Now twenty years and seven albums into a formidable career, all but vocalist Niilo Sevänen of the Finnish melo-death outfit Insomnium are sat backstage at The Kentish Town Forum, London, prior to their last show on the MTV Headbanger’s Ball Tour 2017. While drummer Markus Hirvonen is sat quietly noodling on his phone, guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhalla talk openly, if wearily for the next quarter of an hour on the MTV Headbanger’s Ball tour, their newest record (the epic Winter’s Gate) and watching At The Gates from a hot tub.
So this is the last show of the tour. How has this run been for you and how have the other bands been?
M: Well there’s a mix of bands on the bill with us, Roots, Overkill and Deserted Fear. Every band is from a different area so it’s basically a crossover of many different people. That’s what we’re after though, playing to new fans.
V: It’s even more challenging as you have to sell your music to the people who aren’t necessarily a fan of this melodic sound, or they haven’t heard any of the songs so you need to prove yourselves.
Especially when you’ve got bigger bands on the bill like Overkill and Roots…
V: Yeah, it’s always a good opportunity to steal their fans!
You’ve just reached 20 years as a band now. What is it that you guys, Overkill and Roots do that’s kept you playing music for so long?
M: For me, the Cavaleras are really cool because Arise was the first album that got me into this kind of metal so it’s obviously really crazy to be on tour with them. We were kids back then when they were already professionals and the Overkill guys are even older. We think we are old but in this lineup we are young!
V: Yeah, they’re good, fun people.
Do you remember the first time you heard Roots?
V: You couldn’t avoid it when it came out. With Headbangers Ball and the music channels, it was everywhere. The internet was in its infancy then as well so everything was in music journals and stuff like that.
M: In that way it’s really cool to be on this tour because Headbangers Ball was the channel in the mid 90’s that were always shouting about new bands.
V: It’s quite a nostalgic tour for us.
It was a bit before my time I’m afraid…
V: Yeah! You can’t imagine it, a time before the internet!
What’s your favourite song off Roots?
M: “Roots Bloody Roots”.
V: I can’t remember the name but there’s an instrumental song with an acoustic guitar right at the end of the album. I like that. It’s not a very metal song but it’s different and works really well with the album. [This could be either “Jasco” or “Itsari”, tracks 11 and 12 – Mosh]
Obviously they’re playing Roots in full on this tour. Winter’s Gate naturally lends itself to being played all the way through as well. Have you been doing that much?
M: Not on this tour because we did a headliner tour and a load of festival shows where we did the full thing. We’re playing it fully on the next European tour so now was the time to do the normal set of songs. Of course there are a lot of new people here so it would be weird for Overkill fans to see this one song played in full by a band they don’t know.
So it’s about a year on since its release, how do you feel it sits with your other albums in retrospect? Do you feel it’s a logical progression because it’s quite different from your previous stuff…
V: I think it’s a little different but it also blends a lot of what we’ve already done. I think it’s quite a special thing to have done too.
M: Could you imagine “Return To Winter’s Gate” 20 years from now!
As it’s a conceptual album and you said earlier that you’ve played it in its entirety before, how does it translate live when it’s not done in full? Is anything lost if it’s not told how it should be?
M: Yeah, it’s best to be enjoyed fully. We did a US tour a few months ago and we only had 45 minutes to play so we had to cut the song a bit and we only played two parts. I still feel like Winter’s Gate is 5 different songs…
With this album you were working again with Dan Swanö. Is it just due to familiarity that you keep going back to him as he’s done a bunch of your work and Omnium Gatherum’s as well?
M: We had too much of a good time with Dan on the last record. We’ve already booked him for the next one too.
V: He’s a really nice guy and he does a great job. We chose him because Winter’s Gate is a bit of a rip off Crimson! (by Edge Of Sanity) and he did that album so we thought he would understand this sort of album because he’s been down that road before.
He coped alright with it despite being a different sort of Insomnium album?
V: I think he quite enjoyed the mixing, he was quite enthusiastic.
So with it being a spacier, proggier record, is it much of a relief to be playing this stuff next to what you usually do?
M: It was quite easy to compose because you don’t have to stick to the rules that much. We didn’t have to worry about verse-chorus-verse-chorus etc. It was pretty natural in how it was born, it kind of came about by itself.
V: The idea was that it wasn’t going to be totally linear, there’s more variation and it feels more interesting. It’s been great fun to play live because it’s something completely different than the usual set so it’s a different mood. We never really rehearsed the song (Winter’s Gate). We never played it before in the studio. We were quite anxious when we realised we had to play it live because we weren’t sure how it was going to work live, we had no idea. It was quite a relief when we did play it live and it worked.
With the set tonight and on this tour being a varied bunch as you said earlier, have you got any favourites to play? What’s the hardest to play?
V: It’s been fun to play “One For Sorrow”. We used to play that all the time at one point.
M: I also really love to play “Weather The Storm”. It’s a really good one for the audience, you can always see that which is nice from a stage perspective. The hardest song would be “Winter’s Gate”!
V: The thing with “Winter’s Gate” is that you always have to be alert. It’s fun to play but when we started doing it, you have to concentrate as it’s more sombre and as it goes on and on, you have to plan ahead. I have to fit in tuning my guitar and having a sip of beer while thinking and keeping in time.
M: The hardest on this tour might be the openers “Primeval Dark” and “While We Sleep” because we’ve played them in every show since we wrote them, especially “While We Sleep”. When it’s at the very beginning of the set it’s like “Ah this song again”. You have to look enthusiastic!
The 70,000 Tons Of Metal show is coming up soon. Have you ever been on a cruise before?
V: A couple of years ago Insomnium and Amon Amarth did one and Omnium Gatherum did one last year…
M: So that’s two years in a row for me! I’m not complaining, it’s the perfect escape!
V: I think it’s great. There’s a lot of bands and a lot of friends you get to hang out with. You tend to drink too much, you tend to be hungover and then the gigs are mental. They might be at 4am or something!
M: It’s really nice though because the bands and fans are hanging in the same swimming pool. It creates a completely different atmosphere. I was watching At The Gates from a hot tub!
That’s what life’s about isn’t it!
V: Haha! So yeah it’s Dark Tranquility, Sonata Artica, Meshuggah and some other Finnish bands. I’ve never seen Meshuggah live so that’ll be interesting.
Lastly, what’s 2018 got lined up for the band?
M: Touring in the first half and writing in the next half possibly.
V: Finish touring Winter’s Gate, play a few summer festivals and start focusing on writing the new album. We’ve kind of started already.
Are you a band that writes on the road as you tour?
M: No, you need your own personal space and silence… and the Finnish winter and the darkness and the forests and the bears, all the things that people want to hear from this band!
Winter’s Gate is out now via Century Media