Finland’s Moonsorrow unleashed their latest pagan metal masterpiece on the world earlier this year. In the week’s leading up to the release of Jumalten Aika” (which translates to “The Age Of Gods”), Hellbound’s Danielle Griscti had a chance to speak with bassist and lead vocalist Ville Sorvali. Here, belatedly, is their conversation.
Hellbound: You have a new album,coming out in April. Are you excited? This is your seventh release.
Ville Sorvali: Yeah, we are very excited.
HB: I’ve been a fan of all of the albums since Suden Uni, which was released 16 years ago. It doesn’t seem like that long.
VS: That’s a really long time, yeah. [laughs]
HB: One of the things that stands out a lot in your music is the varied instrumentation, like mandolin, jaw harp and saw. What can we expect to hear on the new album?
VS: We do have a lot of folk elements to it. Some of the instruments are real, some come from the synthesizers, and you can never actually tell because the software nowadays is so good [laughs]. We do have a lot of melodies played with violin and similar instruments that we had and still have in northern Europe. They have names that don’t translate to English, actually.
HB: Right, like the kantele?
VS: Kantele, yeah; I am not really sure if we are gonna use that, but we use the instrument called the jouhikko, stuff like that. Things that are really hard to play, actually. You need a trained folk musician to do that.
HB: So are there guest musicians appearing on the album to play those instruments?
VS: Hittavainen who used to play in Korpiklaani is playing some violins and some flutes on the album.
HB: Any other guest musicians?
VS: Guest vocalists: we have Jonne from Korpiklaani who is doing shamanic chanting, and Helena from Crimfall who is doing the old art-form of Scandinavian cattle-calling, these very high-pitched female voices that obviously couldn’t have been done by any of us. [laughs]
HB: Amazing, that’s the first time that’s going to appear. I don’t think I’ve heard that style of vocal used before.
VS: Definitely not, and I don’t think many rock bands use that either. There are some contemporary folk music bands who use that style, but it’s really new to us, at least.
HB: So how did that come about on this album? How did you find her?
VS: She’s an old friend and I guess at some point of the songwriting we just realized that this part is going to need this type of vocals, and because we couldn’t record that on the demo phase we just took a sample from the internet and placed it there as a placeholder. And it sounded good so we just asked Helena if she could do that. And she was like, yeah, give me a day to practise [laughs] and I will record it for you.
HB: That’s a really short time—that’s amazing.
VS: It was longer than that, but she said that in an emergency it would only take a day. [laughs]
HB: You have a lot of influences where you’re drawing from Finnish historical folklore, and that seems to be a really big thing with the band. Would you say that that’s also found its way into this album? Is there a main concept or theme that you’ve gone with?
VS: Definitely. We were always inspired by old myths, but on this album in particular we decided from the beginning that we want to have the whole album based on these myths; but instead of retelling them, because that’s slightly boring, we wanted to just draw inspiration from them and make our own observations and interpretations and write our own stories based on these myths. Kinda trying to dig a bit deeper into what people were actually thinking when they wrote these down back then, because times were considerably different from our times.
HB: So kind of doing like some historical psychology, almost?
VS: Kinda, yeah; no one actually described it like that, but yeah. Trying to figure out the mindset of the people and the real surroundings, instead of just reading these as good stories.
HB: So would you say then that another thing that seems to be a prominent theme is that you seem to always be in nature, or in the forest, or in these grand landscapes when you listen to your albums? Can you tell me a bit about the atmosphere—is it similar on this album?
VS: Nature is always a big influence regardless of the album, because it’s everywhere around us, especially here in Finland and especially during the winter when you actually don’t want to go out. [laughs]
HB: We know about that here too; it gets pretty cold.
VS: Where are you based actually?
HB: In Toronto, in Ontario.
VS: Okay, yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve been to even further north, actually. It got really cold in Sudbury.
HB: Right! Was that the same year you did a few dates in Ontario? There was Sudbury, London, and Toronto…
VS: They were two different tours, I think. We did Sudbury on the first tour and on the second one we did London. Toronto on both ones.
HB: What did you find the crowds like? Were people trying to sing along in Finnish?
VS: [laughs] Well, some always do, and of course it’s always very appreciated, that people actually go so far that they try to mimic the Finnish words even if they don’t understand them.
HB: Do you find that all over the world?
VS: Yes, there are always a few people who are just trying to sing along. [laughs] It’s also fun to watch, of course. But when you go to Sudbury, for example, you can never tell if there are people who actually understand because there is a big Finnish settlement.
HB: Right on. So planning to tour here again on this album? I saw a bunch of European dates for the spring.
VS: We would really hope to come there as soon as possible. We only have the European tour planned for now. No one knows what’s going to happen after the summer festivals, because these are the things that the wise people around the band decide upon. [laughs] We just play the music, and if you asked me I would play every day somewhere, but of course that’s not entirely possible. [laughs] But we really enjoyed our, every single time, in North America, especially Canada, and I am not even kidding.*
HB: When you’re doing live shows, and with all the different instrumentation, do you yourself—you play bass and you’re the main vocalist obviously—do you bring out other instruments yourself or do you stick with bass and vocals?
VS: Basically what we are trying to do when we arrange the setlist for the live shows, is that we are trying to arrange all the layers in the songs for five players. So we are actually kind of reducing it to a rock show. We try to bring out the most important elements without taking anything from the music, but we also want to do it just by the five of us, no backing tracks or anything.
HB: So you have a lot of backing tracks I guess, that were recorded for this album. Can you tell me a bit about the recording itself—like when you do all of those really cool vocals. [Ville laughs] I’ve heard about a cabin in the forest where you’ve recorded before. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
VS: Yeah, it was on the last album or before recording the previous album, that I just decided that I don’t want to do the vocals in a normal studio setting anymore. I don’t want to have my breaks somewhere in an industrial area; I would rather have them in the middle of nowhere, in the forest. And luckily we could arrange that because a friend of ours has a cabin in the woods that we actually call “In the Woods Studio”. [Danielle laughs] It’s not that far from here, so it’s easy to get to, but it’s really far from civilization when it comes to the spiritual side of it.
HB: Do you find that that helps you get into the mindset you need to if you’re going to be writing about what people were thinking in the past?
VS: Yeah, most definitely. It’s so much easier to just go into the minds of the characters when you don’t have to think about anything else.
HB: Yeah because there’s a lot of epic storytelling that goes on, I mean when I’m reading translations of lyrics, obviously… [Ville laughs] Would you say that this whole album is one big story or is it something that’s more composed of a number of different concepts?
VS: Well, the previous album was a complete story from the beginning to the end, and this time we actually wanted to avoid that. We do have a loose theme on the album, but we wanted to make five separate songs with separate stories in them.
HB: So is each song kind of mid-length compared to what we’ve heard in the past? The longest track has been 30 minutes I think on one album.
VS: That was also something we just didn’t want to do. After the Tulimursky EP, we decided that we’re not gonna try to do those half an hour songs anymore, because we already did it. So we always want to make something different, but there is one thing so programmed within us that we just can’t really help it, and that’s songs that are not exactly in the radio format. We tried our best to write a short song for this album, and we managed to get one that is only 7 minutes. [both laugh]
HB: So when you’re writing a song and you’re putting it together and it’s based on a story, what is the process like? How are you taking the inspiration and crafting it into the track?
VS: We have constant discussions with my cousin Henri, who is writing the music. We kinda update each other of the direction that we want to take, and it’s like, I tell him what’s the story gonna be about and he’s writing music that fits the story. And he tells me like, what kinda music he’s gonna do, and I try to make a story that fits the music. So it kinda works both ways, and we just make sure we are going to the same direction all the time. It’s like making a movie, but it just doesn’t have the picture.
HB: But there is a lot of cool imagery that’s come along with a lot of the albums too, right? The images that are tied in to the booklets, and all of the album covers tend to tie in to the stories of the music, right?
VS: We never just wanted to have cool album covers; we always kinda carefully selected the cover artist based on what we thought this cover artist could do for the music. We always want to have that as a part of the package. It’s not only the music, and it’s not only the music and the lyrics—the whole artwork is part of the package, the experience, I’ll say.
HB: I haven’t seen the album cover yet for the new album. Can you tell me who did the art for it?
VS: It’s a black-and-white drawing with the world tree, Yggdrasil, but it’s a twisted concept. The tree doesn’t look it’s very much alive anymore, so it really fits the whole theme of the album. That is, it’s based on the myths but it also has a dark side to it. This world tree is kinda serving as an umbrella for all these mythologies on the album.
HB: Who is the artist who you found for this?
VS: The artist was a friend of ours in Finland called Ritual, who’s done a lot of black metal stuff. He has a background in black metal, and we knew when we found the direction for the album, we knew that we are gonna use him because he’s gonna understand this album and he’s gonna draw a cover that fits it.
HB: So would you say the sound on this album is leaning a little bit more towards black metal? I mean, some of the stuff is often very up-tempo, very folk-inspired.
VS: There are the up-tempo parts, but there is definitely a lot of black metal influence on this album. We were all, like, brought up by Norwegian black metal in the ’90s, and that’s an influence that just cannot really be taken from us. It always appears in one form or another when we write music.
HB: That’s, I think, what draws a lot of people to your sound because it’s such a wonderful blend of the folk influences, but it still retains that intensity of black metal which I think a lot of the contemporaries don’t really do. They tend to veer a little too much onto the up-tempo/folky side. A bit too much fun, y’know?
VS: Yeah, and you actually mentioned a very good word for it, I was actually searching for it. What makes black metal so special, is in part, because of its intensity—like the emotional side of it.
HB: When you’re performing and you’re harbouring that intensity in yourself, do you have anything you do before you perform, any rituals that you do before a show?
VS: Basically we just, when the previous band is playing, for example, we just lock ourselves in the backstage and just sit on the chairs staring into emptiness doing nothing except drinking beer or wine. And when the time comes we put on the stage clothes and the makeup and then we sort of transform—I am not trying to mystify it, but something happens when we put on the blood. We are just, then we are in the right mode to go on stage, because it’s a different mindset. It doesn’t really fit with, y’know, playing mobile games at the backstage just two minutes before you have to start playing. [laughs]
HB: Do you feel almost like it’s, like you’re channeling something?
VS: Ah, probably something from within. It happens when you kinda just let go and transform to someone that is you, but it still isn’t you, if you know what I mean.
HB: Hmm… the theatrical, it’s like a bubble around you…
VS: Yeah, there is always the theatrical element.
HB: Do you feel that way when you’re writing songs as well? Do you feel a bit of that channelling happening?
VS: Whenever, for example, the lyrics click together there is always that moment when I get disconnected from everything else. But for most part writing the music or the lyrics, it’s not alchemy or anything; we just work hard [laughs] and eventually achieve the result we wanted to achieve.
HB: Is the whole band involved in the process of writing the lyrics and music?
VS: Lyrics are actually only done by me; I send them to the rest of the band for approval. The music is a bit more collective. My cousin Henri is still writing most of it, and he’s doing the demos in his home studio, but especially for this album he constantly called us and asked if we could come to the studio to give our opinions and lead him to a direction. So in the end it was really collective.
HB: More of a collaborative thing… This is somewhere in Finland, I’m presuming.
VS: It’s at his home, obviously not revealing the address. [laughs]
HB: Is all of the mixing and mastering all done in Finland, or do you work with people who are overseas for that stuff?
VS: I think we found the perfect recipe for the recordings on the previous album, so on this one we used the exact same studios, and yes they are all in Finland.
HB: That’s great, keeping it all in one place.
VS: Yeah, and we are still doing the mixing in the same studio where we recorded our first album. It’s sort of a tradition. It’s very far up north, so we don’t really want to go for the recording, but we still want to go there for the mixing because it’s a good studio and there is some tradition to it.
HB: I’ve heard a number of times, field recordings, crunching through the snow, the sounds of walking through the woods—is that also where those recordings were done?
VS: Those recordings were done pretty close to where we live, because there are, even if it’s the capital of the country there is a lot of green areas around, which are actually white during the winter; so you don’t have to actually go to that much of trouble to find a peaceful place where you can walk in the snow and record it. [laughs]
HB: Are there any field recordings like that on the new album?
VS: There are a lot of soundscapes that Henri did by himself, and to be honest, I don’t actually even know when or where he recorded those. He does a lot of that stuff; he also does it for work, so he can basically make sound effects out of nothing.
HB: So it could be synth, it could be anything. It’s a mystery.
VS: It could be anything [laughs]
HB: I guess that’s how something like a saw makes its way into the instrumentation, right.
VS: Yeah, we just want to find the elements that sound good and fit the music.
HB: I’ve noticed that there is different stuff introduced in each album. It’s never just the same combination over and over again.
VS: Yeah, because we always want to find—while keeping kinda respectful towards our roots—we always want to find something new fresh and exciting that keeps the Moonsorrow concept moving forward all the time.
HB: Of course! I can tell you there’s a lot of people who are very excited always [Ville laughs] to hear there’s new Moonsorrow coming out, and I’m definitely one of them… so I’m gonna hopefully get to hear the new album soon.
VS: I hope so too!
HB: And hopefully we’ll see you here in Canada on a date sometime in the summer when all the festivals are done. Thank you for talking to me.
VS: Thank you for this opportunity, and I have to say that definitely sooner or later, we will return to Canada, because we just love it there. The country has always treated us extremely well. [laughs]
HB: We’ll continue to do that—we’ll get the beer ready.
VS: All right, thanks! [laughs]
Moonsorrow’s next live appearance is scheduled for the 2017 70000 Tons of Metal cruise, with a Finnish tour to follow in March.