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Ensiferum bassist Sami Hinkka Interview

Before this past Saturday’s Finnish Metal Tour Part II, I had a chance to talk to Ensiferum bassist Sami Hinkka. Sami is probably the most energetic member of Ensiferum, bounding across stage in his kilt and war paint and headbanging like a maniac. But, offstage, he is a perfect gentleman! We talked about what makes Finnish metal so special, just how epic Ensiferum can go, and 70,000 Tons of Metal…
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Sami. Here we are in New York—you’ve been touring all over the United States with the Finnish Metal Tour Part II—
And here, just a few moments into the interview, we are interrupted by a very enthusiastic Turkish fan who steps in to take a quick photo with Sami, who smilingly obliges. I had overheard Sami talking with the fan before the interview, in which the fan urged Sami to bring Ensiferum to Turkey, where the band has legions of fans, according to the fan. Sami was happy to say that they will be playing Turkey shortly. A happy ending.
–so, how’s it going so far?
The gigs have been the best we have ever had in North America, but we have never had so many problems. We’ve had so many problems with buses, the blizzard in Texas—the roads were closed, we couldn’t play two shows. But overall the feeling is very good because the gigs have been so great. The whole package is very good—the spirit is very good. We have a very good crew. We will survive the last weeks. [laughs]
I saw you already have fans waiting outside and it’s two hours before the show and it’s freezing out—that’s got to be a cool feeling.
Well, I feel bad for them! They should let them in already.
So, with the Finnish Metal Tour Part II, this is the second time a collection of Finnish groups have played together with this tour name. Do you guys hang out a lot with the other bands?
Pretty much. Especially now. The longer the tour goes, the more people are having big after parties and everything.
And you’ve toured with Finntroll before, so I imagine you are close with those guys.
And, you know, Finland is such a small country, so, we’ve known them for years. It’s like touring with friends.
Something that I’ve got to ask you about: Finnish metal tour. What is it about Finland [Sami laughs, knowingly] do you think, that produces so many metal bands? I’m sure you get this question a lot—
Every time!
–but, you know, for as long as I can remember, lots of my favorite metal bands have been Finnish and they are always top-notch, top quality. What do you think it is about Finland that produces such great metal bands, and so many?
I have no idea, I say this every time, I have no idea! I really don’t know, it might be that Finnish folk music is very minor chord-based, it’s kind of sad, in a way, very longing. So it is a very good foundation for metal, especially melody. And we have a long winter, we have nothing else to do other than play music! For example, when I was in school, we didn’t have to go outside in between classes, we could just go to the music room and just jam there. So, we were kind of encouraged, also, to play.
Would you say there is a system in place that fosters the growth of young musicians?
There was, but nowadays they are cutting all of the arts classes. I think that’s the totally wrong place to save money.
Especially when Finland has so successfully in the past created so many great internationally touring acts.
I think the government will have a major disaster in the future if they’re going to cut down the arts.
I think Finnish bands have successfully branded themselves as Finnish and sell it internationally: for example with this tour. So it seems like something that has really drawn a crowd.
Yeah, but, for example we’re not popular in Finland at all. There are so many Finnish bands that are touring all the time that nobody knows in Finland.
That’s crazy!
That’s crazy. And, then, you know, somebody from the media goes to Sweden to one gig with two hundred people and it’s all over the news. I mean, come on!
Yeah, it’s like open your eyes. So, Ensiferum plays folk metal and you draw upon a particular Finnish and Scandinavian heritage thematically and lyrically. I was wondering if there are any particular movies or books that you draw upon much in the way that Amorphis used to draw upon the Kalevela and the Kanteletar?
Well, we also have some parts from the Kalevela quoted, and of course I read the Kalevela—I even have the Kalevela on my iPhone nowadays. [laughs] But for us it’s more heroic stuff. Of course the Scandinavian mythology is part of that, but we try to have a wider horizon. Like “Stone Cold Metal” (the song from From Afar), that’s a Western song, outlaws. I really like the term “heroic ironic folk metal”. That was in a song review when Iron came out.
On From Afar, you introduced orchestrations for the first time and really took the “epicness” to the next level, so to speak. Is that something you think you will continue on subsequent albums, or do you think you will strip it back down to the style of Iron and Victory Songs?
Personally, I think we kind of reached the limit of how “big” we can sound. We are going to have some orchestrations on the next album, also. We already have a few songs ready and we kind of have all the ideas for the new songs, we just have to arrange them. We’re missing a few riffs. It is going to be a little in the other direction now, there’s really no point doing the same thing again. We tried to stay honest to ourselves and the music. It has to be something we love to do, nothing about the business side. For us, it has to be what we want to play. The new stuff is going to be something different in the folk metal scene.
Speaking of the new album, is there one coming soon?
I’ll say it will come out like a year from now. We have this tour and then we’re going to do a tour with Children of Bodom, then it’s summer festivals, then it’s already August. Then we’re going to need like two months to really finalize the arrangements. Then we go to the studio, hopefully.
Do you find time to write music on the tour bus?
Yes. Actually, we found a folk instrument shop in Portland while we were just walking around the city. We went there and this very nice elder gentleman was helping us with the instruments, telling us stories about how to play them and how the tuning goes. Markus bought a dulcimer, we’ve had it on previous albums also. [He pulls out a picture of him and the elder gentleman on his iPhone, the two smiling with the dulcimer in between.] We also have one acoustic guitar in the bus, so we’ve been jamming. Actually, one new song idea came from the dulcimer. In 2008, we did this one tour with Amon Amarth and we practically composed at least half of the material for From Afar on the tour bus. So, yes we write on tour, and that’s what we’re going to do on the Children of Bodom tour, too.
You’ve always been very active in the summer festival scene, but you recently had a preview of summer with 70,000 Tons of Metal. How was that?
[laughs] That was wild. It was very good. We actually started the tour from there. We did a few shows in Central America, then we did 70,000 Tons of Metal, then we started this tour. It was very crazy. But, on the other hand, people behaved very well. Everyone was in a very good mood. It was kind of weird to play on the pool deck, like two o’clock in the afternoon, terrible hangover, thanks to the Finntroll guys. The sun is shining, people in the swimming pools and Jacuzzis with colorful drinks. Like, what the fuck? [laughs] It was kind of weird, but it was cool. I would do it again if I had a possibility. I am seriously thinking about going there next year just to get drunk for four days!
Kudos to the organizers of that thing, because that’s impressive they were able to pull it off.
It was sold out and I heard that they sold more alcohol even before the boat left the Port of Miami than they normally sell on a whole cruise. So the cruise line was very happy also and everyone behaved very well, so I’m sure they are going to have it again.
Do you have any particular stories you want to share from 70,000 Tons of Metal?
Maybe it’s better that I don’t say too much. [laughs] It was very good. And I have to say, it was very good because there wasn’t any artist area at all. You know, sitting in the bar, Amon Amarth guys there, Blind Guardian guys there, and people just mingling. That’s the way it should be. Personally, I hate when people put people on pedestals. I have a really hard time when people think that we are some kind of rock stars. I don’t get it.
Is there any music you listen to that you think your fans would be surprised that you like?
Let’s say… Björk.
For this last one, be creative here: if Ensiferum could play anywhere in the world, like on a mountain or a battlefield or something, where would you play?
A battlefield would actually be nice, like a real wall of death! [laughs] Like a real Braveheart situation, “It’s Battle!” Yes, battlefield! Definitely. But, on a stage, please. I don’t want to hit people with my bass.

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