Fight display an overall maturing of tone which has had the band come under fire from some who have labelled their last release 'Broadway'. Olli responds to this, "I guess it's just a matter of perception. If you just want to see Turisas as a pure Folk Metal band, which we don't want to be, they always put us in the same box. You guys play folk metal, pagan metal, whatever. I think the band has to have creative control over that. I'm glad we took this bit more peculiar course instead of cementing the whole concept of the band."


He continues in a faux-bored tone, "'This will feature accordion and violin. It's mainly about battles and it has this kind of distinct folky sound with a hint of bombastic Bal-Sagoth synthesizers' or something like that. I think that would be the road to alcoholism and self-despair. I think it's very cool that Mathias has been always pushing the whole band and the sound to be whatever. I mean like, sometimes he has been crazy in his visions, 'We can be whatever space-metal!' or some shit like that. It hasn't gone there, it's always on the late night talks but it's a different thing when you go to the studio. We know where we sit, but would like to get a bit more room to breathe. I think there are too many bands that are just reproducing the same album, and then they come up with this concept like 'Let's make a concept about a Finnish blacksmith' and that's the great invention. Basically the music stays the same and you just switch a couple of words and say it's a concept album and everybody's like 'Oooh!'"


Singer, and founding member, Mathias Nygård has been the main songwriter for the band since it's inception. However, on this release, he has apparently been more open to collaboration from the other long-term members of the Finnish metal band.  "I have two songs on the album, I think more or less two songs by Jussi [Wickstrom] and Mathias is doing four or five, I'm not exactly sure. Well he's kind of like written, we have rearranged a lot of stuff and obviously it changes a lot along with the production and everything. But yeah, I guess he's open more. At some point he was clinging to the control and everything but that's good. Normally in every successful band there is somebody who is absolute despot or dictator. You need that, it's an ideal of you know 'everybody can have their word' but that only gets you an average result I think. If everybody's opinion counts, in that sense absolutely he has the creative control and I'm fine with that. But yeah, we did throw in ideas. I spent a lot of time last summer doing demos and throwing in ideas. And there was a third song by me that was going to be on the album, but then we realised that we basically had the material we could work with. So maybe we would just shift it, do it separately or go for the next album. We'll see."


One thing Turisas is known for, are carefully researched historical tales which tell of an elite unit of the Byzantine army, composed partly of  Scandinavians. However, according to Olli, listeners shouldn't expect a clear continuation of the storyline from the last two albums. "Well we took a step away from the conceptual approach. The second and the third album were more or less very close historically. That was a good concept, but already last album it felt a bit kind of became a restriction more than a guideline. Personally I thought we had to make the shift sooner or later, let's not tie ourselves too much to this. It was there in the threads of the last album as well," Olli explains. "Always, there's a lot of historical stories and that, but it's never been only about that. In our songs, Mathias has his pseudo-philosophical pondering, or actual ideas. I think it's more interesting than to just tell the battle of 'they came from there and they broke the walls and they killed a lot of people', but actually put that into some other context of, lets say, a question of  free will, or about freedom in democracy or whatever. To build something more into that, and I'm sure many listeners will find some thoughts there as well."


"There's nothing wrong with kind of like 'Manowar, Manowar!', very straight forward heroic anthems, but it's always nice if you have something that inspires you I guess. And there's a lot of that, and some story based things. There's one song and it's kind of like the party song. It's very punky. The song that tells basically how we stripped Powerglove's bassist bare naked and threw his clothes out of the moving bus onto the freeway."


However, Olli doesn't think this punky anthem is an intentional replacement to the constant set request, the band's 2007 cover of the Boney M disco track Rasputin. "Many bands have that one song. Think about Deep Purple, Smoke on the Water, play that one song and everybody's like 'We have this new Bananas album that we would like to play start to finish' and everyone's like 'Play Smoke on the Water!'. And maybe Rasputin is one of those songs. We don't see it as a monkey on the back, but obviously as it is a cover song it's more inspiring to do something else. It will be stupid to go, 'let's make a disco inspired song of our own and not play Rasputin. There's [In the Court of] Jarisleif, and all those other songs. There's always the party track, or more or less something more energetic stuff on our albums. But maybe it will take that place or not, who knows."


With complex tracks building up many of their songs, some Turisas songs are rarely played live yet often requested. Additionally, some songs have not been played live at all. "There are songs like Fear the Fear that we've never played live, which is super sad for me because that's my song, and I would make a hell of a lot of money if we played that every gig. Obviously, the credits. It's all about money in the end. No it's not. That's not a really good quote you know," Olli jests. "It would be fun to do that. We never play Venetoi! - Prasinoi! live, we very rarely play Midnight Sunrise. That song just feels a bit outdated at this point for us now, we have better songs. From [The] Varangian Way we have done all the songs. Mainly it's just a question of what fits, what makes a good set, and sometimes personal preference."


Given these restrictions on the live sets, how was putting together two interesting sets to be played in a closed situation like the 70000tons of Metal cruise? "That was hard. Basically the technical problems solved it for us, because we had to cut the sets into 45minutes. We couldn't start at the time intended originally, so we added those couple of songs, two or three yesterday, and hopefully brought enough variation. But it wasn't like completely different sets," Olli admits. "Obviously I was a bit afraid, because it's only 2000 people, and we are getting a full crowd on every set that we are doing... It was pretty good on both gigs. At the theatre, there were a lot of people. But I hope nobody got bored with more or less the same core set."


This brings us back to the subject of the hoards of warpainted metalheads who had filled moshpits for the rest of the evening with their black and red streaked faces. Olli explains, "It's probably mainly to do with our street team, the lovely ladies who are helping us. We have an active fan base, and very cool people who are willing to invest their own time to do that. Really lovely cool people. It's funny, we went to the Starlight (the à la carte restaurant) and there was two tables, a big group of guys. We came there, and I'm sure they didn't realise we were there, a whole table like ten people with war-painted faces and they were raising toasts 'Turi-fans!'. That was one of those moments. I was very humbled. I don't take it for granted."


"With the warpaint, that's kind of like our people. This sounds like it was planned, and on paper. 'You have to have distinctive colours, and a pattern so the fans will know, so you will know the fans.' It's kind of cool that it has developed into that and there are a lot of people who are into it, painting faces [that is]. There was this medieval Norwegian dude in my violin clinic today who was still wearing the same clothes, no warpaint, but clearly kind of like dressed up for the theme. So, great! I think it's like a good movie that inspires people. That builds a following in a way. And maybe our costumes, and all that, creates an immersion feeling. There are good fantasy movies, and bad fantasy movies. Something that's very like glued on top of 'let's create a dude who shoots'... what was that Lightening Hunter or Dragonslayer Jim or something like that? Lord of the Rings is something that inspires after like forty years, and if we get any portion of that it's great. People feel like there is something we want to do, and it inspires them. What more can you ask for? It's not something you can pre-design."


At this stage we're interrupted as we have gone over time. However I am granted a few minutes to ask a couple more questions regarding the band's upcoming tours. In March, the band will travel to South America for the first time. "The Brazilians, as you know, there is a lot of buzz going on there and I hope it keeps going after this first tour. We've only played Mexico City before, that's as much as we've ever done of the continent. I've heard a lot of stories about fans, long flights and diarrhoea. I hope, to nail really good gigs and have some delighted fans. The flights we have to do, the diarrhoea we don’t have to do," Olli winces and apologises about the side-track in the conversation, "Great to go there, I'm looking forward to it!"


With a steady schedule of pre-album touring ahead, Australia can't expect Turisas till later in the year or in 2014, but the North American branch of the 'Guards of Glory' tour begins directly after the boat docks in Miami, FL. "We wanted to do the North American tour at this point, not to lose the momentum. You get the work visa which is valid for one year, then you do one tour, lose the whole year. America is such a big continent that basically you should have your presence there more often. I guess the same applies to Australia, so I guess we should be more active on that front," Olli admits. "There's going to be some touring next fall, if we have our album coming out in May. So some summer festivals and some tours there. I really don't know about anything past October."


The new album may be due out in May, but Olli is doubtful that songs from this album will be played on tours before then, "Maybe we'll try. It’s the same band. The new guys who are with us now just played two gigs with us, but they did their own parts for the album. There are probably some tracks for the album we probably could do. Maybe we'll do, who knows. We'll have to do it sooner or later. Maybe we'll test drive it."


These new members were announced as a line-up change last November. The original drummer, Tude Lehtonen, and  bassist for a year, Jukka-Pekka Miettinen (ex-Ensiferum), were replaced respectively by new members Jaakko Jakku (ex-Quietus) and Jesper Anastasiadis (Funk in Funk Stairs). Having now played two shows with the band, Olli reveals how they are adjusting. "I've told Jesper to wet his hair really well. On the first night he was like 'Yes I have this knot here' and mid-set he looked like granny. The new guys are great, playing really tight. I've heard from bands who owe nothing to us, that have said good things about how we sound really tight. It's really great to have that feedback from colleagues and I think we have nothing to worry about."


The new album from Turisas is due out in May 2013.