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Markus Vanhala: “The Omnium Gatherum family is still growing stronger!”

Het is altijd een waar genoegen om met componist/gitarist Markus Vanhala te praten. Hij speelt al geruime tijd in Insomnium, maar sinds zijn prille jeugd is hij ook de bezieler van Omnium Gatherum. Deze melodieuze death metal band is nu klaar met het negende studioalbum ‘Origin’ en deze nieuwe worp kwam niet zonder slag of stoot tot stand. We vernemen het lief en leed van de vriendelijke Fin tijdens ons uitgebreid gesprek dat plaatsvond op een herfstige zondag.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 22 november 2021

Things haven’t been easy since the release of the previous album ‘The Burning Cold’ in 2018. Omnium Gatherum had some hard times and you did a lot of work…
Indeed, we had a lot of bad luck after ‘The Burning Cold’ with all these line-up changes and people who are getting tired of touring. Then came the pandemic and we were in the USA, starting to tour right at the moment when the pandemic hit and we just got to play one show in Philadelphia and then had to fly back home and cancel all of the gigs. That wasn’t exactly cheap: flying to the USA, play one off show and paying all the buses and backlining crew and whatever with our working permits. The pandemic was rising to the level of panic exactly at the moment when we were flying to the USA. We were flying in the air and didn’t know anything about this. When we arrived at JFK Airport in New York, it was completely empty. At first we thought: this is a pretty good thing, because usually when you arrive at JFK Airport, it took hours and hours to get out there with the immigrant services and stuff like that. Now it took only five minutes to walk out of the airport, but after all it wasn’t a good thing at all. And we are still in these weird times, but Omnium Gatherum was kind of in a happy place, in the way that our ‘The Burning Cold’ cycle was already ending.  It should have been the last tour in support of that album and we were already in a writing mode. The album was already postponed, so we could write more songs. This time I really had more time to concentrate on the album, composing and I threw half of the demos away and wrote new music and polished the songs a lot. So it hasn’t been all bad, because I think the pandemic did really good for this ‘Origin’ album and it is as good as it gets this time. That is why I am really proud and happy with this album, at some point, about a year ago, it seemed like this album wasn’t going to happen, due to people leaving the band and bad stuff happening. It seemed like the ‘Origin’ album was forced to be the thing that should not be, but we fought ourselves through this shit and the album came out really good. Good things always demand some pain to be born.

What was exactly going on within the band?
Joonas had enough of touring and after the really long tour we did, supporting the ‘Burning Cold’ album, we were like five or six weeks flying in Asia, Australia and Dubai and he really got enough of travelling, so he left already then in 2019. The bass player left a few weeks before him, because he had these other musical projects in Finland going on, like major stadium shows and big productions. He did not have time enough anymore. And that is the funny thing, when the pandemic hit, neither one of these two guys would have left the band, because suddenly we got this extra time, one and a half year to do nothing. On the other hand the drummer case was really weird. I think that one was more like a corona meltdown. We were rehearsing these songs already for four days and we really had a good time. A week after those good rehearsals – and there were no clouds at all – he sent an email that he was leaving. He didn’t give us any explanation why he was leaving and he did not answer anymore. So I don’t know what was happening, a brain meltdown? But fortunately we have found really great guys filling in for these guys. The Omnium Gatherum family is still growing stronger!

That’s the most important thing, because in the end it is your baby…
Indeed, I formed the band when I was 14. I have been over the half of my life in this band, so it is definitely a baby and it already grew into adult age. 25 years this year!

You played all the guitar parts on this album and for the first time you did some clean vocals in the studio. Can you tell a bit more about this challenge for you?
Haha yes it seems every ten years I am playing all the guitars on an album. Last time it was 2011, I played all the guitars for ‘New World Shadows’, before Joonas joined the band. Now we just decided to go with one guitar tactic, it was rather easy to do it this way. Jani L is going to be filling in as a live member and Nick Cordle from USA is also our live member. Those guys are our two trusted guys. I have been singing at home on my own demos for a while, for years and years. Maybe that is also part of this corona madness, but I started to train singing more and more and started to sing background vocals during gigs more and more. Now I basically did all the clean leads for this new album. It was something special. I did not see that coming, But it is cool, it is something new and fresh for me and it keeps it interesting. Why not? But in the days I only sang when I was shitfaced drunk and in the karaoke bar. Maybe I have gotten a bit more self conscious to have the self esteem to do this. Omnium Gatherum is becoming The Beatles or The Eagles of death metal. Many of us are singing: Aapo is doing some growls, Mikko does some vocals, only the drummer is not singing.

For years you recorded your albums with Teemu Aalto and Dan Swanö as producers, but now you returned to the Sonic Pump Studios and that was long ago…
Yes, we felt – like every band feels now and then – that we should change the producer. We did fifteen years albums with Teemu recording all the stuff and Dan Swanö mixed four or five albums, so we really thought to do something new with this album and not repeat the same formula. We needed some fresh air, production wise. With Sonic Pump… Nino Laurenne did the first two OG albums and the first EP. After seventeen years we came back, full circle, working with Nino in Helsinki at Sonic Pump Studios. We had a great time, it immediately felt like back in the old days when we started to do this album. It was nice to go back in time with Nino during these sessions. After all, nothing has changed. All the big jokes were there, really bad jokes too and no one grew up to adult in those 17 years. That is great!  Don’t grow old, it is a trap for life! The mix on this album was done by the amazing Jens Bogren. I think he really did a good job. He also mixed the Insomnium ‘Heart Like A Grave’ album. I liked his production and then I asked him to do also OG and he was really interested. He topped himself again I think, this album sounds amazing!

Extra congratulations for the guitar skills and the solos. In the last track ‘Solemn’ the beginning is very Pink Floyd-ish…
Indeed, it has some ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ touch… That is true. I always liked to do these epic ending songs for OG albums. I have always been a fan of long tracks, but on the passed previous two OG albums there was none of those songs. Now I really wanted to change the course of the band little bit back to the earlier days and it really demanded a longer, epic track. ‘Solemn’ came out pretty well. It has a Pink Floyd start and there’s some rocking black metal riff. All the Omnium Gatherum glory! (laughs)

Why did you call it ‘Solemn’?
I don’t know what is happening in the lyrics, I only know the big lines of the lyrics and Jukka is going on the same path that he has been on previous albums too, because he likes to do these quests for journeys through the human mind. Now he said that this album is more like an in depth trip through people’s mind, it is a journey about life’s great mysteries and revealing them, what feelings are there to the fate and beyond…  It is typical Jukka about life mysteries and beyond. Every song has a different story, but it is with the same red line. I am not exactly sure what’s happening in ‘Solemn’, but it is like a great ending song to go to sleep.

Some of the songs have an uplifting vibe. Do you agree with that?
Yes, from my bands, Omnium Gatherum is always more uplifting than Insomnium for instance. Jukka’s lyrics are really uplifting. There are positive messages, hidden underneath and I think the music in OG is also.. hopeful maybe. Melancholic, but hopeful. We like to call this adult oriented death metal or like I saw in the comments on the ‘Reckoning’ video: death leppard (laughs). We are taking some influences from those eighties stadium bands indeed. Def Leppard and Journey and Toto and all these kinds of cock rock bands. I always think that it is better to take influences somewhere out of the box than close to your sound. If you play melodic death metal, it would be boring to take your influences from the melodic death metal bands like Soilwork. It wouldn’t make any sense for us to try to sound like Soilwork, because Soilwork is already here. I like to borrow these tricks from other genres. Like another comment on the video recently: ‘a great soundtrack for Top Gun’.

The video for ‘Reckoning’ is shot at a marvellous place near your hometown.
Yes, that is an island Rankki, here where I am living. It is not so far from the Russian border anymore, out in the sea. It is an old military island, but now it has been opened for the public. This island has the best and most beautiful rocks in Finland and it really looks cool, you can see that on the video. On these rocky beaches I like to hang out. I like this seaside area where I am living. In Summertime I am going to the island with my boat and like to spend some time there. So it was kind of special for me to go to that island. It is nice to shoot a video and people can see what kind of places we get the influence for the songs. It is really an Omnium Gatherum landscape.

I think it has been a rather hot summer in Finland this year, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was crazy hot. I think this was the hottest summer in Finland ever. It was like Miami (laughs). After the video shooting day, I remember everyone of us was burnt so badly. We were the whole day in the sun and there were no clouds. So we gave everything for the result, even our skin hehe.

One of the first gigs you played after the corona time was in Belgium!
It was amazing to go to Belgium this Summer, since we played at the Alcatraz festival. It was amazing to see, after all this shit storm, that this festival actually happened. It was like a true old school festival, over 10,000 people per day and everything worked. I was almost feeling like crying when going to stage, feeling this old vibe. Thousands of people…

Without masks…
Yes, that was definitely this summer’s top point! Mayhem was the only one wearing masks.

You see many bands?
I think I watched Mayhem and At The Gates. They were very good, it was their first show after the pandemic. Everyone was so pumped up.

Was it for you the first show after the pandemic?
We were pretty lucky. I think we played four festivals with Omnium Gatherum and I also did four shows with Insomnium, so I was the lucky one to play that much shows last summer. We played in Austria and Belgium, thus also abroad and that was great. I really hope things will develop in a positive way. I also see a silver lining in these whole lockdown times, because last ten years I have been on the road 200 days per year. Now I finally had some time for a normal life at home. For example I moved to a bigger house, away from the city centre and be able to do all these kind of normal things which were not possible during the last ten years, that was positive. Also I am writing a lot of new music, it is almost like a day job just to write music to keep my sanity going. Maybe you have heard I formed a new band, I Am The Night, which is a black metal band. We already recorded an album with this band and this album is coming out pretty soon. And we formed a new gothic super group also. We have one album full of music already and this band is going to be published hopefully later on. We have a really great Finnish/Swedish line-up. I will be really lucky to reveal this secret soon, but we are doing this slowly, but these are the silver linings during the pandemic. I can do all these kind of projects that I always wanted to do, but I never had time. Now it is time for adventures and exploring! Music and also in ourselves, in our own life.

Indeed, I can imagine if you are used to be on the road so much, it can be confronting when it suddenly falls away and stay at home for such a long time…
Yes, first it was really confronting and then I started to do all the stuff, because I am not the kind of person who is just sitting in the sofa and watches TV on and on. I have been really busy during these times.

Home is also an important place where you ought to feel at ease…
Yes, home is pretty important in life. I also want to build a really good home studio in my house now. When bad things happen, you have to invent your good things. We had like two years full of tours coming, but everything was cancelled, but that happened to all the bands, so we must swallow the pill, it would have been more nasty if only our tours were cancelled. It would feel worse, maybe it is going to be a battlefield when the market opens again. If all the bands go on the road, it is going to be a war field. It will still take some time to settle to this normal life.

Your special car is starring in the video for ‘Paragon’. We should talk about that!
My green Corvette is my big love. By the way, this week I bought a new American car, with a great history. It is Aleksi Laiho’s old car. His sister sold it to me. It is really great to serve this memory of Aleksi and his car. He will get a new life in another guitarist’s home, so that is really cool. I drove with it two days ago and it is an insane car. It is a white Chevrolet Monte Carlo 87. It is a really loud car. It is like a drug dealer car. Something for ‘Breaking Bad’ drug dealers haha. You don’t see that car that often here in Europe at all. On the video there was my true love, my green Corvette. That video for ‘Paragon’ was probably the funniest video I have ever been part of, because I was doing my own stunts myself. Also Mikko was driving the car himself and we were racing like for real. It was no posing. The director was saying: ‘you don’t have to drive that fast, it will be cool’ and then all the five cars were racing with each other and no bullshit. I think that really can be seen on the video. We are not posing, we are doing it for real. The other cars were from the person who was driving. All cars were my friends’ cars, not the band members’ cars. That was something I wanted to do for a long time: US cars in modern music videos. Back in the days there used to be a lot of car videos. It is a really uplifting video, it is completely different from, for example, Insomnium have done. I was thinking that we need an uplifting video after these dark times. Many people need Summer vibes, they have enough of this Finnish melancholy and sadness, snow and winter. Omnium Gatherum is not about this Finnish winter.

That is good, because otherwise there is only depression. Now we have dark and light.
Yin and yang. In Insomnium I always play black guitars and in Omnium Gatherum I always play white guitars. That is my yin and yang, that keeps the balance and keeps me sane.

How many guitars do you have now?
My wife asked me lately (laughs) and I had to answer that I don’t know. Then we counted it and the number of the day was 28. So I can say that it is already going to the collector side of things. I love guitars that much that I want to collect them. I have all kinds of cool guitars: Van Halen model, Randy Rhoads model, Adrian Smith signature, many special ones. On tours I am buying second hand guitars on the road. I always try to use my time wisely while touring. Be a little bit tourist and go to the guitar shops and music shops and collect guitars and collect vinyls. I have a huge music collection and I still don’t have Spotify.

Neither have I and I never sold any vinyl in the past…
The real products, CD’s and vinyl and riding the real cars! Opel and Chevrolet used to be on the same plant (brand) in General Motors, that’s a funny thing. Old cars rule. They will last a lot longer than new ones. I am not seeing these new electric cars being on the road still after… my corvette is 33 years old. So I am not seeing these new cars on the road for so long. Some people would say that driving a big benzene engine is not so good for this world, but driving my old car is also recycling in some way. You don’t use new materials, no waste extra. Saving the planet and not getting new ones all the time. I am really afraid that these new electric cars with computers will evolve like phones, I really hope that the car industry will not act like with phones, that you need a new phone every year because your software is getting old and you cannot update your software anymore.

That is the curse of economy: always changing to preserve their money making… you don’t decide yourself when to buy a new car, you are forced into cycles… then I am getting angry!
Yes, same here. And then the world will be saved by these bad mining for that battery. A thing in the battery comes from mines in Africa. Chinese companies steal it from Africa and they sell it to the Western world as ‘ecological’. The world is twisted. I like to be like a dinosaur, practise old things. Some things are again in fashion. All the things go in cycles. The world is always going in waves, back and forth.

You see that in mythology too…
And in music. For example, on this ‘Origin’ album, I really tried to look back to the catalogue of Omnium Gatherum, albums like ‘Beyond’ and ‘New World Shadows’ and get some old influences back from those days.

Does it mean that you have been listening to those records before writing something?
I am really bad in that. I never listen to my old records. When they are ready and mixed, because you are so close and in the studio making the album, maybe you have heard it a hundred times when it is mixed. When it is ready, I put it on the cell phone, and I don’t return that many times, but for this album I listened to the albums ‘Beyond’ and ‘New World Shadows’ again to explore what was going on in the music back then and try to get those feelings back.

And now you had the time to do that…
Yeah… self-exploring years… Sometimes you miss many things, or you forget many things of your inner self during the years.

I have written a diary for a long time and when I read it back now, it is like entering that world again…
That must be a funny and scary thing at the same time, reading old diaries. People should definitely write more diaries. I have a calendar, but it is mainly in my head. I don’t have that much notes from my passed life and that is kind of sad. It would be funny to go back and read what was in my head at fifteen or something. But I still remember the first times of everything: first time album out, first time recording, first time in the US or in Asia. These things are printed in my memories.

What are the plans with Insomnium?
We just released an EP ‘Argent Moon’…

Oh yes, that’s true, I reviewed it!
Now we are already on the writing mode for the next album. We will start record it early next year. We had a little bit different approach for these four songs, because it was an EP and we wanted to do something special for the EP. So it is more like this mellow side of Insomnium, but that doesn’t present the path we are heading, because the new stuff is again more metal, the usual Insomnium, even more aggressive. People shouldn’t be afraid that we are getting an old and mellow ballad band, this was just the heart of this release. I really liked the idea that all the songs were singles and all the songs had a video. I think that is the modern way of doing releases. It has been in the pop culture forever this way, but now in metal. Metal used to be more album oriented – which I love, because metalheads are collectors and they buy vinyl and CD’s which is cool – but now people are getting more interested in videos. By the way, we are going to release two more videos from this OG album, so it is going to be four videos in total.

Are they already shot?
Yes, I just got the edit for the next video, that will be ‘Fortitude’, the ballad song. The video is more like a play through video, but we have been filming it at the summer cabin where we have rehearsed for this album and it is like our centre where we always rehearse with the band. Now we open this view to the public, so people can see where we have made these songs. We filmed nature too. It is an island too, but you can drive there with the car, near Kotka where I am living. There will also come a video for ‘Unity’ and that is more like a play from our rehearsal place and that’s not even ready. I haven’t seen any edit for it yet. I guess so many people are listening to music through YouTube, so people want more videos. At the same time, there are not any TV channels anymore which air videos, but still the demand for videos is bigger than ever. So it is a bit paradox.