Interview with Insomnium — “True artists always do what they want to do.”

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During these crazy times, melodic death metal act INSOMNIUM have proven to be an extremely resilient band. These Finns have continued to remain active during the pandemic and as a result have recently released their new EP, “Argent Moon,” via Century Media. We had the opportunity to chat with guitarist Markus Vanhala about the EP and the last year. Watch the interview here or read the entire transcript below…

Hi Markus! Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me and talk about your upcoming EP, “Argent Moon.” I guess the last time we talked was in 2019 and a lot has happened since. How have you been?

Yeah a few little things changed in these past 2 years and I’ve been pretty much at home, which was not so common in the old days, but now there’s been some surprisingly much time to be at home and compose the music and not traveling. I wonder what happened.

Yeah, you have certainly kept yourself busy during this lockdown period. You have a new EP coming up with INSOMNIUM, a new album with OMNIUM GATHERUM, and a new band. Is that mostly what you have been doing during this lockdown period?

Yeah, there are now three releases ready to be unleashed for the world: the INSOMNIUM EP, OMNIUM GATHERUM album, then we have this new black metal band I AM THE NIGHT, the album, I just got the artwork today and the album is gonna be released soon and that’s me. I’m always doing something, if I’m traveling, I just need to compose music or clean my house or fix my car. I’m not the type of guy who sits on the sofa.

I guess it’s going to be interesting for you, when this whole period is over then you’re going to have three tours or something like that.

Yeah. Let’s see what happens. Someday when the world opens.

Obviously, today, the new INSOMNIUM EP is coming out. How are you feeling about the release day?

To be honest, I didn’t even first remember it’s released today, like the actual EP, because it… “Argent Moon” was a different kind of project because it was released in kind of four parts, like our label Century Media wanted to do this kind of pop culture release, so release it single by single – one single, two months, and then second single, two months – so the recordings are already pretty old. I think we started recording a year ago, so it doesn’t feel like a new release for me anymore.

I was going to ask you about that because I guess the whole EP thing and releasing song-by-song is kind of a pop thing. How does it feel to be in a metal band and you’re trying out a system like that?

Well, at least it’s something different. I’m honestly more of an old school guy, I listen to vinyl and drive old US cars, so I’m not really much of a modern dude, but I think it’s cool that we check out these different kinds of formats to release and I think it’s gone well… a necessary evil, to check out some new things in the world.

I know that your band has had a tough “first pandemic year”: first the canceled tours and almost being stuck in the US, and then the experience with the first live stream, I remember that was also something that went south [laughter]. I was wondering, these feelings of frustration and maybe anxiety or whatever it was that you went through, was that where the atmosphere of these tracks comes from?

Well, the good thing about this current situation in the world is that everyone is suffering from the same situation, so it’s not unfair. Basically, the start of the pandemic for us was the shittiest happening, that the global pandemic rose just when we were flying from Helsinki to New York to start the tour and when we landed at JFK Airport, it was completely silent, empty, it was a flight from an apocalyptic movie or something… no people. First, we thought, well, a pandemic is cool, usually you have to queue hours at the JFK immigration line but now we just entered the country and it took like 10 minutes to walk away. But then things cleared and we got to play one show in Philadelphia. It’s definitely – and I hope it will be – the most expensive show we’ve ever done. And it was with both my bands, it was INSOMNIUM and OMNIUM GATHERUM, and I can tell you, getting the US visas, work permits, and renting a bus, renting a backline, and flying there, having your own crew with you, and then canceling the whole tour after one gig… it’s not exactly a cheap hobby. I don’t recommend it to anyone and so then we had to fly back home and with a huge debt in our banks, and then we already went on the way back home we were thinking, now we have to do some live stream show, and new shirts for the canceled tour T-shirt, to make up all the costs for our companies. That’s what we did. I think we were maybe the first bands that did the live streams, because we did it. Well, the technical side didn’t go well, but after all, it went really well. Like a lot of people bought the tickets and people kind of understood the new normal. We thought it’s just a technical hassle but it was fucked up. [laughs]

I remember there were a lot of memes that people had created about the technical side of things. Did you see any of those?

I don’t think I’ve seen any memes, but I just didn’t want to do anything with that stream anymore after it was done, but the guy who did it – our really good friend, who did the production – got even three death threats from angry people. So what’s wrong with people… the live stream doesn’t work, so I am going to kill you. Calm down. Go to sleep.

Anyway, this EP contains ballads. Now, I am always interested in what people really see as a ballad because some people think it’s a love song, some people think it’s a slow song. What are your thoughts about it?

Good question. My thought about ballads is like Bon Jovi “Always,” or Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On,” and maybe those songs are not exactly that kind of ballad, but in INSOMNIUM scale, it means something like a death metal ballad; so, no blast-beats, a lot of cleaning singing, more than we’ve ever had on previous releases, and just a tiny bit of Niilo‘s growls, and a bit of a slower tempo, it’s more like a mellow kind of thing. I wouldn’t say it’s a ballad EP, but if I have to compare it to another band, I would say it’s like OPETH did “Deliverance” and simultaneously “Damnation,” which was a mellow album, so this EP is probably our “Damnation.”

I always wondered about writing slower songs, as it can easily become cheesy, but is there a specific way you avoid those clichés?

The EP is cheesy on an INSOMNIUM scale, so we couldn’t avoid it. [laughter] And most people like cheese. I like cheese, blue cheese, Swiss cheese, all different kinds of cheese. Cheese is not always a bad thing, but we try to avoid sounding like actual Bon Jovi. There are still lots of INSOMNIUM parts in the songs, not the exact dancing hugging songs still, so ballad or mellow or slower songs, somehow this EP came to be like this, we had like already [some] new songs, a big bunch, but then we just picked four songs which basically fit together really well, and this mellow ballad was the red line.

Now, I also heard that this EP – because a lot of people thought maybe you’re changing directions – was more of an experiment to you guys. So, what has it been like, working on these songs?

Well, when we worked on “Heart Like a Grave,” all the other guys except for Niilo were under 40 and now when we were working on this EP, we all are over 40. So, maybe it’s a better tempo for us old guys, well no, that’s a joke. [laughter] The next album we are working on, it’s gonna be again an aggressive side of INSOMNIUM, or at least that is the plan, and the new demos are like that, don’t be afraid that we are getting too old. Now we are getting old and ballad-y, but on the next release, we’re getting old and angry.

I guess it’s good to prepare yourself for when you’re the age of IRON MAIDEN… their new album was also not very fast and aggressive, but it was still good.

I was thinking the same with IRON MAIDEN, because I’m a huge fan of the ’80s IRON MAIDEN, but the guys are 60 and over 60. Can you anymore expect them to do the same kind of stuff as in the ’80s? They shouldn’t be doing that anymore because people change and people grow and true artists do always what they want to do and not listen to the masses too much. Just hope that the masses will love it, but you do.

Do you feel like you learned anything from creating these songs specifically?

Well, I learned to sing. That’s my weird use of pandemic time. This EP is the first… I think this is the first time I’m singing on an INSOMNIUM release. Clean vocals on “The Wanderer” and “The Reticent.”

In the background or foreground?

On “The Reticent,” it’s more in the background and “The Wanderer” is more like a duet between me and Jani, one starts and another one answers, some really Brokeback Mountain, scary stuff. We are two guys singing ballads to each other, but that happens.

How was the experience for you to sing?

Well, probably our wives are jealous. [laughs] It was really fun. Yeah, it’s been something completely new for me to also do some of the singing, and I’ve been doing a lot of demos at home, usually clean parts demoing, but I haven’t got the self-confidence to sing at live shows. Then I started to do background vocals at OMNIUM GATHERUM gigs and somehow that was the gateway to sing on the new INSOMNIUM album and I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing but it’s at least something.

Is it an open door to a solo career at some point maybe?

Oh yeah, I’m gonna be the next Robbie Williams soon. [laughs] Too much time at home, by the way, that’s a fact… I’ve been playing a lot… composing a lot of different stuff at home, I don’t know why… my brain is melting or something. I’ve been doing a lot of even pop stuff and I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do with that. Maybe I just throw the computer out of the window. [laughs] Get rid of those really cheesy songs.

I mean, it would be interesting to maybe have something like that as a bonus track. There are always these bands who have these kinds of silly songs as bonus tracks on their albums. CHILDREN OF BODOM did those covers.

Britney Spears and stuff. And then, probably, that’s how my brain works, I had to do the INSOMNIUM ballad EP, and then at the same time, I was composing this new band for black metal really raw ’90s black metal, the balance and I’m here in the middle, I’m getting crazy.

But you’re still focused enough to spend time on each project and not let, for example, any black metal influences slip into INSOMNIUM albums. That would probably happen to me.

Yeah, well not on this release, probably on Winter’s Gate and even on the Heart Like a Grave album, there was… “Pale Morning Sky” was my black metal epic for the previous album, and I’ve been doing that a lot, maybe it just reflects my own musical tastes because I’m not that kind of guy that [says], “I like Swedish pagan metal and nothing else.” I like lots of different kinds of music, so that’s how you keep yourself entertained, doing all these different things.

Now, I guess you’re releasing this EP now and the world is kind of slowly, maybe opening up again, unless there are more of these variants coming, who knows. Is this, in a way, the end of a chapter for you?

Well, you never know. You never know what happens. Even the EP… it may seem from the outside that INSOMNIUM is a band that is making a lot of plans and everything is planned ahead. It’s not like that. A lot of things just happened; for instance, this ballad EP was just like, let’s do this, okay, and then already the concept for the next album was decided, pretty much in a similar way, like, let’s do that… okay. Now we’re already on the way so, not really a long process of thinking; just doing things and what feels right, and trying to be honest for your art.

I guess you wrote the songs in a period of isolation and lockdown, but was there anything different in creating them because of corona or did you actually write them beforehand and then just tweak some things here and there?

All these songs are pretty much written during the first lockdown in the last year, spring and summer, so the mood was what everyone knows in the world… the mood was really weird. In life during lockdowns, you cannot go to pubs and bars, and you cannot meet your friends, so probably that did something to the music, or at least it should be because it was such a strong and emotional period in life, which was unheard of. So, yeah, unconsciously it always leads to something.

I guess you’re not the kind of band that writes music by jamming; but did your process change during the lockdown?

We are not the jam band, at all. [laughs] Yeah, we used to be with all bands… when you were young, you were spending a lot of time at your rehearsal place just hanging out and drinking, and when you’re getting old to work at your home. All the guys are having home studios and we are sending files. So it’s getting pretty boring, not so wild anymore of composing these songs, but maybe this process was different that way. We still rehearse for the new album, and this time, we didn’t rehearse with Ville at all, because Ville didn’t come to Finland and Ville didn’t take part in this studio session, so we made it with four of us, like the live lineup. But that doesn’t mean Ville is out. Now Ville came to Finland and he’s still highly in the game.

Yeah, good to know for fans, I guess. Because there’s always a few people asking on videos where Ville is.

Yeah, we are like a weird group. We are that way. Sometimes there’s four of us, and sometimes we are five. In the band picture, there’s five of us. Now we did the video and there’s four of us and the whole EP was recorded by the four of us. Even I’m confused. I could imagine many fans are confused. [laughs]

I don’t know why I’m asking this, but do you guys have a WhatsApp group?

Yeah, [laughs] there’s many of those with the band group and with the production group, but the band group is called “Ryhmä Bää.” It means “Group Bää” and bää is old drunken shout of our drummer, like “Bääää.”

Now, for each of these songs, you also made a music video.

Yeah, I think the last one will be released in one hour, as we speak.

Was that the label’s idea, or was that something that came from you guys for the fans?

I think, at first, and in the end it was the label’s decision. We were thinking to maybe do like one or two, the usual way, but when Century Media wanted to do this all songs are singles, so they said that all songs need videos too, and we liked the idea. And then we worked with Vesa Ranta for two videos, who did like the “Heart Like a Grave” videos too, the old drummer of SENTENCED, who is really good at catching the inner spirit of INSOMNIUM, with videos, Finnish melancholy from the north. And then we just… for the next two, we felt that we have to do something else, because Vesa already did four videos. So we decided to do something with Ville Lipiainen, who’s famous for working with NIGHTWISH, BEAST IN BLACK, HYPOCRISY, and then he did completely different kinds of videos, and I think it’s cool. There’s more… the video which is coming out today, it’s a summer video, and there’s a girl… two things that have never been present in INSOMNIUM videos so… [laughter]

Beach vibes? [laughs]

Well, there’s a beach. It was filmed at Suomenlinna, which is the military or Castle Island, near Helsinki. It’s a really cool place. We were playing at the beach, but it’s like a rocky beach.

Yeah, that’s not so convenient. [laughs]

We had to avoid… because these Finnish huge boats or ships [traveling to Stockholm] from Viking Line, were going past, and then we had to end the filming session when the ship goes and even Niilo was flooded and the drum set was flooded because there were huge waves coming from the ships, but unfortunately they are not in the video… they were the best parts of the session. [laughter]

I guess most bands don’t really have a blooper real. I presume there’s a lot of blooper material from those shooting days.

We only have photos. The directors have them all, so we should maybe ask to do the best of bloopers compilations, which would be cool. Even make one music video out of that stuff would be cool.

Yeah, that would actually be really cool. I would be interested to see that actually. So, an idea for next album.

Cool idea for bonus content, and then all the fans are disappointed because it’s not dark and melancholic, and sad. Why are those guys laughing?

Now, speaking of dark, melancholic, and sad; you also have two other bands releasing albums, so what can you tell us about those releases?

Yeah, my love child, OMNIUM GATHERUM, that I formed when I was 14 years old, it’s already releasing its ninth album in November. Most of this year, I spent on that album; composing it, rehearsing it, and studio sessions. It’s been a really, really good session in that way, that now when the “new normal” has become a standard, then we just noticed that we have like a lot more time because we knew there are not going to be tours coming this year, and then we just rehearsed like in the old days, and I think you can really hear it on the OG album, which… I’m proud of it. Even though I’m Finnish and I hate everything, I can say it’s a good album.

That’s impressive, most artists really hate their own albums.

We got to work with Nino Laurenne, the old producer of the first OMNIUM GATHERUM albums, so we went back after 17 years to Nino‘s Sonic Pump Studios, and it was fun. Then, Jens Bogren mixed the whole album, and Jens is a wizard. It became a pretty good album and then at some point, I had some spare time and then I accidentally wrote an album full of black metal songs and there came I AM THE NIGHT, the new band, featuring the OMNIUM GATHERUM bass player and my old pal Janne, we played black metal in ’98 previously, so it’s been a while, and Waltteri from PARADISE LOST and BODOM AFTER MIDNIGHT joined us, he’s my good buddy, and my brother in law, Okko, who is singing in HORIZON IGNITED, is singing on the album. That was a fun project too, I needed to do this because I’ve always been a huge fan of ’90s black metal like EMPEROR, DISSECTION, and MAYHEM. So, this is a labor of love. I have felt an inner urge to do this kind of project for years, and now when there was time. It’s coming through. We did all the ’90s cliches, which could be in the black metal. We asked a logo from Christophe Szpajdel, who’s been doing the EMPEROR logos and Nekrolord did the cover artwork, who’s been painting all these ’90s classic covers, so it’s a nostalgic trip to the dark side.

It’s interesting, because I guess there’s a little bit of a revival maybe in Finland of ’90s black metal; …AND OCEANS, DARKWOORDS MY BETROTHED. It will be pretty cool to see what’s going to happen in that scene.

Newbies in the scene that we are.

But anyway, I’ll save any more questions for other interviews, since I’m sure there will be enough time to interview both bands. Our time is almost up, do you have any last thoughts you want to share with your fans?

Thanks to everyone for staying with us during these stupid times. We are still here, we’re not going anywhere. And it’s been weird, but I think we all have had our fair share of weirdness, and looking forward to see all of you beautiful people at the gigs. Soon, I hope.

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