Interview By Kimmo Tattari & Ville Krannila / June 2007
Turisas, Finland’s newest hope in the metal scene, have grown exceptionally in profile during the last years. Their debut album “Battle Metal” got positive reviews all over Europe and after a three year wait, the follow-up is finally here. Steel Mill’s Ville and Kimmo talked recently to vocalist Mathias Warlord Nygård about the new album “The Varangian Way”, playing in Donington, unplugged records, past and future of Turisas and, of course, about Vikings.
The new record’s coming out as we speak, right?
Yeah. June 6th in Finland, 18th of June in other parts of Europe except England where I think it comes out a bit earlier. Basically every country has a different date for releasing it, it depends on the day of the week they calculate the charts.
The album’s coming through Century Media, how’s it been working with the label?
It’s been good. With the first album (“Battle Metal”) naturally we were a new band, so it was more like “let’s put this out and see what happens.” But I thought it was still handled really well and the record’s grown in statue over the last three years.
UK publication Metal Hammer gave the band a lot of exposure with their Battle Metal feature and similarly named CD. What do you think of the “Battle Metal” label that’s been stamped upon you since then?
Well, it was never intentional. Although the first album was called “Battle Metal” we never thought “okay, let’s start a trend here” or anything like that. Instantly you think about bands like Rhapsody and the label “Epic Hollywood Metal” or whatever, and it’s ridiculous because it doesn’t mean anything. But, nevertheless, the thing’s been growing since Metal Hammer’s been describing lots of other bands as battle metal, so I guess it was a start of something. Still, we never think about any genres when we write songs. And we always try to experiment with different things, get inspiration from lots of sources instead of just sticking to one specific sound.
About the new record “The Varangian Way,” what would you say is the biggest difference between this one and “Battle Metal?”
“The Varangian Way” is better! I don’t want to trash the first album but this one’s more mature work all the way. It’s an improvement on all areas and definitely more coherent. “Battle Metal” was more of a compilation of all ideas we had up to that point, we’d, after all, existed as a demo band for 6 years already by then. With the new album we started from a clean table, so it was written and recorded with especially this project in mind.
Was there any pressure from the record company to get the record done, as there was three years between the albums?
They did ask about our progress a few times, but I think they also know how we work by now. Just as we know how they do things. So it’s a question of adapting to the current situation. For example, take these songs record companies always want bands to record as bonuses for Japanese releases or B-sides for a single. There are bands who I’m sure could put together a full album of bonus tracks, but with us that kind of thing would have been very difficult to do.
One thing I feel is very important is the length of the album (43 minutes). A lot of concept albums are stretched up to 75 minutes, maybe just for the sake of it. “The Varangian Way” is an album you can listen to from the start to the end and stay focused…
Yes, that was another obvious issue. You know, a term such as “concept album” comes with plenty of negative vibes: you think about a 25-track monster with some Hollywood actor doing the narration, instrumentals, intros and outros etc. It kind of falls into pieces, and unless you are a real hard core fan of something it just doesn’t work. So it was clear for us that we needed to make a tight album, it was more challenging in a way because the songs have to carry the story through, and the rest of it is left open like it should.
Do you plan to play the whole album live or just some selected tracks?
During this summer we are only doing some festival gigs and most of those are 45-minute sets or even shorter. So we’re not going to play all of it obviously, we’ll play a few songs from it.
This record also impressed me with it’s diversity regarding the instrumentation, arrangements as well as your voice. Do you think the band has found its style here?
Well, I hope in some way we would never find our style. I hope we’ll always go forward and experiment with new things. Of course there will always be those who say that the music we made in the past was better and so forth. There are artists like AC/DC who can do the same thing for over 30 years, but in my opinion, it’s much more interesting to evolve and change. You may not always like it but you can appreciate the difference.
We do get these questions: “You come from Finland, how can you sing about Vikings?” And, honestly, I never thought about it as a geographical issue, the land of the Vikings or whatever. This is simply about a journey from one unnamed Nordic country on the Eastern road down along the rivers of Russia to Kiev and, eventually, across the Black Sea to Konstantinopolis. So, basically, the album’s like a map and the songs are 8 pinpoints in the map, a chronological journey with events taking place during the way. There’s no narration or over-explaining in between, it kind of depends on the listener’s own imagination how he or she interprets the story.“The Varangian Way” is built around the Viking-theme. Can you describe the lyrical idea behind the album?
Did you do a lot of research for the album, study the Vikings and so on?
Well, I’ve always been interested in history, so the topic was close to me. I basically dug up the history books from the basement of the university library and did quite a lot of reading on the subject. I even took a trip to Istanbul and visited some places there. I’m still planning to go to Kiev some day.
It seems the story came before the music this time?
Yes. I also think that’s a rewarding way to write because when you have finished the story line and the lyrics of the song, you have to think about what they really mean and try to build the music around that. You need to know what you want to say beforehand instead of just fiddling around trying to find a good riff and then putting it together and throwing the lyrics over that. So the different moods and sounds on the album are ways of carrying the musical drama. I’d find it very difficult to write from any other point of view. You have to know what you are doing and what you want to achieve. It’s like painting a picture, you can take a brush and see what happens, or you can really take your time to think about the colours and scopes before you begin.
Did you compose the album all by yourself?
Most of it yes. A couple of guys from the band did bring in some things and we collaborated there. Maybe 90 % of the music was written by me.
How do you feel about working like that, is it good to have someone taking the responsibility, or would you prefer more collaboration?
Well, there are different ways of doing it. There are bands who kind of jam together, and songs get created through that. But with us I think it is important to have an art director in charge of everything. We do listen to everyone’s opinions, but with six guys in the band if you had a voting on every view and idea it simply wouldn’t work. Even though we discuss things, you need to have someone making the final decision. As long as you have the trust of other band members, it works fine. None of us have the need to emphasize our individual selves or instruments, it is all about the big picture.
Yet you are still open to everyone’s ideas?
Yes, a lot of times a great idea comes when someone’s playing something completely wrong, you can find a different angle you never thought about.
Can you describe your song writing process?
It kind of starts from small ideas, you have to have strong faith in what you’re doing in the first place. I write using piano and during the composing you have to keep in mind the main melody, harmonies, chords and rhythm, how they are going to sound in the final result. And it’s good in a way, if I feel it’s working at that point, it’s going to sound good in the end as well.
So will there ever be a Turisas unplugged album?
Not a piano album, no. A well-done unplugged record can be a good thing though, if you can do it differently. Not just playing the same songs without distortion. It takes a lot of arranging to do it properly. It’s not something that we’ve been planning to do, although there have been requests. And it would be nice to do something in a really small scale in a club for example some day. It’s literally the other end of this, instead of doing a full show with outfits and everything. It would be a natural and earthy approach certainly. But something like that would require a huge amount of time and hard work. It’s like writing new songs really.
How difficult was it to arrange and produce the album? There are several instruments and choirs used, on many songs it seems like there are 50 tracks on top of each other…
It was more like 100 tracks! But it’s true, there was a great deal of programming involved, sampled orchestras and so on. Of course you’d rather have real musicians there who’d play the notes exactly the way you have envisioned them, rather than fight with different samplers and digital programs to make it sound real. So it definitely took a lot of time. It’s like a huge puzzle, the pieces are scattered around for a long time and when you finally put them together, it’s a great feeling.
Today it is also possible to explore things that were not possible 10 or 20 years ago…
Yeah, but it’s still not perfect. You always curse the computers or digital equipment at some point. We mixed and mastered the album at Finnvox Studios, which was basically the only place where we could do it, and ran into the same problems there. Before that we had to do it as different projects, because the amount of tracks in other studios simply wasn’t enough. So the work done within several months only came together during the last week of production.
“Battle Metal” was recorded in France. How would you compare that experience with the recording of “The Varangian Way” which was done in Finland?
We did the first one there with analog equipment, so in that sense it was very different. But in terms of working, it was the same. You got up in the morning, switched on the computer, started recording and worked as long as you could keep your eyes open. It didn’t matter where you physically were. The second album we decided to do in Finland, because it was kind of useless to pay for logistics, and it was also easier to organize everything. With “Battle Metal” the record company suggested the French studio and we thought “hey, south of France, why not?” And it was good, but there were some things I wanted to do differently this time.
How much did your producer Janne Saksa at Sound Supreme Studio influence the new album?
A lot. I acted as the main producer and he was the co-producer. His role was important especially when we recorded my vocals, because I wasn’t able to stand in the other room and check things, so it was good to have someone there to oversee everything or say when I screwed up. He’s great in creating heavy sounds. In fact, while mixing the album at Finnvox Studios, our mixer Teropekka Virtanen was really excited and asked several times how he got this and that sound on the album.
Speaking of your vocals, the singing on the new album seems to be more versatile than on “Battle Metal”?
Personally I feel I have evolved as a vocalist, and this time I had a clearer picture about what to do as well. There’s less growling and more clean vocals, but it wasn’t a conscious attempt to sound mainstream or anything like that. It just came through naturally, depending on what fit the song. We have two different choirs involved as well, towards the end there’s a classical choir and at the beginning more like a slightly drunken male choir…
The last song (“Miklagard Overture”) is vocally especially impressive, did it take a lot work to arrange the choirs into the music?
I had some help with it. I arranged all the orchestras myself from start to finish, but with the choirs I needed assistance – as I don’t really know all the technical aspects that well. So there was a constructor who kind of arranged the choirs on top of my basic ideas. We did one recording with the whole choir in Tampere, but due to our tight schedules, the results weren’t that great. We had to do lots of repairing later. The whole thing was actually compiled from three different sessions, and from three choirs. There was one big choir to give the song real ambience, then we did another session in the studio with me, Janne and a couple of female singers. It sounded sharp and impressive but still lacked the “final edge”, so we brought in two professional opera singers to give it some extra power. And the final result was put together from all of the above. It was bit of a puzzle again and I learned a lot from it.
Well, there won’t be a choir physically on stage with us, that’s given. However, everyone in the band sings, so that’s kind of a Viking choir right there. Of course the female voices are more difficult, none of us can do that, so it’s all about re-arranging and using backing tapes. It’s no secret, almost everyone uses effects during live shows, it’s nothing new. We don’t have a keyboardist at the moment, we’ll see how things go, we have an accordion player on stage and when you plug that into MIDI it’s like a keyboard anyway. On some nights we have had two accordions up there.This leads to the obvious question, how will you deal with the choirs during the live show?
You did a cover of Slayer’s “Raining Blood” in Camden Underworld (London) using the accordion…
Yeah, we always try to come up with something special and humorous from time to time. It would be boring to just always play it seriously. You can sometimes have fun and it shows to the audience. It’s interesting, how old classic rock bands can do anything these days, they often have their tongue in cheek and it’s accepted, but after the 1990s, when a new band has tried something similar they have instantly been labelled as a joke or a novelty act. It’s weird, you know, with bands like Iron Maiden there’s a lot more going on than just playing the songs seriously. We have tried to put ourselves on the line there, trying to come up with funny ideas now and then.
What about the violin? Will that instrument show up during your concerts?
Yes, there’s going to be a violin player as well. On the new album the usual guitar solos are played with the violin through the amp using distortion. It sounds quite interesting.
Was this a conscious decision; to use violin and not replace guitarist Georg Laakso who had to leave the band due to a serious car accident?
Actually we had the same violin player in the band even before that happened. And when the second guitar kind of disappeared, we had to move some things musically over to the violin. During that process we noticed that you could achieve plenty of stuff with the violin. In some shows we have almost taken it to an Yngwie-kind of level with its own solo spot, so it’s been fun and the audience are into it too. The way you play the instrument brings in certain possibilities you cannot achieve with the guitar.
It was a successful experiment as the violin solos sound excellent on the album, you often think guitar leads are a sacred thing no one dares to mess with…
Our violinist has a personal mission: “Fuck the guitar solos!” And he always gets the audience to shout that along with him. But still there’s not going to be a 10-minute violin solo, no room for that.
The extended solos are usually the spots where you go and have a beer…
If the solos are done well and work as a part of the show, they have their purpose. But if it’s like, for example, Dio, who does an over 2-hour show and there’s a huge drum solo just to give him rest, it kind of gives itself away. I’d rather have a tight one hour show than try to extend it with gimmicks like that.
How’s the visual side of things in the forthcoming tour, will you go out with the usual battle outfits again?
Yes, the stage clothes certainly have their own part in the show. But it’s not the main thing with us. It’s not like Lordi where you put on the masks and then think about the music. I suppose it is more like the old school bands. Take Judas Priest, for example, they have their visual image on stage, but that’s not the issue they base everything on. We have the outfits and make-up, but the music’s definitely the most important thing.
You will play at Download Festival in Donington a few weeks from now. Do you have any expectations?
You know, 70 000 people is a huge audience. But there comes a point where you have 20 000 or 50 000 people and you just don’t notice the difference. In Donington we will open the main stage in the afternoon but that works just fine for us. I still remember watching the old “Masters Of Rock” VHS-tapes where Sepultura and the like played there in daylight a long time ago. So it’s an amazing feeling, to get up on the same stage.
Is there anything special planned for the event?
We only have 25 minutes to play so there’s really no time for anything extra. But it’s good, 25 minutes used effectively and people will remember us. And in that kind of festival even though we are the first to go on, there will still be plenty of people watching. Plus there won’t be any competition on the other stages at the same time we are playing. From Donington we will head straight to play at Metal Hammer’s Golden Gods Awards gala in London. We’ll do a short set which will be televised. I just checked in a local newspaper that Heaven And Hell are nominated in some category and will also be there a day after their show in Helsinki. It’s a great feeling to think our own idols will be watching us.
Could you ever have imagined that happening all those years ago when watching those old VHS-tapes you mentioned?
I think if you are focused on your goals and work your way towards them nothing comes as a huge surprise. Of course, you are excited about your achievements, but I guess you kind of take them as being part of all this.
Where did your interest in folk metal originally begin? Who were your biggest influences when you started out?
Well, earlier today I did one radio interview session where I had to bring 10 of my all time favourite records with me. There I noticed a lot of it began from my father’s old vinyl collection and moved towards the heavier stuff from there. Then I got into Amorphis, who were definitely the pioneers in Finland with that type of music. And at the same time, my interest towards mythology and folk culture kind of grew, so all that formed a foundation of what came later. You know, often you hear about folk metal but for example on this new album, it is just one of the threads for inspiration. Simply one of the many elements, nothing more than that. People have labelled us as a folk metal band, but I really don’t see it that way. I wouldn’t try to put us in any category.
You are currently planning your own headline tour for next autumn, am I right?
That’s right. We will do the summer festivals out of the way first, and then probably do a full headlining tour at least in the UK. There seems to be a demand for it. Previously we have done some one-off London shows and that’s obviously not the best thing for fans living in other parts of the country. So we want to go out and play in other cities there as well. Then probably the rest of Europe…
The new album will be released in the US a few months from now, the first one didn’t get a release there at all. It was only available as an import. We will see how it does. We have had some offers for a tour, but it really isn’t worth going out there with just 10 or so gigs. It’s better we focus on one area at a time and then do the American tour properly later. As for Japan, the first record was issued there and probably this new one will be too. That would be an interesting place to tour in. I have heard many good things about the country from those who have played there, it is really different compared to the rest of the world. The hospitality level is high and you are really taken care of over there.And the US and Japan?
How do you see the future of Turisas beyond this album, will the music still continue evolving?
Yes, I hope it always evolves in some direction. I mean we could have done the first album all over again and have it out in a year if we had wanted to but what’s the point? It’s better to take the time and come up with something new and fresh than just copy what you have already done in the past. So we shall see what happens.
Check out www.Turisas.com for more info!