Finns Ain't What They Used To Be
Mark Roland, Future Music Issue 55, April 1997
It's cold, gloomy and populated by horned beasts and pelt-clad hardmen. But these Scandy scallies have electricity and they know how to use it. Mark Roland meets a plugged-up Finn...
Finland. A vast Baltic wilderness bordering Russia and home to around three million [actually, it's five million - ER, your ever-nitpicking Finn] Finns, the only people on the face of the planet who can justifiably start a fight in a pub by saying: "I'm Finnish, so I've started". Due to the country's geographical positioning on the globe, if you venture to the north, night time lasts all winter and it doesn't get dark in the summer. This isolation and nature's nippy grip have moulded and shaped the talents of Sibelius, Hanoi Rocks and, for the 90s, Mr Jimi Tenor.
Jimi has signed to Warp Records who have just released his debut album Intervision. Warp collectors beware: Richard H Kirk this isn't. Neither is it Autechre. It's not even Aphex Twin. It's Jimi Tenor, and he's from Finland. He thinks he's the most mainstream act on Warp, and he is, come to think of it, probably right.
Surrounded by his eclectic collection of electronic bric-à-brac in the Finnish Institute, Jimi is a patriot through and through: "I am sure that being Finnish means we are different," he says, "It's handy having a language no-one else understands. It's a good secret."
While someone from Finnish Institute (all we know about this place, including Jimi, is that it is an Institute and it's Finnish) tries to dig out a suitable adaptor to power up Jimi's kit, I try to find out what events led Jimi to record Intervision, and what makes it unique.
"I like Iggy Pop, Harry Belafonte and Johnny Cash," Jimi ventures, by way of explanation. He also collected the early electronic blurtings of The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Heaven 17. It's a brew of sophisticated easy listening, country and wester n and home-made electronics which blends beautifully, albeit mutated, on Intervision.
Jimi also plays saxophone and flute, having learned the instruments by playing Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand tunes in the school jazz band. "We also played proper jazz, too," says Jimi, "well, the Finnish version of it, whatever that is: jazz from th e woods with the drummer using logs instead of sticks."
As the 80s got under way, Jimi was the leading light in a Finnish industrial band [Jimi Tenor and His Shamans] who used a selection of peculiar instruments. "We had a mechanical drum machine and the automatic trombone." The latter was operated by a vacuum cleaner set on blow instead of suck. A rubber glove between the vacuum and the trombone acted as a pair of lips which could be manipulated by hand to change the pitch. It may re-emerge soon at some of Jimi's forthcoming gigs -- that's surely one r eason to go along, if not to hear Jimi play...
"I would like to get some beautiful girls to play it," Jimi laughs. The mechanical drum machine is another matter. "That still exists. It is very big and made of stainless steel with a hammer which hits the steel. It weighs about half a tonne! And it make s only one rhythm: boom chick, boom chick... nothing else. One speed. It's controlled by a washing machine motor which sends the hammer against the steel. It's a very beautiful machine."
The drum machine went with Jimi's band on a tour of Germany, but the journey, which took in Poland's notoriously dodgy roads, destroyed it.
"The weldings were broken when we arrived, so it wouldn't work," remembers Jimi, sadly.
Hardly an impulse buyer
Intervision has been a year-and-a-half in gestation, and will interest regular Future Music readers, not least for the decidedly obscure gizmos which have been used on it. Take the Russian Synth, for example.
"I went to Estonia in 1985 and I saw this synth in a shop there, but I didn't buy it. I went there five years later and visited the same shop and the synth was still there! It was covered with dust. We didn't have enough money to buy it, which surprised t he man in the shop because most people from the West were like millionaires. We also needed a certificate to buy equipment like that, but we didn't have one. The shop owner took the equivalent of one pound instead. And the synth cost £10."
You can't expect much for a tenner (pun intended). The peculiar mechanical keyboard doesn't work, and never has. Another Eastern Bloc toy is the Russian sampler. Jimi played a show in Moscow a year ago and told the promoter he wanted to go shopping for in struments and was taken to a shop where he found the sampling module.
"It's really an electronic tom system for a drummer," says Jimi. "When I bought it, I got the pads and all the stands, too. The sampler is really good; it's very rough. I don't know how many 'bits' it is, but it's not many. I got it home and started playi ng around with it, and I was happy that it worked at all. I wondered whether it had a memory. I switched it off and all the sounds were gone. I read the manual and it said the memory could be kept by putting six of these massive batteries in the unit. I p ut them in and then I discovered that this would keep the memory for 48 hours! I don't use the memory, it's too expensive. Within one week it would cost more than the machine itself!"
The Russian Sampler has more quirks. Sounds are stored as two banks of seven, but any sounds stores next to each other are likely to 'leak' into each other. So the only way to make sure it plays the sampled sound you want it to is to leave a gap of one em pty memory patch between each of the sounds.
Somehow, Jimi has both the Russian Sampler and the Russian Synth triggering from a Roland TR-606 drum machine. A trigger input had to be bolted into the synth, which also never stays in tune.
"I play with the resonance until it starts to oscillate the filter itself. You can make rough melodies with the speed of the trigger. The faster the trigger, the higher the pitch of the synth. Don't ask me why. It has a really deep bass, too."
When Jimi plays live, the 606 is pre-programmed with the song, although the song is usually a simple affair.
"I use one pattern for one song, that's it. I think it's fair to the audience that way. The machine isn't doing everything. Once I put it on, that's it. Then I change levels and switch instruments off, so people can see that things only change when I do s omething."
This also gives Jimi the opportunity to improvise, solos can go as long as he feels like. "You can get more into it without having to worry about the next part. Nothing happens, ever, until I change it."
How's he do DAT?
Half of the album was recorded straight onto DAT with no overdubs. Just Jimi, his mad collection of machines and some inspiration. The mix was supplied by a little six-channel mixer of some age.
"That's why a lot of the album is panned more or less in the middle," Jimi laughs. "I had to use the mono output of the drum machines and if I needed a reverb, I had to take one instrument out."
This is a working method of choice, not of financial necessity. Jimi has never been tempted to trade his rag-tag collection of elderly gear for a spanking new computer and some software.
"I had an Atari with Cubase for one month a couple of years ago. I had used it before, so I knew how it worked, but that wasn't the problem. I don't know," he shrugs. "All this monitor business and seeing the track going from left to right... I did n't like it. I sold it away. It's just too practical and non-musical. You stare at the monitor and forget to listen to the track."
"When I work with small sequencers, I don't have to look at them at all because I know by heart the sequence of the buttons to press. I can look out of the window and just play. I find it much better. The monitor gave me lots of headaches, too. You don't need it."
Jimi is also keen on his Italian organ, an Eko Rimini which he bought from Germany. "I got it from this Nazi house. I saw an ad in the paper, it was 50DM. If I had said, 'What about 35DM?', he probably would have shot me."
"It belonged to a little girl and the father made her carry it in to show me. I gave him the money and escaped as quickly as possible. It has a special sound which I really like. You can add strings and horns to the organ sounds." The Eko Rimini didn't es cape some Tenor tinkering. The organ had no outputs, so Tenor delved inside, bypassing the internal speaker. "Mind you, I think I broke it, because I turned it on a couple of months ago and it didn't work anymore. I'm not so technical." When he wanted the Oberheim DX drum machine customising, he had the good sense to leave it to someone who knew what he was doing.
I knifed a circuit board to death
"When I bought it, the machine was so unpopular. People thought it didn't have any possibilities, but it has. When you open it up, you can replace the chips which have the sounds on them. So I have some sounds which are a bit like the 909, but they sound different because it comes through the Oberheim's circuitry. It comes a bit more rough. A Japanese guy in New York customised it for me.
He cracked it! Once I was drunk and I tried to do it myself. I broke the circuit board with a knife, so I have no toms anymore. I like the DX, because it is easy to use. If I don't like the snare sound, I can pitch it up or down a bit, but that's it."
On the limited effects front, the Rockman distortion is one of Jimi's most liked sounds: "In the studio, I find that distortion is one of the hardest things to get to sound right, which is ridiculous. I also use a little micro-mixer to overdrive things. T he Rockman Delay is great, too. I think that King Tubby used to use them all the time. They give you incredible feedback. They are out of fashion now, so they are quite cheap."
Buying unfashionable gear has kept Tenor on the right side of his bank manager and has also given him something of a unique sound. He's now looking for the sort of digital synths which no-one would give room to house.
Whatever he is, Jimi Tenor is a living proof that you can make great records with equipment which other people would at best pass over, at worst throw away. Invention knows no budget: it's a lesson worth taking note of.
[Jimi on Warp] [Jimi's Car Bonnet Pictures] [The Liberace] [Kit List]
Copyright © 1997 Future Music