Ensiferum: From the Stars to the Core
During the Heidenfest tour we had a fine chance to talk to Sami of Ensiferum. So, we went down there to talk to this folk-metal hero.
Hey Sami! Thank you for your time. How are you?
In a way I’m doing really well, since it’s the second last show of the tour. The tour has been really, really nice. Really relaxed, and all the bands are great, it’s like a holiday with friends. But at the moment, I just recovered from a tour-fever which I had for four days, though today I’m doing pretty well.
And are you already glad that the touring is almost over?
In a way, yes. But this tour is really short, it’s just two weeks. It’s nice, because you know that it’s going to end really soon, and you expect it to end soon. Usually, when you’re on tour, it takes one week to get things rolling, to adapt to the vibe of touring. Especially your rhythm of the day, because you have to be most active around midnight. But overall it’s been a good tour.
What do you prefer then? The longer tours, or these small tours of, like you said, two weeks?
I would say two or three weeks is the optimal. The danger with longer tours is that it becomes too much of a routine. Therefore I think a tour of 8 weeks is a bit too long. Even though it’s really fun, and playing live is the reason why we do this, but I feel the sharpest edges are missing if you’re playing for 8 weeks in a row.
Also, with these tours, you don’t have any day offs. Personally, I don’t like the day offs, because it kind of breaks the rhythm. One free day a week is fine, since then we can recover a bit from previous shows.
Are there any ways you try to prevent that it’ll become too much of a routine?
No, not really, because in the end it won’t happen. As soon as we enter the stage, you realize ‘shit, this is the reason why we’re doing this’. It’s usually not about the shows itself, it’s more the time before that. You need to wait so long before the shows. That’s a bit the danger of touring, since you’re waiting for such a long time during those 8 weeks, that might bring the feeling a bit down. But the shows, it never becomes boring.
Putting down a list
How do you prepare for such tours? Do you have certain routines before you start the tours? And how do you compose your setlist for example?
That’s actually pretty interesting. For example this tour, we put a lot of thought in the setlist. Because we think, that at least 90% of the people who’re coming to this show, have seen us live already. Therefore we wanted to do something different. We don’t want to be a band who plays the same songs over and over again, every time the same ‘ta ta ta taaa’ and ‘lai lai hei’. Great songs, but we’ve done them for so many years that we wanted to give the audience a different perspective on our music. So therefore we left out many of our hit songs.
Yeah, I already looked up the setlist, because I was too curious, and it already seemed a lot different from the last time I saw you guys live. In a way, each time you play over here, the setlist is totally different.
Yes, we want to do that, especially in central Europe. We played here so many times and we have so many hardcore fans here who saw us so many times. Usually we have a list with all the songs we played at the past tours and festivals. We see what songs we played last time, and we change the setlist according to that. We respect our fans, and we don’t want to be a band where you can predict from start ‘till end what songs are going to be played.
But how do you decide which songs are going to be on the setlist and which doesn’t? Is that a difficult process?
It’s not difficult, but we talk about it a lot. Especially Janne, our drummer, plays a big role in this. He remembers all the beats per minutes. In a setlist, there has to be a bit of ‘drama’, or an attention curve. You can play two or three songs in a row, but you need to keep the attention of the audience. We think about this stuff all the time.
‘Into battle’ for example, the first song we play during this tour, is a really punching song, but it’s not like ‘From Afar’ or ‘Iron’. However, it’s a great start for a set.
And for our encore, we wanted to play ‘Wanderer’, since many fans are requesting it for years. But our manager was like ‘you can’t play that as an encore! It’s too calm for that!’ And we said to him: ‘Shh, just wait and see, people are waiting for this song.’ The response has been amazing, people sing so loud and it still gives me goose bumps every time we play it.
And there is still one thing on the setlist for Heidenfest that amazes me. Bamboleo as the final song? How did you come up with that?
*laughs*, it’s a crazy cover, and so many people seem to like it. Besides that, nobody expected us to play it. During a few of the last shows last summer, people were shouting ‘Bamboleo!’ and we thought like ‘fuck, we’re going to play that! You wanted it, you get it!’
The Secret of Ensiferum
Is this also one of the things you like when playing with Ensiferum, to do things people don’t expect of you?
Yes, I think we’ll always keep doing that. For me it’s really important to stay in touch with the ‘inner kid’. When you start the band, you only do the things you want to do. When you’re going to listen too much to others, managers for example who tell you what to do, then you’re on the wrong track.
Our management for example, they’re highly appreciated, and of course they give advice, but in the end they let us decide. And the most important thing is to have fun, because I think people can easily see if a band is enjoying what they’re doing.
You can see the chemistry in the band. It’s cool that, the older we get, the better we get. Of course there can be some friction between people, because you’re with 5 people, but for us it seems that it goes really smooth all the time.
Do you think that might be the secret of Ensiferum, that you all get along so well?
I think so. I also think that’s the reason why you start a band in the first place; that you want to be around people you like, and want to do something together. I feel we still have this ‘spark’ like we had when we just started.
What struck me between ‘Unsung Heroes’ and ‘From Afar’ (the two latest albums) was that it sounds different, a bit calmer. Was that a natural process, or how did this change occur?
I think it came natural. This time the album just turned out that way. We’re already working on new songs, and we should be in the studio next year. And again this one is going to be a little different.
Can you already tell us in what way it will be different then?
I think it’s better not to tell, since there’s still so much arrangement to do. This is the best and craziest part, when we sit down altogether with all the ideas and start to arrange everything. So everything can still turn out totally different, and I love that process.
For me, when I have a melody in my head, I record a demo of it and that’s the way the melody goes. But when I give it to Markus, and tell him like ‘Ok, I made this with an axe, you can take a small knife and fill in the details’. After that we go to the rehearsal rooms, and there are Petri, Janne and Emmi, especially Janne, who twist and turn the songs and change it totally.
That’s also the beauty of being in a band like Ensiferum. We might be a bit slow, but we write all the songs together in a way. It takes time, but in that way we look to all the songs in a lot of different perspectives.
Is there someone who comes up with the biggest part of the ideas, or is it really a group process?
I’d say Markus is the main composer. Especially for the next album he brings most of the ideas. I also have a few demos for the next album, and if they’re going to be accepted I think we have the main structure for the next album finished. Everyone can still bring ideas, and we encourage everyone to do so.
For example, Emmi is ten years younger than us. From the beginning we said that, if she had ideas, she should share it. In the course of time, she gets older, and gets more self esteem, and now she dares to contribute more. This is really cool, because she’s the only one in the band who comes from a classical background.
However, our band is a democracy. Although Markus is the main composer of the band, it’s not that he’s like a dictator, only pushing through his ideas. If 3 people say it isn’t a good idea, then we leave it be.
What is your main source of inspiration?
I know that Markus usually sits by the TV and watch soap opera. In a way I understand that, because when you lower your guard, it works better than sitting in a quiet room, trying too much. If you just try without thinking too much, letting your subconscious work, usually something good comes out of it.
For me, it’s also a bit like that, but I usually hum. When I come up with a melody, I grab my phone and record it. On my last phone for example, I literally have hundreds of weird ideas. With the lyrics it’s exactly the same. It might just be one word, or one sentence, and then when I return home I work it out.
That’s what I learned after the first album. I had all the lyrics ready, and after that we started to compose. Therefore it was really hard to fit the lyrics on the music, and you can hear that the arrangements of the vocals aren’t as good as they could be. Nowadays I just come up with a really raw structure, and fill in the details after the first good demos are produced.
What is your personal favorite song to play?
*laughs* there are so many… Well, on this tour I really love to play ‘The Longest Journey’ since we only played it on one tour before this one, when ‘From Afar’ was released, 3 years ago. I still remember when we’re writing the song. It was really.. Emotional in a way. There is a lot of emotion in that song. It’s based on personal experience. By that time, and this sounds really grim, a lot of people close to me died. When we’re playing a song, I get reminded of these events, or things that happened in my life. Like actors for example, when they need to think of really sad stuff if they need to play a sad scene. In a way it works the same way for us.
What is the most positive thing, in your opinion, that you’ve achieved with Ensiferum?
It’s… Every day. And this sounds like bragging, but I think the more you get, the more humble you should be. I don’t take this for granted at all.
But to answer your question. I love astronomy, and I love stars. One of the greatest moments was when our Russian fanclub named a star after us. Some of them are members of the Russian Astronomy Club. They found a new star, and named it after us. It’s really unique.
Furthermore. Every live-show is a highlight for me. That’s the reason why we’re here, separated from family and friends. This makes it all worth it.
Is it difficult for you to be separated from friends and family for such a long time?
Not really, but in a way it is of course. This is our passion, and people who are close to us understand it and vice versa. I would always encourage my family and friends to follow their heart.
Beyond the Stars
Is there a thing you definitely want to achieve?
To be totally honest, I always loved music, already since I was little, though I never wanted to be a rockstar. I always played in a band, with something like 7 rehearsals in a week. I played in many bands, varying from pop to metal to funk, everything, just to play with good people.
I only had two goals in my life, musicwise. One was to record a real album, and the other was to play a really good, big festivalshow. In that way I achieved the goals I had when I was a kid.
But it wasn’t always like this. We’re really privileged that we can do this. The one thing I still want to achieve is to become better to be able to do this. I don’t dream about record sales or stuff like that, since it has nothing to do with the music itself. It sounds kinda cliché and hippie’ish, but that’s how it is.
It shouldn’t be about money, because money is bullshit. *laughs*, oh this is going to be a deep conversation. Money is an invented thing, but people see it as a force of nature.
If you strip everything away, from this concept, the core is that we’re all here to create something, together. I think that the essence of being human is to be aware of yourself, and for me to create something with 4 or 5 other people.
It’s something that let people experience emotions. Creating something immaterial that makes people feel, or take them away to an imaginary world. That’s the beauty of it all.
So being alive is about creating something? Do you think this is the ‘purpose of life’?
I don’t think there is a purpose *laughs*. It might sound grim, but I really think that. In the end, you just have to do things that feel right for you. But in some way, you have to understand that human beings, as a species, we need the ‘herd’, we need the others. So do stuff that makes you feel good, but don’t harm others. And with this point, we can start another deep conversation about violence for example, not only physical violence but… Well, let’s not go there! *laughs*
However, this can be linked to money as well, like I said before. I try to avoid it. It sounds really hippie’ish, and don’t get me wrong, I pay all my bills because I have to. But I always try to think about it as little as possible.
‘Life is a journey, not a destination’
How would you see the ‘ideal world’ then, if money won’t be an issue?
I don’t know.. I really don’t know. I always said to my friends that I want to live until I’m at least 100 years old, because I want to see where this goes. Even though everybody is really negative, I’m really curious to see where it goes, and I have a positive feeling about it all. I’d say we, as humans, still have a chance. We’ve come so far, and every day we have more knowledge about everything.
Never in the history of mankind so many people have so much knowledge. Of course we make stupid decisions now, but I think that’s because the increase in knowledge has been so fast. It takes time, to take another step ahead in the evolution of mankind, and see beyond religions or things that restricts us from living now.
Because that’s the danger with religions, they make you ignore this life, since you’re thinking too much about an afterlife. There is no proof of such things, and we only have this moment that is real. We should focus more on these moments right now, instead of focusing on things that might not even exist. And of course you have to learn from the past, but you shouldn’t cling on it too much. Life is a journey, not a destination, like Aerosmith said.
Ok, let’s go back to some ‘lighter’ subjects..
*Laughs*, yeah, we could go on about this stuff for hours!
It seems that it’s become a bit of a trademark for Ensiferum to put one really long song on each album. For example ‘Passion Proof Power’ on the last, ‘Victory Songs’ and ‘The Longest Journey’ on the albums before. Is this on purpose?
It kind of happened this time. Like I said earlier, when we compose, we have a few ideas we put together. We just started to arrange it, and soon enough we were like ‘shit! We’re already on 8 minutes, and we’re not even started!’
It happened many times before, that Markus came and said ‘Finally I have a song of less than 4 minutes!’ and after we arranged everything, we still had a song of around 7 minutes.
Do you also think that’s a strong point of you, the somewhat longer songs?
I don’t know, because it’s really difficult to write good, long songs, and to keep the attention. Because you have two different kinds of long songs. I’m not only playing bass in Ensiferum, but I’m also playing in a post-rock, atmospheric band called ‘Atmosphere Enterprise’. With this band, we’re creating atmosphere, and we’re not afraid to loop stuff. You can let the listeners imagination do the work, and I really like that mentality.
For example Moonsorrow, they’re really good in writing long songs. Even though there aren’t much ‘details’ happening all the time. It takes a lot of talent to write such songs. This is completely opposite to for example ‘Passion proof power’, where stuff is happening all the time.
Writing a song like that is totally different. You use different ways to make, and keep it interesting. The trick, for us, is that we have this big drawing board in our rehearsal-room. We write all the different parts on there, so we can analyze our songs. It’s totally different to analyze it, to play it, or to listen to it.
What also helps is to record demos and listen to the songs when you’re at home, then you can clearly hear what works and what doesn’t. Every album we want to do more pre-production, since that seems to be the key for us to improve.
What can we expect of Ensiferum in the future?
I hope a lot of good albums and good shows. Maybe I should be really ambitious and say that we’re going to play in the Wembley stadium one day. I really don’t know, let’s see where life leads us.
We made a new record deal with Metalblade, so it’s going to be a new, fresh start for us. It’s going to be really interesting, and the guys are really into us. When we met them, it felt like we were 15 years younger. Everybody was so eager.
I just hope we can do this as long as possible, and for me it doesn’t matter if we need to go back to touring in a small van, as long as we can continue making music.
A Special Genre
What is your favorite place to play? Do you maybe have a favorite venue, or country to play in?
Pff… Not really. Germany will always have a special place in our hearts, since that’s where it all started for us. We’re basically nothing in Finland. Over there, we have a few shows per year, and that’s it.
We’ve played on every continent, except for Antartica, and no matter where we go, our fans seem to be pretty similar. That’s something I like about this genre in general. Everybody is always in such a good mood. It’s totally different to for example metal-core, where you can’t go to a concert without getting bruised. The atmosphere is totally different. Folk-metal feels more like a ‘brotherhood’, and I know this sounds really like Manowar, but it’s true. It’s a really special genre. No band playing in this genre will ever play stadiumshows, but of course we have Heidenfest and Paganfest nowadays.
What is the strangest thing that ever happened during a show or on tour?
*Laughs* Oh damn.. I have a terrible memory when it’s about things like these. I really need others to help me with this, since there’s been so many things throughout all these years… My mind is totally empty right now. And now I think of it, this tour has been really calm, really mellow anyway. I’m pushing it too hard now, so I can’t come up with anything. Sorry!
Ok, that was it. Is there anything you still want to say to your fans or to the readers of folk-metal.nl?
Just in case you haven’t checked out the new album, check it out! Also, if you haven’t checked the new Turisas-album, check it out as well, although I haven’t heard it myself yet. Enjoy life and listen to good music!