TARTAREAN DESIRE WEBZINE
This interview with Erkki Virta of Sinisthra was done by e-mail by Maud in November 2005.
This time last year Sinisthra, as such, didn't exist. Going by the name Nevergreen, this band from Helsinki had been around for about 5 years, gradually developing the right line-up and a unique sound. But big changes were coming. At the beginning of 2005, the adoption of the name Sinisthra was announced, and at virtually the same time it was revealed that their vocalist, Tomi Joutsen, was going to be the new singer for Amorphis. Soon afterwards, Sinisthra was signed by Arise Records, and their debut album, Last of the Stories of Long Past Glories," was released in May. With a type of heavy guitar sound few bands produce, an amazing singer, and great lyrics that will redefine the word melancholy for you, Sinisthra's music has rich sonic textures and powerful emotional tones. Lyricist/drummer Erkki Virta was gracious enough to indulge me in an interview, which was conducted via a series of emails between July & November 2005. Witty, articulate, hilarious, and insightful, he's an excellent spokesperson for the band, and his words will likely satisfy the curiosity of people who know Sinisthra while inspiring it in those who don't. In either case, entertaining enlightenment awaits you.
Featured on your website is a striking, haunting background image of a partially illuminated stone stairway. Is this photo intended to reflect the nature of Sinisthra's music, and if so, how?
Itís a stairway that leads down to where we used to rehearse some years ago. So it reflects our music in a way because we had to walk through the dark dampness of it every time we wanted to go and try if we can possibly come up with some new music. Itís not very often that one gets the urge to write happy songs with the sun shining in full swing by the time you reach the chorus in a place like that. Later we moved from our underground cavern to a former police station and got elevated overground. Strangely enough, the move to new surroundings didnít bring any visible changes to our music; itís still seriously lacking in the bunnies hopping about among the blooming flowers department. The descent through the cold corridor to our tiny chamber in an old bomb shelter probably left a lasting mark upon us. Although we werenít very prone to making happy music to start with in the first place.
Thereís a noticeable absence of sun in our music. If Sinisthra were a month it would probably lie somewhere between October and November, and thatís a pretty bleak time of the year around these parts. So the image of that stairwell fits in quite snugly. Iím not trying to sound overtly grim and gloomy now; itís just the way things are. And actually weíre happy with the way things are, in a curious and at times hard to comprehend way.
Even the photo itself isn't "overtly gim and gloomy"--the stairway seems forbidding but inviting. And there is that bit of light. Does this oddly contented bleakness you described represent the nature of melancholy to you?
Thereís always light somewhere, eventually. Hopeless and black despair is boring and one-dimensional. There are no shadows in utter darkness and therefore itís not very interesting. Artists expressing themselves using only negative imagery fail to impress me. Melancholy is much more diverse than plain despair and melancholy to me is a creative state and a place to draw rich inspiration from.
Although most of our songs are very melancholic and desolate, they are not the mirrored reflections of us as individuals, just some random facets. Much in the same way as the word ďpatheticĒ has astoundingly different meanings to different people, depending on the context and the person using the term.
Yes, and it's odd how the postive connotations of "pathetic," what used to be the primary ones, are now all but lost in common usage or interpretation.
Thatís very true. Iíve actually thought about the same thing myself and somehow itís very sad that ďpatheticĒ seems to have only negative meanings these days. The term is ruined and canít be revived anymore. We may have to invent a new word to describe the positive aspects of ďpatheticĒ. Or maybe Iíll just leaf through ďThe Meaning of LiffĒ and see if Douglas Adams has already done it.
Why is creating diverse blendings of tone, mood, and style so important to Sinisthra?
Diversity is important but not to the extent of becoming self-important. At some level we consciously try and avoid sounding like all the other bands, but mostly we just go with the flow and see what comes out. This is how we do things: the bucket of creativity has a very long rope attached to it, and once itís lowered into the well of inspiration, youíll never know how deep it goes into the murky waters and what it contains once itís pulled up. Sometimes itís better to just let go of the rope and let the bucket tumble down all the way to the bottom, to avoid putting inadvertently together a clichť-ridden tune and only finding out about it when itís too late. Most of the times actually.
But sometimes, and youíll never know beforehand when this will happen, sometimes the bucket comes up filled with something quite extraordinary and at times exquisite things. Those things are then turned into songs, and the diversity comes from the very wide range of ingredients contained within the well and of the way they randomly end up and are mixed together in this particular bucketfull of inspiration. Of course the colour of the bucket is very important too: a red bucket is more likely to bring up something veering towards romantic things, a blue one usually contains more eerie and cold ingredients, while a zinc-coated bucket often weighs too much to be comfortably pulled back up at all.
So weíre mostly in favour of variously coloured plastic buckets. They are useful in mopping the floors of your house too, and washing your socks in if you canít be bothered to use them (the buckets) for hoisting up fragments of divine inspiration, or if the well happens to be momentarily covered to prevent bystanders from falling in.
I've heard that taking zinc as a dietary supplement enhances REM sleep, therefore increasing the frequency and vividness of one's dreams. That might justify the effort involved in hoisting those buckets--and then gnawing on them, I suppose ; ).
Really? Then I have to keep away from everything containing zinc in the future. My dreams are vivid enough as they are now and I wouldnít welcome any added vividness in that department. I regularly get to witness lengthy horror epics with complicated plots and those lovely surreal turns only possible in dreams and often attempted to replicate unsuccessfully in more off-the-wall movies. I usually donít have time to think them through in the morning and after waking up they rapidly fade, leaving only an unexplainable sense of loss. I tend to get a lot of lyrics too, sometimes whole verses, when I lie in my bed and drift in and out of sleep. The words just descend upon me from somewhere and then itís ďoh my god I have to write this down before I forget now where did I put my pen and is there any paper around and fuck now Iíve already forgotten most of it.Ē
How is the"left hand" principle from which Sinisthra's name is derived, "the allegory of creativity, femininity, individuality and general free-thinking pathways" (quoting the band bio) represented in the music? Is it a reflection of what you tap into creatively, what inspires or guides you, and also an indication of how you hope to affect the listener?
We want to touch people with this music, and we want people to be touched by this music. In our context the left hand is the opposite of the red right hand, the hand that wields the sword and cuts down the enemies. The left hand is the soothing palm placed on the brow of the wounded, the hand that gently caresses and brings comfort. The emotional and the spiritual side which always leaves aggressive physicality and unjust force clutching a shorter straw in the end. Thereís also a violent streak in our music, but itís mostly there to give contrast to more emotional things and to prevent us from coming across as tree-hugging hippies without a realistic perception of our surroundings. The right side may seem like a winning side if youíre not prepared to put things under closer inspection.
The left hand principle is most clearly visible in the overall melancholy of Sinisthra, in silently admitting that yes, things might be in a sorry state at the moment but not accepting it as the whole of the truth and a stagnant, ever-continuing state. Change is the only constant, and eventually hope blooms in most unlikely locations. The male and masculine view of life is shortsighted, bleak and often very cold and has countless downfalls and shortcomings when compared to feminine patience, tolerance and general open-mindedness.
Weíd like to nudge our listeners into seeing more than just the most obvious side of things, to discover theyíre born with the ability to form their own opinions if they choose to, to see all the shades of grey beyond the seemingly black and white world. You donít need to always follow the loudest voice.
You've been asked questions about the left-hand principle numerous times, always providing illuminating answers. Thank you for giving me an especially eloquent and succinct response.
Maybe itís because your questions are more inspiring than most of the interviews Iíve done. Iíve had moments of desperately thinking ďnow why didnít we call the band Brick instead of Sinisthra because Brick would have been a bit easier to explain.Ē Of course everyone asks about the name; Iíd ask about the name if I were a journalist, so I can only blame myself when I find myself describing the background of it over and over again and trying not to repeat word to word something Iíve said earlier.
In your overall sound and in individual songs, styles are blended very organically, never coming across as "variety for variety's sake." How do you decide where to pummel, where to go ethereal, where to go jazzy, and so on? Are the needs of a song apparent early on, or later, after you've "lived with it" for awhile? Is it ever a challenge to know when a stylistic turn will be true to the song and not gratuitous?
I think our songs have very simple structures. Styles may blend here and there, but weíre very careful not to make the arrangements too complicated. At least weíve been so far. We could do with a little more twists and turns, but every time we add adventurous parts to our songs they mostly end up discarded after awhile because they sound out of place and donít fit in. So I donít really understand why people keep telling us that our songs arenít very easily accessible. A song usually finds its own identity early on, and if we experiment with different moods and ways to perform it we often tend to go back to the first draft in the end. Or start working on something else.
Are there particular songs on the album that have gone through several transformations?
Not really. If the song refuses to take a satisfactory shape itís usually discarded. This method of working is called ďwasting perfectly good material.Ē Sometimes parts of a discarded song resurface in a quite different shape but usually itís just forgotten. We throw away decent material all the time. The songwriting depends on so many random variables, and very often good ideas are unjustly abandoned, just because our collective mood happens to veer towards negative on that particular moment. It seems the collective spirit of the band is very manic-depressive. Sometimes we hit things off at the rehearsals just fabulously; the ideas flow and the songs seem to put themselves together effortlessly. Then there are evenings when nothing good comes out no matter what, and everyone just wants to go home because the band is crap and itís no use to go to rehearsals ever again.
I'm very sympathetic to sudden, irrational attacks of despair, but discarding "perfectly good material" does sound rather drastic, especially when there's a good possibility of reworking it. Do the negative associations linger? Does the material feel too stale?
Somehow the negativity seems to stay attached to discarded material and linger on forever more. Occasionally we look back and rework something but mostly we donít. We just had a few monthsí break and are currently starting to focus more closely on new songs, and thereís a strong possibility that a lot of what we wrote before the break will not be used on the next album.
"Not for You," a song from one of your demos, which does not appear on the album, was done in a "typical" Sinisthra fashion but also in an alternate version, kind of loungey, like a dreamy theme for a 50's or 60's romantic film set in Rome or some other continental locale. Was this some kind of "one-off" thing, a fun, wacky experiment?
Portishead rules in a major way you know. That song was us trying to catch similar moods as Portishead so beautifully execute. Also we felt the particular song wasnít very successful in a guitar-driven form. That was our first stab at so-called ďtrip hopĒ and at the moment it looks like thereís more to come. Weíve discussed doing some remixes of the album songs and they probably end up sounding quite trippy too. The Gathering has done some wonderful remixes of their songs too, and if youíre going to do a remix in the first place, I think the best way is to drop everything else apart from the vocal track and start building from the scratch.
What kind of effect would you be going for in these remixes (assuming that trippiness alone isn't the intention)?
It would be nice to peel off all the loud noises and crushing guitars and see if the song can find a new identity in a more stripped-off form. Some of the songs on the album loudly insist on the quiet and more intimate shape.
Would you give a couple of examples?
ďMy Sweet NothingĒ could use a bit of reworking. Also ďInnocence . . . in a senseĒ needs a more jazz-like treatment. But the remix thing is a secondary project and at the moment weíre more than busy writing new songs. The remixes can be downloaded from our webpage when/if Mr. Mškinen finds time to do them. And my guess is that wonít happen in a while yet.
Could you give us some details about the recording process? Any unusual practices you follow?
Nothing very unusual in the way we record Iím afraid. Just the boring old drums first and then adding an instrument after instrument. Very hard to catch the feeling of playing together when most of the other members are not there at all. Weíve talked about abandoning this method in the future and trying to record the next album in a different way, hopefully with all six of us in the same room playing the actual song and not just the drummer with a clicktrack on his headphones trying to remember how long the verse was.
Recording the first album was a real pain because we did it mostly by ourselves, the actual recording and producing and fighting over the arrangements and stuff like that. It would have been a whole lot easier if the person producing the album [Markku Mškinen] would not have been a member of Sinisthra. Then again, Iím not sure how much easier it would be with an outside producer. We are in the habit of knowing quite well how we want our songs to sound. Sometimes we are in the habit of having six highly differing opinions of how we want our songs to sound. Most of the albums sounding even halfway passionate usually are the result of a very tortuous and tortured studio session and ours is not an exception. We didnít end up yelling at each other or fighting with fists as such because we are gentlemen who respect each other and luckily donít suffer from inflated egos (ďI want MY instrument to be louder than yours!Ē) but there were tense moments aplenty when opinions clashed in a major way.
How do you retain love for the songs when the sometimes frustrating and disheartening process of nailing down tracks in a studio and putting an album together might make you have sort of a love/hate relationship with them or the album as a whole? Does a song maintain its individual identity? Are you able to view a song as 2, or, if you factor in live performances, 3 separate entities: as a composition, as an element of a larger work, and as a component of the live set?
The trick is to distance yourself from the actual recorded works. Listen to them only seldomly; that way itís easier to form a neutral opinion of the songs. At some point you may even be able to listen to your own cd without consciously thinking itís your cd, you know. You donít hear the things you played and wished you wouldnít have; you just hear the music. Thatís the point Iíd like to reach because that way Iím able to retain the love for actual songs and not just the overall performance, but itís very hard and takes time.
The original composition is usually mercilessly mutilated, keys and chords are changed to turn it into a song with decent vocal lines and things like that. This often results in bitter remarks from the composer and lots and lots of frowning. As time goes by the complaints are forgotten, and then some day you come across a file on your computer and are taken completely by surprise to learn that itís the original demo of a certain song. Sometimes it has very little in common with the song it developed into. It has no real identity of its own but itís still the original version, so thatís version 1 of the song. Version 2 is the one that ends up recorded and released on a cd, and that of course is the definite version. Sometimes a version 3 emerges when we make changes to a song to make it work better on stage. Some songs are essential components of a live set and some are not. I think weíve played every single song weíve ever written on stage at some point but some songs just arenít meant to be played live. ďMy Sweet NothingĒ just got dropped from our live set. We played it for ages on stage and it never sounded the way we wanted it to, so itís best left untouched in the future. The softer songs are always harder to reproduce on stage.
Very true, in most cases. At concerts, I've often been disappointed by renditions of softer songs. The only exceptions I can think of are ones in which a heavily rocking song is performed in a spare, quiet way.
In the past, when putting together a new tune, at some point someone always said, ďwell yes we can do it this way but how are we going to pull it off on stage?Ē Iíve always found the question a bit meaningless. We donít have to play live every song we write. It was a different case when we had only a handful of songs written and had to use them all to put together a live set, but by now we have plenty of material to choose from and we will concentrate on harder material on stage. The adrenaline flow usually ruins the softer songs anyway and gives them a harsh and too violent a treatment. So Iíd like to drop this ďpulling it off liveĒ aspect when writing new songs. We already have a few songs ready that work well on stage, so we might as well fill the rest of the second album with all kinds of atmospheric noises and other things we canít possibly reproduce live on stage.
How did Sinisthra's distinctive guitar sound, especially that massive heaviness, like a dual attack or one big fat guitar, develop? Is it something Markku Mškinen "found" through experimentation, or consciously adopted in response to influences--as emulation or as a deliberate departure?
Markku insists that he just plugs in and plays and the sound is there. Of course you have to have the right kind of amp. And curiously enough, it also has something to do with the kind of guitar you choose. But thereís no great secrets behind the sound and no endless hours of experimenting either.
Ah, guitarists. . . . They never do want to give up their secrets, do they ; ).
Or they just donít have any secrets to give away . . . as seems to be the case with our guitarists. But you never fully figure out a guitarist now do you.
Or anyone else.
Or anyone else indeed. Particularly if youíre a fatalist taking a more holistic point of view J.
I remember reading that your other guitarist, Marko Všlimški, originally played keyboards in the band, current keyboardist Timo Vainio arriving in 2004 (taking over that role, I presume, from Marko). Did Marko replace a departed guitar player, or had Markku been the sole guitarist up to that point and it was decided that the band needed a second one?
The band always had two guitar players. Marko never liked playing keyboards, so when we parted ways with our previous guitarist it was a very natural move for him to switch to guitar because guitar is his main instrument. Timo is also a guitarist actually but he hasnít been complaining as much as Marko about having to play the keyboards.
How would you describe the role of keyboards in Sinisthra's music?
We need them very much I think. Adds colours to the palette and broadens the overall sound nicely. We operated without keyboards quite a long time at some point and it always felt like something was missing. It would limit our output immensely if we stopped using keyboards.
Who have been your favorite drummers, and at what age did you begin playing? What initially attracted you to that instrument, and what still draws you in the present?
Iíve never had any particular favourites. The only drummer I usually mention is Cozy Powell when the question of people who have influenced my playing arises. He had a style I could identify with when I was younger and his playing still impresses me. But actually Iím not that interested in drumming you know. I never practise on my own; I stopped doing that some 15 years ago, partly because I donít have drums at home and partly because I canít be bothered to. Iím not a very good drummer; Iím ok but we have three people in the band who play drums and Iím the most incapable of us three. Doesnít bother me though.
Pretending for a moment that I believe this claim about being "most incapable," may I ask who those other band members are?
Mr. Joutsen, the vocalist, has been playing drums in various bands for ages and continues to do so, and Mr. Vainio the keyboardist used to play drums in Graydance when they started out.
Mr. Joutsen was my first guess. It's easy to imagine his vigorous presence on a drum throne.
Iíve seen him play and actually his presence is quite vigorous. But getting back to the subject of writing lyrics vs playing drums, for me writing lyrics is the chauffeur of my vehicle, and playing drums sits meekly in the back seat and silently closes its eyes in terror as we hit a blind curve.
Anyway. My uncle plays drums and I started tormenting him at the age of 11, demanding access to his drumkit. He showed me a few things and then left me to stumble on on my own. I recently bought the old 70ís vintage kit off him, the same one he taught me to play on, and I guess weíre both very happy with that move. Iím not sure what attracted me to drums in the first place. Somehow it was always very clear to me that Iím going to play drums. What still draws me to drumming is the sheer physicality of it all and the catharsis. I need to play regularly; otherwise I get very tense and short tempered.
The idea of drumming as catharsis echoes what I've heard from other drummers, one of whom tells me that he sometimes bangs on his drums until he wrings tears out of himself. But if you play only during band rehearsals and gigs, is that "regularly" enough for cathartic purposes? Or are you resigned to being "tense and short tempered" at least part of the time ; )?
I like to be short tempered occasionally. It keeps the juices flowing, shouting about and having a row over trivial matters. As I mentioned earlier, weíve just had a two-month break from playing and it hasnít been a thoroughly enjoyable time. So Iím really looking forward to getting back to playing regularly again. Once a week for a few hours is enough to keep me happy nowadays. When I was a teen I played every day for hours, but I think it was at least partially because of hormones and stuff like that.
Did Markku, and possibly you and bassist Jari Korkkinen as well, have the idea of someday creating music like this back in the early '90's when the three of you were members of the seminal thrash band Protected Illusion.
No we did not. Back in those days playing music to us meant only letting off steam, and looking back now, it was all aggression and flashy playing and nothing much else. So quite a limited scope Iíd say. But we were in our early twenties and at that age the idea of expressing emotions through music, apart from furious rage, had never crossed our minds. Iím glad it eventually did. When Sinisthra originally started out as Nevergreen the band's metal influence was almost non-existant, probably as a counterreaction to all that thrashing we did before. Strangely the metallic overtones have crept back during the years but this time with actual and genuine heaviness attached to them, and fortunately lacking the over-complicated song structures and all that ďsee how fast I can play my instrument! Impressive or what!Ē stuff. It was quite a revelation to find out that less is more in writing songs and the simpler the structure, the better the result.
You alluded to the uncomplicated structure of Sinisthra songs earlier too. Obviously that virtuositic complexity heard in Protected Illusion (for example) is absent, but it's not as though Sinisthra's songs are boneheadedly simple--i.e., simplistic. I wonder if they seem simpler to you because of your deep familiarity with them. On the other hand, I can't imagine that song structure could be responsible for any impression of inaccessibility in your music, which you identified as one of the more inexplicable reactions you've gotten.
The inaccessibility factor tends to soar a bit if you have a chorus where 6/8 time alternates with 7/8 time (like we just seem to have done with a new song) as opposed to a steady 4/4 beat. But our song structures to me are still very simple as verses usually lead to chorus and so on and so forth. So itís surprising if people find our songs complicated and hard to comprehend. Someone recommended the new Pain Of Salvation cd to me recently because itís supposed to be something I might like. I gave it many a spin and unfortunately hated it no matter how I tried. Itís a good example of the kind of complicated song structures Iíd like to steer clear of with Sinisthra.
Key elements of Sinisthra's artful blending of contrasts are, of course, the amazing power and versatility of vocalist Tomi Joutsen and the eloquence of your lyrics. When first hearing Tomi sing, were members of the band as blown away by what he can do as fans of Sinisthra and now Amorphis, at their 2005 live shows, have been?
I wasnít there in the beginning so I can only guess. Markku tells me he first heard Tomi sing in some compilation cd featuring a song of Tomiís former band [Funeral Jacket]. It was mostly growling and the main vocalist was a female, but Tomi did a few clean lines in the song and that was enough to catch Markkuís attention and he got in touch with Tomi. They did some demos together, and the first thing I heard was an early version of a song that turned out to be ďInnocence . . . in a senseĒ later on. I didnít know what to expect because I had been a bit out of touch with Markku for awhile but when I heard it I was very very impressed. The band I was in at the time was slowly folding up so I jumped ship, first providing some lyrics and soon replacing the original drummer. This was some five years ago. Tomi was astounding back then, he still is and weíre very priviledged to have him in this band.
His voice is perfect for the lyrics and their musical environment.
And as our musical environment seems to expand in the future, weíre very happy that heís also more than capable of doing a decent growl.
Your lyrics, as described in the bio, focus on "personal and intimate subjects," while avoiding "the most commonly used themes and phrases," most notably the words love and death. Certainly, one can write extensively about those subjects without ever using the words. Do you exclude them mainly because they're so commonplace?
I didnít exclude those terms on purpose. I just noticed that every time I was going to use ďloveĒ or ďdeathĒ in a lyric I got very uneasy and started writhing in embarrassment and looking over my shoulder. ďThis doesnít feel rightĒ and ďthis is soooo done.Ē The more I wrote, the more I became aware of what themes I was comfortable with and what themes made me flinch. I never actually thought about how other people might see the words I came up with; I only needed to justify to myself the things I wrote.
But love is a very complex and multi-layered state to be in, so it shouldnít be dabbled with in a half-assed way. Naturally you canít and shouldnít analyse it too closely or youíll end up analysing it to pieces. You just go through with it, enjoy the ride, and once itís over you can open up the corpse and hope to find out what made it tick and see what really was inside all that time. Then you put pen to paper, when dialogue has turned to monologue but you still have much to say on the subject, and what comes out are the things you wanted to say aloud but canít anymore. And as time passes and the dust settles, you feel better because instead of welling up inside you, the bad things are now restrained inside the lyric, sometimes neatly and tidily and sometimes not very much so.
Exploring a wide range of conflicting emotions has been a hallmark of your lyrics all along, but in the more recent songs there seems to also be more variety in tone--increased use of bitter humor and irony, for example. Would you agree that this is so?
Oh yes. The older lyrics are mostly me spewing up my grief and despair and awkwardly trying to shroud the most obvious meanings in clumsy word play. The scope was very narrow and it always used to be directed straightly to one single person, although not always the same person, but anyway there comes a time when thereís nothing much left to say on the matter. Nowadays I try to distance myself a bit from the subject to give it more space to breathe, and every single line doesnít have to be absolutely fucking true anymore. I try to retain my innocence while at the same time dropping some of the most embarrassing naivety. Iím also more conscious of the fact that people who Iíve never met and never will either are reading the lyrics now, so it really doesnít have to be all dug from the graveyard of my personal experiences. My life isnít THAT interesting anyway.
The word innocence crops up frequently with you and seems to hold special significance. What does "innocence" mean to you?
Keeping my innocence as I see it is one of the most important things in my personal life. I donít want to end up a bitter and world-weary person. Innocence and hope need to be maintained, no matter what one might go through in life and how negative the experiences might be. Our lyrical themes could be summed up quite easily with certain keywords, ďinnocenceĒ being one of those. ďBeautyĒ tends to pop up frequently. And thereís a lot of turning away and walking away it seems. The blacklisted words are, as mentioned before, ďloveĒ and ďdeath,Ē with ďdestiny,Ē ďinfinityĒ and suchlike being strong contenders. Those words are stripped of their true meaning when people overuse them in the lyrics they write. Things of such importance and weight shouldnít be thrown around carelessly. And of course destiny is a highly ridiculous concept to begin with: ďDestiny awaits!!Ē Yeah, right. Tell it Iím busy and let it wait. Infinitely if necessary.
You've acknowledged the lyrics to be autobiographical, a tendency you're now trying to move away from, at least to some extent. Is the question of how much of yourself to reveal in your writing one that you wrestle with?
Not really. I have no problem with going into painstakingly graphic detail although it might backfire in the long run. Itís just that I havenít had those earth-shattering emotional quakes lately, at least not as often and strong as I used to. Maybe Iíve gone off the scale by now and every single incident doesnít shake me up so badly anymore. Or maybe Iíve just been one time too many in a situation where I have to try and explain to someone why I wrote what I wrote. Itís a complicated enough situation to encounter the muses past, especially if theyíve heard the song they ended up being mentioned in, but the really sticky situations are the ones when an complete stranger comes up to me and starts telling me what they think a certain lyric is about. I know some writers like to leave their lyrics open for different interpretations but thatís not the case with me, and if someone sees the lyric their own way then itís fine by me, but I still know what I meant with it in the first place, and that knowledge is something Iím not very willing to share with just about anybody.
Is there a story behind your penchant for lengthy titles--the names of the album and demos, and also the highly entertaining subtitles for the demos and songs (which, alas, do not appear in the cd booklet). And is there an unofficial subtitle for the album?
ĒLovesongs In Past TenseĒ would be a suitable subtitle. I wanted to call the album that since it neatly gathers together the themes most notably present in the songs, but I was certain the title would be turned down very swiftly by other members so I didnít suggest it. And it has that ghastly L-word in it. It also fits in with the polaroids in the sleeve design where wedding rings are abused in different ways. The runner-up title for the album and much preferred by certain other members of the band was ďFriendly Fire And Hostile WatersĒ but that didnít really mean anything apart from the word play and it was lifted from a Marillion lyric anyway.
There is no real reason why the titles tend to drag on and on. Maybe Iím just so long winded and unable to express things in a brief form. I donít intentionally set out to come up with as complicated a title as possible and I have no problem admitting that I overdid things with the most recent few titles. But I abhor the thought of coming across a song somewhere with the same title as one of ours. I donít know why. And the things I want to say just seem to require a more eloquent approach. I donít care if people think Iím a pompous wannabe poet with nothing really important to say; this is what comes out of me naturally. [Note to reader: in the forum at Sinisthra's website, you'll find a post from Mr. Virta with long list of highly amusing candidates for the album's title.]
Is there a story behind your penchant for lengthy titles--the names of the album and demos, and also the highly entertaining subtitles for the demos and songs (which, alas, do not appear in the cd booklet). And is there an unofficial subtitle for the album?
ĒLovesongs In Past TenseĒ would be a suitable subtitle. I wanted to call the album that since it neatly gathers together the themes most notably present in the songs, but I was certain the title would be turned down very swiftly by other members so I didnít suggest it. And it has that ghastly L-word in it. It also fits in with the polaroids in the sleeve design where wedding rings are abused in different ways. The runner-up title for the album and much preferred by certain other members of the band was ďFriendly Fire And Hostile WatersĒ but that didnít really mean anything apart from the word play, and it was lifted from a Marillion lyric anyway. [Note to reader: in the forum at Sinisthra's website, you'll find a post from Mr. Virta with long list of highly amusing candidates for the album's title.]
There is no real reason why the titles tend to drag on and on. Maybe Iím just so long winded and unable to express things in a brief form. I donít intentionally set out to come up with as complicated a title as possible and I have no problem admitting that I overdid things with the most recent few titles. But I abhor the thought of coming across a song somewhere with the same title as one of ours. I donít know why. And the things I want to say just seem to require a more eloquent approach. I donít care if people think Iím a pompous wannabe poet with nothing really important to say; this is what comes out of me naturally.
I find most of the song titles quite evocative.
Itís nice if you feel that way because thatís the way Iíd like them to be.
The title of one of the songs on the album, "Fearless Under the Falling Sky," appears under the live photo of the band on the back inlay, almost like a signature. Why was this done?
Thatís very good question because the first time I saw it was when I received the cdís from the record company. So it has no meaning behind it whatsoever. We didnít put it in there, and since we provided the finished layout we canít help but wonder how can the text possibly be there. But there it is anyway. We donít mind. I knew the moment I saw it that someoneís bound to ask what does it mean, and in this particular case I havenít had the time to come up with a witty and absolutely flashy explanation to it, other than the one I just gave you.
No extraorinary wit or flashiness necessary--mysterious orgins are intriguing all by themselves. And don't be so sure there's no meaning behind it. If it's "from beyond" anything's possible ; ). And whether the hand responsible is spectral or human, the intention is still subject to speculation. Is the title's placement there meant as a suggested epithet for the band? A recommended selection for the first single? Makes me wonder what cryptic message will appear on the next album. . . . "The Da Vinci Code" has NOTHING on you guys! Speaking of mega-success, maybe your record company should think about using this as a marketing strategy--if they haven't already ; ).
Well it probably would have been the single if we had released a single. It was the record companyís favourite song if I remember correctly. And any hidden meanings and cryptic messages on the next album will be far from unintentional I can tell you . . . and thereís going to be plenty of them. If I have my way the albumís going to be an aural equivalent to an onion: it has more layers than you care to count and dealing with it brings tears to your eyes. Onions are an acquired taste and some people think they are best left untouched in the first place. Just like many people have left the Sinisthra cd untouched in a record shop. Now thereís a marketing strategy for the record company: ďSinisthra is the onion of the metal world!Ē
That could get some interesting reactions : ).
And funny you should mention "The Da Vinci Code." I wasnít totally unacquainted with the book at the time I came up with the title for the band. But Iíd be hard pushed to admit of letting the book inspire me or affect my decision in any way since I donít hold much esteem for the novel at all.
That's refreshing to hear--possibly the first negative comment I've encountered about that book.
Really? I thought the book was crap. Literary equivalent of easy-listening music. Verbal muzak only scratching the surface of interesting topics but not bothering to go any deeper. The storyline moves forward with quite an astounding pace and thatís gripping at times but only at times. After finishing the book I was left wondering how the characters could possibly engage themselves in so much action in so little time without a single mention of sleeping, eating or going to the toilet. Well actually Iím not that sure about the lack of aforementioned activities anymore; itís been a year or so since I read the book. Maybe they ate a bit at some point and even dozed off for a while but Iím pretty sure there was no mention whatsoever of going to a toilet.
You've just described the stereotypical thriller : ).
For some songs you have lyrics posted at the website in both English and Finnish. In which language do you usually compose? Do you anticipate that Sinisthra will someday record some songs in Finnish?
Sometimes the lyrics come out in English and in Finnish at the same time but we would never use the Finnish ones. Writing in Finnish is much harder to me and injecting the text with something meaningful is a lot easier in English.
When I give the new lyrics to our singer I usually attach a kind of synopsis, a poem in Finnish, so he gets some insight to what I wanted to express with the words and it might make it easier for him to sing it then. I donít know if it works or not in the end or if he only gets embarrassed at my sometimes very brutal honesty. I would never try and force him to sing something he doesnít like, and the lyrics are always the last thing to be added to a song, and also probably the most unimportant part of a song.
As you were saying earlier, crappy lyrics can be irritating. If they're so annoying that they detract from the music, don't they then become "important," in a negative way?
But crappy lyrics can be highly entertaining too. Come to think of it more closely now, I canít be bothered to get irritated by crap lyrics all that often. Usually they make me smile so surely they canít be all bad now can they? They serve a purpose, although it might not be the same purpose the writer had when he delved deep into the depths of his artistic soul to come up with those words.
I agree about the humor value of crappy lyrics, though I find it's one that tends to decrease over repeated listenings.
The best way to admire crappy lyrics is from the radio. Weíve had countless entertaining moments listening to a metal show on radio while we drive home from rehearsals. They are best admired by hearing them once and then never again. I found it hilarious when Timo Kotipelto of Stratovarius fame sang, ďdonít you see or are you blind?Ē on his solo album. Unfortunately the song became a radio hit and the amusement factor started to wear a bit thin after having heard the song for several dozen times.
Is writing lyrics in Finnish (at least for Sinisthra's kind of music) difficult because of the rhythm of the language? Other lyricists who are not native English-speakers have said they prefer writing in English because they think it flows more easily. If that highly enjoyable, all-too-brief video footage (from the Sinisthra Studio Diary) of you singing part of your album's opening track, "Coming Up Roses," in Finnish is any indication, lyrics in your native tongue could work well on at least some songs--though of course I can't be sure that's a Finnish version of the song's actual lyrics.
Well itís not. I donít remember such video clip and canít be bothered to look it up, but itís probably something off the top of my head. I need to keep my mouth shut more often when the cameras roll. But yes, English flows nicely, too many double consonants in Finnish and usually too many syllables in a word. Plus if our lyrics were in Finnish they would be embarrassingly and pointedly personal and probably a source of ridicule to some. Itís just not my forte and wouldnít suit Sinisthra. Thereís a lot of bands in Finland with clumsy lyrics and listening to Finnish lyricists often brings a mass of amusement upon me, and I donít want to be judged by the same standards as them. Writing in English nicely distances me from the topic and sometimes also provides me a veil to hide behind.
I wondered whether the distancing was a factor too. And I suppose the fact that someone other than you is singing the lyrics adds another veil.
And a most welcome veil it is too. I recently explained one lyric line by line to Tomi because he wanted to know and was of the opinion that the words couldnít possibly make any kind of sense. He has not asked for explanations after that. So itís probably best he doesnít know every single thing I thought about at the time of writing, only the overall idea of what itís all about.
You're also a primary credited lyricist for your brother's band, Graydance. Are most of these contributions "extra" Sinisthra songs, or are some composed specifically for Graydance. If so, do you draw on another side of your personality for these lyrics?
No one in Graydance is very interested in writing lyrics, I think, and I help them occasionally in that department. They are not extra Sinisthra songs because I never write a lyric if I donít have a vocal line to write it to. Itís pointless to write if you donít know the vocal melodies, and I think itís quite unjust to expect a singer to build his melodies around an already written lyric. I havenít written anything to other bands for a while now and am not planning to at the moment. Building a lyric Iím pleased with takes time, and if itís not going to be used by Sinisthra then it tends to feel a bit like wasted effort for me. The things Iíve written to Graydance are mostly soppy love songs I would never use in Sinisthra, so itís nice to a have a different outlet for different lyrics, but I havenít really felt the need lately to write anything soppy. The lyrics Iíve written for them are not that special to me since they are not Sinisthra songs and therefore not actual parts of a bigger picture Iím putting together and adding to with every new Sinisthra song.
One review of "Last of the Stories of Long Past Glories" described it as a type of music that is very popular in Germany. Do you plan to follow the example of Graydance (the self-described "most GermanFinnish band ever to come out of Finland") and make dates in Germany a part of your touring schedule?
We have no touring schedule. I know our kind of music would probably go down quite well in Germany but we have no promoters to back up our touring. We have six people in the band, so itís expensive to put us out on the road and difficult to make our personal schedules meet.
The everlasting conundrum--touring is expensive but one of the main ways of making money.
Luckily weíre not expecting to make any money out of this ever. So no metaphorical castles of supposed monetary income are being built on the questionable foundation provided by the clouds in our sky.
Hard-to-categorize music is very often the best, yet labels rarely seem to know how to market such bands. Do you have any ideas about how bands like Sinisthra, ones that cross and transform genres, could be effectively marketed?
I think diverse bands who cross genres canít be effectively marketed at all. Itís just not possible because there are no target audiences readily available. So I donít envy the people who try to market and sell our records at all. They just have to test the waters here and there and hope to reach enough people who might be interested.
I always knew we would only gain very moderate success with this album. The question is how moderate it turns out to be in the end and do we get to release a second one at all. To add to that, our first album is quite a disjointed effort musically and we can only hope the next one will be a bit more coherent. Probably wonít be, mind you, but one can always hope. At least this time weíve set out to compose a full album, as opposed to just throwing together a bunch of songs weíd come up with during the years like we did last time. But thatís the best we had at the time, and even though it has its flaws, this first album still turned out quite nicely if you ask me.
"Quite nicely" is an understatement. And you absolutely must release a second one, or a lot of people will be rather disappointed. That's an understatement too.
I know we must release the second album just because if we donít thereís no telling what might happen to my sanity and overall well-being. So Iím sure weíll release it at some point, one way or another.
Considering the way genre terms mean different things to different people and change meaning over time, how valuable are they. Given how misleading they can be, are they more harmful than helpful?
I think theyíre more harmful than helpful in our case. Weíre usually labelled as gothic metal, and Iím a bit bewildered by that classification. Then again, you have to put some kind of label to music so people will know what to expect, no matter how vague or wrong their expectations might turn out to be. But calling Sinisthra a melancholic gothic metal band. . . . Then again, Marillion was labelled a Scottish heavy metal band when they first came out. And thatís hilarious if you happen to be familiar with Marillionís music.
Familiar enough (hearing one or two albums) to agree that label is, indeed, hilarious. As to the term gothic metal, I've noticed that "gothic" (paired with either "rock" or "metal") is perceived in widely varying ways, more so than is the case with most genres, with much disagreement as to the essential or definitive elements that make a band "gothic": lyrical subject matter vs culture/scene associations vs vocal style, and so on. J.P. Leppšluoto, whom many would say is a gothic icon, once said in an interview for Germany's Stageact radio show that he didn't regard Charon as gothic because he had never been "into the gothic culture or gothic scene." Labeling Sinisthra as gothic does seem a rather desperate attempt to affix a genre designation, based, I can only guess, on an equating of melancholic with gothic (although that would make "melancholic gothic" redundant.) To find alternatives to traditional genre names would certainly require a great deal of insight, imagination, and courage. I do think, though, that for most people there are certain words or phrases, not necessarily conventional ones, that will induce them to try anything, the trick being to figure out what those are. A great review of Ulver's latest cd, "Blood Inside," for instance, identified its genre as "whatthefuckia," which seems not only accurate but enticing to the right audience (though perhaps problematical for use in some media sources).
This here would be perfect place to utilise a cunning strategy I recently devised where an interviewer asks a real in-depth, thought-out and lengthy question, and an interviewee responds with either ďyes,Ē ďno,Ē or ďI donít know,Ē But somehow it feels Iíll save the utilisation of that particular strategy for later use in a different medium.
The closest we come to anything resembling ďgothicĒ is probably in the way I look and some of the things some of us like, but that doesnít really qualify does it? The things Neil Gaiman has written have always given me great enjoyment, but I understand any associations with gothic culture on his part are unintentional and needlessly highlighted by other people. So my view of all things gothic is bit more old fashioned Iíd say, and isnít really connected with anything ďmetal.Ē Robert Smith is a goth icon. Siouxsie Sioux is a goth icon. Peter Steele is probably the only person in metal world Iíd describe as a ďgothic icon.Ē
Of the genre labels: ďWhatthefuckiaĒ sounds like something Iíd probably buy. But Iím very happy I donít need to put labels to anything myself. Although all kinds of terms do spring to my mind now that I think about it, none of which Iíd willingly attach to our own band but would use without hesitation to describe other bands if I were doing the marketing in a record company. Cold metal from the ever-windy fjords of Norway! The new masterpiece from these Brazilian pioneers of Lethal Metal! The second offering from the undisputed kings of Mexican Mellow Metal! Cancer Metal from Cambodia! Crap Metal from the canyons of California! (presuming California has canyons of which Iím not all that sure).
Hmm. Have I effectively not answered your original question by now? Or should I also give some of my views regarding the mating habits of ducks? Ducks arenít very gothic I suppose. Ravens and crows on the other hand. . . . But maybe itís best not to include any kinds of aviatory subjects here since weíre an underground band and need to keep down to earth with our comments. Maybe weíll move on to next question.
Now there's an even more cunning strategy: keep the interviewer too busy laughing to come up with another question : D.
Sorry about that . . . the medication doesnít seem to work as desired. My rubbish- speaking mode still kicks in way too easily. Must increase the dosage.
Hey, no complaints here : ).
In comparison to your earliest recordings, the last demo released, the critically acclaimed "Empty Banalities Adorned with Dashing Eloquence," was a huge leap forward in terms of creativity and execution, a development that continued, of course, with the album (which includes versions of the 3 songs on that demo). What factors led to this surge?
Iím not sure. Maybe the pieces just fell in right places. They eventually had to, you know. We knew it would take years of development for the band to reach the level we were aiming for. One of our earlier demos was called ďSlowly Getting There,Ē meaning we were making good progress in the right direction but hadnít come up with anything really satisfactory yet. Once we streamlined our concept and focused more on the heavier side of our music, things started to take shape. The lineup changes we went through were a very important factor too.
Of your ambitions for this album, other than the more general aim of getting an album completed and released, in which specific ways has the "clear vision of how to execute" the songs in the studio, alluded to in your bio, been satisfied most fully?
Iím not sure if itís satisfied at all. We almost achieved the guitar sound we were after. The ďclearĒ vision tends to get quite blurred as you record the songs week after week, especially if you donít have an outside producer. We didnít have the option of recording a demo of the album before we started the actual album, and thatís one mistake we wonít be repeating in a hurry. Yes we had demos of the individual songs, but the big picture wasnít very clear because we werenít even sure what songs to include and what to exclude. We are quite satisfied with the finished product, but if we were to record it now it might turn out to be very different.
You've received many positive reactions to the album, in reviews, messages in your website's guestbook, etc. Can you mention some which were especially gratifying, showing that the listeners really "get" what you're trying to do artistically, or ones that made you see your music in a new way?
The reviews have been really varied: some people donít get it at all and some seem to love it to pieces. I understand both viewpoints; if you donít like it then you just donít like it. What surprises me a bit is the amount of opinions saying itís kind of a so-so album, you know, the lukewarm reaction. Of course I understand the people reviewing music are just flooded with albums and canít possibly give enough time to every single one they listen to. And I know itís not a stunning masterpiece and it has its flaws, but I still find the reviews saying itís totally crap much more enjoyable than the ones saying itís kinda alright. The most heartwarming responses are the ones where people have taken time to give it more than a few spins and found things in there that we wanted a listener to find out. But not a single review has made me see our music in a new way. The bands we are compared to have nothing in common with us, and if people really think we sound similar to the bands mentioned in our reviews then I can safely say that itís mostly by coincidence.
As with many debut albums, the songs on "Last of the Stories of Long Past Glories" were written over a long period of time. What can we look forward to with the follow-up album? What are some of the directions you're taking in more recent material? Is there a song on the first album that most strongly gives hints about what the second will be like?
The second album is still a very vague concept and we have no idea how it will turn out in the end. We might include a few older songs, but then again we might not. ďComing Up RosesĒ is the most recent song on the first album, but I donít know if it gives any directions of where weíre going. Weíve completed three songs so far and they all differ greatly from each other. Weíre probably heading towards more metallic territories with crushing guitars, more aggressive vocals and maybe even some double bass drums. Some very fragile songs are likely to surface too. I think itís all going to be a lot heavier than the first album, in many ways, not just sound-wise but emotionally too. There are some very dark things contained in the new material and itís interesting to find out how it will all turn out in the end.
An increase in heaviness and darkness sounds like a natural progression. Is "Sensitive as Fuck" one of those new songs? Its lyrics seem to embody some of those "dark things" and the "violent streak" you alluded to earlier, with some intriguingly ambiguous references to the left hand vs right hand dichotomy. Will some of the new songs, then, reflect a sort of blurring of the boundaries between those two paths?
We have two kinds of songs now. The hard ones could be described as the right hand ones and the soft ones veer towards left. But they donít blur as such. I greatly appreciate, for example, the new Opeth cd, but it seems we donít mix the hard and soft elements in the same song. Maybe we should lest it ends up sounding like thereís many different bands playing in the same album. Weíll see.
ĒSensitive As FuckĒ is one of the harder ones. The title is a bit of a giveaway, isnít it? I have the lyrical concept ready and all of the song titles, but thereís still a lot of music unwritten. Weíll take our time. I want our next album to be the definitive Sinisthra album. After that we can call it quits. Probably wonít anyway since I have the feeling that after the second one Iíll start talking about the third one being the definitive one because the second one didnít turn out the way we wanted it to.
More entertaining explanations to look forward to then, along with some tantalizing musical developments: heavier sounds and emotions, an expanding musical environment encompassing more metallic territories, atmospheric noises. But in the meantime, there's much to savor with what you've already produced, and for many (TOO many) people, the pleasure of discovering "Last of the Stories of Long Past Glories" still awaits them. Thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview and for sharing your thoughts so generously.
For more of Mr. Virta's entertaining writing, be sure to check out Sinisthra's website, where there are insights and laughs aplenty. And by all means get "Last of the Stories of Long Past Glories," on which there are heavy and beautiful sounds in similar abundance.
Links of interest: