July 9, 2020 Interview – Erkki Virta of Sinisthra
Some things just take time to materialize, and in a world of multi-album deals and consumer expectation, its easy to forget that the true pulse of creativity is often difficult to pin down. For Sinisthra, who went fifteen years between releases, the wait was not due to a creative lapse at all.
Their long overdue return, 2020’s The Broad and Beaten Way, is a testament to perseverance in seeing something through that was burning inside all along. When the band first began, their vocalist was one Tomi Joutsen, a name many fans will recognize as the voice of Amorphis since 2005. Prior to taking the gig for which he is best known, Joutsen was a part of Sinisthra. He returns now, turning in a performance of halcyon and majestic proportions, and yet after just one listen it is obvious that this is no capitalization on a well-known voice.
Overall, Sinisthra have crafted a record with prog flourishes and a Heavy Metal heart, a deep and touching work that is as powerful as it is beautiful. Excited about it all, Drummer and Lyricist Erkki Virta recently sat down with an open and forthright demeanor to shed a ton of light on the resurrected Finnish group.
Cryptic Rock – Wrestling with satisfaction in a finished work seems to be the eternal struggle among artists. Fifteen years is an unusually long time to go between releases. With all that has taken place in the meantime, not least of which is your vocalist going on to front Amorphis, how did it feel to get back into the swing of creating music together? How did that come about, and how did you know that it was the right time?
Erkki Virta – Well, we wrote the songs on the album over ten years ago, so we didn’t actually get back to creating music together. If things had gone the way we originally planned, this album would have been released around 2010, and by now we would be on our third or maybe even fourth album, or possibly longer since broken up. Things went as they went, after having recorded the drum tracks on 2008 we couldn’t find a record label to back us up, so we got a bit dispirited and began to doubt the quality of the songs we had. Amorphis, at the same time, was (and continues to be) hugely successful and took most of Tomi’s time, and life just generally happened, children were born, day jobs were taking their toll, the usual stuff that people go through in their thirties.
We never abandoned the album project but it ended up standing still for a very long time, and in the meantime we wrote some new music and played also some shows now and then. We also had lengthy periods of inactivity but no one bothered to make the move and declare the band dead, and finally, and surprisingly, we got all the tracks together a few years ago and sent it off to be mixed. After that we started looking around, to see if anyone was interested in releasing it. When it became apparent that the album would actually see the light of day, we met up and started rehearsing for upcoming shows, at the start of 2020. The shows didn’t happen due to corona but we found out that we still could play together and occasionally even enjoy it, so it seems there might be some kind of a future for Sinisthra too.
Having said all that, I’m happy that the album didn’t come out on 2010, as this 2020 version is much better and more coherent than it would have been 10 years ago. We were rather directionless at some point but at the moment everything seems a bit more focused. Focused on what I can’t say, but focused all the same. I’ve always felt we have one more album left in us and lately that feeling has grown stronger.
Cryptic Rock – One of the most noticeable things about the vocals in Sinisthra is that the music allows Tomi Joutsen’s voice to stand alone quite a bit more than in Amorphis. Particularly on the stunning “Closely Guarded Distance,” the vocals stand alone at times without musical accompaniment to bolster them. Was this something you felt confident in doing with him now, and did you guys build that gorgeous song with this in mind?
Erkki Virta – In Amorphis, he (Joutsen) stepped into an already established band with a glorious history to take into consideration and to respect. There probably is some kind of a musical framework to operate within in Amorphis, although loose, whereas in Sinisthra it’s different. We can go Jazz if we want to. Nobody expects anything of Sinisthra, musically, and being a small time band, there is no need to succeed or to make a living of it. Our songwriting isn’t based on the vocals but in the end the vocals dictate the final shape of songs. The keys and moods might go through many changes along the way, depending on how the vocal melodies develop, and when the music and melodies are in place, the lyrics are written to fit the melodies.
“Closely Guarded Distance” wasn’t deliberately written to be a long song with various sections, it just kind of accumulated from several different songs we weren’t particularly happy with. The part where there’s only piano and vocals was originally a chorus in an uptempo not-very-good Rock song we discarded. We just gradually stripped it down until it felt right. “Morningfrail” was originally a lot faster, with double bass drumming and even a bit of growling, so it has mutated considerably as well. We might release some demos of these songs at some point, to shed some light on how far a song can sometimes end up from the starting point.
Cryptic Rock – That is amazing, because that piano and vocal section of “Closely Guarded Distance” has to be one of the most beautiful such sections to spoil our ears in some time. The Broad & Beaten Way is a very natural album. Nothing about it suggests that you have been away from each other creatively for so long. Can you talk a bit about the formation and writing of the music?
Erkki Virta – There is no grand scheme to our songwriting. The ideas are presented, often rejected for no obvious reason, then perhaps represented in a slightly different form and suddenly accepted with open arms. The actual putting together of a song is quite a painful and arduous process, and when ready, it needs to be recorded in some way to prevent the situation where everyone has forgotten what changes we agreed upon, and then it’s back to the drawing board with the song. Even though the formation might be chaotic, at some point a degree of cohesion creeps in and sometimes the finished product can give the impression of being carefully thought out and well-wrought.
Cryptic Rock – It is always fascinating to learn how bands arrive at their creative conclusions. After this miserable crisis is over, do you plan on touring at all and if so, where would you like to play shows?
Erkki Virta – Playing selected shows just about anywhere would be lovely, but no touring for Sinisthra. The set list might be a bit of a problem though, as we have two albums’ worth of material but found it very difficult to pick five or six songs good enough to play live when we compiled the set list for the album release shows. Luckily the shows were cancelled.
Cryptic Rock – We speak for all music fans when we say that we cannot wait until set lists are the biggest problems with having concerts! Can you talk a bit about the lyrical themes going on inside The Broad and Beaten Way?
Erkki Virta – Basically it’s about a romantic relationship that’s falling to pieces, with one of the two thinking ‘at last,’ and the other thinking, ‘not yet.’ The Adam and Eve-aspect is a way of covering up and broadening the subject a bit. I leafed through various writings dealing with the exile from Eden- myth and was quite fascinated by it at some point. It’s also about growth and finding one’s true self, or something resembling it. Of letting go and going forward, of stepping towards independence and gingerly eyeing the shadow within.
In the first song the pair is cast out of Eden after having discovered each other carnally. They set on a journey to find new surroundings but their ideas on how things should turn out differ greatly, so the breakup is inevitable. It then turns into an on/off affair for a while, until in the last song they both have accepted the fact that it’s over, and attempt to move on.
Cryptic Rock – That is an interesting take on such myths, and makes listening to the album that much more engrossing. Last question for you. If you are a fan of Horror and or Sci-Fi films, what are some of your favorites and why?
Erkki Virta – I’m more of a literary person, meaning that I prefer books to movies, but one thing that springs to mind and made an impression on me a while ago was Altered Carbon on Netflix. I had read the book and enjoyed it, but the series was very good too. Also the American Gods series, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman book started out very promisingly, but fell a bit flat as it went on.