Alternating Currents: An Interview With Mika Vainio

Using a stripped-back arsenal of hardware, former Pan Sonic man Mika Vainio opens up chasmic sound worlds that bridge noise, techno and the early electronic avant garde. In a rare interview, he speaks to Russell Cuzner about new album Kilo and the importance of emotion in music

Photo by Tommi Grönlund

The sound worlds of Finnish electronic composer Mika Vainio, whether performed solo, in collaboration with artists as diverse as Alan Vega, Keiji Haino and F.M. Einheit, or as half of experimental techno innovators Pan Sonic, are immediately recognisable thanks to their unswervingly tight focus. Vainio coolly resists the trappings of constantly escalating music technologies, the better to closely examine the properties of his modest arsenal of tone generators and grooveboxes. Yet his output somehow manages to span the entire history of electronic music, reaching right back to its avant-garde roots in 50s academia, travelling through the post-punk transgressions of industrial music and stepping confidently across techno dancefloors to arrive at a 21st century interzone. Here, his signature sound even manages to suggest the history of electricity itself – his brooding hums, surges of distortion and sudden cracks conjure up images of Nikola Tesla’s eccentric high-voltage experiments.

Such a charged atmosphere was strongly evident throughout his recent sell-out show at London’s Café Oto where, earlier in the day, he sits to discuss performing solo. "I have two different types of sets usually," he explains. "The other one is based on rhythmics and beats and [tonight’s] is more droney, more slowly moving, perhaps. This is because I want to be flexible – depending on the situation I can also play something between those two."

I suggest that this kind of division might reflect the way the brain responds to different styles, where rhythmic music stimulates the linguistic centres of the brain which enjoy anticipating patterns, while other parts of the brain may respond to less structured, more abstract work that doesn’t offer any melodic or rhythmic regularity to interpret. His response is refreshingly unscientific for one so deeply involved in electronic composition. "I don’t think of it like that… for me music is about emotions, for me the so-called absolute music doesn’t exist, it’s always connected to emotions and that’s what matters to me. When I listen to music what is important is what is evoked in me, what I feel. I don’t really separate it like that."

Like his sets, Vainio tends to divide his releases into those with and without regular rhythms. His forthcoming album, Kilo, due out on Blast First Petite in May, contrasts heavily with Magnetite, his last solo album released by Touch just a few months ago. "The new album [Kilo] is quite similar in style as Pan Sonic was," he says. "It’s based on beats and rhythmic structures [whereas] the album on Touch doesn’t use any beats, there are rhythmic structures but not like that, so it’s quite different for me. It’s really brand new, I finished one week ago – last Sunday I was doing the final mixing."

Kilo pulses, stabs and snaps to form bold, infectious industrial rhythms, laced with hints of old school hip-hop and dub as they travel through an oozing electrical discharge. By way of contrast, Magnetite‘s quiet, even silent, passages offset vaporous layers of distorted tones and bell or gong-like sounds to suggest meditative Eastern philosophies.

"Well I’m interested in philosophies, and religions too, and quite often reading books about them, but I wasn’t really thinking about that directly when I was creating the music," he says. "But the sound is made by this brass bowl from Tibet, it is played with a wooden stick and you move the stick around the brim of the bowl and it starts vibrating. I record several layers, some of them playing the brim and sometimes hitting the bowl on the side, so it sounds like a bell."

Are there many acoustic instruments you find yourself using?

Mika Vainio: I’m using acoustic sounds it seems more and more, but I don’t have so many acoustic instruments myself. I’m using field recordings quite a lot and sounds I’ve recorded from a radio or whatever.

What equipment are you using for tonight’s set? Is it the same regardless of whether it’s a beat-based set or not?

MV: No, I use the same set of instruments. The base of the whole thing is my Korg Electribe [effects, sampler, sequencer] – that’s where the rhythmic structures are coming [from] – and sound loops and things like that. Then I have an analogue synthesiser and a couple of effects units, but that’s it, that’s all I have. I have custom-made instruments but I don’t travel with them anymore because they break easily.

I understand you only use hardware.

MV: Yes, I have never used computers to make music.

How have you managed to resist the ever-increasing possibilities afforded by computer software?

MV: I have no problem resisting that, I’m quite happy of the way I’m working.

What is it about software that puts you off?

MV: First of all you have to work with the screen, then the music, and the work is visualised that way. I don’t like this idea that the work is visualised through the symbols on the screen… depending on the program, you have different coloured squares or lines or whatever moving from left to right, then you are forced to deal with a certain visualisation which you don’t necessarily even like at all. That would be difficult for me, because I have totally something else in my mind than that image. Altogether working with the mouse and the screen doesn’t feel good for me. I mean, I know it would make many things a lot easier for me and I’ve been considering but, well, this far I don’t really want to go for it.

What comes first – do you have an idea for a sound that you then go and find, or do you experiment until you arrive at something you want to work with?

MV: Yes, it takes sometimes a lot of experimenting. I usually have a certain kind of feeling or certain kind of atmosphere I want to express and create with sounds and then I start looking, first thinking what kind of sounds would be suitable and then I start looking for them, trying different things. If you have too strict an idea beforehand it can become quite painstaking and frustrating to find that kind of thing so it’s like half and half, it’s good to maybe sometimes just let go and let the sounds themselves lead you to where they seem to be taking the whole thing.

Sometimes I have quite a clear idea of a track beforehand and then I try to create it, and I try and try and it doesn’t work when you hear it as a sound. Then you just have to give up and start again from something totally else.

There’s bound to be key differences to your processes when you’re collaborating. Is it quicker or slower as opposed to working solo?

MV: That can change a lot depending on who I’m working with and what kind of approach we decide to have. I made an album with a musician from Sweden, his name is Joachim Nordwall, and we recorded that whole album in seven hours, it’s coming out as a small edition later this month I think, LP only. So that happened really easily, everything just fell in place, but then again I’ve been working with Stephen O’Malley and we’ve been working slowly for two years, from time to time making recordings, and now the album is ready, we just need to final mix it. But with him we had a totally different approach – we tried a lot of different kind of things and the final thing is very composed and planned and has a lot of elements and details and so on, so it’s a totally different approach we had. So it can be both – it can take a long time or happen really fast.

And how about your solo work – is that a long process?

MV: Well, usually it is quite a long process, and I usually work for a couple of albums at the same time, different types of albums, ’cause then I can choose if I feel like doing that now or the other kind of thing depending on the situation I am in. So they come together slowly, and then sometimes they happen to be released at the same time. I think this year there will be quite a few releases.

Ever since I heard your work in the early nineties as Panasonic and Ø it seemed to have a clear relation to electroacoustic music, or the experiments of the 20th century avant-garde composers. However, at the time you were very much aligned with techno and rave culture – during these earliest days to what extent were you aware of this long history of electronic music?

MV: I started writing electronic music already at the end of the seventies, and [have] always been interested in it. Then in the eighties I was listening to electroacoustic composers and modern composition, so when I started doing my own music my idea was to combine the techno elements with the sound world of, let’s say, Alvin Lucier or [Bernard] Parmegiani.

You’re known as someone who has investigated the physical and mental affects of acoustic phenomena, particularly subsonics. I’ve enjoyed reading notions of what sound can do to the body, particularly in a military capacity, but I’ve rarely found any hard-and-fast evidence, it often seems a bit mythical.

MV: Well, one thing that I have read during the years from many different sources is about this 7 Hz thing – that 7 Hz is really harmful or can destroy your organs, and the French military actually built a sound cannon, or they tried to build a sound cannon in the first World War to use the 7 Hz against their enemy.

But the legend goes that people who were experimenting, they died themselves. But I’m not sure if I can really believe in this, because they should know that low frequencies you cannot really direct – [with] very low frequencies, as far as I know, it’s physically impossible to direct or aim in a certain direction, they’re always just around. But maybe they didn’t know it, and that’s a hard way to learn it!

Presumably you’d need certain equipment to play this kind of thing back…

MV: It’s really difficult to produce that low frequency, it takes a lot of energy – amplification power – but there are many interesting things. I know they have created a chair and it’s full of speakers inside and it’s used for people who have a nervous disease, I don’t remember what it’s called but it’s where they are shaking all the time [and] cannot keep still – they have to move all the time. And with certain frequencies they can relax, they don’t have this movement thing.

That reminds me of something I heard about from Australia, by someone called Dr. Alan Lamb who works with very, very long stretches of telegraph wire. Apparently he’s a health practitioner investigating the health benefits of the vibrations coming off these wires. I like to think there’s an untapped resource for health services around the world to not rely so much on pharmaceutical companies and to use sound waves instead.

MV: It’s a curious thing, like in the present world we are living in there’s so much information happening anyway which is going straight through us every moment – all the radio waves. Like, if we were to have a very good transmitter here we could catch thousands of radio stations, the waves are right here, and we still don’t know of course what the effects in the long term are, what they mean.

Have you strategically placed sounds in your own recordings not for their musical merit but because of their physical properties?

MV: Not on my recordings because – well, sometimes I’m using a nasty high frequency when I want to create something with this kind of impact – but for low frequencies it’s tricky because more and more people are listening to music from iPods and small sound systems. So I know that if I create frequencies below 40 [Hertz] most of the people would never even hear them and not be aware of them, because they don’t have the equipment for that. But when I play live I certainly want to have a physical effect too, I like to have a lot of bass.

As well as playing all over the world, you’ve lived in London, Barcelona and now in Berlin, and you’re originally from Turku in Finland; are there key differences in audiences that are specific to these places?

MV: Roughly, the more south you go the more enthusiastic people are, and the more north you go the more stiff and formal people are. But it’s not so simple as that, it depends on the occasion and where you play. But my favourite audiences are in Argentina, I’ve been there three times to play concerts. They are enthusiastic and really into the music, but they are really listening, they are concentrating. I think the opposite of that is mostly in the USA, where I feel many people just come to hang around and then they don’t care anything about the music often, just talking with each other and clanging their beer bottles and whatever. It’s a sad situation when this happens, when someone wants to play quiet music and it gets destroyed by a stupid audience. I think the worst situation was when I saw Nico playing in Finland in the mid-80s, there were people just yelling and screaming and vomiting and throwing beer bottles when she tried to play organ and solo – so annoying.

What do you like to listen to nowadays?

MV: I’m always listening to many kinds of things. I listen to a lot of so-called classical music, from medieval to modern composition, from all the periods. And certain types of heavy metal, like doom and grindcore, traditional music of Far East and Africa, I like old blues a lot, acoustic blues.

Is that something you’d like to do yourself?

MV: No, I don’t have what you need to play really groovy blues – there’s no way for me to do it.

What’s next?

MV: During the spring we will do the final mixing of this album with Stephen O’Malley, so I suppose that’s coming out later this year, possibly [on] Mego. And, Finnish label Sähkö will release my new album [as Ø], this I have been working on quite a long time, slowly, and it might be ready end of March or something. Then there’s this limited edition LP with my Swedish friend that’s on a label called PAN.

And from ’83 to ’85 I was member of group called Gagarin Kombinaatti – you know Gagarin the cosmonaut – and I got hold of the cassette recordings we made in our rehearsals, I have maybe 25 cassettes of recordings and I’ve been listening to them now all the way through and will start editing them later this spring, and there will be an album released at some point of that material. That was an industrial noise group where we used tools like hammers and drills and saws and radios and all kind of pieces of metal and garbage, together with drum machines and synthesisers."

How did it feel listening back? It must have been many years since you heard them.

MV: Yeah, it was almost thirty years since I have heard them. It was fun and interesting. We only played live once, one concert only.

Did it go well?

MV: No! [laughs]

Is that why you didn’t play again?

MV: Maybe. We had really a lot of bad luck. Well, it was good and bad at the same time, because some of our instruments didn’t work, like our drum machine was stuck only to one beat [and] we couldn’t change the program. But it forced us to do something else, like banging all those pieces of iron and springs so much that the sparks were flying around. It was quite intense really, because we were quite angry.

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