Insomnium – Doing What We WantSunday, 12th February 2023
Turning tragedy into triumph, Insomnium enjoy the fruits of their productivity as they develop an interesting, diverse discography that spans twenty-six years. Be it the long-epic track that is Winter’s Gate from 2016, or the mellow introspective Ardent Moon EP from 2021, listeners have come to expect these musicians unfurl performances and songwriting that pushes boundaries while staying true to a vast influence bank, confident in going where their ideas take them at that moment in time. Such is the case for this latest album Anno 1696 – blending together a haunting historical-based conceptual story with music that is bit darker, blackened, and still melodic death metal at its core.
We spoke with vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen regarding the work behind the new record, the prolific songwriting output that now is in place with four composers in the group, the conceptual storyline and Finnish novel that inspired the lyrical content this time, special memories regarding the career of the band, how the fragile existence in family life puts new perspective on making a career as a musician, as well as bucket list goals still to hit for the future.
Dead Rhetoric: The latest album for Insomnium is Anno 1696, the ninth studio record for the band. How do you feel the songwriting and recording sessions went for this set of material? And do you believe the extra downtime off the road due to the pandemic allowed the band to dig deeper into key details that were beneficial to the final outcome?
Niilo Sevänen: That’s a long question – and it has a long answer. Yeah, when the pandemic hit, we were in the USA, the tour was starting, and we played one show in Philadelphia and had to fly home. It was a big blow, but quickly we decided if we couldn’t tour, at least we could start working on music. We had some demos in our hands, and we made an EP as we had never done something like this before, that’s how the Argent Moon EP came about. We never really stopped the composing, we just kept going and I had this concept in my mind. I talked to the other guys about this in 2019, about these stories set in the 17th century. We tracked some stuff, and the guys thought it sounded cool. I finished the story, we decided to do it, and specifically started making music to fit this story, all the composers went into the same mindset and mood so it became quite dark and blackened at least in Insomnium terms.
We also wanted the production to have the same kind of feeling and atmosphere. We asked Mr. Jamie (Gomez Arellano) who has done bands like Moonspell and Paradise Lost to produce us, we like that sound. He doesn’t reamp the guitars or use any drum samples. It’s all the real thing that’s recorded and ends up on the albums. It has this 90’s vibe, and we wanted this rougher type of production for this. The pandemic allowed us to just continue forward. We wanted to make this album, and if the pandemic would still go on, I’m sure we would be making the next album. It allowed us to spend a lot of time to make this album. I also have been busy writing a book. The pandemic years have been strange, and it’s good that we had something to do.
Dead Rhetoric: How did the guest vocal spots come about with Johanna Kurkela on “Godforsaken” plus Sakis Tolis of Rotting Christ for “White Christ”?
Sevänen: With the “White Christ” song, when we were first playing it at the rehearsals, we all agreed that it had this Rotting Christ vibe and feeling it in. First, we started joking if we should ask Mr. Sakis to sing here. We thought it was a good idea, we asked him, he liked the song a lot and wanted to be a part of it. He even performs in the video, and that’s one of the coolest videos we’ve ever done. It became a really good thing. We naturally named the song “White Christ” as a tribute to Rotting Christ. Johanna Kurkela, the first time for female vocals in Insomnium’s history, in “Godforsaken” it was Markus Vanhala’s composition, and in the demo phase he used a Shamanistic female sample thing to give the idea of what he was trying to achieve there. It was an essential part of the song, we wanted to do it for real, and we were thinking of who could pull this off. Johanna has this very special, elf maiden kind of voice, very mystical from the forest that fits this album. We are not going to turn into Nightwish or Epica. It was one song that required this, and when Johanna did her thing in the studio it became much, much cooler than it was intended. It’s one of the best songs on the album and there will be a video coming out for that song in a few weeks.
Dead Rhetoric: The lyrical content comes from what you consider one of the best Finnish novels ever, Sudenmorsian by Aino Kallas. At what point did you discover this book, and how this inspired you to develop the lyrics/melodies regarding a significant point in your country’s history?
Sevänen: I think I first read it like about twenty years ago. I was studying literature at the university, and it was one of those books we had to read. It turned out to be the best book that I had to read. It had this very tragic feeling, and it’s written in this very special way. It really feels like it’s from the 17th century but actually it’s not that old, maybe ninety years old at this point. A very special story, this werewolf thing going on in there. I started thinking about if the story would have ended differently, what would have happened? If this main character would have survived, ended up in Finland, what would happen then? So that’s how I started thinking about this idea, it’s kind of a tribute to that Sudenmorsian story. A tragic feeling, that one.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you also consider it beneficial to have multiple songwriters in the group, to achieve all of the dynamics you want within the Insomnium style?
Sevänen: Yeah, we now have four composers within the band so ideally, we can pick the best ideas, songs, demos, that everyone makes. This time Markus Vanhala was the most active composer, but me, Jani, and Ville compose as well. It’s still a group effort. When there are four guys, there isn’t as much pressure on one dude to deliver one hour of music. It is easier, and both of our new guys Markus and Jani, immediately when they joined the band, they found inspiration and writing songs. Jani didn’t bring any material that sounded like Sonata Arctica or something like that, he has been doing very Insomnium sounding songs also. It is a big bonus to have four guys writing music.
Dead Rhetoric: Due to possessing so much great material, there will be a three song EP Songs of the Dusk also coming out. How challenging was the process to see what material would appear on the full album and what would make the EP – that you consider extra director’s cut-like material?
Sevänen: It was a bit difficult. We had to vote and fight about it. Some of my favorite songs are on the EP, and that’s fine. They are all good songs, I feel. But eleven songs and 76 minutes of music would have been too much for the album, we had to split them somehow. The people will hear these songs anyway, on this extended artbook version. And maybe later we’ll do something with these three songs as well, they deserve the proper attention as they are good songs.
It was a tough process. None of the songs were weak or anything like that, bonus material. They are just as good of songs as the ones that ended up on the album.
Dead Rhetoric: Since embracing a three-guitar lineup a few years back, where do you see the differences in sound/style that Insomnium can now explore that maybe weren’t possible beforehand?
Sevänen: In the studio it hasn’t really affected much because we have a lot of guitar layers going on anyway. This extra composer helps, we have more vision. Jani is also an excellent vocalist, he helps a lot with the main clean vocals in the band. We quite rarely actually have three guys as guitarists in a live situation. Ville really can’t tour very much, his job at the university, he can’t really be away from there. That’s the reason why Jani was brought in the band in the first place. Now we have the album release shows in two weeks, all three guitarists will be there, of course it requires a bit more planning because the arrangements have to be worked out, who will play what part. It doesn’t make sense to have two guys playing the same thing. It’s more of a headache for the guitarists, they have to agree who does what. There are so many layers that usually there is always something different for each person to play in every part.
Dead Rhetoric: When looking at the lengthy career of Insomnium, what would you consider a few of the standout moments where you knew you were making a big impact with your music and moving up the ranks career-wise? Be it specific albums, tours, festival appearances, or other events?
Sevänen: The first one I can remember is when our first demo was reviewed in Terrorizer magazine. It got full points, and the reviewer said it was the best demo he’s ever heard. That was a wow, somebody can actually like our music. We didn’t even get signed with that demo; it was the first of those moments where we can actually achieve something. The second demo got us signed to Candlelight, and of course that was a very important step. Without that, I don’t know how long the band would have existed. We were lucky to get signed at the right point.
Also we were a bit lucky to be signed to Century Media for our fourth album. It just happened that Century Media’s label manager was at our concert in Germany. He came there to see some other band but decided to sign us. The stars were in the right position again for us. In this business you need a little bit of luck to move forward – no matter how good you are or how hard working you are, you need a little bit of luck and we had that in the right moment.
One of the coolest shows we have done is a festival in our hometown, a rock festival called Ilosaarirock. We played with a symphony orchestra the whole Winter’s Gate – thirty plus people on stage. That was one of the coolest things we’ve done. When we have firsts – the first time in USA, Japan, those are great moments where you know we are getting somewhere. The first time when you do something, you remember those times as special.
Dead Rhetoric: Yes, I remember the first time I was able to see Insomnium live was on the North American tour you did with Epica and Alestorm, the middle slot at the Worcester Palladium. There was a sense in the audience that you were moving up the ranks, the people were mesmerized by your style at that point…
Sevänen: Yes, we have been lucky in our tours as well. Insomnium and Epica, you don’t necessarily think that they would be a good fit. Especially in the USA, we got a lot of new fans when we have played with Epica. It was a good tour for us – we did another tour with Epica later. They are amazing guys and girl, it’s fun to tour with them.
Dead Rhetoric: Plus, you did a guest appearance on one of their new records recently…
Sevänen: Yes, I did. I was glad that they asked. It was a fun project and became a really good song. I was glad to be a part of it.
Dead Rhetoric: What sort of goals or expectations do you set for the band at this point? Is it a balancing act between satisfying your own creative visions against what the fans/followers expect from Insomnium?
Sevänen: I just try to enjoy this as much as possible and remember to be grateful for everything that I can actually do this for a living. I haven’t had any other job in eight years now. I hope it goes on like this. Of course we can play new places, get higher, and get bigger audiences to play to more people. The main thing is to enjoy this. Make it for all the circumstances that it’s still fun. You don’t lose your fire for this music. I try to enjoy this and keep it fun and hope it stays like that.
I don’t think we have any kind of plans to try to turn into Metallica or be more radio friendly. We have found our thing, we can explore with new sounds and new ideas, try to bring something fresh to the table and not repeat ourselves all the time. Artistically I still feel that we have a lot to give, new things to do, new albums to make. In the end we don’t really think about what the fans are expecting, or what the label or media is expecting. It’s one of the secrets of Insomnium that has helped us get this far, we do what we want, the kind of music we actually really love. It comes from the soul. I believe people can sense it.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your passions, hobbies, or activities like you to engage in away from music when you have the free time and energy to pursue them?
Sevänen: Writing is my other passion besides composing music. I’m actually writing a novel right now. I have spent the past two and a half years now on this, the third version is almost ready – over 500 pages. It’s a long work, let’s see how many years it takes to get it finished. Of course, playing some sports, reading books, watching movies, the normal kinds of stuff.
Dead Rhetoric: What have you changed your mind about over the last few years – and why? Either in your personal outlook of life or something relating to the music industry?
Sevänen: I have had that still searching moment a few years before because a family member got very ill, and it was a very close call. It was a moment where you think about your life and death, and what you want to do with your life. I had that a few years before the pandemic, so that was my changing, soul searching moment. He ended up well, and he’s well now, all good on that front. The pandemic has kind of made me feel even stronger that I am doing what I want to do in life right now. That I’ve made the right choices. I have said many times before if I would get a billion dollars right now, I would still be doing the same things every day that I am doing now: make music and write my book. I’m so glad that I have the choice to do that right now. I don’t need to make a lot of money as this is what makes me very happy. I am able to make my art and spend my days doing what I really love. That’s the most important.
Dead Rhetoric: Are there any misconceptions regarding Finnish people that you would like to set straight? I think people understand the darkness, the melancholic nature, and the depression…
Sevänen: If you are hanging around with Finns, they don’t handle the small talk. It doesn’t mean that they are grumpy or sad, it means they are thinking, and they don’t have to talk all the time. It’s a bit different with Americans, many times they ask Finnish people, ‘are you alright?’. I’m just taking it easy and thinking things through. It’s a cultural difference. It’s a funny thing. Let’s say an Italian band and a Finnish band are sharing the same tour bus. The Italians are talking endlessly, and the Finnish guys will be nodding and saying very little. They may both have an equally good time, it’s just cultural differences.
Dead Rhetoric: What can the fans of North America expect this spring on your North American tour with Enslaved and Black Anvil – do you believe this diverse tour package will hopefully expand your following to new people?
Sevänen: I hope so. I also think it’s a very good fit, and a good package. With Enslaved, we have both done these blackened and progressive records lately. I’m quite sure most people can enjoy all the bands on this tour. Both bands will find new friends.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s left on the agenda of bucket list items for Insomnium – or you personally – to accomplish down the road?
Sevänen: There are places we still haven’t been like South America. Definitely that is on the bucket list, we should get there. We have been waiting for a long time, there were some plans but of course COVID messed up everything. We haven’t played anywhere in Africa as well, so there are continents to conquer. Make good tours, and more good music. Remember to enjoy this all the time.