Clandestine Convos: Vetten Runotar

Of the genres in which we specialize here at Clandestine Sounds, dark folk/neofolk is probably the least familiar. Most metal fans likely have a passing familiarity with Norway’s Wardruna, which was formed by ex-Gorgoroth members Gaahl and Kvitrafn, or Canadian duo Ulvesang, who are signed to powerhouse Swedish black metal label Nordvis Produktion. In addition to being outstanding bands, Wardruna and Ulvesang are also great examples of the amount of variety there is in the genre: traditional Norwegian instruments and themes on the one hand, and something that sounds a bit like only the pretty parts of an Agalloch song on the other.

Finnish ‘Trve savo-karelian folk’ band Vetten Runotar may not be as well known internationally as the previously mentioned bands, but that’s not likely to be the case for too much longer. Their EP Pirkkaruno, which was released on April 1, is a moody, hypnotic take on several aspects of Finnish folklore they recorded live in the studio in less than six hours. It’s an ideal introduction to the band, and makes a perfect appetizer for their forthcoming split with Michigan’s Crown of Asteria, which will be available from Akashic Envoy Records a bit later this year.

I recently had a chance to chat with the trio about a variety of topics related to their music, Finnish paganism, and neofolk in general. If you’ve not yet heard it, give Pirkkaruno a listen and check out our conversation below.

Clandestine Sounds: Greetings, and thank you for the interview. I have to admit up front, as much as I enjoy dark and/or neofolk artists like Ulvesang, Runahild, Bjarla, and (of course) Wardruna, I know very little about the genre as a whole, so I’m excited to have a chance to talk about your music. Since my guess is a good number of our US readers likely aren’t very familiar with neofolk either, can we start with who you are and what projects you’re in?

Margraf: Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. I am Tatu Heikkinen, but I prefer the nickname Margraf when it comes to music stuff. My two main projects are the dark folk band Vetten Runotar and my solo project Margraf. I mainly play the 15 string kantele, a traditional Finnish instrument, and the guitar.

Jökull: I’m Jökull and I play balalaika in Vetten Runotar. I’m involved in many projects, but since this discussion is about folk, maybe the one worth mentioning would be this another folk band that I run, Mead of the Ancestors.

Kilju: I’m Erik Müürsepp, but people know me better as Kilju (a homemade Finnish alcoholic beverage). Currently my only project is Vetten Runotar, where I’m a singer and I also contribute lyrics from time to time. I also have one other project on hold called Äijätär, a semi-dark mixture of folk and black metal with lyrics that are based on various religious texts.

Margraf

CS: I’ve been trying to piece together a bit of the history of Vetten Runotar – it seems like you’ve gone through quite a few changes since first coming together as Laguz Rune in…2016? I’m always curious as to why bands change their names after releasing music and starting to build a following. What made you decide to change yours?

Margraf: I started this band in 2016 as my solo project. The idea was for me to explore composing and recording with the kantele – an instrument that I had picked up a year or so before. I chose the name Laguz Rune to connect the project to water (that is what laguz stands for), and partly as a homage to a video game called RuneScape, the soundtrack to which was a great influence to me. In 2018 I decided to expand the project into a full band, and we started writing music more as a group. Quite quickly this resulted in us changing the language of our lyrics mostly into Finnish, which inspired us to come up with a Finnish name for the band instead. The new name, Vetten Runotar, means “the muse of the waters,” so we didn’t drift too far from the original. In fact, while brainstorming for the new name, we tried to come up with ideas that would be as close to the original as possible, but in Finnish.

CS: It’s possible I haven’t been paying close attention and it goes back further than that, but it seems like there’s been an increased interest in dark and neofolk music over the last few years. Where did your interest in playing traditional forms of folk music come from? Why do you think it’s suddenly popular again?

Margraf: I am not an expert on the subject, but I have a feeling that it is partly due to the overall resurgence of popularity of pagan (especially Viking) culture. I think that the fame of the Vikings TV series introduced a lot of people to such themes and thus to similar music. As far as I know, one of the most well-known dark folk bands, Wardruna, contributed to that soundtrack. As for my personal interest in folk music – that is a result of different factors. Ever since I learned to read, the Finnish national epic the Kalevala (a collection of Finnish epic poems) has been one of the most important books for me. So I have had an interest in these themes for a very long time. From the musical side, the metal band Agalloch introduced me to the Finnish dark folk project Nest, whose music is centered upon the kantele. Nest is the band that inspired me to pick up this instrument and start playing similar music myself.

Jökull: The popularity of Vikings is definitely one of the reasons, in my opinion, but is it really a cause or a consequence? I haven’t watched that series myself  (but I probably should do so). Speaking of series, although not so much in a purely musical sense, Game of Thrones could be in a kind of a similar spot, or arguably even in a much bigger one, to Vikings when it comes to folk music and thinking about its “folky” milieu. These big video games series  like The Elder Scrolls and The Witcher are based on a kind of folkish environment, and there are bards playing folk with their lutes in taverns which no doubt are a big influence too. At least they are greatly so for me. Speaking of what has inspired just me, literature cannot be forgotten either, nor a general interest in and passion for actual history and mythology. And there are surely many, many influences from music genres other than folk too — starting from birdsong and a gentle wind’s breezes in a forest, taking a turn into some classical Romantic tunes, and going all the way to the eternal winter of trve Norwegian black metal. We can’t really say what started and what!

Kilju: Pretty much since video games came to be, a folk-ish theme has been influencing stories that originates from grandeur and  mythology of old folklore. In movies and tv series, all of these lores have been romanticized heavily to appeal to a larger group of people. A great example is Marvel comics. They have utilized different old gods and made them into superheroes. Seeing these magnificent deities sparked an interest in some people to delve deeper and learn the origins of the actual myths, etc.

Pagan culture is so powerful that some newer religions borrowed stories and changed them to be more fitting for their holy texts. A great example is Christianity. The modern rise in paganism is most likely thanks to more and more people turning towards atheism. In my own experience, atheists (or like-minded people) are more likely to study comparative religion than believers. For example, I myself have read the Bible dozens of times, read the Quran, and read about ancient Greek gods plus many other scriptures. Neopaganism is on the rise and will most likely some day be among the major religious groups. We do have to keep in mind that many do not necessarily worship the deities, but the symbols. Deities die constantly, but symbols and ideas live forever.

CS: Wow…I was not expecting you to give so much credit to video games and TV shows. Does it bother you at all that people are learning about pagan cultures from these sources, which I’m guessing tend to vary a bit in terms of how accurately they depict the subject matter?

Margraf: I think it is a positive thing that these modern and easily accessible interpretations of ancient myths are being made. It is true that they often don’t give an accurate depiction of the subject, but then again, there aren’t that many written sources from those times to make it absolutely clear how the myths originally manifested in the first place. The Marvel Comics version of pagan gods that Kilju mentioned earlier were what introduced me to Norse mythology and eventually encouraged me to learn about it from the “original” sources. Even the lyrics of Vetten Runotar are not folklore accurate – they take place in a fantasy world of ours that draws its inspiration from Finnish and Norse mythology. However, we try to write our lyrics in a way that doesn’t contradict the folk tales too much. I suppose there is the risk that people will take these modern interpretations as the only existing form, but I doubt they will ever replace the old ones entirely. At the end of the day, in my opinion, the new interpretations are good publicity for our roots, as long as they aren’t used as a way of discrediting them.

Jökull

CS: Did the use of Finnish and Norse mythology as an inspiration for Vetten Runotar’s lyrics have anything to do with your decision to start writing more of them in Finnish? I ask mostly because the lyrics on the Margraf album are in English, and that record seems to have quite a few folkloric elements as well.

Margraf: Hmm. I don’t have a definitive answer right off the bat for this one. I have always slightly preferred writing lyrics in English myself, and since Margraf is my solo project, that is the language  I used. It was purely a stylistic choice, and I can see myself writing Margraf lyrics in Finnish too. As for Vetten Runotar’s music, I think that the Finnish language gives it more character. The choice to write mainly in Finnish was a mutual decision between the band members, and the main reason was to do justice to the themes that we explore.

Kilju: I second Margraf. The reason we started to write songs in Finnish was  mostly to pay homage to the Kalevala and the Finnish language. My other projects are/were all in English, so it was a nice change to focus on writing in Finnish.

CS: This is the second time you’ve mentioned the Kalevala. Since most of our readers aren’t Finnish, can you talk a bit more about the collection? When you say it’s the ‘Finnish national epic,’ what does that mean?

Margraf: The Kalevala is without a doubt one of the most important works of Finnish literature and among the greatest sources of Finnish folklore for modern readers. It was compiled in the 19th century from Finnish folk poetry, and then altered to some extent to form a story. It is full of Finnish pagan heroes, gods, and other myths. The kantele – the instrument that I play – has an important part in the Kalevala. The book is an adventure written in a poetic metre – the use of Finnish language in the Kalevala is, in my opinion, one of the most essential and influential things about it, and therefore it is undoubtedly best read in its original language. There are English (and many other languages) translations of it though, and I highly recommend reading it for the sheer epicness and uniqueness of the stories that unfold in it. J. M. Crawford’s English translation of the book can be read online for free. It is also said that the Kalevala was an inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien when he created his fantasy world of Middle-earth!

CS: I’m not an expert on Finnish paganism by any stretch. There are actually a lot of descendents of Finnish immigrants in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so one can find elements of Finnish culture all over the state (I live just south of the Michigan state line).  For example, when I interviewed Meghan from Crown of Asteria, who you’ve been collaborating with recently, she talked about being influenced by Finnish Karelian magic. How does Finnish paganism differ from other Scandinavian pagan traditions?

Margraf: I guess one major difference would be that the written documents about Finnish pagan culture are much younger and less plentiful. The Finnish tradition was mostly preserved orally. The folklore is very different and I recommend reading both the Edda and the Kalevala for comparison. Scandinavians had Vikings and Finns did not, and that shows in the folklore. Both the Finnish and Scandinavian pagan culture are heavily based around nature (as is common in paganism overall). There are some similar deities like the god of thunder, which is Ukko in Finnish folklore and Thor in the Scandinavian. The bear was a sacred animal for the Finns, to the extent that it was worshipped. There is a religious community called Karhun kansa (the People of the Bear) that practices Finnish paganism.

CS: Since we’re on the topic of Paganism here, a few weeks ago a fairly well-known US-based news” site called The Daily Beast published an article with the provocative title “Peter, Paul & Adolph: Neo-Folk Has a Nazi Problem.” Most of it seems centered on bands like Death in June, who use the totenkopf in their logo and merch designs, and how neo-folk and black metal are connected and could appeal to the same Far Right audience. However, that’s not the only place I’ve seen it suggested that there are NS elements in neo-folk, and a lot of those other discussions focus specifically on the invoking of pagan traditions, the use of runes, etc. Since Finland has a reputation right now as hotbed for NSBM, do you worry at all that Vetten Runotar or Margraf will be accused of being Nazis? Does the fact that so many people connect Paganism and Nazism influence the way you approach your music at all?

Margraf: I think there’s exaggeration in the air. NSBM comes from all over, I don’t think Finland has an exceptional number of such bands, though I don’t follow that scene. I have already been accused of being a Nazi for making pagan music, and I now recognize that the stigma with the neofolk genre is very much present. That’s why we prefer to use the term dark folk. We want to distance ourselves from any political agendas – you could say we make fantasy music that draws inspiration from real tradition. If there is one meaning in our music, it is that we want to tell stories that inspire people to familiarize themselves with the true origins of pagan folklore. I think it is sad neofolk suffers from this NS stigma, since most of the neofolk bands I know have nothing to do with Nazis. The use of traditional elements, like runes or pagan deities, should not be an implication of Nazism. These symbols existed way before Nazis did.

Kilju

CS: That seems like the perfect place to transition away from talking about Paganism and folklore and into talking about the music. What’s your songwriting process like for Vetten Runotar? Do you generally start with the folk instruments like kantele or balalaika, or are more of your songs built around guitar parts?

Margraf: We used to write most of the songs on the guitar, but when we transitioned from Laguz Rune we also dropped guitar completely out of our music. The songwriting with Vetten Runotar is quite varied and fragmented. The starting point of a song can basically be anything: a melody on the kantele, a riff on the balalaika, or a line of lyrics accompanied by a vocal melody. Usually everyone writes their own parts for a song, but that varies too.

Jökull: Yeah, for example one of our songs is a result of a five-minute improvisation/jam session. Leaving free space to put your own spoon in the soup is important. That’s when the band “sounds more like a band.”  

CS: All three of you contribute vocals, correct? How much do you have to work at getting your voices to blend? Are you lucky enough to just naturally fall into a kind of harmony?

Kilju: I usually just go with the flow and try to keep in key. I close my eyes and feel around the music to find the correct tune. We use pitch correction to check how off the singing is. A simple, yet effective tool.

Margraf: Right now the additional vocal harmonies are mainly studio magic (for my part). We have a second lead vocalist joining the band, so hopefully that’ll enable us to perform these more complex vocal arrangements live in the future.

CS: As I mentioned a bit earlier, you’re currently working on a collaborative album with one of my favorite musicians, Crown of Asteria. How did you end up getting together with Meghan for this record?

Margraf: Actually, it was first planned as early as 2016. I really adored Meghan’s music, especially her Karhun Vakat album (which is centered around Finnish Paganism), and it inspired me to ask her if we could possibly collaborate. She agreed, and  I made some demo material. Soon after I took a hiatus from music for a while, and the project was forgotten for a long time. At the beginning of 2019 I threw the idea on the table again, and we started a new collaboration with a clean slate. The process of writing the story and the music with Meghan has been very fluent; the result is a split EP consisting of four songs that each represent the changing of seasons through the perspective of two deities in Finnish mythology, Tapio and Mielikki.

CS: I knew that there was a narrative aspect to the album. How did you decide on Tapio and Mielikki as the basis for it?

Margraf: At the very beginning of this collaboration we were discussing aspects of Finnish mythology that we could  explore musically, and Meghan suggested Mielikki. In folklore, Mielikki is the wife of Tapio, so his inclusion came quite automatically. Meghan, Jökull, and I bounced some ideas back and forth, and the story was born. I really love how it turned out… The story is quite intimate in the sense that it deals with the relationship and hardships of Mielikki and Tapio, but at the same time it represents bigger things. This split is 100% a concept album.

Kilju: To be honest, I had little to do with the collaboration album, as it hit during a time when I had a massive writer’s block. I did suggest for Jökull to sing lead, because to me it sounded better than it would have with my voice.

CS: From what I understand, that album is pretty close to being finished. What are your plans for after it’s complete? Does Vetten Runotar play live very often?

Margraf: Most of the the split has been recorded and mixed. There’s only some minor tweaking left to do. After this release we are probably going to concentrate more on gigging and get back to songwriting. We would love to play more live shows, so if anyone would be interested in hosting a blast of dark, doomy acoustic folk at  an event, please contact us!

Jökull: The first opportunity to see us live is in Estonia in the beginning of June. More shows, in one form or another, will follow surely.

CS: Thanks again for taking the time to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists – anything else you want to add?

Margraf: Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. In fact, it was our first time. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram. Updates on the split with Crown of Asteria will follow soon! In the meantime, you can listen to our EP Pirkkaruno, available in all digital stores. Play it loud!

Kilju: Drink mead, make love, and listen to Vetten Runotar!

Jökull: Thanks. Long story short.

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