Interview: Dust Mountain
I usually like to write things that don’t have just one meaning but are multi-dimensional and can be interpreted in different ways. The meanings also change when I’m singing in different places. I’m really interested in folklore and old traditions; pagan-rooted Finnish traditions that have been mostly forgotten.
Since the late ‘60s, Finland has had one of the most diverse, eclectic and genuinely exciting music scenes in Europe, and much of that has been brought to a more global audience through the work of Svart Records. The fact that Svart were given their own showcase at this year’s Roadburn Redux festival was testament to the quality of their roster, but if there was one band who stood out that weekend it was the hitherto unknown cosmic folk outfit Dust Mountain. Featuring members of Oranssi Pazuzu, Cats of Transnistria, Hexvessel, Death Hawks and Dark Buddha Rising, they brought a broad spectrum of talents together for a set that was earthy, gorgeous and sometimes unsettling. This month sees the release of their debut album Hymns For Wilderness and in celebration, David Bowes spoke to founders, siblings and prolific creators Henna and Toni Hietamäki to discuss the creation of this singular work of outsider folk rock.
E&D: How are things in Tampere?
Henna: Toni is in Tampere and I live in Helsinki. The rest of the band live in Tampere so I travel from Helsinki for band practice.
E&D: Was the runup to Roadburn Redux quite tough work then?
Henna: It was different, actually. We had our own camera team and lighting technician, sound technician. We rented our own space as we had the opportunity to decide where we would be filming it and who we are working with but also it was a big production to do ourselves. Still, I’m really happy to see how it came out.
E&D: Was that space quite comfortable for you, then? Were you already familiar with it?
Henna: I hadn’t played there before but I think Toni had, with Oranssi Pazuzu. It’s a really nice space, I really liked it. We didn’t use the stage itself, we just used the hall where the audience would be so the camera crew would have more room to move around.
E&D: Did Walter contact you himself for that or was it largely handled through Svart?
Toni: It was mainly part of the Svart Sessions so initially it was Tomi (Pulkki, Svart Records founder) who suggested it but it had to be approved by Walter and we were happy to be included in that.
Henna: We were happy that they had the trust in us to do something like that because we hadn’t released anything at that point. It was kind of a world premiere for the band so it’s nice that they took a leap of faith in the end.
E&D: Did you enjoy having your material out there in a live setting before any kind of official release or was it more nerve-wracking?
Toni: I think it was a nice thing to do because obviously there aren’t many shows happening right now. There will be some soon but at that point, live shows were pretty much impossible. That, at least, was very comforting to do and it all worked very well with our music. It was very pleasant for us though we did do a few very small shows in Helsinki and Tampere prior to that. It was our first for a wider audience though.
Henna: It was very nice for us to get the chance to show people what we had been working on in secret, give us a chance to play in a nice space, and practice for that too. It gave us something to focus on because it had been understandably quiet on that front.
E&D: How long have the two of you been working on this material?
Toni: It has been quite a long time, but I can’t even remember how long it has been since Henna and I came up with our first song ideas.
Henna: I was shocked as recently I was going through my phone, looking for old photos, and I realised that Toni and I first got together at our practice space five years ago. I remember that was when we made the first songs that are on the album. So yes, it has been a while – slow progress.
Toni: Yeah, we have not been in a hurry. We wanted to do it properly and to find the right people to play in the band so that it will feel like a real band. Eventually things came together very nicely but it took some time.
Henna: There have been long pauses in the middle but always when we decided to get active again and practice with the band, it’s been really nice. Things tend to fall in to place and the whole thing seems to work effortlessly.
E&D: The full band work together so well. How did you both come to decide on the line-up?
Henna: Well, the drummer and guitarist have been playing with Toni before in different bands.
Toni: We go way back with both of them. I have been playing with Jukka (Rämänen, drums) in Atomikylä, and he’s in Dark Buddha Rising so we have known each other for very many years. Pauliina (Lindell, guitars/vocals) and I played in Pauliina’s band Vuono, and also have known each other for many years, but we didn’t have a bass player so that was hard to find. We knew Riku (Pirttiniemi, bass)’s band Death Hawks and it was very close to what we wanted to do. Also, he’s a very talented musician, not just a bass player. We are really happy that he also joined the band when we asked.
Henna: I used to sing in the same choir with Pauliina when we were children. We’re from the same small town, we have a long history of singing harmonies together so it was very nice that Toni suggested that Pauliina could be a guitarist in the band, because she has a lovely voice also.
E&D: You’ve stated that the lyrics for the album come from a mixture of stories, folk tales and personal beliefs. How did you strike that balance?
Henna: I usually like to write things that don’t have just one meaning but are multi-dimensional and can be interpreted in different ways. The meanings also change when I’m singing in different places. I’m really interested in folklore and old traditions; pagan-rooted Finnish traditions that have been mostly forgotten. I’ve also been interviewing some shamans working in Finland and I’m really appreciative of their thoughts but there’s also this playfulness. The lyrics are not only traditional neofolk but there are also stories and fantasies that are metaphors and not so strict.
E&D: Does the video for ‘Holy Equinox’, which is such a beautifully surreal piece, tie in with the stories or rituals that you are discussing on the record?
Henna: The movements of the girls in the video are loosely and playfully based in different midsummer spells, interpreted by video makers Tekla Valy and Tereza Holubova and choreographer Lotta Nuppola ‒ who is our sister. I’m really interested in these old traditions that are related with seasonal changes, and phases of the sun; these festivals and traditions that are still a part of our culture, but their origins are often forgotten.
E&D: You come from Tampere, which is largely known as an industrial city. Looking at it from that viewpoint, do you think there has been a recent push back towards folk roots and nature?
Henna: I think it’s a rising trend that people are seeking ways to deal with climate change and the situation of the world, the direction we are going and I think people are getting more interested in those basic, important things in life.
Toni: Yeah, it might be a counter-reaction to the industrialisation and technology surrounding us but I think also that people have a natural draw towards the mystical. Traditional Christian religion is not very widely popular in Finland anymore and I think people are starting to get drawn into these older ways, or at least get more interested in old ways, and how the relationship is between man and nature.
E&D: Two interesting, and telling, artists mentioned in relation to your music are Pentangle and Fairport Convention. How much influence have those artists had on you?
Toni: I really enjoyed the soft sound of that music and how that is instrumented. I think those bands were very innovative and we’re not trying to reproduce that same thing but to take something from that era and use it in this moment, in our own way
Henna: I double that – wonderful bands and a very great inspiration.
E&D: To me, it feels like you’ve taken that sound to a darker place. Is that the modernity seeping in?
Toni: It might be. Of course, Pentangle has some dark songs also but maybe we are drawn to the more gothic side of that.
Henna: Yes, you need some danger beside the beauty.
Toni: Also, there are quite celebratory moments in there so it’s not like it’s mournful. I think it’s more celebratory.
E&D: You’ve been working on this material so long, but how did it actually come together? Was there a concentrated recording period or has it been done in bits and pieces over the years?
Toni: I think it’s mostly that we are just very slow. When we work together on music, Henna and I, I feel it comes very naturally. We have a good chemistry and come up with things very effortlessly, and it’s quite fast, but then to arrange band practice and studio time, it’s a bit complicated because all of us are playing in many bands, and there are time schedules and other practical things like that. When we get together, though, it’s very effortless and the record was done in that way. We went to a fine recording place in Tonehaven with Tom Brooke, a small studio space in the woods.
Henna: It used to be a barn, it’s very nice.
Toni: Then we just captured all the songs that we normally played live and then did some overdubbing on that. We tried to preserve the natural flow of these things in the recording.
Henna: The overdubbing and the mixing process was quite long. Overall, from when we started and went to record the basic tracks to when we were finished, it was maybe half a year? That’s not long! I don’t know what’s normal.
Toni: It depends on who you are comparing it to. If it’s Guns ‘n Roses, then it’s not long.
E&D: Is this the first project that the two of you have worked on together?
Toni: Actually, yes.
Henna: We’ve been asked to play together for family events but that’s about it. We’ve just been together for fun, not seriously, before this.
Toni: I think it was just a matter of the timing being not good for this. I’ve wanted to do music with Henna but we’ve always been doing our own stuff separately. I don’t know why it happened now.
Henna: I’m really glad that it happened just now because I think that now, we are old enough to work together as siblings.
Toni: Yes, where we can not argue like sisters!
Henna: We are now professionals!
E&D: Toni, you said that the two of you have a good chemistry together. Is that because you are similar or is more of a contrast?
Henna: Personally, I like everything that Toni does. I might have some suggestions if I want to take a melody somewhere else in some part but I appreciate his talents. Like he said, it’s usually quite effortless for the two of us. I think we have the same taste and both want to push things. We are both ambitious, though I think Toni is maybe more musically ambitious than I am.
Henna: I mean, neither of us want to make generic musical structures. We want to try to make creative choices.
Toni: I think we have similar tastes in aesthetics. We do like some different things but I think that is only a good thing in terms of complementing each other. I think we also have quite clear roles when we write songs. I mostly write some guitar lines and chord progressions and then Henna comes up with the vocal melodies. Both of us come up with what makes us feel good and then we try to make it work together. It’s pretty much that simple.
E&D: Were you both involved with the mixing and recording of the album? It has this wonderfully warm, very rich quality to it.
Toni: Niko (Lehdontie), who is also the guitarist in my other band Oranssi Pazuzu, did the mixing. He’s a really good guy for that kind of natural sound with cosmic overtones. He has a taste for that kind of stuff and is really good with effects, things like that. We worked really closely with him but he did all the technical work himself.
Henna: I think the overall production is a lot of Toni’s handiwork. The layering of the organ brings a lot to the sound.
Toni: Yes, I did quite a lot of the stuff for the arrangements, like the mellotron and keyboard, that kind of stuff. Then we just handed the whole mess to the mixing guy.
E&D: So, what’s next on the agenda? Henna, you mentioned some live shows in Finland.
Henna: Yes, there’s still restrictions but it looks like we can do a couple of shows when the album comes out. It would be nice to play a lot of shows but it’s still in the process.
Toni: Of course, we are trying to do many shows when the album is released but it is impossible to say just now how many we can do with the situation in the world right now. We are also trying to write some more songs but it is hard to say when they will be finished, Maybe five years from now if you go with the previous timeline! Maybe earlier than that though.
Henna: I’m curious to see how the album is received, that will affect how many shows we can play and where.
Toni: I’m very happy about how the album turned out and I’m very excited to hear how people are receiving the music.