A couple of hours before taking the stage to wow a packed audience at London’s Islington Assembly Hall on January 19th, we spent fifteen minutes with Niilo Sevänen, vocalist of Finnish melodic death metallers Insomnium to talk about the tour, the band’s back story, fans, and the future.
On their current tour in support of 2019’s Heart Like a Grave (read our album review here), Sevänen opens with, “We’ve been touring in the UK quite a lot and London is always really good, but outside of London you never know. There can be very few people but both Birmingham and Norwich (the two dates so far) were very good, London is always the biggest show, and we’ve also just announced Glasgow has sold out, so it’s looking good.” You’d excuse a band coming off the back of a second consecutive Finnish number one (and that’s the general chart, not a rock or metal only sub-section), highest-ever chart positions in other countries and well-received shows to be living it up on an extensive overseas tour but instead, I’m reliably informed that most evenings “most people are trying to sleep.”
Sevänen on stage two hours after this conversation at Islington Assembly Hall, January 19th, 2020.
Insomnium began their journey to this position, where they are able to book a ten-date UK and Irish tour sandwiched between covering nigh on all of mainland Europe and the United States and Canada, from humble beginnings in Joensuu, Finland. “We were just kids starting a band and had really modest dreams, we just wanted to make a demo and have some gigs and that was it when we started. Then slowly we learned the craft and we were lucky and we got signed and things progressed and now we are here after over 20 years.” That’s the abridged version which spans the eight albums put out in the band’s existence, and the turning point to making a serious go at growing Insomnium came early on in their career too: “I think it was when our first demo was reviewed in Terrorizer in 1999, and it was demo of the month with maximum points. It was kind of a defining moment of, ‘Ok, we are actually doing something right,’ we are getting recognized like this so we can’t be totally mad. It was an important point in our career and it gave us a lot of self-confidence that we should keep on doing what we were doing.”
Despite early recognition in a well-respected UK magazine at the time, it took longer for the broader industry to notice the potential to be something special in Insomnium. “We still didn’t get signed with the first demo so we made another one (Underneath The Moonlit Waves, 2000, three of the four tracks off which would find their way onto debut album In The Halls Of Awaiting, 2002), and then it took still half a year before Candlelight (Records) expressed their interest. We were lucky at that point because we were in a phase where everybody moved to study in another city and in that moment many bands just split up because it’s life. Luckily, we got signed and we stuck together and concentrated on making music and the albums.” Very lucky indeed when one thinks what music and the melodic death metal genre could have missed out on had the band gone their separate ways before their first release.
Insomnium’s earliest existing official video online was “Down With The Sun” off of 2009’s Across The Dark.
It wasn’t a quick switch to a full-time band though, with Sevänen noting that, “it took about fifteen years before it looked like we could actually support ourselves by just making music and this could be just our profession,” with him now comfortable as a full-time musician. The last few years of Insomnium’s touring has shown this conflict which can come with playing music, even in a band at the forefront of their genre. Whilst promoting Winter’s Gate (2016), there were occasions where the clean vocals and guitar of founding member Ville Friman were filled for by Jani Liimatainen (previously of Sonata Arctica among other artists), driven by the career commitments of Friman as a successful doctor of evolutionary biology at the University of York, UK.
In July of last year, Liimatainen’s contributions to the band were formalized with him being added as a permanent member, the full lineup and three-guitar sound is likely to be rare outside of particularly major shows, but as the band themselves note it secures “a steady live lineup to keep delivering fierce live shows all around the world with (Friman) joining the band when time allows” . The ingratiation of Liimatainen into full band member has been immediate, with flawless chemistry across whatever lineup performs live when he is present, and particular writing credits for composition of “Mute Is My Sorrow,” “Neverlast,” and “Twilight Trails” off of Heart Like A Grave, the first alone, and the latter two alongside other guitarist Markus Vanhala.
Throughout their time as a band Insomnium have continued to expand their fan base as one would expect, but there has also been an extraordinary level of depth of response and devotion from many around the globe to their music. Sevänen adds his thoughts as to why this may be. “We have always done everything where it really comes from the heart and from the soul, there’s no faking anywhere. We do exactly the kind of thing we love, we’re not trying to follow trends, or please the radio stations, the label, or even our fans and I think people can sense that this is the real deal and that these guys are doing what they love.” It’s a feeling that comes through from the band’s music and their evolution across their career, and there are other facets to their music too. “There is some kind of deeper element in the music and these stories touch people also. We get a lot of feedback that people were going through a tough period in their lives and they got through it by listening to Insomnium and that’s always great to hear, that we can actually help people by making music.”
Insomnium’s latest studio album Heart Like a Grave was released on October 4th, 2019, via Century Media Records:
There’s one particularly touching memory of a fan which Sevänen recounts as one he will always remember. “There was this one young guy in the U.S.A. who came to our show with his girlfriend. His arm was injured and he had some fingers missing, he was a soldier in Iraq and had lost some fingers in a bomb explosion. He was telling me this story that he was hospitalized there in Iraq for many weeks and he was listening to Insomnium, and somehow he recovered there. He was still a really young guy, maybe 22 or 23, and already a veteran of the war. It was a really good story and he was clearly very emotional whilst telling it, you could tell it meant a lot to him.”
Looking forwards to what could be next for Insomnium, we get to the topic of Winter’s Gate and whether the band would consider writing another concept album similar to their one-track 40-minute-long story, which on the surface spoke of Vikings seeking their riches off the coast of Ireland, yet had greater underlying themes of human connection. “Yes, definitely. It was great to see that when these ‘album of the decade’ lists were published that Winter’s Gate was on many on them. It was a special thing, people remember that it had a strong concept and a unique concept, and maybe we will do something to continue the story. It doesn’t have to be a one-song album, or we could do something across a whole album based on the same ideas. Who knows what happens next but we are fond of concept albums and might try that again.” When asking if there is another award-winning short story he has penned similar to Talven Portti which spawned Winter’s Gate, Sevänen adds that unfortunately he’d have to write something new but adds “I’ve been thinking about it, it would make sense to continue this and have a short story there, but we shall see.”
Title track “Heart Like A Grave” showcases Insomnium, and Sevänen’s lyric writing ability, at their best.
One thing’s for certain though, there isn’t going to be an about-turn in the mood of Insomnium’s music; channelling the melancholy and bleak as emphasized most on Heart Like A Grave. “Personally, I can’t stand happy music! There might be a couple of pop songs that I like which are happy and I can listen to them, but in general, I want my music as melancholic as possible and that makes me feel good.” I enquire whether there have ever been any riffs rejected in the past for being too happy; “It might have happened a couple of times, maybe in the past, it might have happened that Ville wrote some melody and I would say ‘ok, it’s a bit too happy now, make it more sad please!’”
To close our conversation out we discuss what gives the greatest source of pride for Sevänen as he looks back over his 20-plus years with Insomnium. “It’s very very difficult to say. Not any single thing, but all of it that we have achieved. We started really from zero, we were just kids who didn’t know what to do, we were just learning to play and have fun, and everything that has happened we have done it ourselves so there’s a lot of things to be proud of. All of this.” Metal, and melodeath fans, in particular, will agree that this pride is well placed and be grateful for all that Sevänen and Insomnium have released over their career. Long may it continue.