When the popular Paganfest II tour rolled through New York last spring, featuring Korpiklaani, Moonsorrow, Blackguard, Swashbuckle and more, we caught up with leading Finnish folk metal band Korpiklaani.
In the following Q&A, guitarists Jonne Järvelä and Kalle Savijärvi discuss the roots of this growing movement, the unique instruments needed to play this music and why its fans often arrive at shows in medieval costumes.
By Brad Angle. Main photos (and following gallery) by Sarah Sturges.
This is a paganfest tour. What the hell is pagan metal?
JONNE JÄRVELÄ We are more like a typical folk metal band. But we are part of this new wave of this music.
What do you consider to be the roots of pagan metal?
JÄRVELÄ Our roots are deep in the Finnish ground and are pretty folk-ish. We are using folk instruments, but we do our own songs. We listened to Bathory, and our bassist [ Jarkko Aaltonen ] is a huge Jethro Tull fan.
What are the key elements that make a band fit in the pagan metal niche?
JÄRVELÄ I’d say the use of folk instruments. KALLE SAVIJÄRVI If you talk about pagan metal, of course there is the aspect of folk instruments. But in general, I don’t know what is in common between the bands in the scene anymore, because each band is so much musically different. Even in this Paganfest tour, there is not that much in common between the other bands and us. JÄRVELÄ Bands like Primordial and Moonsorrow are more like black metal, and we are typical folk metal.
Your lyrics and themes often touch on pagan subjects. The song “Keep On Galloping” [from 2008’s Korven Kuningas] addresses topics of preserving nature and voodoo. I take it these ideas are personally important you?
JÄRVELÄ Yeah, it’s pretty important. There’s so much bad shit that [many people aren’t aware of], that it’s becoming even more important to talk about these issues.
What made you first pick up a guitar?
JÄRVELÄ It was about 25 years ago when I first saw the video for W.A.S.P.’s “I Wanna Be Somebody.” I saw KISS performing “Heaven’s On Fire” around the same time, and then when I heard Iron Maiden’s Powerslave I was sold. SAVIJÄRVI About 17 years ago, during the grunge time, is when I was first inspired to pick up a guitar. All those bands were the biggest influence for me. Kurt Cobain was the first guitarist that made me want to play guitar.
When did you first get turned on to folk music?
JÄRVELÄ When you are Finnish, there’s always a very strong folk influence around you. It’s in our veins. We all know all those old songs. It’s hard to explain, but for us the worlds of heavy metal and old folk just naturally fit very well together. And when they're combined it becomes the best music in the world.
Is the folk aspect of your music the kind of thing your grandparents would listen to?
JÄRVELÄ Yeah. Maybe that’s why we aren’t so big in Finland. [laughs] Many people think we’re just making the old people’s music. SAVIJÄRVI With some distorted guitars! [laughs]
As a player, what technical requirements are needed to make this music?
JÄRVELÄ We play kind of a regular heavy metal thing. But the songs are free and not so bound to regular metal structures. SAVIJÄRVI The guitar riffs are the same as in metal, but we’ll have a violin and accordion play the melodies instead of another rhythm guitar.
What odd instruments do you employ?
JÄRVELÄ I play mandolin. SAVIJÄRVI I play banjo. Or, I should say I’m learning how to play. It’s fun.
You employ a unique style of traditional singing called yoik. Could you explain this style?
JÄRVELÄ It’s a kind of a yoik, from Lapland [a province in Northern Finland]. It’s not Finnish, but rather a kind of chant. I learned it during the five years I lived in the region. It’s a very emotional way of singing, because there’re no lyrics. It’s just what you’re feeling. It’s very melodic.
What piece of gear is crucial to your sound?
JÄRVELÄ I’d say my fingers, first. But of course a good amp helps. I play ENGLs, which are very good. Before that I played Peavey. My main guitar is an ESP FX Standard, but before that I played Amfisounds, which are Finnish handmade guitars. SAVIJÄRVI I use an ENGL Fireball and Amfisound custom guitar. I also have a Gibson Les Paul Standard, which is my spare guitar.
Pagan metal has representatives in many different countries: U.S., Finland, Ireland and Norway, among others. Is the scene filled with people that have strong national pride?
JÄRVELÄ Of course we love our home country. SAVIJÄRVI We are proud to be Finnish…but not that proud! [laughs] You know, we are not nationalistic.
Finally, what’s up with all the fans wearing costumes to your shows?
JÄRVELÄ Our gigs are like a big party. And I think it’s good like that. It’s nice to have some fun with people. If there’s costumes and everything, all the better.