I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct an interview for the Classic Rock Society magazine with Mikko Von Hertzen, the lead singer and guitarist with the Von Hertzen Brothers, when he was over in London recently. The first thing I noticed was that his fingers on his right hand were bandaged, as a result of an accident while he was moving boxes recently. Fortunately it was his right hand, and did not affect his performance at a festival in Finland a few days later. I have seen the Von Hertzen Brothers a few times in the UK and Finland since first seeing them at RoSfest in 2010, and have spoken with Mikko each time, so this was more of a very informal and fun chat than an interview.
Did you have a musical upbringing ?
We did not have a choice. Our mother put us in a musical kindergarden when we were 3 or 4 years old, and we enjoyed listening and playing music and dancing. When I was about 5 I started piano lessons. The family home was always filled with music. Our father and mother met in a choir, and our father played guitar with his brother in a Shadows-type band called Savages. They won the Finnish Championship for rock bands in 1962. He studied law and then worked for an insurance company, which meant he travelled a lot and brought back albums from his travels, and also Quality Street toffees from London.
Is the talking at the beginning of the first album genuine ? Tiina Karppanen told me it was the three of you as children saying who would be playing which instruments in the band.
It is genuine. We made tapes for our relatives’ birthdays, and it was like a game for us to play around with the instruments in the house. The sounds you can hear are the introduction to one of those tapes, and we do still have those early recordings.
What have been your musical influences ?
Our mother listened to easy vocal music, Abba, Manhatten Transfer, The Beatles. Our father was into country and western music, Jerry Reed, and also The Eagles, Rory Gallagher, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Status Quo. My older brother (Kie) was into guitarist like Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen and Johnny Waters, my younger brother (Jonne) was into a lot of Finnish bands, and I was into Queen, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I listened to Led Zeppelin almost exclusively for one year, and then got into Pink Floyd, and after one of his business trips our father brought home a box of Queen albums.
The first ‘album’, Experience, sounds more like a collection of songs than an album. Would that be true ?
These are some of the earliest songs I wrote, dating from between 1995 and 2000. In 1995 I was still playing in two other bands in Finland, and then in 1998 I moved to India, and put the songs in a drawer.
When did you decide to really go for it as a band ?
While I was in India I sent my brothers two mini-discs and asked them if they wanted to do something together. They came out to India and we made new versions, and this was when we decided to make an album (Experience, in 2001). We could not do anything more than that because Kie was in another band and I was not intending to come back from India. We did three gigs, the album was a not massive, only charting at 32, but after the third gig I was so happy. Two days later I went back to India and the thought of putting the band together stayed with me as I continued to write songs.
The second album, Approach, does sound like an album. What do you most remember about recording it ?
We spent two weeks in Egypt as a family and I played Kiss A Wish and Let Thy Will Be Done to my brothers. We decided that I would come to Finland in the summer of 2005 so that we could record an album. We were not signed to a label and recorded it in a little room, pulling all the strings that we could because we had no money. We did it all ourselves and worked on it for four to six months. At the time the ‘Von Hertzen Brothers’ had a project tag to it, with music people being told not to take us seriously, plus our songs were nine minutes long and we wanted back the money we had put into making the album, so the major labels were taking the view that this was a nice hobby for us but would not sell for them. We managed to sign to Universal and the album went to number 7 on the back of Let They Will Be Done receiving a lot of airplay as a single – it had a fresh sound, it did not sound Finnish, and on the back of that we were offered a lot of gigs.
Your third album, Love Remains The Same, takes a step forward, for me. Did you take a different approach to recording it ?
We knew we had the songs but the production is not exactly what I wanted. We had a producer in for the first time with maybe the best songs we had written so far, but we were so tired at the end of the process that we missed the two weeks we should have taken to sit back and reconsider it all. It bothers me a little bit.
Then the fourth album, Stars Aligned, has a sharper sound. Was this a band decision, or down to the new producer ?
We were a little bit tired of the ‘epicness’ and wanted something more compact. We realised we did not always need to build it up, take the listener to ecstacy and then calm them down for another two minutes. And here we have something like Down By The Sea which is to rest the listener’s ears.
How are you going about writing for the new album ?
One of us writes a song, taking it as far as possible, then we share it among the three of us, listen to it, talk about it, and finally we play it. The person who originally wrote it is then free to redo it or it gets passed on. We are very honest with each other, we do have arguments, but the one who came up with the song in the first place has the final word on their song. We started with 25 songs for the new album and are now down to 14.
Your lyrics often have a spiritual feel to them…
The song has to mean something to me and my world is a spiritual world, it’s my thing. I am writing and singing from my heart and it has the possibility to make an impact, so I do partly do it to say it and get it out there.
Who chose the tracks for the compilation, The Best Of, and did you choose them before or after the 10th anniversary gigs ?
We chose them and we did it before the gigs. We thought about our live set as there must be a reason we play those songs – either we like them or the audience like them – so that was a good starting point. Universal did not have much to say, and anyway we do what we want – we insisted that the versions on the album are the original versions and not the single edits, and we used up the maximum time available on the disc. The UK arm of Universal wanted to include our version of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, and we were happy with that because we have received good feedback on it from members of King Crimson. Kie came up with the melody part for that, and it is so much ‘Von Hertzen Brothers’.
It was brilliant for me to be able to hear every song at the four anniversary gigs. Did any of the songs suddenly stand out to you again for any reason ?
I had the thought after the first evening, was it really that dark a period for me. I was full of longing and aching and it really is very tangible in those songs from the first album. With Dreamworld and Time And You, I can still taste the longing in my mouth. I still think Time And You is one of my best songs.
What was it like receiving the gold discs for Stars Aligned on stage at the end of the fourth gig ?
I did not expect it ! I knew something was fishy because they would not let us into the kitchen backstage. I was surprised we had sold so many copies of the album, and the record company have really supported us so it was great to do it for them.
I first saw you at RoSfest in 2010. How have things changed for you since then ?
The biggest change is that we hired a manager, which was a big step for us, and it has made such a real difference.
What was it like touring Europe with Opeth and then Pain Of Salvation ?
Both were good experiences with such nice guys. Opeth were happy that we were so professional. We shared a bus with them and Mikael Akerfeldt was the DJ after the last gig. He did not play any black metal. A guilty pleasure of the Von Hertzen Brothers is that we really like Dire Straits, and Mikael played some because he is such an admirer of Mark Knopfler. Daniel Gildenlow is a perfectionist, such a good singer, and a genius as well. We would have loved to have toured the UK with them but it would have been too expensive for us.
Are there any venues in the world that you would really like to play ?
I would love to play the Royal Albert Hall in London. I have wanted to play there ever since I saw footage of Led Zeppelin playing there in 1970.
What are your plans for the UK ?
We have our agent trying to book us into festivals for 2013, and looking for some support touring slots, perhaps in the Autumn, although we are supposed to be in the studio at that time.
Do you have a job outside of music ?
I have spent the last four years concentrating on the music. I have managed to do that with a lot of support from my father and by spending very little.
What have you done since I last saw you at the four anniversary gigs ?
I went back to India for five weeks and wrote some new songs. Then we were touring in Eastern Europe, first with Opeth and then with Pain Of Salvation.
What is your favourite part of the world ?
India is my spiritual home and being there recharges my batteries in a unique way. I still have my flat there, with a small room where I write most of the songs.
Is there anywhere you want to visit ?
I would love to go to Hawaii. Climate-wise London is not exactly my dream. Time is always an issue when you are doing music for a living.