Hailing from the cold, melancholic landscapes of Finland, the melodic death metal outfit Insomnium have been on a steady rise since 1999. Their cementing of melodic death metal came with 2002’s In The Halls of Awaiting, and with each subsequent release have maintained that original, unique sound through and through. Recordings such as Above The Weeping World and Across The Dark saw a massive expansion in this authenticity, with each new track evolving Insomnium’s foundations whilst pulling at the old “nostalgia” heartstrings.
Their latest, Century Media Records-released album, Heart Like A Grave (stream/purchase here), is no exception. Upon its release, we spoke to vocalist Niilo Sevänen about the new record, Finnish music, and we even covered a little bit of ground with regards to the band’s history. (Be sure to also read our Heart Like A Grave album review.)
Your album, Heart Like A Grave, has now been released. How’s the response been?
Niilo Sevänen: “It’s been really good. I think there have only been positive comments from the fans so far, it’s been overwhelmingly good. But, I had a good feeling based on the feedback from the three videos that people are going to like it. I’m very happy with the album. I know it sounds like Insomnium and that our fans will be pleased. It looks very good right now, so I’m very happy.”
Right on. I’ve listened to it for the past week and you’ve managed to sound just like yourselves and as unique for the past 20 years, it’s kind of crazy. Every record you bring out sounds just like Insomnium, you know?
Sevänen: “It is. Several people have pointed out that we have practically changed our guitarists in seven years and we still sound exactly like Insomnium (laughs). That’s a rare thing to accomplish.”
“Valediction” is the first single and music video taken from Heart Like a Grave:
It is. That was a later question, but while we’re there, how have you kept that going? It’s rare and difficult to keep such a unique sound going for so long. What’s the secret?
Sevänen: “That’s a very good question. Well, we’ve always been really honest with our music, we have done exactly what we wanted to do, we never thought ‘What would the fans want to hear?,’ or ‘What is the record company expecting?’ or ‘What is trending right now and what is not’ We’ve never done those things; we’ve always done what exactly comes from the heart, and somehow we share the same idea of what is Insomnium, what kind of music we are doing. We’ve been really lucky with our new guitar players, Marcus Vanhala joined seven years ago, and now Jani Liimatainen has joined the band. Both right away got into that Insomnium vibe so when they started composing for the band, it sounded like Insomnium. So, partly we’ve been lucky, and we found the right guys to fill the slots, but I don’t know, we’ve been honest to ourselves and doing the music we all love.”
That’s what it’s about at the end of the day. Not answering to other people and just doing what you love expressing yourself.
Sevänen: “Exactly. I think people can sense that. It comes from the heart, and so we are honest with the music and then people receive it as something genuine and unique, and I think that’s one reason why we are here now after 22 years and we have achieved this kind of success now, and we have this steady fan base who kept following us and seemed to enjoy every album.”
With melancholic music especially, you kind of have to speak from the heart.
Sevänen: “That’s true, you can’t fake it. People would notice that right away.”
Shots of Insomnium (w/ Oceans of Slumber) @ Club Red (Mesa, AZ) on June 9, 2018, by Kathleen Kaufman:
Onto the album itself, it was mentioned that Finnish lyrics, poems, and stories were influences for the record? Could you elaborate on that?
Sevänen: “Yeah. I think the starting point was a couple of years ago, the biggest newspaper in Finland, they had this volume where people could vote for the saddest, most sorrowful song (in) Finland ever. It was a really cool concept, and people actively participated so they got tons of votes, and the top ten was really, really interesting. So, there were these kinds of songs that everybody in Finland knows, so the ones our parents and grandparents and even older generations had been listening to. You could find really, really sad, really Finnish stories from there. For example, the song that was chosen as number one saddest, I took that and wrote an Insomnium version of it, and it’s the song ‘And Bells They Toll’ (that is on Heart Like a Grave).
But, I used also some poems from the ‘30s. There was this female poet who died young, this kind of archetypal suffering artist type, miserable, unhappy, died young. Wrote really dark poems about dreams and death and really Insomiun kind of stuff. So, two songs are based off her poems, and the rest of the stuff is more like a compilation of themes that can be found from, not just from these top ten saddest songs!
I did some researching and dug out what I found. Some kind of themes that can be found from these popular songs; this longing for the youth, the golden times of youth, there was this good time in the past but now everything is ruined, either it was your own fault and you did something stupid, or life just slipped away from your fingers and now you’re just old and miserable. The cold took the harvest, and your wife left, and your brother died, and this kind of Finnish melancholy darkness that you can find from these popular songs. We wanted to use that, so you can find those things from the lyrics from every song on this album.”
That’s very cool. Again, true to yourself, doing what you like, but also growing on that traditional sharing of music and culture.
Sevänen: “Yeah. We tried to open up this Finnish melancholy a bit to the foreigners, but I’m sure you can only really grasp the whole idea if you moved to Finland and followed us closely, at what kind of music we listen to here and how people react, and what is actually this whole Finnish darkness and melancholy. At the same time, it’s really funny that I think for many years now, Finland has been shown as the happiest nation in the world, and we like to listen to this really sad music (laughs)! There is some kind of way to cope with the world and we can be happy, listening to our sad songs, but it’s a funny combination.”
Insomnium’s eighth studio album Heart Like a Grave was released on October 4th via Century Media Records. Check out the artwork:
Sing a sad song, live a happy life!
Sevänen: “Yeah, exactly. Like, the most popular Christmas song in Finland is a story about this little girl on a Christmas morning when it’s freezing cold outside. She finds this sparrow in the snow, and later she will realize it’s the soul of her dead little brother who died the last year. A really, really sad song, but people like to sing that and listen to that on Christmas! So that kind of tells something about Finland.”
Onto themes, could you talk about how you went onto writing and recording for the album?
Sevänen: “Well, of course, the last one was one 40-minute song, and we wanted to come back to doing something normal again after playing two years on every show that 40-minute song. We felt like, ‘Okay, it’s time to take a break from this now.’ Of course, it was a success, it was an experiment we wanted to try; it turned out to be really good and people loved it. But, we all thought, let’s go back to making a normal album again, and let’s see again next time what we come up with. Everybody just went to their chambers, produced some riffs and some songs and demos, and then we started sending them to each other. So, it was a really kind of normal, traditional process for us.
Of course, Jani officially joined the band last summer, one year ago, then we really started putting the songs together. And now there was four guys making the music, so a new situation, but I think it went really smoothly. Jani, right away, adapted the Insomnum mindset and what kind of melodies and moods we want to use, so I think we’re really stronger now than ever now there are four guys, not just one who needs to produce like 50 minutes of killer material. We can share the load and just pick the best songs and ideas we can all produce together, so it’s an ideal situation for a band.”
Sounds like a rare thing.
Sevänen: “Yeah, it is a rare thing. There has been, of course, we’ve been in this (for) 22 years, there have been all kinds of situations of course. At times, somebody has done a lot of work, there were a lot of albums that Ville did a lot of songs (for), now he’s being busy with his work so he did one song. But, all the others stepped up and wrote material, especially Markus Vanhala, but me and Jani also, so… I think a very good album even though our former main composer is kind of taking a break right now! But, I think it works really well right now. We actually have four guys who can write Insomnium songs, good material from everyone, so it’s a good situation.”
The title track “Heart Like a Grave” was released as the second single and music video off of the new album:
You’ve evolved massively over the years. This record feels significantly more atmospheric, alongside the melancholic melodies. I’m guessing Jani had something to do with that?
Sevänen: “He was involved in that, of course, but it’s hard to say why this time it turned out like this. Many songs that are not that fast, kind of epic, paced, long, progressive stuff, we produced two songs (which are) kind of ballads, ‘Heart Like A Grave’ and ‘Bells They Toll.’ Kind of slow songs. Several songs have this soundtrack vibe in them, so they could almost be from some movie. So, I think we’ve maybe moved to a more atmospheric direction, I’m sure there is no need to be the fastest, heaviest band in the world at all, we really just do this music that fits us! There are, of course, faster parts of songs, yes, but also a lot of… not softer, but ‘not so brutal’ material.”
There’s a good mix of everything in the album. Yeah, because you started this band just to have fun, right?
Sevänen: “Exactly! We were just teenagers and wanted to play heavy metal, and it’s been a long process to get here. We’re learning every year something new. Hopefully, it continues!”
From everyone’s perspective, hopefully! You’ve had over 20 years as a band now, and you’re known as pioneers of this genre, this melancholic melodic death metal. One of the most well-known bands in that genre. Did you ever expect all of this to happen, where you are now?
Sevänen: “Well, of course, when we started, we were just… like, 17 years, 16-year-old kids! We just wanted to play and we just wanted to have a band. Then we learned to write our own songs, then we dreamed about doing a real demo, the kind of modest dreams in the beginning. Of course, none of us could see anything like this happening. But, on the other hand, it’s been so slow and steady, our climb, with every album we’ve reached another level. Slowly, but surely! So, I think it’s been a good thing that we didn’t become international rockstars when we were 20 years old. I think there are a lot of examples of how people just get messed up. They go up, and then they come down really quickly. Everybody knows these bands. But we’ve slowly but surely climbed from here, and we have this steady fanbase now, we can tour all over the world.
I haven’t been in the day job for a couple of years now and really enjoy the situation. I don’t know if it will last when I’m 60, but I don’t care. I will do this for as long as is possible and I still enjoy it. I really just enjoy this right now, and I have the same passion for writing music. After I quit the day job, I feel really motivated just to write music all the time and enjoy the ride. Like, I remember when I tried to combine both things, I was just exhausted all the time and really tired, so of course I had to make the decision that it had to be the band or the day job, and I think I made the right decision!”
Have you heard Heart Like A Grave? No? Stream it here, now:
Definitely. It’s been a part of you your entire life, so being able to focus on it now, take your time like you said, and just don’t rush it. Let the creation come out.
Sevänen: “Yeah, exactly.”
Onto your career. What are some of your highlights so far?
Sevänen: “That’s a very very tough question. I think when our first demo was reviewed in Terrorizer. It was 1999, autumn, and it was ‘Demo Of The Month’ with full points, and we were like ‘Woah, what? Now we are becoming rock stars!’ Of course, that did not happen, but it was really great to get that kind of feedback at that early stage. Someone actually really liked this stuff. We had no idea if we were good or bad, or what other people might think. So, that was really motivating to get that kind of feedback.
But it still took two years before we got the first recording deal, but still, it was a great thing. Of course, getting that first deal from Candlelight Records, really important because at the time people had already moved to different cities to study. That was a really crucial point in a band’s career; will the band split up or keep going? So I think we got that deal in just the right moment so everybody stuck together and we could keep making music. So, we have been lucky at certain points, things happen at the right moment.
Also, when we switched to Century Media after four albums with Candlelight, some luck was involved. Eventually, Century Media said they were not interested, not enough commercial potential or something like this. But then, it happened that their head of A&R, Jens Prueter, came to see our show in Germany. He didn’t even come to see us, but some other band who was playing that night. But, then he wanted to sign us when he saw us live. So, that was a kind of changing point also in Insomnium’s history. We got to Century Media, a much bigger label, much more muscle to push us, and after that, we’ve been steadily going up and up and up. It’s been really good with Century Media. These are the kind of turning points in Insomnium’s career.”
That’s crazy, actually.
Sevänen: “Yeah. It’s been a happy marriage ever since. A nice place and a lot of people who love music, so it’s been really good to be at Century Media.”
From their 2014 album Shadows of the Dying Sun, check out the music video for “While We Sleep:”
You have a world tour starting in November with The Black Dahlia Murder supporting?
Sevänen: “Yeah! I think that’s a really interesting package. Stam1na, the first band, are big in Finland but they sing in Finnish so many people don’t know them outside. But in Finland, they’re bigger than us! They’re really nice guys, great band. Then The Black Dahlia Murder, of course, we’ve been following them for a long time. Both are great live bands, so it’s a killer package and really looking forward to it. I’m sure it’s going to be our biggest headline tour that we’ve done.
Before that, we have the four Finnish shows that are sold out already, like three weeks before the first date, so it’s looking really good! We haven’t had this kind of success in Finland ever, so I think people seem to be really excited for the new songs and album. Of course, the U.S. tour next year, and hopefully, in a couple of weeks, we can reveal the plans for the UK as well.”
Going back to your origins, how you came from a small town and now you’re here, is there any advice you could give to bands in a similar situation?
Sevänen: “Be true to yourself and believe in what you’re doing, but learn the craft. Be a good enough musician to be able to deliver, and of course, songwriting is something that you just have to learn and put a lot of time into it. Trial and error, and practice and practice, after years and years you will get better and better. Learn to be objective, or try to be your objective with your own riffs and parts, and do not love them too much, so if the bandmates tell you this part actually sucks, then you can take it and you will go home and be motivated to write even better ones!
I think, in the Elton John movie, there was this scene where he had written some material but the record company guy was not satisfied and sent him back, and that’s how it is! You have to write a lot of material and then these small diamonds start to appear from somewhere, but it’s hard work. If young guys will form a band, first just concentrate on having fun and doing what you love, learn to make songs, but also, of course depending on the situation, being a professional is a long and difficult road.
So, it might be a good idea to have a plan B in case you won’t become an international rock star. So, what we did, of course, each of us was studying and got a decent profession, because it didn’t look like we could make a living with this until something like five years ago! So the first ten years probably will be really difficult, there is no money, there has to be Plan B, C, and D on how to make a living. I could give a lot of advice, but these come to mind. There’s a lot of work, of course, but hopefully, there’s a reward at the end.”
Also off of the new album Heart Like a Grave, watch the lyric video for “Pale Morning Star:”
That was a tricky question, sorry!
Sevänen: “No worries! I could write a book on that.”
I’ll ask you a (hopefully) nicer question now. What are your favourite tracks off the album?
Sevänen: “That is tricky as well (laughs). It’s a strong package, and of course, you look at your own songs differently than what the other guys have been doing. From the songs that Marcus wrote, I think ‘Pale Morning Star’ is one of the best songs he has ever done; it’s really, really good. I loved it right away when I heard the first demo, so that has to be one of the best songs we have. Personally, from my songs, the last song, ‘Karelia,’ the instrumental, I really like it. It turned out to be really good. I would personally like to see this kind of Insomnium, ‘Pale Morning Star’ and ‘Karelia,’ even more. They both have a really long, kind of soundtrack vibe in them, very atmospheric stuff. So, for example, those are some of my favourite songs but it’s a tricky question. I think there’s ten really good songs there.”
Those two have been on repeat since release today, funnily enough. They really stand out.
Sevänen: “Thank you, thank you. I think a lot of people have said the same. I think those two are the ones that are the most picked out songs, but it’s good to see the opinions are spreading. Today, I’’ve seen the comments on Facebook and people like different songs, so I think that’s a good sign.”
Of course. Lastly, other than your world tour, what else have you got planned? Any ideas over the next year or so?
Sevänen: “Well, when I finish this I will go to watch IT Part 2 with my son, and I’m scared already! (laughs) But, other than that, well, I’ll just write new music. Let’s see what happens next. I’ve been really into synthwave and old synthesizer stuff, and have been playing around with those ideas, so let’s see if I can release some synthesizer music next! I don’t know what will happen, touring for a couple of years now, for sure, but I’m just really motivated, full of ideas and want to live this musician life now to the max.”