The Finnish prog rockers look back to their early days, discuss their new album and talk about the difficulties of adapting to rock stardom in the modern world…
As one of the most experimental and eclectic genres, prog has always been the base camp for musical expression unencumbered by fads or expectations. As a band that have always stuck by their belief that music should be explored from the inside out, Von Hertzen Brothers have built their ever-expanding empire upon carving their own adventure. So when word got around that their newest album would be a cut-and-dry classic rock offering, catalysed by their decision to work with Garth Richardson (famous for producing Rage Against the Machine’s debut album) it begged the question: have the Von Hertzens said goodbye to prog?
The answer is no. Having spent two months holed up in Richardson’s studio in Vancouver preparing their sixth album, New Day Rising, Mikko, Kie and Jonne – brothers in real life – together with Mikko Kaakkuriniemi and Juha Kuoppala, have come out with something reassuringly proggy, albeit with the guitars cranked up to 11.
“We thought this would be a very straightforward rock album,” explains frontman Mikko Von Hertzen. “But even if that’s what we wanted, it’s impossible to achieve, because as musicians we get bored. There’s always going to be a flavour of adventure there.
“This is our sixth album,” he continues, “so we wanted to take a bold step. We weren’t thinking of classic rock necessarily, we just wanted to refresh our expression and to be a bit tighter. Love Remains The Same  and [2006’s] Approach were these huge prog albums so we’ve been there, it doesn’t make any sense to try to make another [2013’s] Nine Lives or Love Remains The Same. We wanted to do something new so that was the main reason we hired Garth because he hadn’t heard of us before and so he was a fresh pair of ears.”
Having leveraged a successful career on songs that take a gun to the idea of a three-minute rock anthem by imbibing a kaleidoscopic array of influences from Queen and Abba to King Crimson, and motifs that allude to Mikko’s time spent in India, new album _New Day Rising is a step outside of their traditionally eclectic sound. A particularly striking song is Trouble_, one of the Von Hertzens’ heaviest to date, infused with down-trodden minor chords and pain-stricken harmonies that pinpoint a turning point in the Finns’ career. And then there’s The Destitute, hurling a huge guitar solo in our direction as if to say “Coming to an arena near you… soon”.
Laden with guitar-heavy purpose, New Day Rising is a bolder, braver piece of work that eschews the light-hearted days of the past for a grittier, and – dare we say – darker approach. But as Mikko has explained, they wouldn’t be Von Hertzen Brothers without tapping into those myriad references that keep every album they release fresh and eclectic.
“There’s a song on there called Dreams,” says Mikko. “Kie sings on it instead of me. When he came to us with it we said, ‘Okay, let’s make this groovy’, so it ended up having this weird, upbeat, Jellyfish-y, Tom Waits-y sound that doesn’t fit in anywhere on the album.” He pauses for reflection. “But then Queen had their Seaside Rendezvous on A Night At The Opera so we should be bold enough to put a song on there that totally comes from behind the corner and slaps you in the face – in a nice way! – so we did it. What makes us happy is that we do these things and we don’t care. If the song is good we put it on the album and let everybody deal with it.”
Naturally befitting the icy climes of Mikko’s native Finland, Canada was the perfect playground for the recording of New Day Rising. Especially with the ice hockey games played out in the control room, which bonded the Finns and Canadians over their shared love of the winter game, and also warranted a lot of raucous noise every time a goal was scored (Just for the record Garth Richardson is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.). Recording took place in The Farm Studios in Vancouver, where the band were treated very well indeed.
“All we needed to say was, ‘I feel a little bit hungry’, and in five seconds there is somebody there taking orders,” says Mikko. “They had menus from every single restaurant in Vancouver! We’ve never been in a place like that before. Because we felt so at home we could really concentrate on the music. Usually, we’re like this small band from Finland and do everything ourselves, so it was a very exciting and interesting experience. It was like a reward that we wanted to give ourselves because we had been working so hard for years.”
It’s a long standing adage that hard work pays off, and while Mikko is humble about his success in Finland where they’ve had two No.1 albums, it only takes a quick look at their social media feeds to see that the love is there internationally. In today’s technology-obsessed world not all bands want to spend time on Twitter or Facebook, but in recognition of the evolving role of a rock star, Mikko sees value in keeping his fans in the social loop.
“It’s all about interaction and feeling like we’re one big family, because in the end those are the people who give us the opportunity to do what we love,” he explains. “Someone said that in today’s world the most important thing a rock star needs to know is the coolest filter to use on Instagram. It’s sad, but it’s really true that that’s where the action is. If you’re waiting for the bus and you look around, what are people doing? They are looking at their phones and on their social media page.”
He stops to think. “For us old timers, we’re trying to cope with the world and everything that comes along with it. There’s something cool about the mythical rock star status but those days are gone where you could have an air of mystery. In today’s world, if you want to keep up with technology, it’s a little bit tricky.”
In many ways Mikko is right. Why should a band, whose sole purpose is to write and perform music, be concerned with fleeting online updates that are steadily breaking down the enigmatic face of rock’n’roll? But where some musicians see it as an irritating part of the job description, the brothers use it as another creative channel.
Creativity sits at the heart of Von Hertzen Brothers, ever since they went to musical kindergarten and grew up in a musical household that embraced their nascent talent.
“My mother wanted me to play the piano when I was four,” says Mikko, “and that was due to the fact that we had been playing in musical kindergarten. It became evident that there was talent in all of us. For my mother and father, one of the biggest loves in their life is music, so they wanted to support that side of us from a very early age. If we ever wanted to learn a new instrument, they would find a way to make it happen. We have recordings from when I was eight and my little brother [Jonne von Hertzen] was three and we were doing all the rockabilly stuff. At that time rockabilly was big, bands like Crazy Cavan and Matchbox. So there are these recordings from the early 80s where we were playing all the songs that we listen to.”
Mikko then breaks out into song, doing a line from Matchbox’s 1980 hit, Rockabilly Rebel. “There are some pictures from around that age at the summer cottage. We are building fake instruments from plywood and fishing line, pretending to be rock stars,”he recalls, smiling.
Regardless of New Day Rising’s stadium-friendly potency, there’s also some intrinsically Hertz-ian influences at play, from the pastoral leanings of Black Rain to the quirky 16-bit chime of Love Burns, that denotes the brothers’ passion for rock’s heritage.
“We’re very particular that our songs have to have a life of their own,” concludes Mikko. “It’s like going to an exhibition and looking at the pictures on the wall. If everything looks the same then the experience is singular, but if you see many things that touch you then you get many good experiences, and that’s what we tried to achieve. It sounds like we are all over the place and we are not clever enough to be a rock band or a metal band or a prog band, but because we are all of those things we are proud of it and want to keep it up.”
New Day Rising is out now on Spinefarm. See www.vonhertzenbrothers.com for more info.