Finnish genre benders Von Hertzen Brothers kicked off their UK headline tour last night. With new album Red Alert In The Blue Forest making waves, Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth caught up with Mikko Von Hertzen.
Rushonrock: Trailblazing single Northern Lights incorporated sounds generated by the Aurora Borealis…what’s the story about VHB’s most enigmatic track yet?
Mikko Von Hertzen: Back in the day I remember reading about this guy who was recording the Northern Lights but I’d forgotten all about it until our producer started talking about it. He’s always chasing new sounds and trying out new and rare instruments from around the world and he’s fascinated by what’s out there. I sent him the theme of a song I was writing and told him it was going to be based on the Northern Lights and that’s when he remembered Prof Unto K Laine from Aalto University in Finland. We realised we might actually be able to use some of these sounds in the song and that’s what you hear in the introduction. It sounded so cool. I remember thinking ‘this is the shit right here!’. This is what we need! It just brigs that extra element.
Rushonrock: Were the sounds of the Aurora Borealis the finishing touch to — or the inspiration for — Northern Lights?
MVH: I’d been eagerly awaiting this composition coming to me. I wanted to talk about that experience that you have when you’re under that light and how it dances around like I describe in the lyrics. There’s something very supernatural about it and you realise that this world’s a wonderful place when you can see stuff like this. My little brother had this song and he envisioned it to be somewhere in nature with a very specific landscape. The composition was kind of ready with the melodies and everything. We were talking about his vision and how he saw the song and I said ‘well I have this idea if you think it would work’. He said to go for it. That’s how it started and then at that stage I mentioned it to our producer. It was like a snowball effect. It sat so well in that Arctic environment and it was definitely a song describing night time — the night sky illuminated by the Northern Lights.
Rushonrock: Is there a loose concept binding together Red Alert In The Blue Forest?
MVH: Some of the songs do link together and there is this thread running through the album that reflects our personal relationship with nature and how we were brought up playing in the forest in Finland. All of the brothers have a very strong connection with nature. Somehow with the pandemic and social distancing we just weren’t feeling an urban vibe. Everyone was on their own and in the forest and that was the only way to get out and about safely. We weren’t going clubbing, seeing bands or watching movies. When you have a situation like this you go paddling and hiking and stuff like that instead. You explore the woods nearby and that became the theme of the album: that relationship with nature and how we see it changing from our childhoods to the present day. We thought about how so many of the ‘magic forests’ of our childhood had been cut down and how that has affected us and continues to affect us. We thought about what it meant to be a part of this big environmental change that’s affecting all of us, all over the world. When we were kids nobody was talking about climate change or losing species but now it feels so connected with our art. Our songs have always touched on themes connected to nature but now, more than ever, that feels so relevant. There’s the human aspect and the nature aspect and we’ve always looked at how that makes us feel. We’ve always asked ourselves where we belong within that relationship. Is it harmonious or not?
Rushonrock: Can one of the upsides of the pandemic be that people have had a chance to reconnect with nature?
MVH: I hope so. There were no flights going anywhere but people still had holidays and time off and so many people headed for the hills. My friends went hiking in Lapland. They used the money that they saved from going abroad — or even just going out — to buy a tent and rediscover the countryside. We don’t value what we have here in Finland. We’re always looking at flying to Spain or wherever in search of the perfect break but in truth there are so many really cool things on our doorstep. And to some extent I feel as if that reconnection with nature has happened. I feel as if now is a good time to talk about nature and the environment. Maybe we should look at preserving what we have and treating it with some respect.
Rushonrock: When you were kids did you and your brothers spend most of your free time enjoying the outdoors?
MVH: Like most families in Finland we had a cottage two hours from Helsinki. The day school finished for the summer there would be a bit of a party and then the very next day everyone would pack up and head there for the whole summer — two and a half months. All of the games that we played as kids were outdoor games. Or mother had this bell that she would ring when it was time for food. We’d grab something to eat and then we’d be straight back out again. Our grandfather fought in the second world war. He was in Lapland fighting for Finland’s independence and he has a real connection with that art of the world. He’d take his grandchildren — all 16 of us — and we’d experience that outdoor life in Lapland in terms of hiking, camping, fishing etc. It cemented the family’s close relationship with nature and we’ve never lost that appreciation for the outdoors. The relationship was very deep.
Rushonrock: And that close bond with nature really shines through on the new record…
MVH: Yes. My brother even went as far as to take his Strat out onto the lake in a canoe in order to get even closer to nature. He was actually making songs on the islets just outside Helsinki. Many of the songs weren’t only written about nature but written ‘in’ nature. And in that situation you don’t always feel like writing a full-on rock song.
MVH: It’s hard to say. We always regard our albums as ambitious. It’s a little bit difficult for us to reflect on the songs. We’re just writing them and listening to them and deciding whether we like them or not! We end up with a package of songs and for each one we decide how are we best going to represent eh vision of the sog or the mood of the song best? We never think about genres. We just know that this song is going to be best as an acoustic song or this one needs to be really riffy. Because our family background is so diverse musically — there was classical, prog rock, Abba, Eagles and the Finnish bands from the 70s and the 80s — and because we’re so musically inclined we can draw on so many positive influences from our childhood. One that idea of a song comes to us there’s an open canvas. There’s no frame. It doesn’t matter how big it is or how small it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s long or short — although it’s usually long — and that’s just the way we are.
Rushonrock: Do you sometimes wish your music did fit into a certain frame?
MVH: It is hard being the Von Hertzen Brothers and reaching a wide audience when you’re as diverse as we are! In Finland we’re quite well known but going abroad you realise how music is so pigeon-holed. You have the rock scene, the prog rock scene, the folk scene, the indie rock scene and it’s all so separate. We tick all of those boxes but we don’t belong anywhere. It’s a little bit hard for us to kind of like then get people to notice us and pay attention to our music. When we started playing beyond Finland I remember going out and thinking there will be tonnes of bands just like us all over the world. But now after 10 or 12 years of doing this I realise there’s nobody else like us!
Rushonrock: Are you excited to find out how the new songs will translate to the live arena?
MVH: Right up until we headed over to the UK we’ve been tweaking the songs and we’ve been looking at ways in which we can present certain songs. Let’s just say there are still some open issues! There are some melodies that we recorded and we’re just trying to work out how to best represent them live. It’ll be fine. When we first rehearsed Blue Forest and The Promise we felt really good. We just knew that it was going to work.
Rushonrock: How important was it to reconnect with your UK fans after last summer’s illness-interrupted tour opening up for Uriah Heep?
MVH: The first two shows last year were pretty good but then I got really sick with a virus. My throat just went completely and I had no control. We had another 10 shows to go and it was the worst two weeks of my life. I wasn’t only the weakest link — I really sucked. It was just so hard for me to be on stage. That was the last impression our UK audience had of Von Hertzen Brothers and it feels so good that we have a chance to come back and out things right. Hopefully everyone stays healthy this time. I feel very happy that we can do this. After the pandemic and Brexit there have been so many issues that have made it difficult for bands to tour the UK and so it feels really good to be back.
Rushonrock: Do you feel things are starting to return to normal?
MVH: Well I try to stay positive. I was very positive when we booked the UK tour but then of course the war started in Ukraine and you go ‘fuck’ what is this? Once again everything is much more expensive. It’s not easy for bands at our level to do anything at the moment. That’s the truth. But this is what we do and it’s what we love doing. For that reason we will always find a way to do it. I’m hopeful. But the war is starting to affect other countries and in Finland it’s a constant concern. We’ve been independent and not taking sides for a long time and that’s partly because of the long border we share with Russia and the fact that we’re not members of NATO [Finland have since announced their intention to join NATO]. Our import/export business with Russia has always been central to our economy but now I think Finns realise that the relationship we have with Russia is something we need to pay attention to. I don’t know if people are afraid per se but there’s definitely some concern around whether we need to improve our security and become even closer to the European Union. And maybe even NATO. The thing is that if you look at our history we’ve fought with Russia many times — in both the first and the second world wars — but as people we were never art of the Soviet Union. What Putin is trying to do is re-establish that. Our president has said that there is no immediate threat but that we should definitely start looking ahead a bit more. It’s important for us as a nation to become aware of the fact that we have a very aggressive neighbour.