Interview with guitarist and vocalist Markus Toivonen and keyboardist and vocalist Pekka Montin
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: September 18, 2020
Live pictures by Luxi Lahtinen
Thanks to promoter Roman Rafferty (Nem Agency OY) for all the help and everyone else in the SaariHelvetti Festival organization whose kind help I was given when it was needed (I cannot remember all of your names, sorry).
Special thanks to Pekka Montin for helping a die-hard fan of the band get his deluxe edition box set of Two Paths signed by all the current members of Ensiferum.
One of Finland's so-called "Big 5 of Folk Metal", Ensiferum have achieved a lot during a career that started way back in 1995. After many highly appreciated albums, successful world tours, as well as some lineup changes, Ensiferum's longship has been conquering new shores with their swords and heads held high.
The band started their hunt for a new keyboardist after Netta Skog left in December 2017, only this time they also wanted to hire a person who could also sing clean vocals. At the end of February 2020, they officially announced that Pekka Montin (Judas Avenger, Amoth, etc.) was that guy.
Around mid-March 2020, the whole world went upside down due to the Coronavirus pandemic and everyone knows by now what it has meant for artists and bands with thousands of gigs and several festivals either canceled or postponed.
Thalassic is the title of Ensiferum's eighth studio album and it is their first-ever concept album, all songs being about the sea. A week after the album was released in Finland, it went to number one on the official album charts, which speaks clearly to the band's popularity in their home country.
The band was booked to the SaariHelvetti Festival as the main headlining act of the first day, which was held in a beautiful and scenic location on a small island in Tampere, Finland, on August 7 and 8, 2020. This gig was also probably the only festival they got a chance to perform at due to the worsening Covid-19 situation in the world.
The Metal Crypt attended the festival and met up with Markus Toivonen and Pekka Montin a few hours prior to showtime to talk briefly about the new album, Corona-restrictions and how they have affected the band's plans for gigs and so on...
This is your first REAL gig after this annoying Covid-19 pandemic hit the world in mid-March. Does that fact cause any extra pressure, knowing it's been "awhile" since the band has been face-to-face with the real audience?
Markus: To be honest with you, I feel nervous about how this gig will go. Whenever there's a long pause in gigging, it's not a good thing because you lose a certain routine for playing live, you know? And of course, when you play on your home turf, it always makes things even more stressful, at least for me personally.
Maybe that's because we have our own smartass "scene police" in the crowd, looking straight at you and judging how much your performance sucks, haha!
Markus: Haha... I don't really know about that, but it's always more stressful to play in front of your own home crowd than somewhere else. I don't know why it is like that, but for me it's a mystery that has never been solved.
Does introducing your newest member, Pekka Montin, to the crowd bring any new challenges because this is the first time he will be on stage with all of you?
Markus: Well, I believe it will be Pekka himself that may be more stressed or preoccupied about his own performance this evening as he's the new guy in the band, so to speak. But it hasn't been challenging for us to get him in for performing live. We are very confident about his role as a part of the band. I am sure the show will go well.
Pekka: I see this performance here as a bit more relaxing for me than when we did the livestream gig on July 10th, which was the same date that Thalassic was released worldwide. It was kind of a weird and abnormal thing for us, I must say, playing a gig in a strange environment compared to a "normal" live situation. I must admit it's kind of a relief for me to perform in front of a real audience and not in front of many cameras. The overall sound in these livestream gigs is very different compared to a normal live gig.
So yeah, our livestream gig made me much more nervous than performing here at this festival this evening.
I can imagine. If you think too much about a livestream show, thinking there may be thousands of people from all around the world staring at their computer screens and watching your performance, it may make things a bit more stressful and trickier for you as a performer...
Pekka: Yeah, I agree. It's all the technical aspects and stuff that are a part of the whole thing. It's a bit worrying if everything will work out as planned. Hence performing in front of a real audience is much more comfortable because you already know how things should go in a normal live set. It's easier to adapt to that kind of real live situation at festivals and having the possibility for real interaction with people.
Talking about your set list for tonight's show, obviously you will have the main emphasis on new songs off the Thalassic album, accompanied by some older classic songs, correct?
Markus: Yes, that's how we have basically built up our set for this evening. We only have one hour or so to get our show done and when you remember this is our eighth studio album, it makes things harder for us to pick the songs that most of the fans will be pleased by. We tried to figure out what kind of set would be ideal with just one hour, to kind of to kick off our "festival season", which will be very short this year, for obvious reasons.
But yeah, there'll be both new and older material in our set this evening and hopefully we can add more songs to the set list once we get back to a normal gigging phase again.
Now that Pekka is a part of Ensiferum, did you take some advantage of his wide vocal range to rearrange some older songs for these live situations?
Markus: Well, we really did not rearrange any of our older songs for his vocals. It was more like he just re-sang over them and that was it, basically.
Pekka: I took over both Jari's and Netta's parts, it was a no-brainer to replace my vocals in them at all. Everything's been pretty easy for me so far, which feels great, of course!
BRAVE NEW ALBUM: THALASSIC
Let's have a few words about your new album, Thalassic. After it was released, it reached the number one position on the official album charts in Finland within just a week and in Switzerland it went to number five and to number three in Germany. Did any of these results surprise you or did you expect this album to do this well?
Markus: I have to admit I was personally surprised by all these high rankings, especially how well it did in Germany and Switzerland. All this felt great, of course! But I would not have been unhappy even if it hadn't reached as high in some of those countries. The album's been well received, which makes all of us happy, naturally.
All of you really should be. It's always a risk when a band member is changed, especially in this case when there are changes in the vocal department. Pekka has basically split the vocals half and half with Petri on this new album, which was a very brave move by the whole band to give so much space for your "rookie" so to speak...
Pekka: I remember when I joined the band and started singing some of the vocal parts at an early phase. I felt like perhaps I had a bit too big of a role in the vocal department, keeping in mind that also we also have Markus and Sami, who each can sing. I was speculating whether it would have been wiser if all of us had shared the vocals somewhat equally. After going through some discussions with our vocal guide/producer Janne Joutsenniemi, he felt like the wisest thing would be to give the main vocal roles to Petri and me. He had this strong point of view that it should be that way on the album. There's one song on the record, "The Defense of the Sampo", in which he pointed out why the lead vocals should be done by me instead of Petri. His wise advice in the studio convinced all of us when we heard the final results.
When we had finally finished all the recordings for the album, excluding mixing and mastering, we felt that we had a strong product in our hands. I never had any second thoughts regarding what we had achieved on this record or if we should go back and change anything. That's always a good sign about things done right.
Markus: I remember that this is actually the very first time in the band's entire history where every party involved in this process was very satisfied with the outcome, including our label's boss as well. Normally there has been at least one person in this long link that has not been 100% excited or satisfied with what we have achieved on our albums.
OF MORE BLUE COLOUR AND DEPTHS
How did the sea concept come about?
Markus: The idea for this album came from Sami (Hinkka), who does our lyrics. He was wondering if we would ever make a concept album with Ensiferum. Then he realized he's got a pile of songs/lyrics in the making that were all related to the sea in some way. He suggested we try to make a concept album about the sea this time and we all agreed it was a great idea.
Pekka: When I heard the demos Sami had made, I was surprised that some of it sounded "softer" than I expected and not the Manowar-ish type of chest-pounding that there's always some of in Ensiferum's stuff. In a way, the stuff that Sami had wrote touched me a lot because it contained so much emotion and I started building up vocal lines from there. Aa Petri handles the rough vocals, I felt it was wiser for me to stay on the more melodic side of singing. There's no point in me competing with Petri's vocals, who would sound more masculine and all that shit, so I put my full focus on clean vocals and tried to do them as well as I could for this album. They are more the kind of Power Metal singing one can hear in a band like Helloween than the very masculine Manowar-ish singing style, you know? I think our idea to combine our two different vocal styles panned out very nicely. We achieved more depth and let's say, "more blue color" into the concept of this record, which I personally am really satisfied with. There's lots of different, in-depth emotions present in the themes of Thalassic. Everything just worked out perfectly for this record, in my opinion.
I also need to mention one thing. When I heard Dimmu Borgir's Spiritual Black Dimensions album for the first time, it was the very first time they had both clean and harsh vocals on a Dimmu record. This particular album was in my mind when I was thinking how much contrast and different emotions we could incorporate into the songs with both Petri's harsh and my clean vocals coloring the depths of the sea so to speak.
Did you have all the material ready for Thalassic before you started your hunt for Netta's replacement?
Markus: We had already recruited Pekka when we were composing songs for this album. However, as has been the case with this band since day one, we have always had quite a lot of ideas from past years, riffs, skeletons of songs, etc., which we probably used for some of the songs on this new album. This time, we were more open-minded regarding the stuff we did on the album. Let's take the song "One with the Sea", for example, on which we let Pekka do his vocal magic without worrying if he could pull off his clean vocals or not. We were very confident that he could do basically anything vocally. That's why we chose the guy in the first place, knowing how talented he truly is.
Thinking back to the auditions, did you feel that Pekka had the most distinctive voice out of all the candidates and that was why he was chosen?
Markus: We got many candidates who were good at keyboards and vocals, but there were not so many who could play the keyboards and sing. Pekka stood out as he was good in both departments. He was a pretty clear choice for us, I must say.
Did you have any criteria regarding where this new member lived?
Markus: Well, in a way he/she could have come from any country on the planet, yes, but it would have required a move to Finland because otherwise it would have made things difficult for the whole band to work as a unit.
One other thing is that with Pekka, being a native Finn, it's a bit easier for us to find the right communication level with him because of the common language, of course, and get band rehearsals arranged and everything else related to the band's comings and goings.
The album cover of Thalassic is something that draws people's attention. It's a modified version of the famous painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a famous Finnish artist, who painted one of his most well-known paintings ever, The Defense of Sampo, in 1896. Whose idea was it to use it for the album cover, just a bit modified?
Markus: This idea came from Sami, too. I think it was a great idea for us to have the same theme on the album cover of Thalassic. It looks great and all of us are very happy with it all in all.
HEARING THE BAND FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME
Pekka told me a while ago that when he sent his CV for the position of keyboard player/singer, he had never heard the band's music before. What kind of experience was it to hear the band's music for the very first time?
Pekka: To be honest, it was a really strange experience. I have some friends that are fans of the band and they keep telling me about the band and stuff. For some reason, the band's music had always slipped under my radar and I cannot explain why that was so.
Anyway, I had left my band, Judas Avenger, a while ago and at that point I felt like perhaps I would fully focus on my studies and day job for the time being. In one sense, I was getting tired with everything related to band activities because things did not go the way I was hoping. There was disappointment and frustration behind my decision to step aside from all this back then, no matter how hard I wanted to make things work for my band.
Then, out of the blue, I was browsing the Internet and saw an ad that Ensiferum was looking for a new member for the keyboardist/singer position. I was like, "hey, I know the band's name...", and knew some of my friends were into them. I became more curious about the band and decided to check out some of their stuff and realized they sounded pretty darn interesting. After a while, kind of spontaneously, I decided to apply for the position without worrying if they would even invite me to show my skills.
Two weeks passed before I was contacted by the lads. I received a couple of songs to learn and realized how versatile and complex the songs were. The two songs were "LA LA HEI" and "Wanderer". While I was learning the songs, I felt like they were both demanding as they are not that easy to play and sing at all.
But yeah, it was quite a new experience for me to get to know their stuff. After I was chosen to join the band, everything has gone smoothly. It's still funny to realize that everything happened sort of by accident, if I can put it this way.
OF STRANGE TIMES FOR GIGGING
Gigging is tough for bands at this time due to Covid-19. I understand you had to either cancel or postpone a bunch of gigs from this summer, right?
Markus: Yes, that's true. We did have a big bunch of gigs booked for this summer and they all were cancelled because the festivals were cancelled. That's what bugs us a lot, but what can you do? The situation is what it is. Festival season in general is the most important time of the year for bands. We had four or five gigs booked at some of the biggest festivals here in Finland this year and they were all canceled. It's pretty rare for our band to play that many festival gigs in Finland, and now when we had the chance, they never happened. All this naturally caused some frustration within the band as we found out one festival after another was getting cancelled.
Now we are waiting to see what may happen later this year, gigging-wise. At least we are hoping that that we can play some shows next year, but time will tell.
I noticed that the HRH Vikings event coming up in Sheffield, England will take place at the end of November this year and Ensiferum's name is still on the bill. Is this still valid information?
Markus: It's true that we should be playing there this year, but unfortunately, most likely it will be cancelled, too. Of course, we are hoping that some drastic changes will happen in a positive sense regarding how the world stands near the end of the year. It's been really tough for us to stay positive as far as playing live is concerned. Let's hope for the best and expect the worst.
Wise words. Are you still trying to get gigs booked for 2021, even if the future is still uncertain?
Markus: In a normal situation we make plans like two years ahead, but it's really hard to make any touring plans right now. The only thing we can do is compose new material for our next release. Most of our festivals shows have been postponed, but as I said even those shows are question marks because no one can tell how long this virus shit will last.
But yeah, fingers crossed that those postponed shows will happen next year. It's a tough job to get more gigs booked because there are already a number of gigs moved to next year that we should have done this year. These are difficult times for everyone, no doubt.
Let's say the best scenario happens and gigging in 2021 will be possible, it's certain that every band that wants to go out and play some gigs will do so. The question is, will there be enough venues available for every band because some of them have already gone bankrupt. Have you thought of this aspect?
Markus: Yes, as a matter of fact, we have been giving it some thought. There certainly are fewer venues that have booked bands for gigs and many bands will want to go out on tour as soon as possible. Perhaps it would be a wise idea to build up some sort of a touring lineup that people simply won't want to miss — I don't know.
What are some of your expectations for tonight's show?
Markus: I am still darn nervous about how it will go. My hands were sweating so much during our soundcheck that I felt like "can I play at all?", haha!
Did your soundcheck still give you enough confident and self-esteem to feel that you can perform without worrying too much this evening?
Markus: To be honest with you, I really don't know as it's been "awhile" since I have played in front of a real audience. It will remain to be seen how well it will go. Probably it will go just alright. Let's see...
What about you, Pekka? Are you feeling a bit more confident than your partner in crime here sitting next to you?
Pekka: I feel somewhat relaxed I must say. I am just happy that we are able to play this show here tonight compared to the streaming show that we did on July 10th, which was a way more nerve-wracking experience for me personally. I am really looking forward to playing this show here at the SaariHelvetti festival for the real crowd.
That's it from me, so all the best for your show tonight and remember to breathe on stage. ;o)
Pekka: Thank you.
Markus: Thanks, and I want to wish you a nice rest of the summer, too.
|Other information about Ensiferum on this site|
|Review: Victory Songs|
|Review: From Afar|
|Review: From Afar|
|Review: Unsung Heroes|
|Review: Unsung Heroes|
|Review: Two Paths|
|Interview with vocalist and keyboardist Pekka Montin on March 14, 2020 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Video: In My Sword I Trust|
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