Pagan Metal Roundup: Moonsorrow

When the popular Paganfest II tour rolled through New York last spring, featuring Korpiklaani, Moonsorrow, Blackguard, Swashbuckle and more, we caught up with Finnish pagan metal band Moonsorrow.

In the following Q&A, guitarists Janne Perttila and Mitja Harvilahti discuss their pre-Christian beliefs, anti-nationalism and the future of pagan metal.

By Brad Angle. Main photos (and following gallery) by Sarah Sturges.

This is a paganfest tour. What the hell is pagan metal?
JANNE PERTTILA Well, I think pagan metal is just heavy metal with lyrics about spiritual themes, our ancestors and the pre-Christian beliefs in Finland.
MITJA HARVILAHTI And in Scandinavia in general. Things that tap into our heritage.
PERTTILA In Finland, it’s part of everyday life. These traditions are mixed in with the Christianity traditions and you have to seek a little bit further to understand why these traditions exist and the deeper meaning behind them. We’re not here to preach about it. We’re here to make people aware that they can see for themselves that their nation has its own history and traditions.
What specific aspect of pre-Christian beliefs interest you?
PERTTILA Nature. All of the old beliefs were tied in with nature. If you listen to our more recent albums, you can feel a sense of nature in the music. The lyrics are a bit more abstract, ranging from water to darkness and so on. The themes don’t always have to deal with Finnish traditions, but they should give you the feeling of being in Finland or the Finland/Scandinavia region.

So you guys are sort of tapping into these spiritual forces.
HARVILAHTI We do it for the sake of building an atmosphere, at least that’s what I personally believe.
PERTTILA We use it to show respect rather than to tap into one particular tradition or belief.
HARVILAHTI There are obviously fans of this scene who take it really far and actually living it out, like they’re trying to be Vikings or something. [laughs] Well, to each his own!

Do you have any wild fan stories?
PERTTILA I have a good one. We were in the U.S. a couple of years ago for Milwaukee Metal Fest and this guy comes over to me. I was wearing this rune and he asked me what it was. I began to explain it to him and he said, “Do you believe in Odin?” I told him no, that I was an atheist. He told me to fuck off and that I was not getting in to Valhalla! [laughs]
HARVILAHTI There are a lot of people that are surprised to find out we are just normal guys.

What do you consider to be the roots of pagan metal?
For me, it’s definitely Enslaved from Norway. I got introduced to them when I was 13 or something and they were definitely the most influential pagan black metal band during that time. Vikingligr Veldi, their first album, really opened my eyes to the use of pagan mythologies in the music. Plus, back then, even though there were some Norwegian bands that sung some songs in their own language, it was almost exclusively in English. But these guys sang the songs in Icelandic and gave me the idea to explore that in our music. We are not viking metal, but on our last EP, Tulimyrsky, we explored viking metal themes. It was just an EP and we wanted to do something fresh, but otherwise we are much more pagan metal than viking metal.

What made you first pick up a guitar?
PERTTILA Yeah, same here. I was four years old when I first started listening to the Beatles. In all of those pictures where they’re holding their Rickenbackers, there’s just something really magical about those instruments. I’ve been obsessed with guitars ever since.
HARVILAHTI My parents had a few Beatles records from their youth in the Sixties. I got hooked on to their Sgt. Peppers LP, and the package was so nice. It blew my mind. When I was like seven or eight, I gradually bought all of the Beatles’ records with my allowance.

Did you guys take guitar lessons when you were younger?
HARVILAHTI I borrowed some self-learning materials from the library and played along to records. Then I eventually started to take proper lessons. At the same time, my parents made me take violin lessons for like eight years, and I absolutely hated it. [laughs] In hindsight, it was probably a good idea because I wouldn’t have learned all of the theory and musical knowledge at such a young age. Then when I hit puberty, I discovered punk rock, beer and women. [laughs]
PERTTILA I took classical guitar lessons for like 15 years, but I suck at it nowadays. I more or less learned how to play electric guitar by myself. Since I was nine, I’ve always been in some kind of band. I would start in one class, then move on to a new school and make new friends to start a band with, and so on. My earliest bands were black metal...but not when I was nine. [laughs]

What guitarist most influenced your style?
Guys like Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, [Dave] Mustaine, Dimebag Darrell, Alex Skolnick – whose solos are just godly – and Trey Azagthoth.
PERTTILA For me, I’d have to say [Spanish classical guitarist] Francisco Tárrega and his complete opposite: Jeff Hanneman. [laughs] I love how Hanneman can play the same lead in every song for so long.Plus Slayer have this punk attitude when they play. They are a perfect example of how you don’t always have to be always perfect in your technique and still be able to express your aggression through your guitar.

Do you bring that same mentality when you’re playing?
PERTTILA Not really. When I compose my guitar solos and such, as well as the other instruments, I always make it fit the music. I never do the Jeff Hanneman stuff in our music because it doesn’t fit. I take the existing parts of the song and write my leads to that, rather than writing leads just to have leads. They have to have meaning to the song. If I was playing more aggressive music, then I would go ahead and explore that realm.

One characteristic of pagan metal is its use of instruments that aren’t traditionally associated with extreme metal. What other instruments do you employ?
In the studio, we use a lot of these old instruments, like the accordian and Jouhikko [traditional Finnish violin]. We stay very true to our roots so we never had any awkward situations with the hired musicians. A lot of folk metal or pagan metal bands these days can’t write good heavy metal music or good folk music. They should just concentrate on writing good heavy metal songs and if they want to add in some folk stuff, concentrate on writing good folk songs.
HARVILAHTI And it doesn’t help now that the scene exploded in Europe and it’s starting to happen here in the United States as well. All of these bands are coming out of nowhere, and some might have something, but most of them don’t.

What guitar technique/approach makes you stand out from the pack?
PERTTILA I’d have to say my Pete Townshend stage move and hanging my guitar lower. [laughs] That’s it. Well that, and a sense of melody.
HARVILAHTI I'd say the fact that we try to avoid harmonizing in the style of Iron Maiden, and do something with its own flavor.

What piece of gear is crucial to your sound?
PERTTILA My Gibson Flying V. I’ve been using it live for a few months and it’s the best live gear I’ve used. Buy it also depends on the situation. For amplifiers, I need an amp that has a straight-forward rock sound but with a bit more edge and a natural sounding EQ. I can tour with the effects easily. I plug straight into the PA, and through the head. That way if the head breaks, I am still on in the PA. As for my guitars, they are all Gibson. I have a collection of them, starting from ’79 to the modern ones. I mainly use the ’98 Natural Limited Edition, the Gothic, and, if I have the courage to bring it with me, the Silverburst from ’79.
HARVILAHTI I don’t have mine anymore. [laughs] I had a nice ESP custom shop star guitar that was stolen at the beginning of this tour in Montreal. The guitar I’m playing now is an ESP Eclipse, the standard model. For amps, I use a VHT rack unit with an ENGL preamp. Unfortunately, it’s hard to bring your own backline, so I would say that the most important thing is to be able to dial in a sufficient sound with whatever the gig gives you.

Pagan metal seem to have representatives in many different cultures: U.S., Finland, Ireland, Norway, among others. Is the scene filled with people that have strong national pride?
PERTTILA Unfortunately, historically there are some countries, like Germany or Russia, that have destroyed pagan cultures and beliefs while employing pagan symbols to represent their views. I hate that. I hate it when people associate us and these symbols with the Nazi movement, or think we are right wing nationalists.
HARVILAHTI Of course, there are some good reasons for us to use these symbols, but it’s a touchy subject for some people. It’s hard for us to explain it without sounding like nationalist bigots. When you talk about pride, it’s not about thinking you are better than someone else or the self-righteous aspect of it.
PERTTILA And you have to keep in mind that there are pagans all over the world, in places like Siberia, the Amazon, Africa. It’s just recently that Europeans are rediscovering their pagan history. We came from these Christian backgrounds and are rediscovering our history after many generations of being away from it. We should be supporting these smaller nations who are struggling to keep their pagan culture alive after all these years.

What’s up with the costumes, chainmail and facepaint that many people and bands wear in the scene?
HARVILAHTI Well, it’s always funny to see people in hats with horns...and it always makes my day. [laughs] Living in today's culture, it’s always refreshing to see people dress out of the norm. It seems as if you include the word “heritage,” it makes the scene more “real” and attractive. It’s not something that I would do, but I can definitely understand it if you wear a costume to the party.
PERTTILA On our earlier albums, we dressed up like that for the pictures in the booklet. But not anymore. I have nothing against it, and I think people should have some fun once in a while.

This movement is just getting going here in the States. Where do you see it heading?
Hell. We've played so many pagan metal festivals in Germany with so many sucky Finntroll copies that it’s unbelievable. Occassionally, some good bands pop up but I wish it wouldn’t escalate any further.
PERTTILA And if you look at the lineup for this tour and other similar shows, it’s always the same bands because there aren’t enough bands with potential, yet. The scene really needs some new blood and quality music. Otherwise, these same bands will tour for another 10 years.
HARVILAHTI You just can’t mix distorted guitar with an acoustic guitar or accordian and say you’re as good as Korpliklaani or Finntroll. It’s like the Sunset Strip in ’84—if you had big hair you would sell lots of records. [laughs]

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Brad Angle

Brad is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and video producer. He is the former content director of Revolver magazine and executive editor of Guitar World. His work has appeared in Vice, Guitar Aficionado, Inked and more. He’s also a die-hard Les Paul player who wishes he never sold his 1987 Marshall Silver Jubilee half stack.