ThisIsNotAScene found Mathias “Warlord” Nygård of celebrated painted horde Turisas comfortably ensconced in a press room arm chair, where he waxed lyrical about doing it the Turisas way, ill fitting Viking helmets, Hollywood classics; fantastic UK crowds the importance of not being an armchair hero.
From Finnish forests to videos shot in Californian deserts, Turisas have come a long way since 2004’s Battle Metal! What has the journey been like?
When you’re in the midst of it all you don’t really notice things changing that much. We used to play the London Underworld and now we just played The Forum a couple of weeks ago, that’s playing to about 2000 more people. It’s just been about trying to stay focussed and do your best in many ways and you learn all the time as well. What comes back to me all the time is that you should trust what you think is best and just follow your intuition. There’s always gonna be the people who say “That’s a shit idea, it won’t work!” and put you down, saying something is too complicated or too big a risk, but you should just go for it. So from now on I just gonna stick to pushing forward with my vision rather than listening too much to what others think we should be or do.
Turisas has seemingly made a whole new genre of battle metal, what do you think of the label?
I think it’s funny seeing as it started out as a small inside joke! We had made our music, but we didn’t know what to call it and pretty much as a joke started to call it ‘Battle Metal’ because it had some trumpets in it and stuff and songs you would go to battle to. And then that little inside joke turned into the name of our debut album “Battle Metal” as well, and that’s where things really picked. It’s not really easy to define battle metal, I don’t really even know what the definition of it should be, because we just do what feels interesting and right at the time, so if Turisas is battle metal and battle metal is Turisas then I guess battle metal is bound to change all the time as the band goes through change, or we cease to be battle metal, if it is an unchangeable thing. I don’t know (laughs).
As a band you are always evolving and diversifying on every album. Some fans are worried that by becoming more accessible, the some of the uniqueness will be lost and they won’t be able to wave their plastic swords around as much. What is your reaction to that?
First of all if you’re someone like Motorhead it’s going to be very easy to just do what you do and people will love it for the next 10 years, and if people hate it, they just won’t get into it. We never felt that to be our path. I really love bands like Motorhead and AC/DC even though they never change and always do the same thing. There are always artists like David Bowie or whoever who manage do to different things at different times, yet it still feels Bowie, and there’ll always be people who love his glam stuff more than his 80s stuff, or the other way round, and that’s how it should be. But most of all it should be what the band wants to do and what they find interesting rather than trying to define ourselves through what people expect us to be. That would be very dangerous, I think. Instead we should just do what we want to and to stand up to any accusation. I think the more sell out, to use such a term would be to do exactly what is expected. It’s easier to market a band who say “Hey, we’re Turisas, we wave swords and we play this kind of music” and that’s it. And we do it on the next album and the next and the next. It’s much easier to work like that, and fans love it and the press love it and everything, rather than having a band that is constantly finding new ways to express themselves. People are afraid of change and I think it’s actually more daring to change things than to stick to the same formula that people loved four years ago.
With Stand up and Fight you’ve modernised your image quite a bit. What influenced the decision?
I think throughout it was clear than when we got a new album cycle we wanted to redo the visuals a bit and redo the stage show. The music sounds different to the previous album so it all goes hand in hand with that. And with Stand up and Fight the influences weren’t only in Viking mythology, but a lot of stuff from pop culture, the 50s, 60s, epic Hollywood movies and that kind of thing. The album cover looks like a blend of propaganda and soviet posters and old sort of men’s adventure magazines from the 60s and that kind of style. That’s what we were after, the whole world of Ben Hur and the big old Hollywood epics with Liz Taylor and that stuff. It’s not that we sat down and decided to make songs about Elizabeth Taylor or Cleopatra; it’s still a very loose kind of influence. You can sense it there but it’s still a tip of the iceberg thing, it’s not jumping out at you. It’s still Turisas and looks like our band used to look, it’s just some things have changed. With the new style, I guess that kinda came from getting a bit tired of the too tight Viking hat and Viking this and that and swords and stuff. We tried to find a way to carry across the same atmosphere we used to have without having to strictly be in the same box all the time. I guess that influence came from films that cross over between modern and old and blur it. Not that we had anything strictly historical in the before but this time around it’s like Kevin Costner’s Water World and Mad Max all blurred into one big thing so you can’t tell whether these guys are supposed to be from the past or the future. Its a blend of everything really.
Your music has always had symphonic elements, and you recorded Stand up… with a live orchestra. How was that?
It was nice, it’s so much easier to work with actual musicians rather than program everything from scratch. It was still a lot of work; there were so many people involved. It was like a big puzzle, you really need to build it in small pieces here and there, and then bring them together. It sounds great, we’ve definitely upgraded the sound, but I think we’ve pushed the envelope with that kind of big orchestra sound as much as we wanted with this album. I think maybe the next album will take a different direction. You could be Nightwish and try and make it bigger and bigger all the time but I don’t think we will. It’s not that the music’s gonna change as such but there’s always going to be a part of me that loves the big puzzles and grandiose things, but we’re trying to find different ways to carry the same thing across. If you listen to some 70s prog albums they might have some sort of huge arrangements, but bringing more and more musicians isn’t the only way to make things sound big and epic or whatever you want to call it. It was something that had to be done but I don’t think the next thing would be, let’s do a big symphony thing with LSO in London at Abbey Road or whatever. That doesn’t really feel like a challenge or exciting any more, so we’ll find different ways to express ourselves. But I’m happy that we did it and it was a very big project and I’m glad that I was part of it.
“Fear the Fear” stands out as it addresses struggles in a modern time and makes some very relevant points. How did it find its way onto the record alongside Viking tales of greatness?
Every song for me has its connection the very historical storyline of this Varangian group being in the service of the Emperor in the 11th Century, back in time and it has this connection to this world or more recent history, and songs like ‘Fear the Fear’ are very timeless, it doesn’t matter if you put it in 11th century Andalucía or up in England in the 21st century. The basic thinking behind it is still the same. It’s just about having values. The value of having courage has always been something mankind has always lived up to – you go into the battle and you have courage, and do whatever and that’s something people have valued highly, but somehow I think now it’s so easy to live your life watching Rambo on TV and get a kick out of that, and then go out and be a total wanker in your day to day life. Everyone knows when they feel something has gone too far and isn’t right and everyone’s been in the position where they think “I don’t like that, but do I want to interfere?” it may be easier to walk away. I think the whole album deals with that. A situation can be very ordinary and every day, for example you see someone make a racist comment and you yourself feel that’s out of line and you step in, that’s the true courage. It’s not about going to going to war and shooting people with missiles, that’s just stupid, it’s about that you stand up for what you believe in. I know that I myself and I’m sure everyone in this room knows a situation where they turned away because they didn’t want to get involved in trouble themselves. That’s the kind of cowardly society I despise and would like people to step up for what they believe. ‘Fear the Fear’ is about that and also in our historical context it’s what you have to do on a battlefield – do you believe enough in enough in a cause to fight and kill people or be killed for it?
You’ve been touring relentlessly since 2008. What’s it like to be on the road so much? How do you occupy yourselves between shows?
It’s a lifestyle, I guess. If you’re the kind of person that likes to be at home and have a secure 9-5 life, then this is not for you. But the people in this band love to travel and meet people and go to new places. I start every day by walking around in a new city. Tomorrow I’ll wake up in Belfast and I’ve been there before and it’ll be interesting to go out see the city once again and look around, and do the sort of stuff you never do at home. I never go out for a walk in Helsinki and walk into random galleries and shops. That’s very easy when you’re on travelling. At home I never do that because you get caught up in your home routine but here you have those hours to kill so you end up doing a lot of cool stuff. That’s the spice of it all. The shows are we why we are here but if you spend more than 2 months on the road counting down the days to getting back home it’s like being in prison, you might as well find something else that you actually enjoy. It took me quite some time to realise that you have to make the best of the time here, because that’s what you’re doing so you either enjoy it or make yourself enjoy it, otherwise it’ll start to kill you in the long term.
Summer saw the departure of both bassist Hannu and accordionist Netta and the start of a new era with a new bassist and live keyboardist. How’s the new line up working in the latest live shows?
It’s going great! We had this whole uncertainty about the whole band all year. In spring we came out with the new record and we wanted to be strong and have the whole line up there and then the record wasn’t even released when I heard from the old bass player that he couldn’t do the spring tour and we had to go with as session bassist. Then half way through the US tour, Netta flies home and quits the tour. All that stuff really overshadowed the whole year, especially the spring. By the summer festivals we had a temporary line up together but we knew it wouldn’t last and things were very uncertain. Now we have new people in and it’s amazing. We have a great time together. Offstage too, for the first time in years the whole band goes out to dinner together, because we enjoy each other’s company – not that we ever had any bad blood or fights or anything, but it feels more like we belong together. Musically, onstage everything feels more alive, that we’re there at that moment to do it, rather than just some program that you run every night, the same thing over and over. It feels great!
Talking of onstage, out of interest, what is the warpaint made of and how long does it take to get off?
It’s changed over the years, but it’s always been black face colour, and we make the red liquid very glossy it’s more like blood than matte paint. It sticks to everything, so all the door handles are awful! We take about an hour to get prepared for the show and about an hour or two to take it all off. It depends on the number of showers; I think the last people had showers about 90 minutes after the show.
You’ve toured the UK quite a bit in the past 5 years, at both gigs and festivals. What do you think of the UK crowds?
We think it’s great, that’s why we’re here. To be honest a lot of bands don’t like touring in the UK that much, because its easier to come over and do one big show in London and Manchester and then maybe Glasgow and then go over to Germany or France. But for us from the very first shows we did here, we felt we needed to dig deeper and go out and do all those places that not every international will go to like Reading and Southampton. I can really sense from the crowd that they appreciate there’s a band that comes and does 18 shows in the UK alone, and we have so many great shows here. And even if it’s more roughed up here than it might be in Germany or wherever the shows make up for it – so many good shows! The UK is the strongest fan base we have in the world, perhaps together with Japan, the fans are so supportive, you see all these amazing costumes and face paint and everything, they go to all this trouble to make the shows and it’s really flattering and cool to play to such a great crowd.