After what was intended to be a New Day Rising, Finland's Von Hertzen Brothers came close to calling it a day; the inability of their then label to back up the excellent music the band were making with a plan to allow a wider audience to actually hear it, causing real disillusionment. A brief hiatus where the trio of siblings questioned whether they had the motivation to continue, resulted instead in the band clearing the decks behind the scenes and returning with not only renewed vigour, but the stunning new War Is Over. That album's message is not one that conflict has ended across the world, but that violence only begets violence and therefore war only results in more war. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid recently spoke with Mikko Von Hertzen to discover how near the brink he and his brothers came and find out what battle plans the band have for the new challenges ahead…
Hi Mikko and thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, it is hugely appreciated.
Hey Steven! No problem, there's nothing I'd rather do on a cold a rainy morning like today.
Over the last 12 months or so the band have changed management, booking agent and record label. Changing one of those things would be a big step for a band but changing all three must have been quite a brave move?
We had a feeling of being stuck, almost shipwrecked and nothing was really moving forward. People around us had "abandoned ship" and it was only the three of us left to repair the damage and get back on course. For a while we didn't feel we would find the strength to do it, but after coming up with some of the tunes for the album we felt like we still had it in us… So the obvious next step was to put everything we had into making a good album hoping that we could continue sailing with new people around us.
Your new label is Mascot Records. What was it about them that made you want to be part of their impressive roster?
When you have a long career behind you and then suddenly you notice that the kind of music you make has drifted way out of the mainstream, it's very important to find the right home for it. Today, the major labels tend not to look to the horizon and trust in bands who are in it for the long run. They would rather use artists that deliver fast food, and then monitor their artists' portals and excels on their computers. In this time and age, we knew we would be better taken care off by an indie label. Mascot is a well known label for its love of the guitar and being thus, we felt it was the best possible choice for us.
You've had great success in Finland with your last four albums all reaching either number 1 or 2 in the charts. How much of a challenge has it been to take that success at home and replicate it further afield?
Quite honestly speaking, it's a huge endeavour. The music we make is very hard to pigeonhole and therefore abroad we have been turning heads one by one. Of course, we hope to get lucky and have a little breakthrough at some point, but in this a big part is played by the people you have around you. The music itself can be really good but if you don't have the right people to push it, it goes easily unnoticed.
Your new album is called War Is Over. At a time when, arguably, world peace is as fragile as it has been for 70 years, can you give us some detail behind the reasons you chose that name for the album?
I claim that we have nothing but bad experiences about war and all that it brings. One could argue that evil has to be brought down by force but it has been clearly shown that violence only creates more violence. So the idea behind the title is that we simply have to see peace here and now. It's the only possible attitude and solution to the problems we are facing. The world is in turmoil and all kinds of fears are penetrating the society. More so than ever during my lifetime. We, as human beings, have to understand that the discriminative intellect that we were born with and have been able to develop has to be used to bring harmony rather than destruction to the world.
2015's New Day Rising saw you team up with GGGarth (Garth Richardson) for production of the album but for War Is Over the core trio of the band have taken control of that aspect of things as well as playing nearly all the instruments. Why did you decide to go down this route this time?
New Day Rising was an attempt to let other people decide how the VHB dishes taste like. We as brothers provided the ingredients but GGGarth and his team provided the pots, pans and spices. With all this put together we ended up with a pretty straight forward rock album. One could argue that a few things that make's VHB unique, were missing. Now we just wanted to start the party with the four of us (three brothers with Sami Kuoppamäki) around the table and bring to it everything we think makes VHB what it is at its best. Also, when you have been doing this for many years, every album has to be done a little differently in order for the process to be somehow fresh and inspiring for ourselves too.
And rather than appoint a main producer out of the three brothers, you instead decided to all be individually in charge of production on the songs you had individually written. That's an unusual process. Do you think it altered the outcome of the album in any way?
Yeah, sure it did. I think one of the main reasons for this band being so important to all of us three is that everyone feels a certain amount of fulfilment in getting his artistic vision through to the album. If anyone of us feels that his vision is not appreciated, it diminishes the enthusiasm that is essential in making the art great. We like giving credit, support and responsibility to each other and since we all write music, it was a very natural decision to also divide the responsibility of producing according to whoever had the vision of the song initially. The end result is all that matters and we all feel that the method we chose was a good one.
For the album you welcomed back the hugely respected drum talents of Sami Kuoppamäki. What is it that he brings to your music that makes him the obvious choice for the band?
We have a long friendship with Sami and musically we are exactly on the same page. Being not only our friend but also one of our idols, his style complements our compositions very well. Furthermore, he is technically so advanced that he can cater and deliver even to the most ridiculous ideas we have. Mikko Kaakkuriniemi, who played on our previous four albums, is also an outrageously amazing drummer, so one could say we've been very lucky to have such great guys as "engines" running the music we've come up with.
While Janne 'Burton' Puurtinen from HIM plays keyboards on the song "Jerusalem". How did that come about?
Burton is also an old friend of ours and way back in the 90s, before he joined HIM, he used to play in a band together with Jonne. A few years back, before calling it quits, HIM was a little quiet on the touring front and thus we asked Burton to do a few shows with us… So basically we knew the skills and were also familiar with the gear he uses and thought his input and sounds would sit nicely with "Jerusalem".
I believe that the album was mainly written at your family's summer cottage outside Helsinki - how does that work? Do you all get together and write together as a band, or did you work separately and then bring the material to each other to put the finishing touches on it?
Yeah, we use our cottage a lot for writing individually and we also have "song arranging camps" there. Before we take the songs to the rehearsal studio we go the to cottage and put some final touches to the arrangements of the songs, you know, decide on the keys which best suite my voice, etc. The songs for the album were actually written in many different places. For example, I was living in Tampere during 2016 so many of my songs were written there in a studio I was renting.
And how much do those writing locations inform the music you create?
To a great extent. Personally I feel that the place you're at, especially when coming up with lyrics, is very important. I have an apartment in Southern India where I frequently travel. I use it mainly because there I get good concentration for work. I would say most of my songs for VHB were born there. It's hard to describe the mood I go into while I'm working there but I totally get lost in that world. My flat is on a roof of a tall building, overlooking the Arabic Sea and looking the other way, I can literally rest my eyes on miles and miles of coconut plantations. Having a bird's-eye view on subjects and songs I'm working on is greatly benefitted by the location. It's kind of up to the artist, whether the world around them affects their art or not. I've always preferred music that's "timeless" rather than stuff that deals with just mundane everyday things. Writing from the standpoint of a spiritual seeker, we've been previously careful of letting the world, its politics and problems, seep into our art. But this time, like we sing in the title song, we are tired of this anger. We wanted to address the fact that what makes us human beings is the compassion, humanity and love we can feel and show towards the world and not the negative traits that we all carry in our minds. Mind's tendency is to be critical, greedy, destructive and selfish. We need to cultivate ourselves to become more humble, intellectual, compassionate and clever to tackle the problems our society is facing. I believe that the only solution for this is having a collective awakening. Something that truly puts our fucked-up minds in order.
Musically the album is unmistakably the Von Hertzen Brothers, however the band's sound continues to evolve. How would describe the band's musical journey from, firstly, your debut to now, but also between New Day Rising and War Is Over?
Well, for one thing, if we didn't feel we could evolve, we would not continue doing this. Sure we are fighting against our mannerism and probably tend to repeat ourselves in some ways, but we also work really hard to improve ourselves and our craft. We've come a long way from our first release Experience and the saga hopefully continues. I'm not the person to evaluate our own artistic progress. It must be done by others, since more importantly than to ourselves, the music we make is made for the world.
From the outside, New Day Rising felt like a big success for the band, but earlier you suggested it was actually the catalyst for a lot of soul searching. Can you share with us why that was?
We succeeded making a good album with Garth. But everything that followed the release can hardly be said to be a success. I was talking about how important it is to have people around you that can push the band forward and upward. Three months after the release of New Day Rising we found ourselves in a situation where no one had a plan for us. We felt we had an amazing product on our hands but no one who could sell it. The success of NDR was thus cut short. It took some time to pick up the pebbles and continue playing.
Was there a real possibility that Von Hertzen Brothers would end?
Yes, there was. Many a time we have been asked what it is like to be working as brothers. The only way we got out from the gutter we found ourselves in two years ago was the support we gave and the belief we had in each other. You see, being in a band is fucking hard. It's mainly an utterly demanding and self centred existence. Being creative when everything around you collapses is fucking hard. The only way we got back on track was to admit that we need time to heal, breathe and eventually, create. On the side of all that, we had to slowly put the infrastructure back together to make releasing something worthwhile. Music is fun as a hobby. When you try to do it professionally dedicating all your time to it… well, that's a different story.
You're about to hit the road in support of the album. You must be looking forward to seeing your fans and sharing some new music with them?
By far the best thing about being in a band is to get to meet people who appreciate what you do. That's the reward of all the hours, weeks and months – and in our case, years – you spend locked up in the studio. Music is for sharing and especially a live situation is what we love the most about it.
This run of shows ended with two nights in Helsinki, what are the band's plans after that?
We are taking it easy in January since none of us really had the possibility to take any time off last summer. We are hoping to get back on the road in the spring and after the festival season, maybe get to play some new territories as well.
That's all my questions Mikko, thanks for taking the time to answer them.
(Click here to read our reviews of War Is Over)