Class Reunion – Interview with Dark River Festival Manager Henri Eerola

Perhaps this is not a common interview. But then the Dark River Festival (DRF) was not a common festival experience to me. Henri Eerola, the festival and social media manager, said it is like a class reunion and coming home. His comparison fits in more than one way. The crew running the festival has been the same for many years, musicians and band have played there before and enjoyed coming back and the audience is the most critical you can have, with parents and friends among them. So besides Henri I asked some of the musicians about their Dark River Festival experience.

Henri – Just Wanted To Be Involved

Henri Eerola

The Dark River Festival is a rather small one. “It’s nice to stay little bit on the underground I think ‘cause when I grew up with this music it wasn’t the thing that my parents wanted to listen to and that was the thing, truly.” Still he hopes to attract all generations to attend the festival and “and seeing this … like yesterday the whole mayhem that was going on!” – I can’t help laughing out loudly. “… with the last two bands because that was something that we hadn’t experienced at any Friday this far!” Weirdly peaceful kind of mayhem, I think – still laughing. Henri agrees excited: “They make much of researches about the festivals here in Finland especially after the summer.” The result remains the same: “The TUSKA is always the most peaceful one. Always. It was already on the Kaisaniemi days. You know two violations during the weekend. Nothing.”  I have never experienced any violation or anything at all.

We go back in time. Henri came to the the Dark River Festival (DFR) as musician of his band, then joined the team helping out before becoming the DJ of the festival. “Just wanted to be involved,” he comments. At that time Sami Hauru was the festival manager, did the booking and the sound during the festival. As Ominium Gatherum and Insomnium needed more of his time as their sound engineer and tour manager he passed the festival management on the Henri and later the booking to Niko (Lindman). Taking care of the festival’s social media keeps him busy all year.

“I said on the briefing yesterday, I don’t know about many of things and I’m not kind of profession of anything but my role is to solve problems. My role is here to help you. My role is here to get things done and find the person to get things done.” Henri describes his role at the DRF.

The headliner tonight is Reckless Love. It’s their second appearance at the DRF and when they came the first time it was a turning point for the festival. Henri remembers how he and Sami thought it over: “And this was actually the band that me and Sami were thinking about if we could be running a kind of metal festival this far? ‘And this is too much!’ – ‘Is this too much?’ – ‘Can we do this?’ – ‘Will anybody complain about this?’ – ‘Will anybody show up?’ And there were young girls coming straight from the gates opening and were sitting by the fence the whole day and waiting for the band! And this was when we started thinking that maybe this was a success. And it was!” He adds: “From 2012, I was involved more or less deciding the bands. First with Sami and after with that Niko.”

A Festival for Local Bands To Play Shows

Part of the family-like atmosphere results from the crew that has come a long way together: “We were talking of it only yesterday about we still need to get more and more young people inside the festival group to do things and inside the crowd. Because it still is run by the scene that has started in Kotka about almost 20 years ago. So I remember time when Omnium Gatherum had released one demo! One! And I was asking it from Markus (Vanhala) to buy it for me. So we have come a long way.”

“Always good to go back home and play in front of friends and family”, I say and Henri replies. “Yeah and the thing is that in Kotka there isn’t that much of bars where bands can play at the moment. So that’s the thing. Over the year, concert-wise where they can appear when they feel like it. Markus Vanhala said that they tour outside Finland and on the other cities like that doesn’t feel it. What makes him shaky is that he comes to play for the local crowd for some reasons. ‘Cause he knows there is his parents and girlfriends and friends watching. So that’s a thrill for him to come back.” – I reply: “The smaller the places are, they come from …” – “’Cause everybody knows them!” Henri adds. The options to play were few: “We had the bar ‘Yellowstone’ back in the day which was the place for the local bands. It was kind of the same idea [as the festival]. Always brought a bigger band to play and they offer the opening slot for a local band.”

“We Don’t Have Any Big Festivals Nowadays”

“Very big!” begins Henri speaking of the role of DRF for the Kotka music scene. “The problem at the moment is that there aren’t many young bands rising from this area. It’s probably because we have also to have make that amount of money that we at least can pay the bills.” Henri explains that they hope to attract local visitors with local bands and while trying to establish a brand. Some of the local bands from the early days have grown big, such as Omnium Gatherum, whom they still can rely to play at the festival every now and then. Back in the days there also were “Domination Black and there was Total Devastation and then there was my own band.” He illustrates the situation in more detail: “First festival took place in that building that was near to the camping area. And it was inside. So it was that small at the first time. And it was my band playing and Domination Black. Actually, we have the oldest poster. It is on the merchandise desk. It’s on the top of left. It’s the first one. It started from there and the next year it went outside. And then we were on the yard of that building and yeah, it didn’t cost anything at that time. We were just bringing this festival up on our own and to offer a place for our bands to play. But the idea kind of went bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger. At some point we just had to make some kind of a price for it and sell tickets.”

“The main idea”, he says, “was to offer the local bands a place to play. And it still is and we always want to include at least two or four of our local bands here. It’s still kind of an easy job ‘cause the old ‘geezers’ are still playing. And their bands are active. So we can ask Omnium Gatherum here every now and then. And Domination Black is still active and Markku Pihlaja’s new band Return To Void starting at three is also active. So there is bands that we can take in and they always come smiling to play here.”

Markku Pihlaja, Return To Void

I reach out for Markku. What does the DRF to him and what’s it like to play in front of friends and family? I ask him.

Markku: “I´ve been somehow part of the festival from very first one, what used to be small indoor event. Used to play at DRF many times, and been I´ve been in the audience as well. Great event all over. In bands point of view, this year was special, ‘cause we released new album same day we performed. It´s been cool to perform every time, we´ve been “called” in!”

Markku, speaking of family and friends in the audience: “Nowadays we don´t do so many gigs, that it´s good to get the most important audience front of us. It´s great to notice that people you mentioned, are giving us great feedback!”

“What’s the difference to playing bigger festivals from your personal view?” I wonder. 

Markku: “Wow, cool question”, comes along with a friendly smile. “We don’t have any big festivals nowadays. Back in the days some of my bands has played at some “bigger” festival, but not that big, what you can call BIG!!!!” – I explain that “big” to me personally is not related to sales figures.

Outside the Box Thinking

Bigger bands pull bigger crowds would be an easy formula wasn’t there the point of a very tight budget. “And also we don’t have the name still, kind of the festival name that bring people here every year. So we don’t have the tradition. We are starting from scratch kind of every year more or less. We always have to do our best to get the people here.“ So how can it work?  “We have this certain amount of money that we can put in and most of the time it’s not enough to get bigger bands. So we have to think a little bit outside of the box. The bands that may interest people but aren’t maybe that expensive.“ –  “Like bands that don’t play too often? “Yeah, that also. Actually that’s the thing today Machinae Supremacy. A band that for some odd reasons the Finnish festivals seem don’t get the band into their roosters even though I am certain they would get the crowd moving and their fans.” – “I saw them in Tampere at the Saarihelvetti Easter Bash and they did pull and move a crowd not to mention playing a fantastic show!”

Tomi Luomo, Machinae Supremacy

Tomi Luoma, Finnish guitarist of Machinae Supremacy: “Yeah it was our 2nd time in Dark River and especially for me it was quite different experience this time around. Five years ago it was the 1st outdoor festival show for the whole band but it also was my 1st ever gig with the guys in Finland. So naturally I felt more nervous back then compared this year’s DRF. We’d love to play more festivals but it seems that our reputation as a ‘nerd metal band’” – I have to laugh –  “… kinda makes the festivals ignore us even though we sell tickets really well on our club tours. Hopefully, we can make a change next year and bring ourselves more noticed as a killer live band which we definitely are.”

I couldn’t agree more and mention their Tampere gig.

Tomi points out: “Also the fact that nowadays we know people from the crew of DRF made it more fun this year.”

I frown and nod and say half loud, “yeah, amazing folks.” I ask about the spontaneous, after-show meet & greet session in the bar tent.

Tomi has a surprising reply: “We had fans all the way from Portugal and Malta who came to see us in DRF! So we wanted to make sure that everybody would have the chance to come and talk to with us and hang around. I guess nowadays it ain’t so unheard of that a band hangs around with the fans after the show but we’ve always enjoyed talking and hanging around with people.” Some do, while others would never do it, I think. But, personally, I love those who do it.

Crisscrossing in the Synapitic Network

Tomi mentioned that Machinae Supremacy played their first ever outdoor festival gig at DRF some years back and Henri tells me how that came to be: “What I have been saying many bands have a story of coming to this festival of their own. Machinae Supremacy was a band that I was already kind of into, I loved the band very much and I was thinking that they aren’t playing that much anywhere else and that was the case. Mid of the winter, we were driving in Sami’s car and I was just playing the band to him and asking ‘Have you ever heard this band?’ And he hadn’t and said that it sounds quite interesting and I said that maybe we should ask them for our festival. ‘Let’s do that.’ And a few days later Sami said: ‘They said yes.’” Both laughing. When they arrived at the venue it turned out to be their first ever outdoor festival but Henri and Tomi knew before – a perfect example for the close network in the Finnish metal scene: “But having connections is that many, many bands have persons that I already knew or started to know actually, like Tomi. He is from Lahti. And there is this connection that we have been playing with my own band. We had this smaller gigs that we were arranging on our own. We actually invited Kill The Romance from Lahti to play in Kotka and Tomi was playing in that band. And he starts, ‘I remember you from somewhere’ … yeah back in the day“, Henri says.

A Matter of Timing and Persistence

We have lots of personal effort resulting in great hospitality supporting the personal networks when buying in bands. But it was worth all their pain?! “Yeah, yeah, yeah but we are guys that also wants to pull the bands from back maybe are just up and rising or haven’t been that much you know … for example we were asking many, many years back Entwine.” Persistence paid back when they recorded a new album finally: “… And we said: ‘If you are willing to play, we’re gonna take you.’ And it was a great success because I was certain that people were waiting for them to come back. And they were.” I assure that I think people would be still very interested in the band as it has been rather quiet again. “Yeah, but I think the most reason is the S-Tool. Aksu’s [Hanttu] now playing there, too.”

“We are starting to have a reputation as small Nummirock.” Speaking of Aksu who kind of has become an integral part of Nummirock, Henri heads back to the role of the DRF atmosphere. “… but also the warmth here is something the bands don’t usually get and everybody is saying that. That this is the warmest atmosphere that they have ever arrived at. For example, S-Tool”, and Henri explains me that their bookers were hesitating to book 2017. Then he asked Niko: “‘Tell the booking agency to ask from Aksu and from Ville [Laihiala who played at the DRF with Poisonblack some years earlier] that what they think from Dark River.’ And about half an hour after that the answer came and it was yes!” We laugh. Their reaction came as no surprise to me. “’Cause they knew they can come to sauna here and they knew our staff and it wasn’t any question after that. But it sometimes needs this kind of acts to make it happen.”

Aksu Hanttu, S-Tool, Entwine

And Aksu tells me: “And yeah, I remember when our booking agent asked us, ‘do you want to do this festival?’ and I said ‘Hell, yeah!’” I picture his face this moment and frown.

Then I wonder whether he likes the bigger festivals more?

Aksu: “Generally, for me it’s quite same to play in a bigger or smaller festival. Both works for me. And both have their own things which works in their own different ways.”

So is there something unique at DRF? I ask. 

Aksu: “Yeah, I really like that festival! Nice, cosy and well-organized festival with very nice and friendly local crew.” After a very short pause he continues: “And hey, there is a sauna in the backstage! That’s more than cool!”

The sauna is important to Finns, of course and Henri adds says: “It’s kind of an absurd thing that we had Ville Laihiala with his towel sitting, smoking his cigarettes outside there. He is actually that guy that goes always to sauna before the gig – for some odd reason. So he is in the middle of the day watching bands there before his own gig only with a towel on. And me, myself, I am a big, big Sentenced fan back in the days. So it’s been nice”, he ends smiling.

As the budgets are small a potent sponsor was a relieve to have. But fund raising is really time-consuming. “It’s mainly the problem with us ‘cause as I mentioned none of us does this for living. So everything we do is besides our day jobs. And if you think about me, I’m running the social media for the whole year and booking the bands with Niko. And Niko’s negotiating about the contracts and the people here, doing the brick work for the festival and thinking of budgets and when do you get the time to negotiate with sponsors or stuff like that. Again the [crew’s] conversation goes on that we have to be more prepared for this kind of things and it would help a lot. ‘Cause now are living mainly from hand to mouth. And after 15 years still waiting for the year that would make that much more so we would be more prepared for the next year and would be able for example to think of little bigger bands.”

For the Love of the Game

Getting sponsors seems easier in other places. “Yeah, maybe it’s just the town’s local thing. Maybe if we were doing this in Helsinki or some bigger town I think it would be much easier. But I don’t know the business side of things. They have also to get something from that money they are giving away. So some germs. And I don’t know whether this metal thing is still this main thing they go for the companies, what they want to be involved with? Tough nut to crack!” – even more as the Eurovision-Lordi hype has faded out.

So what it takes from each and every one is a big slice of idealism. “What we have here at the moment is people doing the stuff about many, many years together. So we have kind of a core group that has been around for now five years [since last person changed]. And we’ve been learning every year from our mistakes and actually when I arrived here on Thursday, I said to Lauri [Eerola, Domination Black], Lauri is actually the main brain of it all – still! ‘It’s actually almost disturbingly peaceful here. Everything is in place and everything gets done. But there is no panic around.’ – We have been learning.” Henri reveals some details of their organisational structure and highlights the role of effective communication. So they developed a certain degree of professionalism as much “… as it can be on this scale. And still we don’t get any money for our own pockets from here. For the love of the game! Some people don’t even listen to metal music on their free time. They just want to come here. It’s kind of a class reunion once a year. I live in Helsinki myself and most people I see once a year and it’s like coming home even though I am from here. I’m born and raised here but I left about 12 years ago to Helsinki. But this is my family!” So I speak with his ‘family’, kind of father in that regard.

Lauri Eerola, Domination Black and spiritual father of the Dark River Festival

Lauri Eerola laughs: “I’m founder of that festival and doing everything with it so … Domination Black is only one part for me on that festival. Dark River Festival is like my children for me.“

Speaking of the concept of the festival, Lauri says: „Actually one reason for founding the Dark River Festival was that we needed a gig for our band (I have also another band). And on year 2004 it was good way to get gig when I found Dark River Festival!“

I point out that I really enjoy the pragmatic and yet very personal touch of the organisation. “Me too. And it is my way to think and make things“, Lauri explains me.

 The Living-Room Connection

It seems to me that every one of the DRF crew is multiply cross-linked within the network of the Finnish metal scene. “At some point it helps. But mainly with the smaller bands. Actually they are very good, Kaikkonen & Liekkala Duo who is playing at the tent at the evening. The singer of the Duo he is actually Red Eleven’s singer.” Henri gets excited speaking of the band and enthusiastically recommends it to me before continuing the actual story. Henri has known Tony Kaikkonen since he was a child from holiday visits at his cousin’s who lived in Varkaus back then just like Tony. Both used to come to Kaikkonen’s home back then, met Tony in the family’s living-room for the first time ever. Tony moved to Jyväskylä later and focussing even more on music. Many years later, Henri’s cousin made him see a gig at Bar Loose with Kaikkonen’s new band. “And we got there and after a while I told him that actually he won’t remember me but I have been there and I really like his album. ‘The things is that I’d like you to come to our festival.’ And then they came!” Henri points out that despite some difficulties, Tony liked the festival very much and so later returned with Teemu Liekkala. “And they came last year and played at the same tent [as today] and it was great success. So I asked him to play again. So they are now playing two years in a row. And now the people come because they know who they are. On the first slot, the people were like ‘who are these guys? And what are they doing and why does he have these shades on?’ … And the other slot was that the tent was crowded. People were singing with them.” His thoughts return to the budget. “But maybe with the smaller bands it helps that you have this kind of connections and you may be able to discuss about the prices. And when it comes to business with the bigger bands most of the time there is nothing to discuss. It’s the price and the costs and you have the money or you don’t.”

The Elephant Quest

Running and managing the DRF as a hobby is a really big task. And Henri sees himself as a solver of problems for the festival. So as a final and odd question I set up a fictional, yet BIG problem. I explain that I asked quite some bands already to tell me what they were doing if an elephant – and I mean a real, big, male elephant – followed them, threatening to enter stage and possibly tremble down all gear there.

The elephant question from the manager’s perspective is a bit different. The fictive band would not have not noticed being followed by an elephant heading for their gig on stage. What will Henri do? “I think I’d be doing the same as I am doing with my wife. Considering the bugs. If I see some kind of vast or kind of disgusting bug running somewhere here. I don’t say anything to her. Just pick it up. And throw it away because it causes panic if I’d say ‘Oh, what do we have here?’ So I would use all my powers to get the attention of the elephant and bring it out from the stage before the band even notices!”

I have been asked many times why I travel to attend festivals and shows in Finland so often. I do because I love the music of the bands playing there in the very first place. But writing and interviewing the musicians as well as managers of all kinds I have been welcomed very warmly and experienced wide-spread down-to-earth attitude of the top-most people active here. It’s natural for Markus Vanhala to attend his home festival, just as it is for Ville Laihiala to play here again. The interview was planned to promote a rather small festival but far more you took a journey into the synaptic network of the Finnish metal scene. I have no doubt that metal scenes in many other spots work just alike – despite or perhaps in particularly because of all the tough rules of the music business.

I adore the dedication of the crew running the DRF and once more I found so many interesting tales to tell hidden by the appearance of being small. But what’s small? And what’s big, thinking back to what Markku said? It is an elephant quest for the crew but it has been an amazing opportunity for the local bands. And even the “big” names and the bigger bands truly appreciate the DRF – as you just read.

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Class Reunion – Interview with Dark River Festival Manager Henri Eerola

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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