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In 1995, lead guitarist Markus Toivonen began the Heavy Metal band Ensiferum, (which means sword bearing). The Helsinki based band has long mixed their metal with traditional folk melodies, while relying on mythological concepts to bring meaning to their message. But the band has gone through enough changes over the years to almost start their own mythology. Nonetheless, Sami Hinkka now carries the lead vocals, the bass and bears most of the burden of getting Ensiferum's updated message across.
“We got labeled as viking metal, but the latest album Unsung Heroes is totally about real life,” said Hinkka. “I really liked the challenge of finding metaphors that make connections to heroic themes.”
But why mess with success? “I think it's only natural to evolve. When you get older—at least for me—you want your lyrics to have meaning.”
We’re all human.
The reinforcement was verified after a concert in Germany. “There was a girl who came up to me almost crying—'telling me that you're singing the story of my life.’ And she was from Iran. So when your art has such an impact, and somebody has so much emotion out of your music,” he said, “that's rewarding. That's when I realized, oh yeah, this is definitely something I want to do more of.”
As for the young girl’s origins, he admits the cross cultural connection is pretty crazy. On other hand, his rationalization makes perfect sense. “We're all human beings,” he asserted.
The incident isn’t isolated either. “We've traveled on every continent, seeing all kinds of people and cultures, and you realize they're not that different. And even when you think about the folklore, there's usually common stereotypes of certain heroes and antiheroes," Hinkka said. “So it's pretty much the same world.”
In the Beginning….
He began to occupy the musical one with two older brothers. The three brothers grew up with AC/DC and Iron Maiden. But his older brother led Hinkka's way and the strings began falling into place. “He’s a really good guitar player, and I wanted to jam with him when I was a kid,” said Hinkka. “He recommended I get a base. I was 17 then, and now I'm 35 so it's been quite a life.”
The heroic, folk metal he’s now immersed in emerged out of the popularity of Irish folk music in the 1990’s. His connection to Ensiferum took a turn as well. “I was going to record an album with another band, where I met Markus. Afterwards, he gave me a ride back, and we went for a beer. We talked, and a few months later, he called, and asked if I wanted to try out for bass," said Hinkka. "Here I am 10 years later.”
A Long Journey Made Easy
Either way, the milage looks exhausting. So is Hinkka looking at his expiration date yet? “At the moment I'm in the best shape of my life. I would say I can go at least another 20 years,” he revealed.
Of course, the odometer also applies to a singer’s vocal chords, but Hinkka is on top of it. “There's a technique. I mean, I can't say it's not hard but it's doable. So if you do it correctly you're not hurting your vocal chords. You just have to know what you are doing,” he said.
His voice accounted for too, the actual journey leaves the band without any worry as to the lengths they must go. “We love what we do - especially live shows. We have such great fans. We go from culture to culture, and everybody's in a good mood, looking to have a good time,” he said. “That’s what really connects us.”
The same goes for making each outing interactive. “The interaction with the audience is really important, and the fans are always surprised when they see us out after the show. But we're all human beings and without you guys we wouldn't be here,” said Hinkka. “So you have to realize the privileged situation your in, and the bigger you get, the more humble you should be.”
Don’t Judge a Metal Book by its Cover
Metal fans violently banging their head and hair about, the bands that play to the relentlessness may not have a choice. Hinnka suggests that the look should not be judged by its cover. “They are the kindest people. Yeah, you see the long hair, everybody dressed in black with tattoos and piercings, but they are the warmest people.”
He uses himself to help provide the proof. “I got long hair and a beard, but my other job is that of a kindergarten teacher,” he joked.
In fact, he feels that the so called violent nature of metal music had the exact opposite affect on him. “I'm from not such a great neighborhood. The fact that I went to rehearsal and played on Friday nights kept me away from doing stupid things. But in a larger sense, people get too carried away with what they see on the surface instead of looking deeper for the true meaning,” said Hinkka.
Live Your Life and Accept Change
The sentiment is in line with the message Ensiferum is trying to get across. “I just hope people try to live a happy life,” he said, “be aware of yourself, your actions and emotions and live.”
As for Unsung Heroes, the album piggybacks the presence above. “Almost every song talks about change. Accepting that makes your life better,” he said. “You should approach this moment more than living in the past or looking too far into the future.”
Music does exactly that for him. “It's such a big part of my life that I couldn't think of life without it,” Hinkka concluded.
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