Learn to play. Learn your instrument. And write your own songs. Even if you suck at both at first, do it. . . then you can play whatever you want. And stick with it! It’s an over-saturated market everywhere, so it’s hard to get noticed – but stick with it!
On tour in the UK with Insomnium for the first time in January, guitarist Jani Liimatainen tells Nathan Lagden about the joys of group writing, the mix of genres in his metal make-up, and the surprises soundchecks sometimes spring on you!
E&D: You’re here promoting Heart Like A Grave, which came out in October last year. What has the reaction to the album been three months on?
JL: It’s been pretty amazing actually; everyone seems to love it. We didn’t expect this much love for the album, but it’s had really great reviews and now we’re nominated for a Finnish Grammy in the metal category. We’ve also had lots of people coming to our shows who know the new songs, as well as all of the old songs – it’s crazy!
E&D: And how has it been doing the songs in a live setting in terms of playing and getting to grips with the music?
JL: It’s been really fun. Our last tour was Winter’s Gate, where we were playing that every night, forty minutes of music, and playing the same songs over and over. So when we do a new album you get really anxious to play new songs live, since it’s more fresh to you as well. And so far, it seems like a lot of the songs work really well live as well. Of course, this is still the first leg of the tour, so we haven’t played all the new songs live, but at some point we will switch some of the old songs out and put some of the new songs in; since we can’t play all of the new album and then just some of the old songs as well, that would be weird.
E&D: How about the UK crowds, you’re over here for a little while, so how have they been so far?
JL: So far, so good, yeah! This is actually my first full UK tour; I had only played a couple of festivals here before back when I was in Sonata Arctica. So far, we’ve had two shows and they’ve both been really amazing audiences, and they go wild! Yesterday, I didn’t see this, but our lighting guys were saying there was a wall of death and circle pits were going on all the time, even in the songs where you wouldn’t expect them to be.
E&D: You’ve only fairly recently become a full-time member of the band, but you did tour with Insomnium quite a bit before that.
JL: Yeah, I think I did the first tour with them in 2015.
E&D: How did that relationship start?
JL: Well, I actually met Markus Vanhala [guitarist] at a Live Nation party in Helsinki, Finland. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, but the party was winding down and I went to get some more punch. The punch bowl was kind of empty, but not totally empty and Markus came over to help me get some more booze out of it. Then we started talking and he was like “you live in Kotka, right?”, which is our hometown, “I’ve seen you there, I know who you are. And I’ve always wanted to come to talk to you, but I’ve always been sober, and I’ve always been too nervous to do that when I’m sober; but now I’m drunk, so hello, I’m Markus”. So I was like “Hi, I’m Jani, we both live in the same town so we should go and have a beer some time”. We exchanged phone numbers and then we went for a beer in our hometown, became friends and then at some point they needed a guy to fill in for one tour and he asked me “can you do it?” And I think that the first and the second one I couldn’t do, but the third one matched and I could do it, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. They’re all really nice guys and they play really great music, so there’s no complaining from me.
E&D: All good things happen through booze, don’t they?
JL: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!
E&D:Has there been any transition between you touring with them and joining the band full-time, or has it been like it was before?
JL: It’s been pretty much like it was before when I was touring with them. The only thing that’s changed is that I was involved in the song-writing for the new album. That was different.
E&D: How involved did you get in the writing process?
JL: Well, we now have four guys writing music for the new album, so it’s amazing that it still sounds so coherent. Usually it would be a case of too many spoons in the same soup, but it was really nice actually. And it was fairly easy to get the style and feel of Insomnium and write in that style. I didn’t have to try to mimic anything, it came naturally, since the band has a very distinctive sound that is already there. So writing was easy: I wrote one of the songs by myself, I wrote one with Niilo [Sevänen, vocalist and bassist] and I wrote one with Markus, so a lot of collaboration.
E&D: As you say, it is a very cohesive album, and there’s a very strong theme that runs through it. Was that something that you had to learn, or was it more of a natural process?
JL: It was a natural process. And obviously I don’t know how they worked in the past, but this time everyone was giving input on everything – not only on our own songs, but to other people’s songs as well. We were always sending emails back and forth with mp3s; everyone listened to the new demos and everyone pitched in and said “I like this” and “this can maybe be changed”. For instance, I got some really good ideas from the guys. I sent a demo and they were like “yeah, this is great, but that part should be the verse”; and I was like “yeah, you’re fucking right, it should!” I would have never thought of that, but they just instinctively knew that it would work better this way even though I had been working on it for many days.
E&D: Was that quite a different process from anything that you had experienced in the past, or was it something that you were quite used to?
JL: No, this was actually the first time I have worked like this with doing co-writing and going back and forth. I mean, I have co-written some songs before with other guys, but that has been a bit different as usually we have been in the same room writing at the same time. But this time we were really focused on it; we were exchanging lots of emails and we were making lots of different versions of the same songs.
E&D: When you first joined the band, how easy was it to get to grips with playing all of the Insomnium songs, and again, how different is that now with the new songs that you help to write?
JL: Yeah, now it’s natural, but since I came from the power metal scene there was some stuff that I had never played before. It was not technically more difficult, but it was just something that I had never done. So that was a little awkward at first, but now it is second nature. For instance, I was often playing songs with the guys and I would watch Markus and I would be like, “Oh, you’re playing it like that! That makes way more sense than my version”.
E&D: When you recorded the album, you had three guitarists and for some shows you have three, but for most you have two guitarists. How difficult is that to move between, especially with the old songs which weren’t written to have the extra guitar in at all?
JL: Well, the old songs still have a lot of guitar in there, so it is not that difficult to find parts in there to play. The real difficulty is that sometimes we have three guitar players and sometimes it’s two. And depending on whether it’s three or two, we play kind of different arrangements of the songs. So for instance, we played in Finland during the summer; we played some festival shows where we had three guitarists. The we had a bit of a break, and then we went to Mexico with only two guitars. And there during the sound check we realised we have never played this song with only two guitars. What are we supposed to play? Are you going to play that, and I play this, or what? Because Ville [Friman, guitarist] was playing this part and this is kind of important, so someone needs to play this. And we only realised this during the sound check! [laughs]
E&D: Do you have a favourite Insomnium song to play live?
JL: Well, back in the day I used to love playing ‘Mortal Share’, since it’s so fast and heavy; but recently we haven’t been doing that. From the new album, I really like doing ‘Pale Morning Star’ since it’s so long and fun to play. Most of the songs though are really fun to play live.
E&D: You’ve been around in the metal scene for a while now, not just with Insomnium, but with lots of other projects. In your experience, what’s been the biggest change from when you first started out to now?
JL: Well, it’s the change in the music industry with all the streaming services. The digitalisation of music has been a big fucking change; and it’s changed how people listen to music and how they perceive music, because now it’s available any time, anywhere. And it kind of feels like a devaluation of music, because everything is so easily accessible, and people get used to it. And for young people, it always has been like that; but I remember when you had to go and buy an album and physically put it in the player. So that has changed a lot. Other than that, not really much. It’s still the same how playing music works and how making albums work.
E&D: In terms of the different subgenres of metal you’ve been involve in, is there a difference with the crowds and how they respond to you?
JL: Not really, I haven’t seen that. A lot of metal people are the same; it doesn’t matter if they listen to power metal or some kind of more extreme metal, they still seem to be very nice and outgoing people. I think this was more a thing of the past where the genres were fighting with each other with black metal and death metal being at odds when I was young. But that was in the 90s. I think, at least nowadays, metal people are usually really open-minded about all kinds of stuff. Like for instance, I come from the power metal scene, and to them Insomnium would be a really heavy band. But then are there are actually really heavy bands who would think that Insomnium is not that heavy; but no-one throws that in anyone’s face and people are really accepting and understanding. I mean, we’ve toured with The Black Dahlia Murder who are way heavier than we are, but really cool guys, and their crowd was good as well.
E&D: And you’ve got Conjurer as well on this tour, who are also really heavy.
JL: Yeah; unfortunately, I have not had the chance to actually see them because when they are playing, we are setting up. But hopefully there will be one venue where it is easy to go to side stage and watch them for a while.
E&D: What’s next for Insomnium after the UK tour?
JL: Well, we go back home. And then we have one show in Dubai, and then we have four shows in Finland, then we have five weeks in America before we come back home, and then we have the Scandinavia tour. Then it’s summer so it’s festival season. So lots of shows to play, but that’s the deal – it’s the album cycle.
E&D: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who’s just starting out in a band, what would it be?
JL: Learn to play. Learn your instrument. And write your own songs. Even if you suck at both at first, do it. Write your own songs, find your own style and learn your instrument so then you can play whatever you want. And stick with it! It’s an over-saturated market everywhere, so it’s hard to get noticed – but stick with it!