“The thing about older music is that to me it’s ageless. Pete Seeger once said, that he likes the idea of musicians being the next link of a chain, and the chain originally started around the camp fire thousands of years ago.”
– Jura Salmi, Sammal
Interview by Jason Guest
Jason: Hi Jura. Many thanks for taking time out for this interview. Svart Records have delivered a number of pleasant surprises to my inbox for review of late and your debut is another gem (Ed: Jason’s review is here). To begin, can you tell us about how the band formed and what it was that drew you together to form and start writing as a band?
Jura: Me and Jan-Erik already met in school, when we were 16. We shared somewhat similar interests in music, and worldviews overall. First we had a band where the style was more of that 90’s style, grungy-psychedelic rock. The band was called Resident43. We formed sort of a songwriting team then, although that band was democratic. Other member’s lives and interests drifted away from the way we wanted to do music and in some ways, we had found our way to do things. Mostly older music, rather than current music inspired us. For us it was never about just Zeppelin or Sabbath. From the start, we felt like they we’re part of the current modern rock- scene. After all, their songs are the ones playing on rock radios and having high-profile re-releases. We respect them, but we’re more interested in the whole underground scene worldwide that gave birth to the “big names” of the 60’s & 70’s. And of course wanted to dig deep in the Finnish music history; that seems to be next to oblivious to today’s Finns.
We felt like it’s okay to be Finnish and do this kind of artistically freeform music. Music that’s composed the way we like, then played without pretence, in an unplugged sort of way, meaning, no heavy distortion pedals, compressing, trigger drums etc. just pure expression and music from instruments and our hearts, not calculated or trying to follow a trend. That to me is the most progressive thing about Sammal. Funny thing is that a trend might have caught up with us. Not sure, heh…
Jason: How has the band evolved since its inception?
Jura: We are a band, instead of just two guys playing and singing. We started as a two man group, not knowing if we’d ever play gigs. Now we’re a real band and everyone is contributing to the songs and every aspect of the band. Bassist Lasse Ilano for example made the video for ‘Kylmää Usvaa’ from his grandmother’s old super 8mm films.
Jason: Who are the band’s influences and how much impact have they had on your sound?
Jura: I remember wondering, why do I like, say Camel’s of Finnish Haikara’s sound and music so much? They know how to play for sure, but it’s the simple thing that occurred to me. It’s just really guitars, keyboards and drums, not 100 tracks from pro tools, but just really minimum, you can hear every sound from each instrument, not 20 guitars compressed into one big block of sound. The list of bands is endless, it’s more about the style and what and how people thought about in the old days of “Age of Aquarius”. When the world still had hope, sort of speak. Things of that nature are even more important nowadays when it seems, economies are collapsing etc. People aren’t free to be themselves. They know what is right. Love your family, love yourself, respect nature and treat animals well. But very few are doing anything to change the way things are really.
To us, music and this type of music is an outlet for our ideas and feelings. The thing about older music is that to me it’s ageless. Pete Seeger once said, that he likes the idea of musicians being the next link of a chain, and the chain originally started around the camp fire thousands of years ago. Luckily I think, more and more music is done from the heart now, than maybe ever before the beginning of the record industry, because not many are selling millions of records. You have to do it for the right reasons. Sadly still, people worship celebrities and musicians, when they should be really expressing themselves and questioning the status quo of things. Older bands led by example by singing about all types of issues and playing with emotion. We like a lot of bands from Anatolian scene in Turkey like Erkin Koray, Greek prog, Romanian etc. Finland is located between East and West, so those countries had bands that successfully mixed psychedelic “western” prog-rock with music from their native countries. There’s a lot of that in Sammal too.
Jason: How does the band write songs? Do you bring individual ideas or songs to the band or is it a collaborative process?
Jura: Some of the songs are put together in jams with the members of the band that happen to be at our rehearsal room. Many times one of us has an idea, and we start developing it slowly together. I’ve written a few songs with our singer, where we’ve put the whole thing together instantly in one night.
Jason: How do your songs begin their life? Is it with a melody, a riff, a lyric? And how do they develop?
Jura: Sometimes a riff or a melody line. Many times, it’s a feeling or some mindscape, that we have in mind, and according to that, we try to achieve it. Normally it’s the guitar, drums, keys. Then the bass comes in and vocals in the end. But it varies. We might demo songs by ourselves, depending how people are available. We just recorded a demo for a song. First played drums, then developed a bass line for verse and chorus and then tried to come up with something interesting with the guitar. Needless to say drums on that demo are shaky, not knowing what I would play after them, hah.
Jason: Band’s debut albums usually consist of material that has been played live for a while and so have evolved within that setting. The songs have a very live feel to them, as if you have spent a long time jamming them out and getting a feel for what they would eventually become. How have the tracks evolved since they were started?
Jura: We only played 2 gigs with this line up before studio. Keyboardist Juhani Laine joined the band in January 2011 and we went to studio in June. So we played through them quite a few times when practicing. But still in the studio, we played live and some parts are really improvised within the structure of the song. Even vocals were done live at the same time we played. Some keys and backing vocals we’re overdubbed. But how we record most of our rehearsals listen to know songs, and make remarks of what works and what doesn’t. When that is clear, we start practising, and surely now, after the recording session, we are a lot tighter, and new songs that are coming are sounding tighter. Still, we like to play in this band, because it seems that when we start playing, it’s like one organism, not just separate instruments, and recording mostly live will be thing in the future too.
Jason: Who writes the lyrics? And what is the main source of inspiration for them?
Jura: Jan-Erik writes the lyrics. I sometimes contribute a line or two. He really writes about things that are going through his head. They’re inspired by everyday life, the everyday people’s worries and problems; nature is a huge inspiration, social injustices, myths, spiritual state of man, even marital problems I guess.
Jason: For those that don’t speak Finnish such as myself (and perhaps our readers), can you tell us about the lyrical themes and concepts?
Jura: Luckily we have a translated lyrics sheet on both LP and CD versions! I think somehow the music’s feel and the lyrics go hand in hand. You kind of know what he might be singing about, even when you don’t understand the lyrics. Our singer’s way of writing lyrics isn’t really typical. It’s not straightforward; it’s metaphors, dreamlike atmospheres, hopes and fears.
Jason: There are quite a lot of bands that choose to write in English despite it not being their first or even second language. Besides it being your first language, why did you choose to write in Finnish?
Jura: For us, when we tried doing music in Finnish, it was like opening the flood gates. It felt natural and expressive. It affected my guitar playing a lot too, as it influenced the other instruments too. We had done music in English for few years already, and Sammal just had to be in Finnish. But we’re doing some stuff in English and Swedish in the future too. We might do existing songs, or might just try them live. The whole band is from the Finnish west coast, and some have Swedish speaking relatives too.
Jason: Now that the album is completed and on the verge of being released (through Svart Records on 18 January 2013), what are you most proud of? Are there any tracks in particular that stand out for you?
Jura: I’m proud of the whole band. It’s not easy to find five like-minded thirty-something guys and start doing this kind of music. You have to be mature enough to do hippie-prog/rock. I like all the songs, especially when playing them.
Jason: The album artwork is incredible. Can you tell us what it represents?
Jura: It’s our singer’s wife’s interpretation of Sammal’s music. To me, it’s a guide to thinking big when you think small. I find new shapes from it every time I look at it. It’s like people. When you look closely, nothing is as simple as it seems at first glance.
Jason: How does the artwork relate to the music? Does it relate to the band in any way?
Jura: It’s really humane, and mysterious. Our music is simple, but still full of texture too.
Jason: Who’s responsible for the artwork? And how much direction did you give him/her in its production?
Jura: Marjo Kiviniemi for the main picture. Singer Jan-Erik for additional artwork. I wanted the cover to be simple and the gatefold to have a picture of us standing under a tree that is important to me.
Jason: Since you began recording, how much time have you spent on the album?
Jura: We recorded the album in two days, about 22hrs. Different mixes were done after that. We did it live and quick also to save money. We paid for the whole recording and mixing.
Jason: Where did you record the album? Who with? And what was the experience like?
Jura: V.R.Studio in Turku Finland. It was the hottest weekend of summer 2011; it must’ve been 35 celsius inside. Exhausting but fun. Our good friend Jussi Vuola was the engineer and we recorded the whole thing on reel tape.
Jason: How did you come to be involved with Svart records?
Jura: We have contacted them over the years and sent demos. They’re based in our home town, and are specialized in vinyl so they really were our first choice. They saw our gig last August and I contacted them after that. Kimi Kärki from various bands (Revere Bindzarre etc.) was really a big help, being so enthusiastic and telling them to sign us! We were just about to send the masters to a vinyl pressing ourselves with our own money. Luckily Svart signed us. It would’ve been a lot slower to get any attention for our album without a record company like Svart.
Jason: With the impact of illegal file-sharing on music sales, as a young band releasing their debut, do you have any concerns about survival in what seems to be an increasingly difficult market?
Jura: We really don’t worry about it. Our dream is to get to play good gigs, make friends along the way, maybe travel abroad for some shows. And maybe hoping for some minor radio play. I know that people who really want to listen us, will buy the album. I trust them.
Jason: Early days I know as the album is about to be released, but is there more music in the pipeline?
Jura: We have an album full of material, so yes sir!
Jason: What does the future hold for Sammal? How do you see the band developing?
Jura: We hope to find our audience and continue to write music to make us feel good, that maybe will make others feel good too.
Jason: Do you have any plans to tour in support of the album? If so, any plans to come to the UK?
Jura: Not big plans yet. We have a promoter now, so let’s see what happens. Got some gigs lined up for the spring. Hope to come to UK of course, (hint hint, Svart boys). Many things depend on powers that be. But we’ve done this for a long time, so we’re not in a hurry. You know there’s a Finnish proverb that goes something like this: “When you hurry, you make children with piss for brains”. That says it all, or does it?
Jason: Again, many thanks for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any final words for our readers?
Jura: Stay strong brothers and sisters!
Thanks to Nathan Birk for arranging this interview.
And you can visit Sammal on FB here