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In Conversation with Insomnium: Vocalist Niilo Sevänen on a Seismic March for the Band [w/ Audio]



Just over two months ago I was making my way through the school-like corridors beneath Islington Assembly Hall to meet with Niilo Sevänen of Insomnium prior to their triumphant headlining show in support of last year’s excellent Heart Like A Grave. We discussed a broad range of topics, from the band’s inception up until that day itself, covering their far-reaching fan base and the potential future of the group. Sevänen and I spoke again via Skype yesterday, April 8th, to discuss what has been a period of seismic events for the musicians since that initial conversation.

Throughout the remainder of January and through February the good times kept rolling for Insomnium: “we were very pleasantly surprised how the whole UK and Ireland tour went. In general, there were more people than we expected, and right after it we thought we should return and do something like that pretty soon.” The last time the band played such a far-reaching tour across the UK was in support of Paradise Lost in 2012, so there had been a significant wait to see them outside of the major cities. From there followed a date in Dubai and a run of four in Finland; “most of the shows were sold out, with really good audiences everywhere. Things were looking very good for the band – until we went to the U.S.”

On March 11th, Insomnium and fellow melodeath compatriots Omnium Gatherum set off for the beginning of a 34-date run across the U.S. and Canada. “When we left in the morning, we were still positive that we could do the whole tour. This whole corona (virus) thing was not yet out of hand, but during the flight, it got a lot worse.” Upon landing, the bands were met by the American counterparts of their crew and started to hear how bad the situation could be both from them and the news. “Trump put the ban on Europeans entering so we were almost the last people to get into the country. Every hour, more bad news came with restrictions and cancellations.” Despite this, there was still permission to go ahead for the first show of the tour at The Fillmore, Philadelphia; “we played it, but there were only around half of the people who had bought a ticket in advance. People were already afraid and didn’t want to come to a crowded place. Just a couple of hours before that show we heard the following night’s in New York was cancelled as well because of the restriction on all events bigger than a few hundred people. That was the decisive moment that we realized no matter how much we’re going to try this will be impossible, and the sooner we get home the better.”

The decision to cancel was taken, or taken out of their hands, even before playing that one show in Philadelphia. “All the guys from the two bands sat together and had this emergency council. We voted, and it was clear, and we booked the flights right away to try to get home while it was still possible. It was a tough decision though of course at that point, many were uncertain, or were afraid to say anything as it was so tough but clearly it was the right one.” With the potential for much ill-feeling around the situation, upon getting back to Finland Sevänen shares that it was more a sense of relief of being home: “There were only a couple of flights left that were going from the USA to Finland and all of the flights were getting cancelled, so I was just very relieved that we got back home. I think Finland is one of the safest places in the world during this crisis, we have a good healthcare system, everything works here, people trust the government and trust each other, this is a good place to wait for this storm to pass.”

Looking to the future, the idea of raising funds to see the band through the near future of an incredible level of investment (in setting up their tour) with now its offsetting income taken away was one which came up almost immediately. “We already had the idea when we were in the airport in New York waiting for our flight home. One of our fans had already started a crowdfunding on GoFundMe, but we discussed it and decided that we would do it ourselves and that it might look better that it was organized directly by both of the bands. So we set it up quickly at the airport before the flight home, and already when we landed back in Finland there was over 10,000 dollars worth of donations.” However, despite the incredible generosity of the fans both initially and over the crowdfunding campaign’s whole length, there was a further hurdle for the bands to overcome.

Artwork for ‘Heart Like A Grave’ by Insomnium

“Crowdfunding laws in Finland are really strict, and it’s not always easy to interpret them. It’s illegal to just ask for money, but also it’s illegal to sell something if people can decide the price themselves. In many other countries this would have been totally ok, but not in Finland.” What came to pass was that all donations from fans based in Finland would need to be returned, but those from overseas could be retained and help both Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum get back on their feet after the significant setback. A further Insomnium Gatherum “cancelled” shirt campaign organized by the band’s online shop drummed up further fan engagement and support. “We are super grateful for all of our fans; they helped a lot and it meant we could get over the worst part of paying our pending bills in America. Now, we can start concentrating on more fun stuff – new music, and live stream shows.”

This Friday, April 10th, Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum should have been stepping out onto a stage in Austin, Texas. Instead, both have set up a live stream concert together with Insomnium’s setlist being voted for by the fans from a curated selection of songs the band put forward. On the songs which were chosen, Sevänen says they’re pretty much as expected, with almost all the songs being “video songs and the obvious hit songs” with “In The Groves Of Death” (off of 2006’s Above The Weeping World) an outlier which received a significant number of votes. Clocking in at over ten minutes in length, it’s one which “people have been asking for a long time whether we can play it live” and with it on display through the Heart Like A Grave tour it is a track which is hitting home fourteen years since its original release. Despite fans being given the opportunity to choose the entire set there was “some wailing and gnashing of teeth” over the range of songs for selection, however, Sevänen explains that the tracks were those played live recently and therefore those they could reel off at shorter notice than others. There’s further reassurance that “if everything goes well we’ll have more of these and can play other songs as well. I’m sure that’s the plan for everyone.”

Insomnium (w/ Conjurer) at Islington Assembly Hall (London, UK) on January 19, 2020

One track conspicuous for its absence is “Twilight Trails” off Heart Like A Grave, and is one which saw much of the online vitriol upon the realization of it being missing from the fan vote. The reason is strikingly honest: “We have talked about “Twilight Trails” but so far we have not played it live, and it’s probably the most challenging song to play live. We are lazy bastards so we haven’t actually rehearsed it properly, that’s the reason why we have not yet played it! Many people like it, it’s one of my favourites as well, and I’m sure we will eventually end up playing it but we just have to practice a little bit so we know what to play.” There’s also the potential for more specifically themed future shows as well over live stream, with Winter’s Gate (2016’s one track concept album) called out specifically as a potential future idea. With the currently enforced distancing in place, the prospect of an online show of this is a great cause for excitement for fans of the band globally.

Turning to how Sevänen is filling his days, he remarks of little change to regular routine. “Being by yourself and social distancing is kind of normal for me. I enjoy being home and doing music by myself, so I can handle this quarantine pretty well. I’ve had time to do a lot of new music already and that’s what I love to do, so I’m doing pretty well is what I would say.” On his Instagram page, there have been some teasers of a new musical direction for Sevänen, keyboard-led and what would mostly be described as synthwave; “you guessed right, I have also been doing that sort of material, but it’s too early to say anything else. It’s been fun to do it, I have always liked that kind of stuff, Jean-Michel Jarre was the first artist I loved when I was maybe five or six, so I’ve really loved the synth stuff since I was a kid. I’ve been playing around with those kinds of sounds as well, I have some songs ready, and it would be fun to publish them one way or another in the future but let’s see.”

There’s also the prospect of new Insomnium music too, perhaps sooner than one might expect with an album barely a half-year-old out with three songs demoed already. “I think we’re going to be productive during this period, we will not only just sit idle here, we will do new music.”

With new music potentially in the near future of the band, there’s also a U.S. tour with Eluveitie set up for later this year with Sevänen all too aware of the challenges which may face events even months out. “There’s so many things in the air at the moment that it feels kind of distant to think about that tour, and will it actually happen or not. We hope that it works and we still get Visas and stuff like that, and we don’t have to go through quarantine on entering the country. I hope that things return to normalcy, and I’m sure that some things will change because of this crisis, but I trust that sooner or later we can get back to touring again.” Sevänen also notes that there are also some initial plans in place to consider how to reschedule the Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum tour to the U.S. and Canada as well in the future, with “maybe next year at some point” a hopeful goal to aim for. “I’ve always enjoyed touring USA and Canada, there’s a different kind of vibe and atmosphere to in Europe. It’s more exotic to go there with it being so far away, it’s another world, but we have a lot of fans there and good shows, so of course, we will return there several times in the future.”

Insomnium at the Airport in New York

From our first discussion back in January, one of the key messages taken was the level of devotion Insomnium inspire from their fan base. With such a tangible way to support over the last month in the way of donations, special shirt purchases or attending the band’s first live-streamed show this coming Friday, fans of the band globally can feel pride in having helped them through what was mentioned as “a huge financial disaster” with doubts as to whether they could continue. Instead, the foundations are still in place for Insomnium to keep looking forwards and to grow, with the tantalizing prospect of new music sooner than expected as well.

Throughout our conversation, Sevänen is positive and defiant, despite some of the bleak topics covered, and closes with a rallying call for the future. “I’m pretty sure there will be more streamed Insomnium shows because we want to play live and we want to play to our fans, so we want to perform one way or another. We’re making new music too, so let’s see when we can share some news about both those things. The story of Insomnium will not end in the corona crisis, we will keep on doing our thing.”