As Von Hertzen Brothers’s new album War Is Over is nearing its release date, we couldn’t wait to chat with the frontman, Mikko, and ask him about the lyric and philosophical content of the record, discuss recent changes in the band lineup and massive changes in Mikko’s own lifestyle over the years. Did you know the singer used to keep a vow of silence and even went celibate? We didn’t know either! Read the interview and get surprised!
Hi Mikko! How would you describe the theme of the new album?
It’s kind of dramatic. The issues we’re raising on this album like war around us give it a little bit more depth. I’m not saying it’s a conceptual album but there is spiritual death, regarding how we should treat each other and what’s the problem with the humanity, unable to solve these issues peacefully. I feel that this album is like independent paintings on the wall in an exhibition. An exhibition might have a certain theme but it’s still independent works.
Is your new record going to pick it up where the last one left off or take a totally new direction?
If I have to compare our new album with what we’ve done, it would definitely not be the last album, New Day Rising. It would be more on the lines of Approach album, which came out 10 years ago. Maybe it’s more musical, a little bit more free in the sense of range. We’re playing maybe a little bit more widely, not so structured. It reminds us of Approach maybe because we were doing it ourselves back then and we had the same drummer. We were free to express our vision more independently, regardless of what people around us expect. It’s more of a theme album than the last one.
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Did you use any new techniques recording this album?
First of all, when Sami was playing the drums, we were playing along with him, and we kept a lot of those takes, guitars along with the drums, because there was some magic in those tracks. Now most bands don’t do that. It was more loose, compared to the sessions we had in Vancouver with New Day Rising. But then, of course, we learned so many things from Vancouver that we utilized some of those approaches as well. Like, recording the guitars, we had so many amps at the same time, many microphones that we could choose from. So we were paying more attention to the beats on this album. And also because we didn’t have a keyboard player with us in the studio, it meant that we had to dive into it and do all the orchestration ourselves. And now I feel that somehow the guitar has a bigger role on this album than on previous ones.
You’re releasing War Is Over this November, but usually you had a spring release before…
Yes, we usually put out a new album in March but I have to say that this felt really nice because I have to make the record when it gets dark and wet. Because we’re so far north, you know, it reflects on the album. If you spend autumn and the darkest months of the year in the studio, you end up really drained of energy. But being in the studio in March, April and May like we were now, we didn’t feel so heavy about it.
Did it also find reflection on the album? Is the music a bit lighter this time?
I think so. It may be a little bit lighter. It can be a very tedious process of making an album: it requires a lot of time and effort. And when you have a sunny day outside and it’s getting warmer, it makes you feel a little bit happier. You can always go out and walk in the nature and come back and continue to work. I think it was a big revelation because we haven’t done it like this in many years.
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You’re now signed with a new label, Mascot Label Group. How did you find each other?
We had a deal with Universal before, and it finished. We started thinking that maybe in today’s world the stuff that we make doesn’t really fit in the major labels. And we wanted to have fresh people around. On the one hand it’s really good to be loyal, but on the other hand you also have to be sensible towards the feeling that the inspiration level around you starts to diminish. That’s what happened with this album, so we changed pretty much everything around the three brothers. We changed the labels. We changed the agent. We changed the manager. We changed the band members…
Yes, let’s talk about that.
Of course, the brothers are still there but the drummer and the keyboard player are different (Sami Kuoppamaki on drums and Robert Engstrand on keyboards). They’ve been doing it with us for 10 years so you could sense that they maybe wanted to try something else. So we talked and they did gigs with some other artists. They’re good musicians, so talented, so they easily find other kind of jobs. And being in a band is hard. We had a tour here in Finland and we knew it was our last tour together. It wasn’t like “You are sacked! Get the f–k out! I don’t want to see you anymore.” We talked, then we had a few more shows together and I feel that we were on the same page. Everybody knew why we decided to part ways and everybody was okay with it.
Could you introduce your the new band members?
The drummer we have now, he played on Approach with us before in 2006, so he’s a very good friend of ours. He’s one of those drummers that everybody in Finland regards as one of the best drummers of the country. Also, he has two kids and I’m the Godfather of both kids, so it was very natural to ask him and convince him to come join the band, play gigs and work in the studio.
And then we were thinking: who would be a good keyboard player? On this album we played all the keyboards ourselves, except one song where the keyboardist of HIM, Burton, played – it’s the song ‘Jerusalem’. But, of course, Burton is now busy with HIM. They’re making their final shows.
How did you get to work with Burton of HIM?
Burton has a small recording studio in the same rehearsing space with us. Also, Burton played a few festival gigs with us in the summer last year. He’s a good friend and he’s also from the same high school as all of us, Sibelius High School.
The first single you’ve released from the new album is called ‘Arsonist’. On the one hand, it’s very you, but at the same time it sounds unique because it feels very uplifting and has these positive vibes.
Yeah, for example, you can feel that we’re not taking ourselves that seriously. There is a little bit of a twinkle in the eye. That’s something that we had never done before. We’re usually very serious-minded. On the ‘Arsonist’ you can feel that there is a little bit of humor. In this song I make sounds like “Uh!”, “Cool!”, which I had never done before, and it feels refreshing.
With the previous album a large new audience around the world learned about you. Is your new album aimed at the same audience?
It’s very difficult to say. Bands always try to make their music and their art as good as possible. But everything that follows from there is always a big question mark. Of course, we hope that the fans that we have will love the album, because those are the people we “cater” to. We try to please only ourselves and follow our artistic passion, but, of course, I don’t like the idea of losing people. Then there’s something wrong. You always have to do something better and better, so the people would find you and share your music. And I really hope that we will reach new markets, for example, the German market. I’m sure that there are people who would love the band, but how to reach those people always depends on the people that you work with and their channels.
You’ve traveled a lot this year and you generally travel a lot. Has it helped you get inspiration and ideas for new songs?
I always take the music that we have and fly to India. My thought processes and concentration are so much better when I’m there. I can concentrate fully on the song, the music, the message and on everything that has to do with the lyrics. I’d always rather be somewhere else working on the lyrics then here in Finland. Because here I’m all the time busy doing everything else. Writing the lyrics is my main job in Von Hertzen Brothers. Nobody else will do that. So I want to have the space and the creative freedom to try things out without any stress and without anybody pushing me. That’s also one of the reasons why I always travel a lot and try to find places that inspire me. When I witness something in those surroundings, it might give me the spark to write something that might inspire someone else after that.
How about your new song ‘Jerusalem’? Is it inspired by your visit to the place or is the name metaphorical?
It is both. It’s a problematic area. Everybody knows what Christ did when he went there, so there’s a lot of meaning behind it. Of course, there’s more of a metaphor in the lyrics. We are in the crossroads as people. We are dealing with very important issues at the moment, and in order to solve them we need to keep our arms and our hearts open. Otherwise, if we tend to close doors and build walls, we’ll destroy everything that we’ve built. That’s not going to be the answer. I hate to be political in my writing but you can’t help it because it’s so tangible all the time how people are dealing with these changed surroundings. The world is very different from what it was 20 years ago, and we have to accept it and have a peaceful and understanding approach. We are not supposed to destroy this place. We are supposed to make this world better for generations to come.
Have the band members had any changes in their personal lives that found reflection on new material?
Yes, of course. As we have such a long career, we always want to try things we haven’t tried before and write songs that are fresh. And, of course, the fact that we get older every day brings some kind of consciousness and life experience that definitely find their way into the art. Also, my big brother has two kids, and that somehow feels in his writing. Spiritually, I always write music from that same angle, being a spitirual figure in a materialistic world. I’m not interested in the fashion of things. I’m interested in eternal things. There might be some enthusiastic periods, then their might be some low periods – life is like that. And depending on where you’re at, it’s clearly shown in the music you make.
Since the album title is War Is Over, I would like to ask you if you have fought any habits of yours recently? When you said “That’s over now! I won’t do it again.”
Maybe not fought the habits but there was a time when I was more strict with myself. In 1994 I became a vegetarian and in 1998 I became celibate. I had very scrict rules to myself. Then there was a time when I decided I wouldn’t start a discussion, and I kept to that for 1,5 years. So if somebody came and talked to me, I would answer but I would never start a discussion.
What? Like, with anyone?
With anyone. I was working in India all the time and I was talking so much everyday. I felt like it was too much energy wasted and I just wanted to keep some energy to myself. It was like a form of celibacy. It’s called a vow of silence, a vow of controlling your tongue and your mind. But, of course, the life that I’m living now as a band member is very different from those days. I’m always trying to be a better person. I try to send people signals that I’m a peaceful and loving person, and that’s the thing I should be doing. I should be helping people rather than thinking what’s best for myself.
I didn’t know you used to be that strict to yourself before. So, now you are letting go a bit?
Yes, but I don’t overindulge into many things. Like, I didn’t drink alcohol in twelve years. Now I can have a glass of wine or one beer when I go to sauna but I never overdo it. I haven’t been drunk since 1997.
How come you remember that well?
I turned 25 in 1997 and I remember on my birthday I promised myself that it was the last time I drank. And after that day I was without any alcohol for 12 years. Now I can have a beer after the show or a glass of wine with dinner but that’s it.
What about new habits? Have you started doing anything new, like, any sport? Do you keep fit?
Honestly, I should do more and take more care of myself. But what I do is I go for walks: I love walking in the nature, I love walking by the sea. Then, I go jogging. I don’t lift weights but I should. I play badminton and sometimes basketball, which was my passion when I was young. But I’m a little bit lazy in that sense because all my focus is on the music.
War Is Over will be released November 3, and you can hear the band’s newest single, ‘Arsonist’, below to get a taste of the upcoming record.