"You're so damn far away!" - Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum

Metal as Fuck catch up with Ensiferum on 70000tons of Metal to talk about their upcoming tour of Australia, what drives the music of the Finnish Heroic Folk Metallers and Bamboleo, bambolea, porque mi vida, yo la prefiero vivir asi!

Under high demand, I find my interview on 70000tons of Metal with Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum pushed back a few timeslots and we end up sitting in a couple of armchairs outside the Bolero Lounge where the soundcheck for the All-Star Jam has already begun. The Heroic Folk Metal band have finished their two sets of the cruise, and are enjoying the rest of their second time on the cruise.


Due to tour Australia in March 2013, Ensiferum are excited to once again be making it down under. "We've just been there once. I had a good time there last time. Actually a few of us are flying there a few days ahead, just to enjoy the Australian hospitality and great weather. We get so much feedback from fans, 'It's awesome that you're coming here', so there's a big buzz going on. And because we only play a few shows there, we have butterflies in our stomach. "


People far from Ensiferum's native country of Finland are able to identify with the music of Ensiferum. "Many people label us as a Viking metal band and I really don't. Well of course I understand because we're a Scandinavian band, but lyrics-wise, and mentality-wise, it's not something that we're all about. Of course we have a few songs that refer to Nordic mythology, but I think for us it's more about [being] heroic in a universal way," Sami explains. "We have western things also in our music and I think it's something appealing, and something people can relate to. We have played in China, and had a really crazy audience there, and in India and South Africa and Central America. You know we're all human beings. We've all seen Conan the Barbarian and Braveheart too many times! So I think that kind of people like the music, no matter where people live."


Unsung Heroes, the fifth studio album from Ensiferum, was released in August 2012. "Even though there are the traditional Ensiferum elements on the album, it's definitely something different compared to previous albums and that's the way we want to make music," Sami explains of the album. "We don't want to keep repeating ourselves and [only writing] the kind of song the fans want to hear. Then you are not making music honestly. We try to stay in contact with the little boys who started their very first band, and 'this song is so cool, let's make this kind of song'. Most of all want to please ourselves when we compose, so I think that's the way it should be. I think you can really hear that on the album. It reflects a certain period of time in the band's, and all the member's, lives."


"We already have raw versions of the new songs for the next album, and again it's going to be totally different. I really like that mentality in Ensiferum. People really want to evolve as musicians, and also as composers, and we have a really good time when we're in the rehearsal room trying to sort out all the small details. Twisting and turning all the parts, I think that's really crucial time. Even though Markus [Toivonen] and me bring most of the ideas to the rehearsal room, sometimes it might be Janne [Parviainen] the drummer, who just… ok if it's like going straight to 4 let's twist this to 3s or 6 and maybe some progressive rhythm and the whole thing turns totally upside down. Suddenly it's like 'Oh shit I never thought like that! This is actually much better!'. Everybody is participating. We have democracy in the band, even though Markus is the founder, and very much the heart and soul of the music. We kind of give him a veto possibility, but he's also saying 'If everybody else thinks this is good then we keep it'. Well we never had to argue about this. I think it's really clear for everybody what Ensiferum should sound like," Sami pauses and begins to apologise for getting off-track from my initial question.


Given that I was curious about the creative process of Ensiferum, I invite him to continue. "Well it's really slow. We really like to twist and turn all the ideas, and all the chords. It takes time but that way we can be sure that we can stand behind every note and it's not just something that you come up with in five minutes. It's really important for us that we sleep overnight and the next day we continue. 'Is it actually so good that we're going to put it on the album?' On the latest album we have two songs, Pohjola and Last Breath, we made first demos in 2005/2006. They were 95% how they are on the album now, but we were not satisfied with small details. So when we composed Victory Songs, we're like no those songs are not ready. Then we did From Afar and these songs are not ready. For Unsung Heroes we finally got those songs ready and now we could record them. [laughs] They were really slow! But the good thing is that of course you get all the time new ideas for new songs, you still have all the old raw songs that are not ready so we're never in a situation where we don't have any material to work with."


"For the next album we have pretty much all the raw ideas for the songs. I think in February we're going to record some demos. We are really ambitious, we will try to hit the studio at the end of this year. But lets see, we have a lot of touring to do, like Australia, and then we're going to do Paganfest North America, and tonnes of Summer Festivals in Europe, and well then it's already Autumn and we should be in the studio pretty much. Maybe in October and November, so lets see. There might be some touring also in Autumn. It's a busy year."


Sami explains a little more about the lyrics he writes. "I get the inspiration from real life, something that happens to me or someone close to me. And I really like the challenge of trying to find metaphors so it fits the Ensiferum's heroic style. Because I want the original idea still there. There are different levels. If you want to grab your sword and drinking horn and [sings] 'In My Sword I Trust!' and, you know, that's ok. But if you want to think about it, you can also find a deeper meaning. For me it's really important to do it like that. But for the rest of the guys they always say 'yeah, you can write the lyrics' and they don't too much care about them. Well of course they care, if I start writing about My Little Ponies, or something like that, they will care. But with Markus for example, for the last two albums I have talked with him. 'What's your feeling for this song? Give me one adjective or something.' Even if I have some ideas for lyrics, I would like something that matches with the ideas the guys have for the music."


There is also a challenge for Sami in writing his lyrics in English, "I realise the lack of words that I have, the expressions. It would be much easier to write in Finnish. But on the other hand, I think it’s kind of natural also to write in English because I've done so much now. I use some dictionaries every now and then if I can't find the synonyms, then I consult my British friend, or my American friend, 'Can I use this word in this context?' All the guys from the record label also, I let them read the lyrics. And I would really like to learn more, but how to do it? I think I should live in a country where you have to speak English all the time...nah."


Not even Australia? "Actually when people ask me where would I live if I couldn't live in Finland, Melbourne is my choice if I would have to go outside Europe. I really like it. Australia in general was an incredible experience, and I really hope someday I have time to have a vacation in the outback, a road trip there. It's so vast a continent. You can't go there for one week."


Back onto the subject of the Australian tour, what can the punters expect from the Ensiferum setlist on the East coast tour? "Well obviously we're going to have to see what we played last time. Of course there are the same fans, and if you play the same set all the time it's getting boring. And also for us," Sami admits. "On this cruise we played a song called White Storm, we haven’t played that for six years. I think you could actually hear that, it didn't go that well but just keeping it interesting for hardcore fans that are on this cruise. For Australia, of course, it's a promotion for the new album so we'll play a few songs out of that. I think they're going to hear a pretty good set because we haven't played there so much, we have a lot of songs to choose from and they can expect to get their asses kicked really hard. They've been waiting for this for so long. It's such a great experience, we have been talking about it all these years. We have to get back there, and now that we finally have the chance everybody's really eager to go there."


A surprise fan favourite from the new album, has been the cover of the popular Gipsy Kings tune Bamboleo, but Australian audiences shouldn't expect to hear it live. "The problem with Bamboleo, that we have with a few other songs, is that it's recorded in D-tune. We play in E-tune, but we're already paying shitloads of overweight costs when we fly with our regular gear. If we were to play those detuned songs we would need detuned guitar, spare guitar, bass and that's like a hundred kilos extra. Multiply that with 20 Euros per kilo and you get the idea of why we're not doing it. It would be cool and we have talked about it after every show pretty much, after the release of Unsung Heroes, because in every show somebody shouts 'Play Bamboleo!'. We didn't expect it to be so big a hit. I guess at some point we just have to play it."


Bamboleo was an additional track introduced as a guessing game during the popular YouTube studio diaries from the recording of Unsung Heroes. "We were sure that nobody would guess it. We had a friend of ours working for us, he was shooting the video all the time, as we made the studio diaries plus the DVD. He edited the whole thing, and we were really shocked that somebody guessed it on the second last week [of the studio diaries]. We were like 'Oh fuck! What are we going to do? They guessed it already!' But then we had to check it from our management, the copyright stuff, and that's why there's a 'we can't reveal it yet'. There was an uncertainty, 'can we make the song?' It's pretty different from the original, and I would have loved to see the guys' face when the record label, well the publisher I don't know who it was, who wanted to hear the version before giving permission to release it. We sent it to them, a really raw mix of the song, and nobody answered anything. We're like 'ok… is this good or bad? Ok, let's release it anyway.'"


"But somebody guessed it two weeks before we were ready. I think it was the vocals. Then we were recording vocals, and there was a short clip of Pete 'baba ba baba'. Maybe somebody got it out of there, googled it, or understood what it said. I think it was really funny, because we don't speak any Spanish. I just listened to the original, line by line, and wrote it like it was pronounced, pretty much, and gave it to Pete. 'Go to the vocal booth and do it as low as you can' and he was like 'Ok! Let's go!' It was a crazy idea. We have talked about it for years and during the first week in the studio we were recording drums, and we all agree 'ok let's stay the weekend also in the studio, to jam and with all the ideas we have for cover songs.' There were some okay ideas, but nothing like really, 'this is hilarious we have to do this one.' I think it was Markus who said 'What about Bamboleo? It would be fun to do that, we have been talking about it for years.' Like ok, let's see what we can do with that one." Sami recalls excitedly, "We came up with the riffs, and kind of followed the chord progression of the original one. Monday morning when Hiili Hiilesmaa, the producer guy, comes back in the studio and gets a cup of coffee, we're like 'come over here come over here' and played him the song. He's drinking his coffee and when we ended, he's like 'Guys, you have to go home during the weekend, this is not healthy, this isn't normal! You can't do stuff like this.' But then he pressed the button and we started recording Bamboleo. He was a great producer. Always into our craziest ideas."


Given the strength of the partnership on Unsung Heroes, Sami would like to work with Hiilesmaa again. "I really hope he's free, because he works with bands like HIM, big bands so he's a pretty wanted man, and he already mixed the previous album From Afar. That's where we got to know him and got the idea it would be cool to work with him more. This was the first time we had the same guy from the preproduction until mixing, so I think that was really important. So he knew in every song, in every part, what's the key element and we cut down a lot of tracks because he really made the mixing easier also. In a weird way, we cut many tracks but still this album sounds bigger in many places so less is more."


Catch Ensiferum on the Unsung Heroes Australian Tour 2013:

15 March The Hifi Bar, Sydney

16 March The Espy, Melbourne

17 March The Arena, Brisbane