Kompleksi @ Fact (UK), March 2008
Morjens! In recent years I seem to have acquired a slow-creeping jones where Finnish underground music is concerned. Perhaps it's some weird past-life thing or maybe I'm just wired all wrong, but I feel some inexplicable echo of connection when I hear master jouhikko player Pekko Käppi coaxing weird alien drones from his horsehair lyre. To my uptight Western European ears it sounds strange and unearthly, yet it's also somehow hauntingly familiar, as if he's channelling some medieval version of the Velvet Underground.
Finland is a sparsely populated country, with 5 million people occupying a land-mass larger than the UK, so Finnish art has always traditionally had a close relationship with Nature. But Finland has also had a tumultuous history: up until 1809 it was part of the Swedish Empire, when it was conquered by Alexander I and annexed as a Russian Duchy, only gaining independence in 1917.
For centuries Finnish literature was sidelined in favour of the Swedish language until the publication of the Kalevala, an epic collection of Finnish and Karelian folklore, helped kick-start interest in traditional Finnish culture. In some ways the emergence of Finnish free-form Folk and Psych collectives like Kemialliset Ystävät, The Anaksimandros, Avarus, etc were almost inevitable as a new generation of Finnish artists found novel ways to reconnect with their own heritage.
But the story doesn't end there. As the 20th Century progressed Finnish writers began to embrace Modernism and Realism, creating a new pool of cultural ideas that sat alongside the more traditional themes of Nature and mysticism. The Cold War also presented the Finns with another headache: namely, how to survive as an independent state with the Soviet Union as your next-door neighbour? Attempts at political and cultural appeasement (aka "Finlandization") had some unusual side-effects, such as the adoption of pseudo-Soviet style architecture as the country became increasingly industrialised.
Kompleksi ("Complex") are an Electro-Pop group from Tampere, the post-industrialist city sometimes known as "the Manchester of Finland," where concrete Neo-Brutalist tower-blocks and decaying factories sit a short distance from woods and park-land. Intriguingly, the group cite late 70s/early 80s UK synth outfits like The Normal, Robert Rental and a pre-"Dare" Human League as prime influences, along with Tampere's own fractured sky-line. In a nutshell: they're a hauntologist's wet-dream.
Firstly, though, it's important to understand that Kompleksi are neither an ironic parody nor nostalgic kitsch; they have little in common with any of the retro-engineered electro-punk groups that currently have a stranglehold on UK style-mags. Instead, they should perhaps be seen as part of a Finnish electronic music lineage that stretches back to 60s mavericks like M.A. Numminen and Erkki Kurenniemi, via the 80's Helsinki Futu ("Futurism") scene that spawned local synthpop groups like Organ and Stressi. And we should also include the Finnish label Sähkö ("Electricity"), whose pioneering early 90s roster created the original template for Minimal Techno: all these disparate influences have congealed into a wonderfully sticky synthetic stew called Kompleksi.
The band formed round a core-duo of producer/synthesist Mike Not and vocalist Erkki Rautio, who runs the excellent pHinnWeb site - an ideal one-stop shop for anyone interested in Finnish underground culture, past and present. Kompleksi's debut album "Sister Longlegs Dances in The Disco" has been available as a privately circulated CD-r for some time now, so forgive me if I start babbling like a fan-boy, but their songs have tattooed themselves onto my cerebellum. Their album finally gets a much-deserved vinyl release on Helsinki's Verdura Records later this year.
Kompleksi's songs are often inhabited by a palpable feeling of melancholy; their lyrics articulate an acute sense of disappointment about lost cultural opportunities or times passed that resonate on a personal level as well as an historical one. The band gleefully invert the usual Modernist tropes, so that songs about the sixties space-race or working together to create a futuristic socialist paradise become metaphors for failed relationships or emotional stasis.
"Moscow 1980" (which first appeared as a 7" on Lal Lal Lal) is particularly poignant, using the 1980 Olympics as a backdrop to slyly comment on American foreign policy and the collapse of Communism: nearly 30 years after they protested at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan by withdrawing their athletes, US (and British) troops now occupy the same country. The final twist of the knife comes with the realisation that the song's Russian narrator is saying farewell to his brother, a conscript who was shipped out to Afghanistan that summer and who he never saw again.
My own personal favourite is "Porno Tampere," a song where Erkki's voice sounds as if he's paralysed by some awful sense of ennui. When he sing-speaks "I don't need it/You don't get it/You've spent too much time in Porno Tampere," he opens a window on some existential limbo-zone where human beings are permanently caught in the oncoming head-lights of inevitability. Porno Tampere isn't a place, it's a state of mind. In Porno Tampere, people become automatons, lobotomised by the crushing, auto-libidinous repetition of their own lives. Kompleksi don't perform songs about robots, they write about people who behave like robots.
For Kompleksi, the Future never quite happened - the golden age we were promised never materialised - like the rest of us, they have been left stranded with their expectations and disappointments in the concrete Here and Now. In this respect they could almost be categorised as an Anti-Glam group: their lyrics hark back to the kitchen-sink mini-Soap Opera approach of Soft Cell or early League, to an era before electronic music became part of the mainstream Pop vocabulary or was co-opted as a soundtrack to the cat-walk. They're also funny as fuck.
Erkki's lyrics are extremely playful and witty, even though English is his second language. Tracks like "(I Ain't No) Lovechild" are shot through with the band's wicked sense of humour, while "Gothic Robots" is a hilarious deadpan dissection of Goth conformity set to a militaristic robo-beat. But be prepared to loosen your expectations when you listen to them: Kompleksi's fusion of Eastern and Western pop sensibilities will initially sound both familiar and alien, especially if your ears have been blunted by over-exposure to pre-packaged post-Britpop acts. Trust me: these Finns have the potential to breathe new life into this jaded genre in the same way that Jap bands rejuvenated heavy psychedelic rock.
Kompleksi sit at the centre of a loose affiliation of collaborators and like-minded electro-pop fetishists like Unidentified Sound Objects, Citizen Omega (Eero Salminen from the coastal town of Vaasa) and Polytron, who have released a series of 7-inchers on labels like Rikos and Kostamus. Polytron are Vesa Latva-Mantila and Mikko "DJ Mini" Niemelä who used to co-host an event with Kompleksi in Tampere called Club Telex, which featured electronic live acts and short experimental films.
At this point I must also mention the Turku-based band TV-Resistori, whose fabulous album "Turkulaiset Rakastaa Paremmin" on Fonal has given me so much pleasure over the last year or two. There's a review of it lurking elsewhere on the FACT site. TV-R mix saccharine girl-boy vox and synthpop moves with traditional guitar and a drum-kit, sounding as if they've just beamed down from some lost Les Disques du Crepescule compilation from 1983. The songs are sung in Finnish, but don't let that put you off: it's wonderful.
Meanwhile, FACT magazine caught up with Kompleksi in their hidden sound-lab in the Tampere suburb of Kaukajärvi (or "Faraway Lake"). Thanks, as ever, to Erkki, for his time.
Tell us a bit about how you started out...
ER: "Well, I've always been fascinated by electronic music and I have no personal experience with guitar-based bands at all, though I basically listen to all sorts of music. First for me it was Kraftwerk and assorted Futuristic/New Romantic UK synth acts. In the 90s I went through a Jeff Mills/minimal phase, but 4/4 techno in general started to bore me a bit, so finding out about the "New Electro" sound in '96-'97 was really exciting and struck a chord. It was like a return to the electronic "roots" of the 80s. I remember witnessing I-f's DJ gig at the Jyväskylä festival of 1997, which was a big influence. Then along came all those interesting acts like Adult and the whole Ersatz Audio roster, GD Luxxe, Dutch Den Haag "sewer electro"; then a revived interest in the Streetsounds Electro series of the 80s. My first band was Club Telex Noise Ensemble, an electronic improv act we had in 2001. Kompleksi followed after that, when we got together musically with Mike Not.
"Mike's background is bit different in that he started as a guitarist into hard rock and heavy metal, but after a hand injury he found himself forced away from guitar. His solo project is called Noise Production, under which guise he has created just everything from Minimal Techno to Industrial to Ambient. Kompleksi is totally dependent on Mike's production skills and his home studio - an impressive collection of synths and other gear."
I heard stories that old Russian synthesisers had found their way into Finland a few years back - do you guys use any old Russian kit?
ER: "Yes, I have heard about some people owning those here, like Jimi Tenor. In the late 80s and early 90s it was quite easy to get Russian synths from places like Tallinn, but I don't know now. Kompleksi's own synth arsenal is mostly basic Korgs, Rolands, etc and some analogue stuff like a Jupiter 6. I only own a cheap three-octave Yamaha Portasound from the 80s - many of those keyboard riffs you hear on our tracks were created with that.
Was the Finnish 'Futu' scene an influence on you?
ER: "Well, I was into "Futu," but it was more the British/European acts that I was aware of. I got to hear the Finnish bands representing that style much later on, through visits to second-hand record stores and so on. The best of them was a band called Organ. Their lyrics were often a sort of socially-conscious or anti-war comedy, and the sounds in many of those songs still don't sound dated at all.
"There was another act called Stressi ("Stress"), which also inspired Kompleksi's name. They were a patchier affair than Organ, but there were still many interesting moments in those songs. There was also a solo guy called Jimi Sumén, who made some Bowie/Japan-influenced albums. He ended up playing guitar in the UK New Romantic band Classix Nouveaux. Yes, it would be nice if one day Kompleksi would be mentioned alongside these, but on the other hand, I feel we are musically influenced by so many different styles from different eras and countries, that such classifications would be quite uneasy for us."
I find some of your tracks extremely moving and emotional, which seems totally at odds to the clinical coldness of some of the original synth acts...but you also side-step the sort of existential Romanticism of people like John Foxx - your music makes a virtue and a strange sort magic out of 'ordinariness...
ER: "I'm partial myself to the British "kitchen sink realism" school of writing pop songs, including that characteristic English wit combined with social observation and commentary, both bittersweet and ironic: such as Ray Davies's lyrics for The Kinks, Pete Townshend's texts for The Who, Syd Barrett's eccentric characters like Arnold Layne for the early Pink Floyd, and on some occasions Lennon/McCartney, too. Some of the US-originated, but heavily Brit-influenced acts here, I think, are people like Scott Walker or Sparks, both big for me personally.
"You mention people like John Foxx: I'm fascinated by his "Metamatic" album and that elliptical style of song-writing (a big influence on early Adult. too), but I don't know if I could come up with something like that myself; we'll see...
"When it comes to "Futurism," I think I'm more of the J.G. Ballard school than that of Star Trek. "Futurism" often seems to be about the narcissistic dreams, fantasies and utopias of some glitzy, heaven-like technological perfection, that Great Disco in the Sky…but how things seem to happen in reality is that entropy sets in and great plans fall apart; greedy, ignorant and bigoted people keep running things, and despite all the high-technology, people are still lonely, isolated and broken-hearted; not to talk about all the ongoing economic injustices (though I can't consider myself a political artist in the way of being able to offer some actual solutions); it all somehow becomes a background to Kompleksi's music.
I was wondering if you had created a sort of fictional Tampere in your head...
ER: "Well, it's certainly an interesting point. This is traditionally a working-class town which means that local people's mindsets are quite conservative and suspicious towards anything new. On the other hand, it is also a university town, so there's a constant influx of students from all over Finland bringing in new influences.
"Anyway, there's an interesting mixture of rural and urban attitudes. We are well-versed in Anglo-American pop culture and share a similar lifestyle with the rest of Scandinavia, but because of our history and shared border with Russia, there is still something here that's very similar to the former Eastern Bloc countries, I think. I guess that's also the atmosphere of heavy melancholia which is very prevalent in Finnish music, art, literature and so on.
"Especially during winter Tampere can feel very gloomy and desolate, with all the dark old factory buildings and "Brutalist"-style blocks of flats and office buildings from the 60s and 70s, and the desolate, frozen streets. There's still a lot of unemployment and poverty in the shadows of "Nokialand's" alleged success story, and many people seek solace to their melancholia in heavy drinking, which is also another trait we share with the Russians. So, maybe the more sinister side of living in this town is emphasized in Kompleksi's music, but perhaps it's more a caricature than total fiction."
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© Kek-W / Fact Magazine 2008. Reprinted by permission.