Dr Ville-Petri Friman: researcher and metal head (interview)

Dr Ville-Petri Friman is researcher in life sciences at a university in England. He is a passionate researcher and teacher. And his publication record is impressive. ‘Hm … And haven’t I read this name before?’ you might wonder now. ‘Oh yes, you have!’ Ville is the main composer, guitarist and clean vocalist of the Finnish Melo Death Metal veterans: Insomnium! Quite successful, either.

As my day job is closely related to such as Ville’s I know by heart: a career in research requires all your heart, passion, ambition and energy. And even more in many cases it is a profession coming along with a 60 to 80 hours workload per week. Just like music! I stared at the long list of his achievements. And I might have that one opportunity to ask him: how on Earth he makes it?

This was one year ago just before Insomnium toured presenting their Winter’s Gate album in Central Europe. I had this one chance and asked him. He stopped and shrugged. Ville smiled at me and thought a moment. From time to time he took a week of to fly home due to the band or to tour. But otherwise … it would just work somehow, he said.

The question how this could work out did not let me rest. Time and again, I found myself brooding over the question again observing the struggles of the researchers in life science around me. Then I thought that perhaps research and music are not so different as it seemed in the first place. So I reached out to ask Ville for an interview.

We met not too long after the 100th anniversary of Finland. While his band mates were fighting the consecutive symptoms of this most important day, I find Ville on his own working on a grant proposal. So let’s explore the mystery of pursuing two careers successfully that both require your all your heart and all of your time …

 

Two professions but only one heart
Students vs fans – father vs entertainer
Scientific reputation – a sensitive affair
The balance: Science, music, ­­­traits and family
Management and administration in science
The creative work
The art of writing
Benefits from research for the band
The teamleader
My odd questions

Two professions but only one heart

„You have two professions and both of them can work out only if you do them whole-hearted. So how do you split – supposing you have only one heart“, I ask intonating my phrase slightly ironically. „Yeah, I think there are similarities in both jobs. Like what you do in music. You have to work for it. It’s not like an artistic process. You get the ideas of a song; they don’t come ready. And then you have to be a bit more creative, which is more kind of artistic to work on your ideas before they make a song. It takes time. And it’s the same thing in science.” He thinks a moment and repeats: “And it’s like the same thing in science. You have to be creative. You have to think outside the box and get or put several things together of your idea and then you have to proof and so you to work for it. I don’t know. They got different but then you have few similar aspects.“

I nod. „I thought something like this, too, but then creativity is a very time-consuming thing.“ – „Yeah!“ he says exhaling audibly. „So how do you cope with two such time-demanding occupations?“ – „I mean; I am not! So I am writing grant proposals. Finished the first one already a couple of days ago“, he explains happily. „So now I am writing a bigger one“, he says while I realize what he just said: „During the tour?“ – „Yeah, I am having a deadline in January and I had no time at all in the term with teaching and supervising student and so it’s like always somebody wanting my attention, coming and asking questions. So this is my free time. I mean like I do work a lot. I guess that the music doesn’t feel like work. That’s the kind of difference. The science most of the time, it feels like work. You are working something. But of course I get a kind of reward. I get publications and cool results and stuff like that. What is kind of driving the whole thing in me, making it meaningful. But the music, you don’t have to stress about it. There is not really a right or wrong. You decide when it is a good outcome. So you can be the judge. Of course, there are the other people in the band and your fans. But you make your own rules, and I think there is a more positive atmosphere in that sense. The science world can be quite negative. You always get reviewed and people try to point out what it wrong or is not good. So you focus kind of always on the negative bits”, Ville explains in a considerate manner.

„But there are reviews and reviewers in music, too“, I point out. „Oh, yah, of course. But I don’t really read them too much” he replies smiling. “If there is a good review: great. If there is a bad one than that’s it. I think the more important part is that you see the people are coming to the show, the audience and how they like the music. So the people do the music not for everybody. So there is never – whatever music you have – is liked by everybody.“ – „No, of course not“, I mumble half loud. „In a way you get bad reviews but then I kind of try to distance myself. It doesn’t really hurt me if anybody is saying bad things. The same thing is in science that you have to learn not to take things personally. I did get a quite tough skin“, he explains laughing. While writing I wonder if this one key to his success. The tough skin might enable Ville to focus even more on his own judgment of his outcome. In music this might be very helpful.

Students vs fans – father vs entertainer

„Is it the same kind of feeling if candidates swarm into your office to apply for working in your group than with the fans in front of the stage?“ – „Yeah. … I think in science, you care about people and you want them to do well. It’s more a kind of personal relationship in that sense. And you’re always like a fatherly figure because their rather young. There are quite a lot of mentoring aspects. It’s very different with the fans you want to kind of entertain, you want to provide them a good night and a bit of escapism. You let them enter the music while you enter the music as well. So you have not this personal kind of relationship. It about sharing. You want to share the same feeling and emotion on the show.“

We discuss for a moment the little scurrilities some fans show, and how hard it is to find a balance between being approachable but keeping enough distance so you will not be owned very enthusiastic fans. Ville tends to prefer his protecting privacy over approachability. And this is perhaps as privacy is considered different in Finland. Being part of the metal community means to respect the privacy of all community members. If you go to one of the Finnish festivals you will see a lot of musicians come to the venue, wander around, meet their friends and have a good time. Some of them you will see on stage, some not. The vast majority of those musicians on those festivals might not attract attention because they just behave like you and me. And the point is: the audience grants them the opportunity to do so. If there is a signing session, endless lines will form to see and speak with the very same person that might spent the rest of the day sitting on the table next to your own or bang only few meters away of you in the same crowd. And hardly anyone will bother them for the respect of their privacy.

Scientific reputation – a sensitive affair

“There is one thing I noticed among the researchers around me they are very keen on maintaining their reputation as serious scientists/researchers. They are even kind of scared to be potentially not considered serious if they explain their work in normal terms, for example. So I can hardly imagine a researcher around me promoting his or her subculture activities on a research-related channel. How do you cope with this? I mean you are way too successful with Insomnium to keep that hidden anyway, promoting it or not.“ Ville’s facial expression turns from serious (still in mind with the privacy matter) to a frown and now a wide smile. Very obviously these thoughts are not new to him. „Yeah, I kind of have to because if people just google my name they will find out and pictures with me playing guitar or stuff like that. I mean it will pop up so there is no point of fighting it. And all the feedback I get is positive. People don’t think it’s a bad thing, really. And in the end of the day it is your CV, what you do in science that speaks for you. And if this is fine, I think you’re taken seriously as a scientist. And the good thing in science is also that you can choose who you work with. You can work with people that are not that up tight. But I think these things might also be kind of cultural. So I think German science – I have the feeling – it is kind of a bit conservative in a way.“ He utters and chooses his words very carefully. They meet my impression pretty much. But of course no one intends here to offend anybody. As he points out there are mechanisms of cultural differences working here. For example, if Ville worked on a Finnish university no one would care at all for his music. It was part of his privacy. „Yeah, I agree.“ – „And then, in UK people are quite relaxed. But then you have quite up tight people, especially a bit older people. They have come through different kind of scientific world and then they’d be traditional. And then there are young people they are more open and they don’t really mind. And then they quite often do something else than only being focused 100 % on science.“

I think that even conservative English people often consider to have one particular scurrility being essential for a personality. Then again I don’t know many researchers having another real passion next to science. So I go on: „But that’s rare“ in my experience. „Yeah“ – I explain that in my experience researchers often have no family and if they have the priority – their own or the one demanded from their surroundings – is not the family. And should a researcher grant his/her family priority it might get them into unpleasant situations such as colleagues showing no comprehension for the situation. Ville is uttering his agreement several times. „Personally, I find that a bit outdated. Today, we want more. We don’t only want our job. Our lives are more“, I end. „Yeah, yeah, I think it’s like science can be really like that. People get into that and then they put all their time and their effort in it. And then at university there is pressure. If you want to really good. You have to work for it really hard, and then again from my point of view there is no end to it. I mean, it’s a competition you can’t really win because there is always people who are working more. There is no limits how many publications you can have, how many papers you can have, how much you can do for the students, that’s forever. It’s never complete. You really cannot get the final solution. So I think people don’t really understand that. They just do that, and then they really get into science. But it’s not really healthy on a long term and it doesn’t really … you get more answers but you don’t really get the truth anyway! So I think all the people who realize that they get … I think that I was really lucky with my mentors when I was like ultimate BSc and kind of realized that they were really successful, and they didn’t use all their time on science. They had also something else and went for beer and they enjoyed they are having kind of normal ….“ – „balanced?“ – „yeah, normal, balanced life. And I think you can easily have that. It is a decision. Of course it’s like that as I come from the Finnish society. People always have different kind of culture. In the sense like taking care for the kids, for example, in the family. It’s both, men’s and women’s job! It’s not only women’s, so to say. It’s both. Moms and dads, they go work and then they go to kindergarten and then it’s both stuff … taking care of the kid’s stuff. I think that there was actually a new study came out just recently that the Finns are the only nation or one of the very few where the dads spend more time with the kids than the moms nowadays.“ – „Wow, cool!“ – „So coming from that kind of background, I mean for me it’s actually kind of both parties“

The balance: Science, music, ­­­traits and family

That raises the question: „Do you have children?“ – „No, my little brother has, many of my friends have, both in UK and in Finland. But I like how things are in Finland. Childcare is cheap and that makes it possible for both to work. Whereas in the UK it’s very expensive. That’s why you have many stay-at-home-mums. Because if they work especially on low salary grade you lose a whole income only on childcare. So there is no point in this system.“

„Could you think of any point – in both careers – that would you make to stop the other career?“ – „I think I have to make trades … I haven’t been playing the whole tour. So we have a good friend, Jani Liimatainen. He has been filling up for the first part because I have been busy with the last week of the term. I had exams to do, and I was also external examiner for one PhD student. So we had a lot of things going on. And I can’t be that much away from work no matter how much other people want to tour. So in a way I am making trades already. However, good touring is for the band’s development, I can’t spend that much time on the tour. And of course, my time is getting more and more limited because I have more people working in the lab as well. But I think it is like this: if I would have kids that would kind of force me out of the band stuff for a while because I couldn’t be away from home. I would have to stay at home quite actively for a while and take part. But that would be one thing. But I think that might be just temporary as well. But at the moment I am the composing part in music which is just like my main thing and what I enjoy most. I still have time to do that. I think I can do some live stuff. I can’t be there as much as I used to. Because I have a lab full of people, I have to take care of and then the university make me do a lot of other things. It’s just impossible to get that much time.“

Management and administration in science

How much is your workload in administrative tasks?“ – „It varies. Normally like when you start off, the first two years are easier. They want you to try to establish your research group, get grants in. I am organizing like weekly seminars, mining people, hosting people, I am also doing like internal seminars, external examinations for the university, also an undergraduate-student-admission job starting next year. So I have to be speaking with students, host an open day and run some workshops, next I could be like the academic head of lead person looking over applications that are coming in Biology.“ – „Interesting“, I mumble. „That’s kind of my next admission thing that I will have next year. And that’s gonna take a wider junk of my time. And then again it helps me to get promotion.“

„Do you have beyond technical support staff assisting in administrational matters like budgets?“ – „No. No. There is no help. Well, the university has research administrative people who help you when you’re posting your grants. They’re helping with all kinds of budget, but you don’t have your personal assistant like that. Maybe if you’re head of the department or if you’re quite higher in administration things then you normally have at least part-time person who is taking care of schedule and everything because it gets mad.“ Ville explains a little how the admission system is going to be rearranged by establishing teams handling the clearly “in” applicants independently. “I think it has been quite academic heavy but I don’t wanna do that but I want to focus on my research and then I think I have an idea how to make it work better. So I don’t have to do all that“, he goes on.

„What share of your time is left for research?“ – „I would say like most of the week I am doing research. But then I try to kind of keep everything on research which is my main focus. They offered me if I like to do this undergraduate admission. And then I can apply for senior lectureship next year. And then I kind of start like getting the salary thing I deserve. I am doing a lot over already. But my admission was like I want to get easier teaching load. So I am doing less teaching. I think these people are kind of reasonable.“ But despite this he rates his workload as balanced especially in relation to his career stage and time working in York.

The creative work

„I wonder if you have a guitar in your office. I can actually focus best on creative and conception tasks doing something totally different with my hands, for example.“ – „Yeah“, he frowns, „I’ve been thinking on bringing the guitar to the office. Maybe I will. But at work I am quite busy. I don’t really have that time especially during the term time. Especially this fall it’s been mad. There’s always somebody. Which is great because it’s gaining lots of research processes going on in the lab, and then your time is limited. And then there is always somebody who needs you. But then again I’m not spending any time in the lab. I don’t have time. So I have like PhD students and older students do their projects. I am more kind of a manager by myself.“ – „Is it ok for you to be the manager?“ – „Yeah, yeah.“ – „I have seen a lot of researchers, especially in the later stages, being kind of frustrated by the management taking most of their time and effort and is driving them out of the lab.“ – „Yeah, it’s completely fine with me. I have to deal with some of the lab stuff still. But then I like being more on the idea side.“

„The side of coming up with concepts?“ – „And then yeah, exactly. And then I don’t need to do the needy, greedy job of pipetting. They can do that. And then it’s kind of like when you have your set of data, you still have to write it into a story. It’s not like the data is a story of itself.“

„Indeed yes and this can be a really tough thing.“ – „And that’s where I am good at. I am good in interpreting data and then turning that into a story.“ He laughs and continues: „In the end of the day it’s not that different from music. You get some ideas and then you put them into a song. The one idea or the one melody is not a song. It’s kind of similar in that sense.“ So that makes the harmony and makes it work.

„I understand that composing and writing music is a bit more important to you than being on stage?“ „Yeah, I think so. If I would like quit touring or quit being in a band, I would still do music just for myself just to keep my sanity and keep myself happy. So it is definitely more important. I like playing live and I like touring as well. It all makes sense. But I just can’t have it all. And due to my scientific career, I just can’t be on tour all the time. So you have to kind of find a balance with that. And then for me: I kind of like to have a steady job. I really love science as well. It’s kind of another perspective but I mean, music is important to people. It is important to me because it makes my life more enjoyable. But then again as a society we’re facing kind of like important challenges, we need to be solving in the future. Only we can solve these big problems if you gonna find scientific solutions. That’s only one part of the thing. We need to be able to solve how we control diseases, how we produce food, how we produce energy and stuff like that. I feel like I have to contribute to that bit. I think it is important. It makes my life worthwhile.“ he says laughing in a protective manner to cover his idealism.

„But I think you contribute with your music to that in a very important perspective, as well. It’s a big community that comes with this music and it is a very peaceful community despite from the outside often being seen differently.“ – „Yeah!“ – „And despite the aggression in the music the community is peaceful, open, even warm.“ – „Yeah, exactly.“ – „So I think, coming up with the music that fuels this community it’s very, very important for our society.“ – „That is true. And then there are bands being politically a bit more active or they voice their kind of active opinion about how things should be done. And then somedays I think should I voice kind of like my opinion as a musicians and kind of influence people in a way? But then again it’s not the band’s stuff. It’s not the band. The band is about music. And it’s expression of music and me, myself as a personal figure, I can voice my opinions but then I’m not doing that through music. And I am keeping that kind of separately.”

The art of writing

“It seems your lyrics are often very, very personal and extremely sad.” – “Yeah.” – “Any specific reason for that?” He thinks for a moment and I add that of course in a way all lyrics are personal. “It’s personal in a way but that does not mean necessarily that all this happened to you. But it is also what you kind of see around you. And then you put that kind of in first person and personal form because it is stronger in a way. And it is stronger for the people how they are gonna understand that. In general, I think that there are more sad things happening in life, I mean, meaningful things to sing about than just like ‘ok, the sun was shining today’.” We laugh out loudly. This idea doesn’t at all sound like Insomnium. “I just think that these are kind of more relevant things to people and that it is related to more kind of difficult things you need to deal with in life.”

“What is harder to word your papers and grant proposals or your lyrics? You might come more often to the point at which words seem not exactly to be able to express what you feel.” – “Yeah.” – “What is harder to express: the scientific stuff or your lyrics?” – “I mean like the scientific stuff – you have a certain format you follow in a way. And sometimes … well it is what I have been doing mostly the last five years: writing scientifically. I mean both are kind of challenging. But in scientific writing you just have to have the kind of framework. When you get all the pieces in an order, then it is about the writing up and then you’re tying everything together as in a story. And with the lyrics as well: you need to have some kind of idea. What is it all about? And then you have a kind of standard structure in lyrics as well. You have choruses, you have verses, and you have something in between. So in a way we follow the same kind of structure in the lyrics as well. But I think in both cases having the idea and the framework to work with that is the key thing. If you have this than it is kind of more play with the words and just see what fits. Or, ‘this is crap. I delete it totally.’ And then re-write it. And so on. Lyrics again you have kind of freedom. You can do whatever you want. They don’t go under review. It’s just like your personal expression. And that’s fine.”

 “Actually it feels like the arranging in music, of course, is often a team approach. But then again I think that arranging the results from the lab into a story could also be a team approach?” – “Yeah. And quite often it is. I mean in scientific paper you quite a lot of people involved, and then the main writing is done by a group of people or one. But then how well you clip with other people makes a big difference what comes out of that. And sometimes with lyrics we do that as well. But lyrics are a shorter piece. Sometimes you can keep this piece more similar throughout one person. But then of course, especially when I’m doing lyrics for Niilo’s singing, then we can discuss some words or maybe change something so that it kind of like flows better. I might think about the rhythms a bit differently but then again I don’t voice my opinion about that but keep the freedom to Niilo to sing what works best for him.”

“At which stage do you decide who is singing which part of which song?” – “Niilo is kind of the main singer. Sometime we can leave it to some clean vocal ideas like ‘ok let’s try something out! I have an idea.’ And then we can make a demo. I think we can have some clean singing here. And then maybe in studio we can add something there. And we just kind of improvise. And try out some things.”

Benefits from research for the band

“I think the more your scientific career has progressed the more structured you needed to become, to work, to proceed and to structure your life. So do you think that this very much straightforward way of life has some benefit to the band?” – “I think that this kind of hobby has always developed, and we always tried to become more kind of professional and still keep it kind of fun. But the reality is if you have a lot of people coming to shows you want to offer them a good experience and want to look like a professional. And in order to have that you have to have a good team of people helping you out and of course there is a lot of strategy involved when to release an album to where and what kind of package. And we have done one headlining tour after the “Winter’s Gate” and this is kind of extra-supporting tour. And then we plan to make one kind of more European tour next year but go to countries we haven’t visited yet. So kind of strategically you go to Eastern Europe and then maybe Southern Europe where our tours haven’t been yet and then play “Winter’s Gate” during that tour. Then you go to USA as well and then you do outside territories like Asia. So you have to think like three years, four years ahead and then we started to think when to record the next album and to release the next album. And then of course our other guitarist plays in another band as well and it’s kind of main songwriter of that band. So they also try to fit in everything according to our needs, schedules. So it is a big puzzle to make everything work. And that requires that we have to be quite structured and become more and more structured I think.”

The teamleader

“Going back to the lab and university. You have students from time to time that are very good in one part of their work, like the experiments or the writing or the planning/analyzing but lacking strongly in one or two of the other parts. How do you cope with such students being perhaps clumsy but brilliant or the other way round? I mean your time is limited, I understand, even more perhaps then that of other researchers of your stage?” – “I mean the best way to cope with this is to recruit people who are able to and do picture out to do everything. If you recruit good people that they’re quite often good in all of these areas. But then of course they have to develop. The idea of PhD is that you actually learn a lot of stuff by yourself I think. So it is not like somebody is holding your hand all the time. And then people are quite pro-active and then their exchanging information with each other in the lab group as well. Also that they can develop their skills in experiment planning and doing experiments within the lab and they also do like statistical analysis and making graphs and stuff like that. So if you’re getting this kind of nice community, they are helping each other out. With under graduate students it is varied and then of course you have to supervise them and then they have to do a project every year. At the end of the day it is their thesis so if can’t do something very well I mean like you voice that out and then you maybe like ‘you have to focus a bit of this and this writing is a bit of unclear’, but then it’s their responsibility to do that. But sometimes you get these.”

“There are quite often actually PhD students that struggle in the end with writing their thesis for several reasons. One of those I have come across more often is that they are afraid of getting done because they have no idea what to do after that. What is your experience with those?” – “I’m just supervising my first cohort of PhD students but I reflect how things were in my PhD and my friends’ PhD. The key thing is I try to keep them writing stuff all the time. So there is not like one writing period of the PhD time when you put everything together. But you actually write the stuff all the time. And then we try to get paper submitted next year for older students because it takes a lot of time to get it submitted and the whole process. But then in the end of the day when they have at least one publication to show off and then they may improve their chances of getting a postdoc or whatever. If they don’t want to stay in academia that’s good as well. But if you do have a publication at least in your CV you have something to show for beyond the thesis or something better. So that kind of improves their chances. So I try to push them to work more now and during the PhD …” – “On the whole spectrum?” – “Yeah. But I think publishing their first paper, people often are a bit anxious of that.”

“Did you have the situation already that a student is asking you to write an LOR when you are not really confident with doing so? How do you cope with that?” – “Well, I tend to be positive for all the people. And if they weren’t really good in something than I don’t really necessarily say that specifically. Then I just keep it kind of short and a bit vague. I don’t want to say too many bad things but then again I know that sometimes I know the people who they are applying for and then if I am friend with them I cannot keep them too overly positive.” – “I see. It is a tricky situation as your impression of the person and the performance later on might fall back on you.” – “Yeah.” – “And then again even if someone is good or brilliant in your group he or she might be bad in the next group as not being able to integrate their or not coping the people there at all.” – “Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So many things and then it is my personal view of the candidate so sometimes you just don’t know them so well. But in general I tend to be positive and then something bad I keep it vague and a bit superficial.”

My odd questions

My time is running out and we have been sitting and talking for quite some time already. I admit I have a lot more questions but I know the value of Ville’s time. So let’s move to the last chapter. “If you could go back in time, into history, who’d be the two scientists you’d like to meet and what would you ask them?” – “Well, in my case I think it would be very interesting to go back in time and then see Darwin. And maybe I asked like when were ground-breaking moments, when he kind of realized ‘ok there is something about this theory’, and then was there like one single moment, or then how he put all things together, and how he was inspired by other people. That would be kind of like interesting. Because he meant this but then it is quite a lot of people and then you get influenced by other people and there is only one person that actually who is responsible. Yah, I think that would be it.”

 “The other question is based on an interview I read a couple of years back in that Ari Koivunen stated that he not exactly entered that casting show on his own choice. It sounded like his friends tricked him on stage when he was entirely drunk and couldn’t avoid it. So what song would you sing if you kind of wake up and find yourself on stage of such a casting show?” – “It has to be something I know the lyrics for. But I don’t know. I’d probably do really bad. Or just run off the stage. ‘No, I can’t do it’ I’m not like I would be enjoying that situation at all.” Laughing I explain that in my impression Ari didn’t really enjoy this first moment we just spoke of … “If I would get a chance to prepare that would be good. But if you just throw me in that kind of situation that just … I’d probably really just run away.“

I leave Ville to going on writing his proposal. Around him other bands are preparing for their gigs tonight. Drumming. Rehearsing growls. Playing guitar – distorted guitar, of course. And once more a stereotype died an awful death as metal heads are obviously not aggressive and stupid bullies!

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Dr Ville-Petri Friman: researcher and metal head (interview)

About The Author
- "It has always been this way!" - I heard this phrase too often and it became the best reason for me to make it (whatever it is) my own way.

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