Insomnium – Tales of Finnish MelancholySunday, 29th September 2019
When it comes to straight-up melodic death metal, Insomnium have been one of the strongest in the field for quite some time. They’ve had a string of classic albums that have done nothing but bolster their success, and seemed to culminate with 2016’s massive one-track Winter’s Gate. Altogether beautiful and dripping in sorrow, the song was not only fantastic musically, but lyrically as well. Now in 2019, the band has returned with Heart like a Grave. Just as grounded in sadness and woe, this time the band took inspiration from classic tales/songs from their home country of Finland to craft a compelling batch of songs. We spoke with vocalist Niilo Sevänen to get some further insight on this inspiration, connecting themes for their music videos, and some of his favorite memories with the band.
Dead Rhetoric: Just to start off, I wanted to say that you guys seem to have some pretty high consistency from album to album.
Niilo Sevänen: Thanks, we do our best. We are our own worst critics – there’s a lot of competition in terms of which riffs make it through. It can be frustrating sometimes when the other guys don’t think a riff is good enough, but in the end, the album will be good because everyone agrees that it is a good song.
Dead Rhetoric: What inspired the concept for digging into tales of Finnish melancholy?
Sevänen: The starting idea came from this competition for the saddest Finnish song that was organized by the biggest newspaper in Finland a few years ago. It was a very interesting idea, and I followed it. The top 10 were really, really sad. They were not rock/metal songs, they were folk or classic songs that everyone knows. So we got the idea from there originally. The song that was voted as #1, we took that story, and “And Bells They Toll” became the Insomnium version of it. It’s such an old song that it’s not really credited to anyone – it’s that old, that story. So that was one story that we used as is.
For the other songs, there were a few other songs/ideas that were predominant in those saddest songs that Finland had to offer: summer is so short, and everything dies so fast. Frost creeps into your house, your wife left you, your brother died, and you are old [laughs]. Just looking back to those golden days of youth. That kind of stuff. It’s really Finnish stuff, and you can find all of those things as well.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s cool that it comes straight from Finland too, so there’s that personal touch to it.
Sevänen: Yeah, it’s very personal. All of those songs that we have been inspired by here are songs that everyone here in Finland knows. It’s a funny thing that Finland is chosen as the happiest people in the world many times, but the songs that we like to hear are really, really sad. It must be some sort of outlet for those negative feelings. I don’t have any sort of explanation for this melancholy [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: Is there something that you particularly like that draws you towards that more melancholic side?
Sevänen: It’s hard to say what it is. I feel good when I hear sad music, and I get empowered by it. Usually, if I hear happy music, I get really irritated and angry – not really positive at all. I think metal fans can relate to this. We just like sad music, and it makes us happy, which is funny [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel Heart Like a Grave does best for Insomnium?
Sevänen: I think it sounds like a new Insomnium album. Of course, we have a new guitarist on board in Jani Liimatainen. He’s already taken a big part in songwriting as well. He’s not just some bloke that stepped in to play guitar, but an integral part of the band. He’s a really skilled songwriter and musician, and an awesome guy. Introducing him as a new member and composer is one thing for this album. A couple of journalists have already said that the band has changed the guitarists in the last seven years, and it still sounds exactly like Insomnium. Even with new songwriters on board, they have grasped the essence of Insomnium and what we are supposed to sound like.
If there are still some people who are afraid and think that we sound like something that Jani has done before, like Sonata Arctica or Cain’s Offering, or The Dark Element – they don’t have to worry. It sounds like Insomnium, and what we is writing for us sounds like Insomnium. I’m pretty sure if people hear this album without knowing who wrote what, they wouldn’t be able to put their finger on a song being Jani’s. He fits in perfectly.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that there were any lessons that you learned as a band with Winter’s Gate that you applied to the new album?
Sevänen: After Winter’s Gate, we wanted to make a ‘normal’ album again. Winter’s Gate was successful, and everyone seemed to like it. But I think it was pretty clear that we would do a more normal album this time. So we just started making music and then started looking at what everyone had to get it ready. So we didn’t really take any pressure from anywhere. We didn’t think about having success with the last album or having to do something even weirder. We just started making music from the heart, just like we have always done. Not the label, fans, or media – we just make music for ourselves.
It’s a bit of a selfish project. We do exactly what we want to do, and so far we have been lucky that other people also enjoy that music. I think that’s one reason that we have gotten this far. We don’t follow trends, think about radio play, or anything like that.
Dead Rhetoric: Right – you’ve established that Insomnium sound and walk that tricky line of advancing yourselves without veering completely sideways.
Sevänen: That’s true. There are so many examples of bands that have tried to find a new style or new sound and they just went the wrong way. They lost what was originally good about them, or why people liked them. It’s a dangerous thing to change the band. But we also want to bring something new to the band and do not want to repeat ourselves. We try to find something that we can do differently. If something sounds too familiar, we try to invent something better. So we try to challenge ourselves each time too.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you discuss the videos you are doing for Heart like a Grave and giving them a connected feel?
Sevänen: It was sort of the director’s idea. We shot the two videos at the same time and the same location. We thought it was a good idea to make the two connected. With the “Valediction” video it sort of establishes the characters but it is more like a band playing sort of video. But for the second video, “Heart like a Grave,” it’s more of the story. You can see more of the characters and what happens to them, and less of just the band playing. We had this idea in the beginning of the year when we were exchanging emails with the director and trying to figure out which videos we were doing and what we wanted to do with them. It allowed us to tell a longer story.
The first song, “Valediction,” is more of a straight-up rock song, and “Heart like a Grave” is more of a ballad – it’s longer and softer. So they show different side of the album. There will also be a third, lyric video for “Pale Morning Star,” and I think those three songs give a pretty good impression of what this album has to offer.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel you’ve changed as a group as you’ve gotten older?
Sevänen: In every way [laughs]. When we started the band, we were kids and in school. Now I’m 40. Everything has changed. The band has changed, and we were just learning in the beginning. Everything was new and exciting in the beginning. Now this is our profession. We just do the band, and it’s looking good at this point. Of course, you never know how long it will last. Can I do this when I’m 50 or 60? I don’t know, but I’m still doing this and enjoying it a lot. It’s sort of a dream come true to not have to go to a day job at all now.
For many years, I tried to combine them both and I started getting burned out. There was not enough time for anything, and there were no real holidays ever. I had to make a decision for the career or the band. Luckily I made the right choice.
Dead Rhetoric: So is that why the band has been doing a lot more touring across the globe over the last few years?
Sevänen: We’ve been pretty much touring the last few years [a lot]. This last winter was easier because we were writing the new album so we didn’t tour as much. Now when we start the shows again, we will be playing over 100 shows per year. We spend a lot of time on the road, far away from home, but that’s a part of this thing. On the other hand, I really enjoy traveling and playing the live shows and meeting fans. That’s always great. But you do miss home when you are away from many weeks.
Dead Rhetoric: Given that the band is now over 20 years old, what are some of your fondest memories with Insomnium to date?
Sevänen: I should write a book to answer this question. There have been so many great things, but the friendship between us – the band, that’s the important thing. There have been good and bad times, and sometimes we fight – all long relationships do, but we are all good friends. We have been together for so long, and usually we still have a really good time together. We have the same stupid sense of humor, which keeps up together [laughs]. The best memories are related to some of those moments, when we are laughing at some stupid stuff together.
Of course, there are also some memorable shows everywhere too. The first time you play Tokyo or in the US – I have really great memories of those things. But I really should write a book, before I start to forget all of the things that have happened.
Dead Rhetoric: Many cite you as an influence for the genre – is it strange to hear bands and hear, a part of their sound that is coming from your musical direction?
Sevänen: If it happens, I’d probably think it sounds good [laughs] – these guys have a good sense of melody. If someone is inspired by Insomnium, it’s only a great thing. I feel honored when someone is inspired by us. For example, someone was sending us a link once that they wanted to show us that a band was clearly stealing our riffs. I don’t think any of us actually ever checked it out. We weren’t interested – it was some smaller band that not very many people knew about. Why should we even care about that sort of thing? They were probably inspired by us, but I take it as a compliment.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s ahead for the band into next year, aside from the North American tour in 2020?
Sevänen: We have some Finnish shows in October, then a European tour with The Black Dahlia Murder. It’s going to be the biggest headlining tour that we have done. Then we might hit the US two times next year. We might do another tour in the autumn of next year too. We will try to get to South America and Asia as well. There will also a lot of summer festivals in Europe as well. It’s going to be a very busy year. My girlfriend is not going to be happy [laughs], but it’s good to be busy of course.