PANASONIC: SÄHKÖ SINGING, BOUNDARIES BREAKING
Harri Palomäki, Rumba, 3 November 1995
A pop quiz: what Finnish record label has been the "Hot tip for '95" in both the publications Melody Maker and M8? And what electronic ensemble from Turku, Finland has won over such fans as the KLF and John Peel, with their electronic minimalism? Read on and wonder.
The Finns have been always renowned for their sparsely beautiful minimalism, whether we are talking about architecture, glass design or long-distance Olympic runners. Joining those internationally known Finns as Alvar Aalto, Tapio Wirkkala and Lasse Viren is now the record label SÄHKÖ, shepherded by TOMMI GRÖNLUND, which is now so hot among the British electronic music enthusiasists, that it is a mere impossibility to touch their releases without covering your hands with oven gloves first.
JIMI TENOR woke up the Britons to the sound of Sähkö with his kinky cocktail beat, and the Turku trio Panasonic would seemingly now follow in the ex-Shaman's footsteps. SAMI SALO, MIKA VAINIO and ILPO VÄISÄNEN have just finished their brief British tour with the Disobey club -- what kind of spark did the band's sparse electronic music set in the audiences?
Ilpo: - There's been pretty much positive feedback, actually.
Mika: - Well, to our surprise people have quite often come to chat with us after the gigs, and seem to have known a lot about Sähkö and its earlier releases.
Ilpo: - And of course, because the Sähkö stuff is so hard to get here in England.
Now when Mute and Blast First have taken Sähkö under their wings, the distribution of their records should improve, to say the least. But was releasing limited, collectable editions a part of the original marketing plan?
Mika: - No, it was only that we couldn't afford to print any large amounts. The first releases were like something from 400 to 500 units only.
Ilpo: - And of course, Tommi didn't have any contacts when Sähkö started. Those records were just sent to some singular record shops with some familiar people working there.
Without doubt, every other Finnish band has some kind of advanced plans to conquer the world, but the Sähkö acts seem to have broken the borders quite effortlessly.
Mika: - Well, of course there's been a lot of good luck. I think that, naturally, we hoped this to happen, after all.
Ilpo: - Maybe it's just that we have been at the right place at the right moment.
Mika: - And with what comes to techno, it's hard for a foreign act to carve o neself a niche of its own with all the basic British-style ambient/house/techno stuff that's going on.
Ilpo: - Yeah, actually it's that the thing we do is not so common among these circles.
Disobey, which adopted Panasonic to its tour, is a club that has taken to its heart to offer a home to all kinds of marginal musical phenomena.
Ilpo: - Yeah, Paul Smith, who organises the whole thing, just said that there will be too many punters soon, that they have to stop the whole affair.
Has Disobey, which Panasonic has played social evenings with in New York, been the suitable context, as far as the Finnish trio are concerned, to listen to their music in?
Mika: - Well, they have obviously a pretty good or at least the right kind of audiences, because usually the kind of people that frequent the place are those who want to hear all kinds of new and experimental things. It's such kind of open-minded audience. What's so great about Disobey's clubs is that anything can actually happen there.
Ilpo: - In the London gig someone like B.J. Cole played Hawaiian steel guitar, then it was time for our thing. It was really "anything goes".
Strictly left-field is at least the Wire guitarist Bruce Gilbert who played after Panasonic on the same gig, whose performance, as-legendary-advertised, The Shed made many listeners to run behind sound-proofing in fear of hearing damages.
Mika: - It was incredibly violent sound. Really the kind of frequencies that just pierce through.
Ilpo: - And the guy usually just plays in some sauna cabin with a strobe on!
Panasonic has just released its debut Vakio which includes fifteen hypnotic and extremely rudimentary electronic pieces.
Is the minimalism favoured by the band a conscious choice when the ultra-hectic jungle rules the current beat atmosphere?
Ilpo: - I dunno, at least I think that we use those elements, those sounds that are only necessary. Everything else in unneeded. Well, it all becomes from that, it's basically not any conscious choice.
Vakio is not an easy piece of work; the record sounds, at first, almost overwhelmingly deserted, until listener's ear gets used to its original and relentless soundscape. In some tracks one can hear the influence of Kraftwerk with its factory hall sounds and rhythms.
Ilpo: - Well, we've been listening, with Mika, to some industrial music when we were kids: Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, even Kraftwerk.
Panasonic announces on their record sleeve to only using analogue equipment, which is partially custom-made.
Mika: - We have a guy called JARI LEHTINEN, who's the fourth member of the band in the way that he takes care of our tech stuff and builds equipment.
What kind of instructions instructions do the trio give to their engineer - hey, now we should get a sound that goes like psee-oooh?
Mika: - In a way, yeah. We'll explain to him what kind of functions are needed to this and that thing. Together we will then plan, and he will eventually realize the ideas.
Ilpo: - On the other hand, it has also happened that Jari will propose that how about this kind of gadget, then? So, we will also get ideas from him.
Mika: - It's not quite possible to get old analogue equipment any more. If you manage to find anything, the prices will just be totally incomprehensible.
Even more and more people making electronic music today are pledging allegiance to the good old analogue sound. Isn't there the danger that the analogue gear will become a sacred cow like the tube amplifier eventually was to become?
Mika: - Of course it's true that it's no use making that a value in itself. We just like that sound.
Ilpo: - You only have to think about what sounds you need and then to act according to that.
Metal bands have, according to a legend, in their use the notorious "Devil's Chord" containing dark powers, but have Panasonic themselves found in their gear any diabolic frequencies which could cause earthquakes and shock waves?
Mika: - Well, we are not going to try the frequency of seven Hz. It's obviously a very dangerous frequency. Fortunately it's very hard to produce since PAs go only to as low as 20 - 30 Hz.
Ilpo: - You'll die on that. Who knows... maybe we have actually found that devil's frequency.
Is there any room in Panasonic's music for jamming or is every sound just in their carefully premeditated places?
Ilpo: - Well, everything has to be very carefully considered beforehand if we are taping for a record. Sometimes you lose a lot of time before you can create a good recording.
The album will soon be published as four 10" vinyls intended mostly for the DJ use. Somehow I can't imagine people dancing to this music around handbags...
Mika: - Yeah, I doubt they will play those in any normal dance clubs.
Vakio is packed in a very stylish blue and white sleeve which, like the music it contains, just pores the Scandinavian style of cool impassivity.
Ilpo: - Blue is the Panasonic colour.
Mika: - Yeah, the design as a whole has been a very important thing for us in Sähkö, it's an essential part of that thing.
By the way, has there been any hassle with the international electronics giant with which you share your name?
Mika: - Not yet, but it's bound to come. We've been preparing for that in some ways, even.
Ilpo: - The American distributor won't take the album, they are afraid of getting into trouble. We should clear that out first.
Might you invent a new name for the band in the future?
Mika: - Maybe we have to do it then. Or just to change the font. The word itself is Latin, so I don't see how they could have an exclusive right to that.
The name Panasonic evokes nostalgic memories of those times when the tape recorders with radios were new and wonderful things with which you could magically record hit songs from Nuorten Sävellahja (a popular pop music show from the past on Finnish radio).
Mika: - Yeah, we consciously try to stay away from all this current cyber fractal mystics and new age stuff.
Ilpo: - You almost puke when you see flyers for those clubs.
It seems Sähkö is even more well known abroad than in Finland where it's obviously still a quite mystical affair.
Ilpo: - Well, in Finland there lives very few people, with few listeners for this kind of music. I suppose it will never become any big thing.
Panasonic won't just be doing sporadic gigs, their internationalisation project has already started promisingly. The band will return to England to perform with the techno combo Autechre. And that's not all...
Mika: - We met those KLF guys and they have this big army vehicle with enormous speakers on the roof. We had a chat and they will lend it to us and we would obviously hold a kind of free night gig by some car park or some other suitable venue when we will return to England.
In the near future there will also be recording a Peel Session for BBC.
Mika: - Paul Smith sent him our records and as far as I know, John Peel had proposed a session himself.
The KLF and John Peel - some pretty fancy fan club for a band that writes its songs in an old sauna near Turku...
Mika: - Yeah, its a kind of building in the yard with a sauna and a large chill-out room with our studio in it.
Ilpo: - The oven of sauna is, by the way, called Saunamatic. The Saunamatic EP is still in the works.
What other buildings will Panasonic's music bring into mind?
Ilpo: - Urania. It's in Vienna a kind of building with combined observatorium and movie theatre.
Copyright © 1995 Rumba
Translation from Finnish by Erkki Rautio, ably assisted by DJ Entox and Stevvi.
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