Finnish electronic composer Mika Vainio makes highly idiosyncratic music that is part sound design, part drone, part deconstructed techno and part something else, something indefinable, something Vainio. Relentlessly prolific under a number of aliases, he’s probably best known as one half of muscular electronic duo Pan Sonic, who delighted in both earth shaking bottom end bass and annoyingly difficult high pitches. The music was remarkable, highly textural sonics at times imbued with both abrasiveness and a deep throbbing groove. Since their demise in 2009 Vainio has continued to release solo material under his own name, or various monikers including Ø, under which he’s released his latest album Konstellaatio (Sähkö Recordings). It’s a remarkable suite of sound, typically indefinable, typically brilliant, particularly in his restraint, in his tight control over the various frequencies and his desire for space to allow these pieces to breathe, resulting in one of his strongest works to date.
Cyclic Defrost spoke to Vainio back and forth a couple of times via email from his base in Berlin.
Bob: I remember when you played in Melbourne with Pan Sonic about a decade ago, it was an extremely visceral experience, I remember the floor rumbling and really high frequencies and I remember feeling simultaneously terrified yet comforted. Konstellaatio too tends to provoke emotions in me when I turn off my critical faculties and just listen, but its more nuanced, it feels somehow sadder. Am I projecting here?
Mika: Yes, certainly, Ø is most emotional and atmospheric of my projects and it sure is quite melancholic too sometimes,
Bob: Konstellaatio is quite different from your previous solo albums, which felt more rooted in elements of ambient techno, what were you trying to achieve with this album?
Mika: What I try to achieve in general is to express my feelings by music. This album (like ‘Kantamoinen‘) is connected quite strongly to memories of my childhood.
Bob: Can you talk more about the connection Konstellaatio has to your childhood? Are you trying to represent particular experiences, or particular feelings you remember? How can you do that musically? What makes your childhood such an important source of inspiration for you?
Mika: No, not any particular experience. Just the general feeling. Before going to school I was staying most of the time with my grandmother in a very small village in 60’s.(my parents were busy with studies and work.) There is something very precious on that time for me. When the school started, that’s when the shit hit fan.
Bob: To me much of Konstellaatio is like a mixture between cinematic sound design and sound art. Are films important in your work. Is this something that you purposely reference?
Mika: I watch a a lot of movies and they are really big inspiration. Not only the sound design or soundtrack but visuals too. way the images are edited, how the elements are combined.
Bob: I’m interested in the use of visual edits in films as a source of inspiration. Can you give me a little more detail about what you mean by this, or even reference a particular scene in a film that stands out for you due to the way it’s edited?
Mika: It is just the way how materials/images are combined sometimes, creating a wonderful rhythmics and sequence. There would be hundreds of scenes to mention. One of the latest ones would be from ‘Only god forgives’ Nicholas Winding Refn which is all the way beautifully edited but in particular in the end when the main character raises his hands to be cut off, just when the sword comes down there is a cut to karaoke bar. Then again for example ‘Satantango’ by Bela Tarr is great considering the editing as it contains extremely long shots and edits happen only about every 15 minutes.
Bob: Even in some of your more subtle pieces I can hear a kind of violence, a certain underlying aggression. I understand that you were previously a member of an industrial noise group, do you think I can hear that influence? Can you ever escape your past?
Mika: Years 83-85. I was a member of ‘industrial’ group Gagarin Kombinaatti. I am now compiling and editing material from casette recordings we made. There will be an album at some point. Some of my tracks are aggressive as I have sometimes rather heavy negative feelings, but certainly many tracks, like in Konstellaatio are not meant to be aggressive but opposite of that.
Bob: I’m really curious that there doesn’t seem to be any formula to your music, in some sense it’s like each piece you’re starting from scratch. Yet if I hear one of your works I can immediately tell its you. Do you think much about your own identity in your music?
Mika: No, I don’t much think of that. it just happens.
Bob: How do you conceptualise your pieces, is it about choosing sounds that are attractive to you, or do you develop a narrative?
Mika: Usually ,first I have in my mind an idea or feeling I want to ‘re create’ by music and most often building a piece starts from finding a right kind of sounds. But it can start sometimes from rhythmic idea. I can get this from music I hear like for example traditional African music. but it can also come from odd sources. Like track ‘Twin bleebs’ from my Metri album, I got an idea from traffic lights flashign yellow,slightly out of phase.
Bob: What attracts you to working with high frequencies or difficult sounds? I feel you use them less like a weapon and more as an attempt to harness them in a musical way. Is this accurate?
Mika: Yes. I like to use the whole spectrum of frequencies which are audible for humans, to have strong dynamics that way.
Bob: When I listen to your music I feel like I can hear links to everything from 20th century experimental music, avant garde, techno, dub reggae, industrial music and a million other things I don’ yet know. Do you listen to much music? Do you find that it influences your own work, or do your influences come from further afield?
Mika: I am listening lot of music and I’ve always been interested of all kinds of it. Last 10 years most of all so called ‘classical’ from renaisance to modern composers, but also traditional music of far east and africa, doom and grind core, electro-acoustic, old blues and rockabilly, noise, Jamaican music from early 60’s up to 75 (after that it is not so much of my interest. ) etc..
Bob: What do you imagine to be the best thing to be doing when listening to an album like Konstellaatio?
Mika: Drinking a top end green tea might work.
Bob: You’ve worked with some pretty amazing artists like Kevin Drumm, Axel Dorner, Alan Vega, Keiji Haino, and Stephen O’Malley. Is working with others about being pushed in directions you wouldn’ normally go by yourself?
Mika: When you are collaborating you allways have to compromise and accept things you would not do by yourself. If the combination of people does not work, it is extremely frustrating. When it does work it is great and rewarding.
(Photo by Joséphine Michel)
Konstellaatio is available from SÃ¤hkÃ¶