January 6, 2015 Interview – Niilo Sevänen of Insomnium
For some, Melodic Death Metal will always be a strictly Swedish phenomenon, one that has been absorbed, re-imagined, and distilled into various other forms as the years pass and the trends come and go. Not far from the land of its birth, the Melodic Death Metal genre has been the recipient of a major kick in the ass going on eighteen years now. The name of this unceasingly creative and quality institution is Insomnium, who hail from Joensuu, Finland, and feature the lead vocal talents of one Niilo Sevänen. He of the gruff voice, the poetic lyrics, and the rumbling bass guitar has, together with his bandmates, contributed to six albums of increasingly emotive and beautifully constructed music rife with feeling, dynamics, and somber catchiness. Peerless in their craft, Insomnium’s 2014 album Shadows of The Dying Sun has helped vault them to the top of the Melodic Death Metal heap. Recently CrypticRock reached out to the land of a thousand lakes to speak with Sevänen about Heavy Metal, birds, Horror movies, and the enduring strength of the worldwide Metal scene.
CrypticRock.com – Insomnium has been around for seventeen years, in that time becoming one of the world’s top Melodic Death Metal bands. Can you tell us a little bit about what that journey has been like.
Niilo Sevänen – Where to start? Of course, seventeen years ago we were school kids, only sixteen or seventeen years old. We really did not know how to make songs. It has been a long process, and we continue to learn all the time. In the beginning we did not dream that something like this would happen in the future. Why do bands really start? Because kids want to play music and have a good time. Insomnium made progress slowly. First we learned how to make our songs; did our first demo. We got good reviews. That was the first time we realized we can be pretty good at this. Then we got a record deal with the UK imprint of Candlelight Records, and our first album In The Halls of Awaiting was released in 2002. I would say slowly but surely, we have done a lot of work, did a lot of touring, and I think now we are starting to reach the level where we could think, hey we can do this full-time, and maybe leave our day jobs. It has been a long road, but we have enjoyed most of it, not all of it, but we are still together because we enjoy doing it and we enjoy being together.
CrypticRock.com – Over the course of six studio albums, Insomnium has maintained its identity, never once changing or compromising their style even as trends came and went. In your opinion, what changes has the metal scene endured over the years?
Niilo Sevänen – The biggest change in the whole scene is the problem with record and CD sales, which have dropped dramatically. Although Metal is still doing pretty well compared to the other genres, because the fans are devoted to the bands and they want to support them. So illegal downloading is affecting other genres more than Metal, or so I have heard, and that is why I think Metal has a bright future. Metal will survive and flourish because there is so much integrity, originality, and attitude in the whole community. You cannot find that in mainstream Pop music, no way, and that is the main reason why Metal will survive and thrive. The fans and bands support one another, and even though trends come and go, the Metal scene will remain strong.
CrypticRock.com – There is certainly something to be said about the passion and dedication of heavy metal fans. Insomnium incorporates clean vocals fairly liberally into the mix, resulting in emotional, uplifting dimensions to the music. Is the inclusion of such measures a conscious decision or does it occur naturally?
Niilo Sevänen – I think it definitely happened naturally, as does everything in our music. We do not have any grand plan like, okay lets make this or that kind of album. Every time we sit down to write, the music comes from the heart and is honest. It is the kind of stuff that is good and that we love. Across the Dark (2009), our fourth album, was the first time we tried them. We learned since then how to incorporate clean vocals better with each album. With this last album, Shadows of the Dying Sun, we really felt we learned to arrange and compose the clean parts better. There has not been any idea that now we turn into Soilwork and have only clean choruses, it is just one extra element to our music. If there is a part where we can add clean vocals to our music then we can do it. I think, maybe half of our songs have clean vocals on the new album. Its just an extra element we can use in the right spots.
CrypticRock.com – You can tell when you listen to the music that clean vocals are something that is natural and not forced into the music, so good job with that. The video for “Revelation,” with all the landscapes and birds and wildlife, is obviously very influenced by Nature. Is Nature an inspiration for the band as a whole, or was it just for that video? What was the decision in incorporating the Nature elements?
Niilo Sevänen – Nature as a whole has been a source of constant inspiration for us always. If you look at our album covers, you can see that we have always had elements such as trees, birds, and the moon or stars. So we have had this nature imagery and in our lyrics, if there is some kind of mental landscape it happens somewhere in Finland by the woods or by the lakes. Nature is affecting us clearly and it is a part of of our imagery and themes in the band. The video for “Revelation” was done by our webmaster, Vesa Tolonen. All the credit goes to him. We did not know what was coming. He did this video by himself. It was supposed to be a lyric video, and when you see most of those on YouTube they are boring. He did this amazing footage with the birds and the landscape. It was a really pleasant surprise and everyone in the band was really pleased with it.
CrypticRock.com – Are those scenes and creatures strictly shot in your native Finland?
Niilo Sevänen – I am not sure if they are all from Finland. I think he used scenes from different places in Europe. It fit the mood of the song very well.
CrypticRock.com – The atmosphere is essential with Insomnium, and the band has certainly been incredible at creating such a feeling within the scope of their music. When you guys sit down to compose, is there any routine the band participates in to prepare for the process, or a special mood essential to your creative process?
Niilo Sevänen – We all have our own methods of composing as there are three guys in the band who are making the music. I think all of us like to work by sitting next to the computer and playing the guitar. It is of course a handy way to do it, because when you invent a melody you can record it right away. Were you to play guitar on the beach, for instance, in summer, you would forget all those nice melodies you invented on the way back home. If you are sitting by the computer you can record whatever you come up with. Special mood? I do not know, it just takes a lot of time. If you try to force it, probably nothing good comes out of it. If you take the guitar and play all day, one day you might have a song just pop out. It is something you cannot explain. The more time you put into it, the more songs you will come up with.
CrypticRock.com – That makes sense. The creative process is always extremely fascinating. With that said, what are some of your musical influences?
Niilo Sevänen – When we started the band we had the obvious influences like Finnish and Swedish Death Metal bands of the ’90s like In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, Sentenced, At the Gates, and Amorphis. Before that, when we got into Metal, of course we were into the classic stuff like Metallica, Sepultura, Iron Maiden, Paradise Lost, and Type O Negative. Nowadays I listen to all types of stuff. Of course, the majority is Rock music and Metal, but I try to be open-minded and listen to a variety of stuff because you can find inspiration in a lot of genres. You can get influences from places you would not expect. It pays as a musician to listen to a wide variety of music. Our guitarist, Markus Vanhala, listens to everything from Van Halen, to Toto, to Journey.
CrypticRock.com – Variety is important in life. CrypticRock is devoted to horror culture and movies as well as music. It is understood that J.R.R. Tolkein and George Martin are some of your favorite authors. Do you enjoy horror movies as well, and if so, what are some of your favorites?
Niilo Sevänen – I like Stephen King stuff, like The Shining (1980) and some Dracula movies, particularly Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and some of the really old stuff, like the German expressionism style from the ’20s.