Ensiferum Bassist Sami Hinkka Discusses Paganfest, New Album + More

Interview by Avinash Mittur

Finnish folk metal giants Ensiferum released their fifth studio album ‘Unsung Heroes’ last August via Spinefarm Records, and are now on the road in North America to promote this release. They’re currently headlining Paganfest America Part IV, with support acts Tyr, Heidevolk, Trollfest and Southern California’s very own Helsott. More adventurous and theatrical than any of their previous releases, ‘Unsung Heroes’ presents the band in a new light and showcases their never-ending progress as musicians. Combine that with their fierce on-stage energy, and Paganfest becomes a must-watch show for any metal fan. The tour made a stop at the House of Blues in Hollywood on April 2nd, and our man not only wrote this killer review of the show, but also sat down with bassist Sami Hinkka for a pleasant conversation. Read it below.

So this is your second Paganfest, and also your second Paganfest tour with Tyr!

Yeah, actually Tyr are very old friends of ours, we have toured with them many times, even before I joined Ensiferum. They were in Russia and I was in a totally different band- I was so wasted and I saw Heri [Joensen, Tyr vocalist/guitarist]. He was taking a leak and I went to go talk with him in Finnish. He was standing there and nodding and at the very end he said “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about!” And then we started drinking! [laughs]

With this Paganfest tour, you’ve had to share the stage with quite a few bands. Have you had to limit your set as a result?

Yeah of course, it’s a festival situation and in some venues you have strict curfews. It’s a different kind of thing to have your own headlining tour as opposed to the festival thing. It’s a nice challenge when somebody tells you that you only have seventy minutes to play. The more albums you have out, the more difficult it gets. It also makes it more interesting, when we do one show in one city we’ll check out what we played there last time or what we played on the last tour. We try to change the set as much as possible because there are always hardcore fans that have seen the band many times, so we’ll play a rare song for them also. We also like to have songs from each album. It makes creating the set very interesting.

I know the last time you talked with Metal Assault you were considering doing ‘Passion, Proof, Power’, the seventeen minute song from Unsung Heroes.

Yeah, that would be something! Actually that would be doable, but we would need the female singer for that one because it’s such an important element of the song. You can’t put that kind of thing to a backing track. Someday- let’s see when it’s time for the twentieth anniversary! [laughs]

Has that been a challenge, tackling samples or acoustic guitars onstage? For example I know that ‘Burning Leaves’ from the new record has an acoustic intro.

Yeah, we have some backing tracks for some orchestral elements even though we have keyboards. Emmi [Silvennoinen, keyboards] only has two hands, so it’s much easier to have big choirs played through the P.A. With the acoustic guitars, it’s a matter of them being overweight on the flight. It’s already really expensive getting the working visas, and the overweight luggage is like twenty euros per kilo. If you have like three, four guitars and an extra then it’s thousands of dollars suddenly. It would be cool to have acoustic guitars so we could do ‘Tears’ and stuff like that. Maybe someday!

Well, I guess maybe that kind of thing would be feasible back home where you wouldn’t have to fly the gear out?

Yeah, that’s true. Having the acoustic guitars would also make the live set more interesting and add more dynamics. Let’s see, let’s see!

At some shows at home you guys have been known to do an ABBA cover…

Hmm, yes we have… That’s another of our drunken ideas! [laughs] Let’s see what we come up with next!

Are you all genuine fans of ABBA or was it more tongue-in-cheek?

It was a little bit tongue-in-cheek but of course ABBA have many good songs. I don’t think any of us are real hardcore fans of them though. It’s good pop.

You guys also threw in a a cover at the end of Unsung Heroes as well.

Yeah, ‘Bamboleo’ by the Gipsy Kings. It was again, another drunken idea! [laughs] We had been talking about it for years, ever since I joined the band. We had some cover song ideas for Unsung Heroes and we were in the studio during the first weekend- Hiili [Hillesmaa, producer of Unsung Heroes] went home and we stayed behind and jammed with the cover song ideas. There were a few that were okay, but there was still something missing. When we made death metal out of ‘Bamboleo’, we took the structure and the chords. Of course, none of us speaks any Spanish so we listened to the song and wrote the lyrics as they are pronounced. Monday morning when Hiili came back to the studio he was drinking coffee and we told him “Come here, come here! We have this crazy song idea!” and we played the song for him. He said “Guys, you have to go home during the weekends! This is not healthy, this is not normal, you’ll get cabin fever!” That’s how we came up with ‘Bamboleo’.

I know Hiili is really into old school analog recording techniques, was that how Unsung Heroes was recorded?

Partly. Hiili is a really great producer because he’s a musician himself. He’s a really good drummer and he plays a little bit of every instrument and he has ideas for every instrument. He’s always offering his ideas, but he never says “we have to do it like this”. He always leaves artistic freedom for the band, as it should be. We would have fired him otherwise. [laughs] He has a background of really different kinds of music, I think that’s a really big advantage. If it’s just some guy that’s done metal his whole life, then his views on music might be very narrow. A guy like Hiili is open to all kinds of crazy ideas. It was really cool to work with him.

I love his mix on the album too, I like how get to hear your bass playing like your solo on ‘Burning Leaves’.

Oh, that was a harmony type thing. When we recorded the drums the whole band was playing, the basslines are from the drum sessions. It was old-school, the drums and bass playing together. That’s why there is a really different kind of groove compared to old Ensiferum albums, except the first one because that was also recorded old school style, and also generally compared to most metal albums nowadays because everything is about Pro Tools now. We wanted to have a more organic thing, no triggers and have more groove.

Now that you’ve gotten to experience both sides, recording to tape and straight to Pro Tools-

Well, that’s how we started! That’s how we made all the demos and first albums, recording to the actual tape. It was really nice kind of going back to our roots.

There have been a lot of folk metal bands coming up in the US last one or two years. Do you think they’ve been doing a good job of carrying on the legacy that you guys and the other veteran folk metal bands established in the late ‘90s?

Hopefully! I have to admit, I don’t follow the scene at all. In one of the interviews they asked, “Is the hype going down?” I have no idea because I can only answer on behalf of our band. The amount of offers we get for gigs around the world and the feedback from the albums have been really good, so at least from our point of view the hype is still going up. We are really privileged. Of course it feels really good to come to North America and see that there are a lot of new bands coming from this genre. That way this genre will evolve, if it’s just the ten-fifteen bands that participate on these Paganfest tours then nothing new would happen. This way there’s new blood and they will bring their own spice. It’s only a good thing. Also, at least for me, it’s really weird and humbling when someone comes up to us and says “You guys really inspired us to start a band”. It feels really weird. You know it’s only us! We’re just a bunch of hippies from Finland making music!

So since this is Ensiferum’s second Paganfest, what’s been different about this tour compared to the first Paganfest?

Well, that was the first time we had ever done a proper North American tour. We did a short Eastern Canada tour before and since then we have been to North America many times. Compared to the first Paganfest, the experience of touring North America is the biggest difference. We didn’t know what to expect and everything was totally new all the time. I really like touring here, the crowds are really good. We’ve only had two shows on this tour so far, but they’ve been really good. There were shitloads of problems, like most of our gear was lost. The very first show we had to borrow instruments, we didn’t have backing tracks, our sound engineers didn’t have their racks so a few hours before the show we had to change the whole setlist.

That’s right, now I remember. American Airlines lost your gear. Besides the first show, how have you been working around that?

We got some stuff back for yesterday’s show, but yesterday’s show was full of other technical difficulties. When we arrived at the venue they were still building the stage. It was like an outdoor festival, the whole thing was delayed and there were other technical problems. I heard afterwards that my bass never came out of the P.A. system during the whole show and stuff like that. The crowd was crazy, they were having a good time so I didn’t care. I had a good time also because of that! Today we got the last piece of gear, so today is the first day of the tour where we can put on a proper show as it should be. It’s L.A., it’s always been really wild here so expectations are really high.


Remaining Paganfest America dates:
4/06/2013 Studio Seven – Seattle, WA
4/07/2013 Rickshaw Theatre – Vancouver, BC
4/09/2013 Starlite Room – Edmonton, AB
4/10/2013 The Exchange – Regina, SK
4/11/2013 Zoo Cabaret – Winnipeg, MB
4/12/2013 Station 4 – Saint Paul, MN
4/13/2013 Reggie’s – Chicago, IL
4/14/2013 Al Rosa Villa – Columbus, OH
4/15/2013 Soundstage – Baltimore, MD
4/16/2013 The Note – Philadelphia, PA
4/17/2013 Opera House – Toronto, ON
4/18/2013 Metropolis – Montreal, QC
4/19/2013 The Chance – Poughkeepsie, NY
4/20/2013 The Palladium – Worcester, MA (New England Metal & Hardcore Fest)
4/21/2013 Gramercy Theatre – New York, NY