Finns That Make You Go Mmm...
Stephen Dalton, New Musical Express, 8 February 1997
Photography by Stefan de Batselier
Winter in Finland is long, dark and savage. This time of year in Turku, the country's second city, top Saturday night entertainment means drinking and fighting. Or, for variety, fighting and drinking.
No wonder PANASONIC's Mika Vainio is moving to London, stepping up his sonic assault as the extreme techno duo attract ever more interest from fans of brutal hardcore minimalism the world over. But for the moment we are in snowbound Turku, knocking back instant-brain-death Finnish vodka with Mika and his equally taciturn sidekick Ilpo Väisänen.
Panasonic's studio is a funky tumbledown junk shop of sonic weaponry on a crumbling industrial estate in Turku's eastern fringes. Here, battered old-skool analogue synths teeter atop ancient valve radios and broken-down industrial cleaning equipment from Jupiter. A dusty twin turntable is stacked with albums by King Crimson, Hüsker Dü, Spacemen 3 and, erm, James Last. A Frank Sinatra record has been nailed to the wall. Very Panasonic.
With grim-faced Finnish hospitality, Ilpo has anticipated our arrival by pre-chilling beer and vodka in the snow outside. Chunks of red-raw reindeer flesh are handed out and soaked in neat vodka for extra flavour. Later on, after our interview, the Pet Shop Boys of post-industrial noise will celebrate by broiling themselves alive in the sauna attached to their studio before diving, completely arse-naked, into the sub-zero snow outside. Totally Panasonic.
Not being of such lusty Viking stock, NME declines Panasonic's kind offer of snow/bollock interaction. Later, after a mere nine hours of steady drinking, we will pass out in the groovy apartment of a charming Turku woman who is currently composing a PhD thesis on Panasonic. The assembled Finns will simply laugh derisively at their lightweight European cousins, then continue slugging back homemade wine until dawn. The Finnish word for 'cheers', incidentally, sounds uncannily like 'keep pissed'. Totally, utterly Panasonic.
Rewind a few hours and we are sharing a sauna with the world's most hilarious, and cruelly misunderstood, electronic hardcore band. How often they use this steaming retreat while recording?
"Every day," croaks Ilpo, The Tall One with the rumbling sub-bass voice.
"Not really," chips in Mika, The Quiet One with the Moomintroll cheeks. "Once a week maybe. It's quite relaxing, if we are trying to work something out and it becomes really painful, then we quite often stop and go to the sauna. It's a good place to think again."
When we last met, around the release of their debut album Vakio 18 months ago, Panasonic were a trio. But since then Sami Salo, The Cheerful One, has quit the group for a less gruelling occupation. He's joined the army.
Perhaps as a result of this upheaval, Panasonic's sound has shifted away from the ultra-minimal ambience of Vakio towards the apocalyptic sonic disruption of their new album, Kulma. Have they become grimmer, gloomier people during this time?
"Not at all," protests Mika. "This is a question of how people understand our music. Many people say it is very unhuman and cold and emotionless, but for me it's totally opposite. Of course some of the tracks are, but still some are quite warm and humorous."
But isn't there also extreme violence and anger in Panasonic's music?
"Well, I have quite violent feelings sometimes, and I am very angry quite often, so of course some of the tracks are about those feelings. But not all of them."
What makes Mika so angry?
"There's too many things. How can I put this... something has went wrong with the entire humankind since the beginning, emotionally. The selfishness and greed which makes people do all these wrong things, it just rules the whole world."
And yet you also admit there is humour in your music too. Explain Finnish humour.
"Ah! You asked that last time, I remember," nods Ilpo.
Yes, and there was no reply -- just five minutes of arctic silence.
"Now is coming five minutes of silence as well," Ilpo grins.
"We are wood men," deadpans Mika. "We don't know any jokes."
Hmmm. Maybe Panasonic themselves are a sophisticated Finnish joke. Some reviewers suspect that the arty pair are merely making KLF-style theoretical statements about music than music for its own sake.
"People who say that are themselves too much into theories," sighs Ilpo. "But I am not into theories and I think Mika is not as well."
Mika agrees. "Yes, for me the most important thing in music is always the feeling, the expression. There is all too many theoretical composers who make all these plans and structures, but the music is very boring. It says nothing to me."
In recent months, Panasonic have brought down the ceiling of the Finnish embassy in London, baffled 2,000 Saturday night ravers at New York's Limelight and rocked a Tokyo noise club rammed with 15-year-old schoolgirls. But next month they embark on their first proper rock'n'road voyage, playing 32 dates as support act on the Swans' farewell tour. Does this make them a hardcore band?
"Sometimes we are hardcore," nods Mika, "but it's not any reason for us to make music. It just happens to be like that. We are never trying to force our music in any direction, we just turn knobs and see what comes out."
You're not exactly 'pop' though, are you?
"I don't have anything against pop music. I really like the catchy tunes. What I don't like at all is how the music industry is representing those things."
Ilpo concurs. "The good and bad thing about pop music is it's about escaping the environment. Noise music is trying to figure out: what IS the environment?" So what does that make Panasonic? Disruptive, progressive, angry, socially aware, emotionally charged, and highly expressive. Scoff all you like about the sound of humming fridges, but Panasonic are completely PUNK ROCK to their vodka-soaked bones.
"Yeah, sure!" beams Ilpo.
"No, we are more rockabilly," scowls Mika. "Original roots rockabilly, I like that, it's very genius. I really admire the way they were able to concentrate all the weight and meaning and soul in them. It's amazing.
"That is why it is really ridiculous for me when certain modern composers are complaining how playing three chords is totally primitive. But if you compare some old track of Lightning Hopkins to some modern composer, Lightning Hopkins has a thousand times more soul and weight in it!"
And there, finally, are Mika and Ilpo in a nutshell. Techno Vikings from a land of deep-freeze humour making futuristic punk soul music for like-minded noise junkies all over this fucked-up apology for a world. Totally hardcore. Totally brutal. Totally Panasonic.
Copyright © 1997 NME
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