Interview: Von Hertzen Brothers
""We wanted to do everything ourselves, and harness what we feel is very special about our band, and emphasise those things, leading to the fact that it’s maybe a little bit more proggy"
(((O))): Introduce yourself to our audience.
Mikko: I’m Mikko from the Von Hertzen Brothers, a Finnish band.
(((O))): There’s quite a prog scene in Norway and Sweden. Tell me about the scene in Finland and how you fit in.
Mikko: The scene in Finland for progressive rock is underground. I don’t recall many Finnish prog rock bands that would be in the top 40, like we are. There’s definitely stuff going on: psychedelic rock, Kaleidobolt are doing well and touring Europe all the time; Hexvessel and Jess and the Ancient Ones, these little bit more mystic, occult bands.
In today’s world, it’s very fractured. You need to stand out, also, by being original and unique. This is album number seven for us; we’ve been around a while and we have a large body of work with our previous bands so we’re quite well known. Thus we can do a lot of work internationally. All in all I’d say the scene in Finland is lively, but to break out from that distant country is quite an endeavour. European bands can use a van to travel here and play some gigs. We need to load everything onto a plane, which is costly! It’s not as easy to make your presence felt in other markets.
(((O))): Tell me about the approach you’ve taken on the new album, War Is Over.
Mikko: It’s definitely a response to the previous album (New Day Rising), which we made in Canada with a producer. That was a big deal for us to fly over there and hire the best people in the rock business of today, really, and to try to make a really straight forward rock album, which was something we felt like doing then. But now, as a reaction to that, we wanted to do everything ourselves, and harness what we feel is very special about our band, and emphasise those things, leading to the fact that it’s maybe a little bit more proggy, for example.
(((O))): Why did you feel the need to venture into what you described as straight forward rock, on New Day Rising?
Mikko: We were known as a prog rock band pretty much everywhere in the world, and we are not a prog rock band. We have prog influences, but we’re a rock band. We felt we needed to take some steps to question our own vision, to bring in new ears and find in us something we hadn’t been able to do ourselves and bring something forth. For years we heard people saying “you’re an amazing live band, but it doesn’t really come out on your albums”. So we wanted to have someone who’s done really good records – Garth Richardson, who’s worked with Rage Against The Machine and Biffy Clyro – and it was very much worth it.
It was something we needed to do, almost like a present we gave ourselves after years of doing all the work. We were living in a nice house, we had engineers doing our stuff, we didn’t have to worry about anything except playing. That’s very different, when you use only six weeks in a studio. War Is Over – we’ve spent 18 months making the album! I value the experience because now I know how stuff is done in the big world, and out of that we also got some noise we could use on this album.
(((O))): Talk to us about the lyrical themes running through the record.
Mikko: When we decided we wanted to take on such an epic theme as ‘War Is Over’, we knew for starters it had to be the first track. For one, it’s 12 minutes long, and wouldn’t fit anywhere else on the record. As a statement, it’s something that should repeat itself in the lyrics. As I write all the lyrics I started thinking about the album as a whole, rather than just being individual songs. It’s not an obvious thematic album; there’s something underlying, so some of the themes repeat throughout the one hour trip. I’m usually not political in my writing, but we live in such weird times, and the world is changing so rapidly, and it’s very hard to respond to that without experiencing some insecurities and fears, and that seeped into the lyrics; so I think that by our standards, this is our most political album. We’re making statements about how we feel we should respond to the situation.
(((O))): Your DIY approach doesn’t just stop in the studio. People like the way you relate to your audience. Tell us about the relationship you have with your fans.
Mikko: The main thing is we don’t see ourselves as above the fans. They are our friends. There is no “fan-artist relation”, we are doing this together and that’s been the thing since the start. People would follow us, come to our gigs and travel a long way to do so. Of course they would come for the music, but also they’d come because of how we treat them, and how we see them as really important to us. Because we love them – we couldn’t do this without them. We treat them as equals, which they are. We have the talent to make this music together, and a big part of it is we feel they are there for us, and we are there for them.
(((O))): What’s it like being in a band with your brothers, particularly going on the road?
Mikko: It’s a conscious effort that we all are making. We do acknowledge the positive, and the negative, of being in a brotherhood and within each other. And if we can harness that energy we have as brothers, and make it a powerful experience for the fans, then we’ve done a good job. It’s always easy to find fault, and pick on the negative, and lose your temper – it’s easy. It’s more challenging to put that aside and say, “your important to me, you’re doing a great job, you were awesome tonight.”
The key is we all look at the positive side and everything that each person brings to the group. We never say, “you’re such a prick.” And if we ever do, it’s part of the creative process, and someone has another opinion about it, so we might have a heated discussion; but it never goes on to personal things. We want to make the art as good as possible, and we know that is sometimes painful, but we share that responsibility. On the latest album, I know if my brother is the skipper on a song, he has the producer’s hat on; I might know that I’ve got some ideas, I might tell him about them, he might think “that’s a good idea”, imbibe that idea and make it his own. We learn to trust each other.
(((O))): Are you able to have more forceful creative arguments because you have such a strong connection?
Mikko: A certain diplomacy is lost when you’re brothers, or very close to someone. You don’t have that filter of being polite always, you just say “that’s shit”. But then you have to have a good argument as to why that’s shit. And know that what I’m saying about that particular part is not the answer [or] how to fix it; but I’ve acknowledged that someone else’s part needs attention, and needs to be fixed in some way. That’s usually how it works. If I have a song and my brother says “that chorus isn’t good enough”, I’d say “fuck you!”, but then, 2 days later, I’ll have a better chorus for it. So it works. That’s the beauty of being brothers in a band.
The aim is to raise the bar, keep getting a little better, until we can’t be any better. We know that if we work hard we are going to be exceptionally good – we know we have that in us, as a brotherhood. We just have to not let ourselves off the hook too easy; and that’s why every single song has to stand on its own feet. There are no loose songs – no filler. Every single song is a good one. That might sound egotistic or narcissistic, but it’s not – there are three brothers all writing, so each of us can make three really good songs. That’s it – that’s an album! So it’s not a huge chore to write three songs.