Ensiferum – Folk Pathways

Sunday, 3rd September 2017

A band that’s practically synonymous with folk metal at this point, Ensiferum have been one of the genre’s flagbearers since their inception in the ‘90s. Gaining more traction with each subsequent release, the band made the move over to Metal Blade Records for their sixth full-length, One Man Army. Always a band to focus on the road, they do venture back into the studio every few years for a new release. And that is what leads us up to their upcoming album, Two Paths.

An album that sees what worked well for the band last time coming through once more (analog recording, Anssi Kippo recording/producing), Two Paths takes Ensiferum’s essence and sees them trying to tweak the formula. And it’s quite successful in that regard. We checked in with bassist/vocalist Sami Hinkka for a jovial chat about what can be expected with Two Paths and the songs found within, Netta Skog’s role in the album, touring, and what he likes about folk metal.

Dead Rhetoric: As the band’s seventh album, what do you feel allows Two Paths to stand out in your discography?

Sami Hinkka: I would say the biggest difference…if you listen to a new album, you can recognize it as Ensiferum; the wheel wasn’t re-invented, but everything that we did was done in the best way possible. We’ve never done anything so well in our career. One of the cornerstones of the album, was the insight in the studio…we recorded it analog [again] and on this album when we were recording, everyone was playing at the same time we recorded drums. I think there are like 3 songs where the bass lines are from the same take as the drums. Songs were recorded without click [tracks], just to get it as natural as possible. But the biggest difference for Two Paths was that we focused a lot more on the feeling of each take – not the technical perfection.

Anssi Kippo, who recorded and produced the album, said it really well. “If Kurt Cobain’s vocals would have been edited too much and autotuned, and he asked to sing each song a 1,000 times to get a perfect take, Nirvana would have sounded different. The lack of emotion would have made the music questionable.” I think that was a good example – you have to have soul more than technical perfection. That’s something that we really tried to achieve on the album. There were many times when the guys were recording guitars that Anssi said, “That was a perfect take, technically, but it was lacking some soul.” He always said to turn off our brains and just imagine ourselves on the biggest stage and just play the music and feel it. He used a lot of those images when we were recording, and I think it shows. I think you can hear it in the album that the approach is a little bit different.

Dead Rhetoric: In that same sense, it must seem like when you play these songs live, it’ll feel a bit more natural…

Hinkka: Exactly, and I really can’t wait to play these live. All the songs are totally playable live, and at the moment we are debating which ones we should play on the upcoming tours. Some members would like to play the whole new album. But we aren’t going to go there, don’t be afraid. As an example, I’m a big fan of Iron Maiden, but I have only seen them live a few times in my life. One time, I think it was the A Matter of Life and Death tour, they came to Helsinki – they played the whole then-new album, and maybe 2-3 old songs. Even though I liked the album at that time, I can’t say I was disappointed but I would have expected a bit more of the ‘hit songs.’ Ones people who haven’t seen the band a dozen times had come to see.

So that’s something, that as a band, you have to think about. Of course, you have to play songs that you want to play live, but also, you can’t forget to choose songs for the hardcore fans. But you can’t make too much of an obscure setlist. But anyway, I’m sure that at some point, all the songs will be played live. I really can’t wait.

Dead Rhetoric: It’s funny that you mention band’s playing full albums live – more and more bands have been doing it and playing an older album in full. You don’t really see yourselves as playing a whole album live then – you’d rather do a nice mixed set?

Hinkka: We actually talked about this. It’s Victory Songs’ 10th anniversary this year. But I don’t know, at least now, it doesn’t feel like something that we would like to do, especially when there’s a new album to promote and new songs to play live. I think we are going to go with that [laughs]. Before we do any anniversary tours, we are going to convince the world that we can do acoustic shows. On the deluxe version of the new album, there’s a whole acoustic gig that we played in Helsinki last year. It was a lot of fun. It’s not like a ballad evening – it’s more like drinking songs the whole evening. There are many people who have told us that it’s the best show they’ve seen from Ensiferum, which is kind of weird [laughs]!

Dead Rhetoric: Yeah, I saw somewhere that there were still people moshing at the acoustic shows!

Hinkka: Yeah, there were moshpits and stage diving [laughs]. It was a lot of fun!

Dead Rhetoric: With a song like “For Those About to Fight for Metal,” do you feel you need to be careful to avoid it becoming too cheesy/kitschy when singing directly about metal?

Hinkka: I have to say, with this song it has to be the cheesiest song we’ve ever done [laughs], but I’m not actually ashamed of it at all. I had the melody for a while, and it was so heroic and pompous – I wanted to make a tribute to our fans, because we have the greatest fans around the world. I was in the rehearsal room alone and reading the news and playing guitar. I read that AC/DC’s singer [Brian Johnson] had to step down because of hearing problems and I was like, “Fuck! Really? That sucks!” AC/DC was a really big band for me when I was younger. My big brothers listened to a lot of it, so I really grew up with AC/DC. Subconsciously, I had a melody and was thinking about AC/DC and wondered what it would sound in a “Thunderstruck” style. It sounded really cool, so I made the demo and sent it to everyone. Everybody liked it.

Then we started working on it, music-wise. I had almost all the lyrics; I was just missing something from the chorus and the same thing happened a few weeks later. I was sitting in the rehearsal room with a guitar and reading the news. The headline was that Manowar was quitting. I was like, “Fuck! Are you serious?” Another band that really had an effect on Ensiferum. There was an ‘ah ha’ moment – a tribute to fans, AC/DC, and Manowar…you can’t go wrong with that. So it’s a shameless tribute [laughs]!

Dead Rhetoric: How did the decision come to be in recording two versions of “Don’t You Say” and “God is Dead?” Did it kind of fit in with the album title of Two Paths or was it more coincidental?

Hinkka: That’s coincidental. The alternative versions weren’t planned. Ensiferum has always had harsh vocals and clean vocals, and female vocals since the second album. Sometimes it takes a few demos to realize which vocals actually fit the best on each song. With those two songs – we had recorded them with clean vocals, but we asked Petri [Lindroos] to try harsh vocals and it sounded so fucking awesome. We thought it would be stupid not to use them – so we put the alternative versions out, just for the hell of it. The cool thing is that now no one knows which version we are going to play live, ha ha ha. It could change every day!

Dead Rhetoric: What does accordionist Netta Skog bring to the band now as a full-time member?

Hinkka: She is an excellent musician with her instrument, the digital accordion. Technically it’s like a keyboard, but just with a different user interface. Her background as a musician is a little bit different. She’s really creative – I told her when she joined as a permanent member not to be scared in the rehearsal room. The four guys, we’ve been together since 2004-5, so we talk very straight-forward. We have a debate now and then, but still in really good spirits. It might sound really tough, but I told her to bring her ideas and bring her opinions and she’s a strong character. So that’s what she did! She gave her opinions and I’m really proud of her, since there’s stuff on the album that she composed. We arranged everything together, but I’m really proud that she brought her ideas and they are on the album now.

One thing she really brought…what I really respect about her as a musician is that she can really improvise well. That’s also the way I play. Every live show is different for me. I have no idea what I play every night [laughs] so I fool around a lot. But I go with the flow and I really like when we are composing stuff – we might have an idea for a part and it goes to a different part, and we need something in between. Somebody might have a really blurry vision of it being in a certain key and the melody could start from a certain spot, and she just grabs her accordion and plays it perfect. That kind of improvisation talent is something that I really enjoy. It’s definitely one of her strong suits as a musician.

Dead Rhetoric: Is there a certain level of pressure when you start a new album, knowing that Ensiferum is one of the first names that people tend to mention in discussing folk metal?

Hinkka: No [laughs]. The way I see it, when you compose stuff you always turn your brain off and do what feels good and comes out naturally. It’s something that you really enjoy playing. You can hear that from albums and when a band plays live, if the band is there to please people and doesn’t enjoy what they are doing. I think it’s really crucial, even though it’s cliché, for a band to be honest with themselves. So when you write new stuff, it should be a sacred moment that nothing effects from the outside. That’s why we have been really lucky with management and labels we’ve had. They’ve never interfered with anything. They’ve always believed in our vision and music and didn’t question anything. That’s the way I think it should be. Musicians do the music, and other people help with the parts that they know really well.

Dead Rhetoric: So what do you enjoy most about folk metal?

Hinkka: I really enjoy the combination…it was one journalist that said it really well. It’s not my thought but I totally agree with it: “Folk metal brought fun back to metal.” I really like when we are having a show – it’s a metal show…very aggressive, with a lot of adrenaline, spit, and sweat. You have moshpits, crowdsurfing, and walls of death, but still, people are having a good time. We might play a drinking song and everyone sings along and raises their drinking horns. Maybe that also reflects what kind of person I am, and we [Ensiferum] are. It just perfectly fits the mood of the band.

The best thing about playing this type of music are the shows. Of course, creating music is one of the best things you can do in life – creating something together with people you love, but also, playing live and sharing those moments. Every gig is unique, every crowd is unique, and every person in the crowd [laughs] is unique. So those are the reasons why people are doing this…because no one is doing this for money [laughs]! If you want to make money, I can never recommend becoming a musician. Actually, in June we traveled all the way to Canada to play 45-minutes. We took 3 days, sitting in a plane for 20 hours [laughs], to play 45-minutes. But it was definitely worth it, because it was a fucking awesome show! Live shows make it all worthwhile.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel are goals that the band still has in front of them in that point in your career?

Hinkka: We are kind of lucky; we have worked hard and Ensiferum is an old band, but there are millions and millions of bands that have tried to achieve the position we have of becoming a full-time musician. When you think about it, it makes you humble. But on the other hand, if Two Paths failed miserably and no one would buy it or come to our shows, we’d still keep making music. So I think that’s the goal – to create new music until we die. Hopefully we can play a lot of shows.

Of course, it would be cool to expose our music to a bigger audience. I think many people are pretty prejudiced with folk metal because it has a geeky [laughs] reputation. On the other hand, I know people who have accidentally come to a show or saw us at a festival and didn’t know this type of music existed. So playing for every person in the world is also a goal [laughs]. Then no one can say, “No, I’ve never heard of you.” Then they can say, “No, I don’t like you or yes, I like you.”

Dead Rhetoric: So when you go out on tour, do you feel it’s important to look for diverse packages or do you like similar folk grouping like Paganfest?

Hinkka: I think the most important thing is that it’s a good package and people have a good time when they come see the show. People really enjoy the whole evening – from first to last band. If you play with bands from a different genre, then the bands draw different audiences. That’s the way to reach new people. If you play pagan/folk packages, then 99% of the people already know your band and heard your music…don’t get me wrong, those are crazy nights! But it’s not the best way to reach new people. So it all comes down to it being a good package so the crowd will be pleased from the first note until the echo fades on the outro.

Dead Rhetoric: What plans lie ahead for Ensiferum to finish out the year?

Hinkka: The video is going to be out pretty soon, and the album comes out September 15. There will be a short European tour…I think it’s like 6 shows. Then we have like 10 shows in Finland, which is something we’ve never done before – because no one likes us in Finland [laughs]. Then we are going to do South America, Russia, and Asia. Then next year we are going to do longer tours in North America and Europe. Then its summer festival season 2018. I’d really hope that we could record some raw demos by then for new songs for the next album. Then there are some big plans for the end of 2018, but nothing is confirmed yet, but I have my fingers crossed that it works out. It’ll be pretty busy touring for the next few years! I can’t complain – one of the best things you can do is play live.

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