A couple of hours ahead of Insomnium’s gig at Islington Assembly Hall on 19th January, TPA’s Graham Thomas caught up briefly with drummer and founder member of the band Markus Hirvonen in the bowels of the venue to chat about the band, their current tour, their evolving style and the Finnish psyche! He has the regulation shaved head and impressive beard! We start with Markus commenting on my choice of t-shirt, which is Rush…
Markus: Great shirt!
Yes, worn out of respect of course. [for the recent death of drummer Neil Peart]
Yeah, sad news.
Was Neil Peart an influence?
Yeah I think so, when I started out I was playing along with Dream Theater songs and then I got into Neil Peart. I have about 30 Rush CDs, I really like Neil’s playing, it was really unique and groundbreaking in a way. Many progressive drummers are just an imitation of Neil Peart really.
Who made you want to start a band in the first place, you are a founder member of the band?
Actually, I’m a drummer now, but I started out as a guitarist, and I was the original guitarist with Insomnium before we recorded anything, but when we started it was, and still is, just about having fun playing together and learning new songs and enjoying the whole band live, and not being a footballer. But being in a band, it’s a different thing, and things progressed.
So in the early years you were just playing in Finland I guess, and your first European headline tour was 2011?
Yeah I guess it could have been, headlining tour. Our first tour was 2006 with Satyricon and Cyclone and Enslaved, six weeks solid touring.
So are you able to do Insomnium full time, or do you have day jobs?
I personally have a day job in Finland, but Niilo and the other Markus and Jani are full time in music, they all have different side projects and so on. Markus [Vanhala] has Omnium Gatherum which is a full-time band on the same level as Insomnium, and Niilo [Sevänen] has another smaller project right now that he’s working on, and Jani [Liimatainen] has Cain’s Offering and also Dark Element. I am the only member of the band basically who doesn’t have another band, that’s the reason I’m still doing my normal work. It means I spend all my holiday doing this, but it’s a good counterweight.
I see you’re doing quite an extensive tour of the UK this time, is that viable for you, or might you end up losing money?
I think, you know we are not playing stadiums but I think we are approaching break-even, it’s never good to lose money. It’s been very good so far, we were in Norwich last night and had 380 people, and the day before in Birmingham, again nearly 400, so it’s been going well, surprisingly well in fact.
That’s good, because the Waterfront is quite small.
Yeah but wide!
So, ‘melodic death metal’, when I was researching the band, every post I found described you as melodic death metal. How useful do you think those genre labels are?
Well, in a broad sense we are melodic death metal, but there are progressive elements here and there, and someone could categorise us as progressive, and our melodies are melancholy, we play minor chords and some would say we are melancholy.
So picking up on the progressive element, can I move on to your previous album, 2016’s Winter’s Gate? A concept album consisting of one piece of music 40-minutes long: that’s about as prog as you can get, isn’t it?
Yeah it was a challenge at the beginning, it started out at about 31-minutes, and we added more parts, and it hangs together, but it’s like…commercial suicide!
I wasn’t going to use that phrase, I’d have said brave!
It really paid off though because people really liked it.
How easy was it to play, because on the last tour you played it in it’s entirety?
It’s really demanding, you have to focus for the whole 40-minutes. There’s like one break down when you can have a sip of water and wipe your face with a towel. That’s about it, you have to stay alert. It’s taxing. We haven’t played it since that tour.
You mentioned the melancholia in your melodic style, does the Finnish landscape inform that style? I’m thinking of a comparison with your national treasure, Sibelius. A million miles away musically, but perhaps influenced by that same bleak beauty?
It’s a sparsely populated country, and people are used to living in very small communities in remote areas, and especially after the war with the Russians in the ’40s, traditional music was like ultra depressing, and that’s the norm music-wise in Finland. There are rays of hope though in the melancholy. But people are used to the solitude and being alone and depressed but somehow getting through it. It’s something we Finnish have in the back of our heads.
On the latest album, it strikes me as being more accessible, is that a conscious move? You obviously want to broaden your fan base.
Not really conscious no. But with Jani joining [on guitar and clean vocals] as a full-time member of the band, that opens new doors arranging-wise and also composing. And the other Markus [guitar] had a stronger role writing, so that’s maybe one reason why the new album [Heart Like a Grave] is more accessible. They are maybe lighter songs?
Will you continue in that direction?
Oh I don’t know, maybe it will be heavier or maybe lighter, we’ll have to wait and see! I’m sure it will be something like Insomnium anyway!
Thank you Markus, have a great gig.
You can read Graham’s review of Insomium at Islington HERE.