Finnish metal band SINISTHRA has been off the grid for more than a decade, so with the release of their sophomore album, “The Broad and Beaten Way,” on 15 May 2020, we took the opportunity to ask drummer Erkki Virta some questions about the band, the hiatus, the new album and the music they have created. Read the review at this link.
Hello! How are you doing?
I’m fine, thank you! I just finished putting together the materials for our first albums’ reissue. It will be released as a limited edition CD in August, with four bonus songs.
That’s good to know and, speaking of that, SINISTHRA was formed in 1999, with the debut album being released in 2005, and now we get your second album. What happened in the meantime with the band?
Well, nothing much it seems, in hindsight. After the first album, we had the wind in our sails and set forth to come up with another album, but then reality started to sink in regarding the situation our singer had with AMORPHIS and the amount of his time it was actually taking, which turned out to be quite a lot. Several of us also had small children to look after. So we adapted and gathered together to rehearse whenever we could, which wasn’t very often.
The songs for “The Broad and Beaten Way” were written in a relatively short time during 2007-2008 and we started recording the album in 2008. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a label to back us up financially so things gradually fell apart and slowed down as we were forced to continue the recordings in a “home studio.” It started to look like a dead-end, we started to have second thoughts about the quality of the songs, and then we just focused on other things, playing in other bands and getting on with our lives. But we never abandoned the album project, it just ended up taking a ridiculously long time to finally come together.
How did the band’s sound change between 2005 and 2020?
We started around 2000 and originally weren’t very metallic at all, we had more of a grungy thing going on, but each member had a background in metal so the metal started creeping back in, around the time we released the first album. After that we dabbled a lot more with metallic overtones, adding double bass drumming, dropped tuning on guitars, and harsher vocals. And then we wiped most of those experiments off and just kind of went with the flow, with whatever comes out. So I can’t tell whether the sound has changed drastically or just slightly. It’s heavier now than before and the song structures are a bit more complicated.
The band’s name sounds similar to the word sinister, yet I wouldn’t describe your music as such. How did you come up with the name Sinisthra and what does it reference?
“Sinistra” is Italian for “left,” and we added the “h” because the word seemed to request an additional “h” before it could be the bands’ new name. The left-hand side beckoned strongly at the time, with references to femininity, creativity, individuality, and vaguely blasphemous freethinking. And it still does.
How would you describe yourselves as songwriters? Are you storytellers, or do you write music just for the sake of creating music?
Probably just for the sake of creating. The music justifies itself and the process of writing and putting things together. There’s also the occasional pressure of things welling up inside, searching for a way out, and making music can alleviate that. Silence is something to cherish but sometimes silence needs to be dispelled. I write the lyrics and this may sound contradictory, but I hate stories. To be more precise, I hate “storytelling” in songs. There’s no storytelling in our songs, they are reflections of thoughts, hopes, and dreams, sometimes of experiences as well, glimpses into moments that, when observed afterwards, seemed to hold special significance. But not stories. Oftentimes they are also thinly veiled rip-offs from writers I admire.
I know that the title of the album, “The Broad and the Beaten Way, is taken from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” How much of the music and lyrics would you say draw inspiration from that epic poem? Is there a storyline?
To continue in a path of contradiction: on closer inspection, a storyline might emerge but it’s not a story of linear narrative. There are themes of looking into oneself and befriending what lurks within, of finding independence from assumed dependence, and of just generally growing up and becoming one’s true self, perhaps in a slightly Jungian fashion.
The music has nothing to do with Milton’s book, and, come to think of it, neither do the lyrics. Or at least not much anyway. The book is too vast to be dwarfed down into the framework of pop music and it’s also next to impossible to comprehend by a modern-day reader.
But the starting point was Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. The parts of “Paradise Lost” that deal with them was one of the founts but not the only one, an “extra-canonical” writing called “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” was a strong influence as well. The lyrics to “Eterne” in particular have elements from both of those.
Again, speaking of, the album starts off really rocking with “Eterne” but then it gets more mellow and atmospheric with each track. What was your vision going into this album?
The vision was to create an album where everything worked together to form one coherent musical entity, I think. We just didn’t succeed very well with it, but then again all art I find interesting is flawed in some way, so I’m content with the end result. At one point we even considered linking all the songs together into one continuous piece. There originally was another up-tempo song, in the vein of “Eterne” towards the end of the album, but we dropped it. It would have added a different shade to the overall mellowness but it also would have made the album a bit too long and it wasn’t a particularly great composition either. “Ephemeral” adds some much-needed hope to the end, although very melancholic, but hope anyway.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the songwriting process for the album? How do you usually write songs?
Our guitarist Markku [Mäkinen] usually writes the music and presents it to the band who then, often unnecessarily, proceeds to tear the original composition into small irrelevant pieces and in most cases, the whole thing ends up being discarded after a while. Sometimes the song manages to pull through this mutilation and the next stage is fitting it with vocal melodies. After the melodies are in place, the lyrics are written, and suddenly the song gives the impression of being finished and ready. It still might suffer another process of mutilation in the studio, but now and again songs survive all this and make it to an album.
Tomi Joutsen’s vocals on this album convey a lot of emotions and moods and sound very different from what he usually does in AMORPHIS. What can you tell us regarding this?
Different environments and soundscapes call for different approaches. In AMORPHIS the lyrical content and emotions within stem from different sources than in SINISTHRA. So it’s bound to sound different too.
Do you have any favorites on the new record and were there any special situations that happened during the writing and recording process that make some songs stick out?
“Closely Guarded Distance” turned out pretty much the way we wanted it to, so I’d say it’s my favorite song of the lot. It’s a rather dramatic piece and playing it live is quite an experience too. “Halfway to Somewhere Else” has some lovely singing in it, especially the middle part brings me goosebumps occasionally. The other songs are okay too but those two are closest to my heart. The actual processes of writing and recording are usually so stressful that any memories of them are best left disregarded.
In a time when bands choose shorter and catchier songs as singles, you released the longest track on the album, “Closely Guarded Distance,” as the first single. What made you decide on that and not, say, “Morningfrail”? And how did the listeners react to it?
I think “Morningfrail” is the weakest track on the album, so it wasn’t much of a contender for the first single then, was it? “Closely Guarded Distance” nicely sums up various aspects of SINISTHRA and it was bound to raise curiosity with its length and with everything it contained. The reactions we’ve had from listeners have been mostly overwhelming, but then again, if someone doesn’t like it, that someone can hardly be expected to comment on it. If I don’t like a song, I skip it and can’t be bothered to voice my negative impression. But yes, people have mostly loved it.
How does the video for “Eterne” tie in with the music and the album’s theme? There are a lot of interesting details in there – books from John Milton and John Keats, the first Sinisthra album, a photo of the band, and probably a few more that I have missed.
It has the air of letting go of things gone by. Similarly, on the album, Adam slowly lets go of his ideal of Eve. I’m the ghost in the video, searching among the wreckage of my childhood home. Or not actually searching, wandering in the ruined rooms more like, examining what might be found when it’s clear there’s nothing left to find. The Milton book obviously needed to be included in the video and the painting on the wall depicts Adam and Eve escaping from Eden. It was supposed to be on the cover of the album but somehow didn’t want to be placed there, so it’s now in the booklet. Originally there were several references to John Keats in the lyrics, of which one remains in “Halfway to Somewhere Else,” so when I was leaving for the video shoot and scoured my bookshelf for props, a John Keats collection seemed appropriate. Absinthe has often been present in various twists and turns of SINISTHRA and the absinthe spoon, although a pretty useless item, looked nice. There’s also a brief glimpse of a small color-changing angel statue, representing the angel who guards the entrance to Eden with a flaming sword.
What do you think is the unique selling point of the album?
That’s for other people to define, not the artist who stands up to his ears in the murky waters of his art.
Talking about cover art, I’d like to know a little bit more about how the cover art is connected to the story. Did you give the visual artist any guidelines, or did you give them a free hand in designing it?
The front cover art is not connected to the theme at all. Originally I asked for AMORPHIS lyricist Pekka Kainulainen to draw us a picture of either a bridge spanning across a wide chasm (that’s the broad and beaten way as described by Milton) or of the expulsion from Eden. As I mentioned earlier, the art he came up didn’t translate well into an album cover so we had to look elsewhere. I had also asked my friend Sami Hynninen to draw something for the booklet and as he showed me the various things he had made; the one that’s now on the cover caught my attention. Of course I could explain it away by saying that the sitting figure guards the gates of Hell (where the broad and beaten way leads to earth) but I won’t. The truth is I don’t know what it depicts as he didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask and I’m fine with it.
Do you have any touring plans, once the current health restrictions are lifted?
We are prepared to play select shows if schedules permit, but no touring for SINISTHRA.
How do you feel about the music scene (streams, online concerts) in 2020, compared to how it was in 2005?
We make our music, hardly casting any sideways glances, and once we reach a point where we make the observation of having made enough new music, we aim to get it released. The music scene is what happens outside the reach of our sideways glances, which we don’t cast.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I think I’ve shared enough already, but thank you for taking interest in SINISTHRA and for the thought-out questions. I enjoyed answering them.
Interview by Andrea Crow
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