We had the pleasure of a conversation with Juha-Matti Rautiainen, whose distinctive approach to ambient through bass guitar as a single source of sound was already featured in Cyclic Defrost. Now we had the time to to talk with the man himself, with his new album, a collaboration with legendary group Nemesis, as the main excuse. ‘Off The Map’ is the audio side of the audiovisual collaboration with designer Kimmo Heikkilä, a project that was born out of the influence of Brian Eno’s masterpiece ‘Ambient 1, Music for airports’ and also a long-running show on Finnish National broadcast. The result is a very dedicated physical release that includes Heikkilä’s image processing experiments.
We also discussed some of Juha-Matti’s most memorable experiences performing live, finding a balance in teaching and composing, unconventional genres, his connection with the bass and even the link between black metal, ambient music, and Finland.
Cyclic Defrost: Where are you now, and how’s everything over there?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: I’m at home, as most people in the world are right now during these difficult times. I’m living in a small Finnish town called Kaustinen, which is famous for its folk music fiddling tradition. Everything is quite ok, even though the pandemic had its impact even here. Kaustinen College of Music, where I’m teaching, has had some good luck with the pandemic and we were able to keep the school open during this season.
Currently I’m mixing and mastering my 3rd solo album (trying to get it out in the Summer). I’m also preparing a streaming concert with Nemesis. There’s also A LOT of things that I’ve recorded that are waiting for the right place to be used…
Cyclic Defrost: Congratulations on ‘Off The Map’, been enjoying the album and the extended sessions too! How did you first meet with Nemesis, and when was the first time that you worked together?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: In my opinion Nemesis is a legend of Finnish ambient music scene. It was formed by Ami & Jyrki in 1987 (!) and Joni joined later in the 90’s. My personal history with Nemesis begins in mid 90’s when I heard them in the legendary Avaruusromua, a radio show about the ambient/experimental scene. I remember being amazed that they did this kind of music in Finland! Years went by and after I had released a progressive rock concept album called CfA2 with The Surftones in 2013, Ami contacted me and asked for an interview for the Colossus magazine, a Finnish progressive rock publication. I realised that he was Ami Hassinen of the great Nemesis!
On New Year’s day in 2014 I had an accident where I cut off the tip of my right index finger, so I had to take a break from playing bass. During these times I had the idea to compose ambient music using only bass guitar as a sound source and I sent some of my sketches to Ami. Nemesis were performing as a duo (Ami & Joni) in an event called ‘Avaruusromua Live’ in 2015 where I had my first proper concert, and there I met these guys for the first time. Afterwards we met in some other live occasions and I performed with Ami a couple of times. Joni is a photographer and he took the cover photo of my debut album. A really beautiful unprocessed picture of dewdrops on a leaf.
‘Off the Map’ was initiated by graphic designer Kimmo Heikkilä, who designed my second album cover and many album covers with Nemesis as well. He had worked on some great looking map abstractions that he wished to have a soundtrack for, and asked if we could do some kind of collaboration with Ami, and then Joni was also invited (I think Jyrki couldn’t attend back then). We have been collaborating just once when the album material was recorded. It was a very lovely day and we recorded many hours of music that were later edited for the album. The second time will be in a week in the same place that the music was recorded, when we’ll gather once again for a live streaming concert.
Cyclic Defrost: The track titles lead to different locations, and some are quite isolated. How did this idea come up?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Yes, the album titles are coordinates of existing locations. This was totally Kimmo’s idea and I also did the research after I had the CD in my hands! I found the places from Google Earth and felt that Kimmo had named them perfectly, somehow those locations really resonate with the music.
If you look at the map abstractions (which by the way are magnificent in my opinion), search the locations and listen to the music, you’ll possibly be able to feel a strong sense of place or placelessness. As from the beginning (I’m referring to Brian Eno) ambient music has had a strong sense of traveling in one’s mind to some imaginary locations, this album does that and even some more, if you wish to explore the locations. Wanderlust is probably the right word… I really can relate the romanticism of being in a remote place and listen to this kind of music. It could actually carry one with it in the middle of a rush hour for example.
Cyclic Defrost: How much does a live jam influence your recording sessions?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Sometimes I do have very strict pre-conceived ideas, but usually those are the ones that don’t work. After all I do enjoy the idea of composing as searching. I just start with something and see where it’ll take me. So yes, improvisation has always been a very important part of my composing process. But on my previous solo albums I’ve done a very precise work on composing the soundscapes in a way that they can also be played again almost as they are on albums. I like the idea that they can never be 100% the same, but the structure and musical ideas can be repeated and identified as they were on the album. I feel that I can call them compositions only after that. I could make sheet music of most music on my albums. This is partly because I have been improvising so much music in general, like playing jazz for example, so I didn’t feel improvising as composing.
But what happened with Nemesis is the fact that I had some pals to play with, so the improvisation was more natural, since there were others that I could rely on. After all, improvisation is much nicer while playing in an ensemble where it becomes interaction and listening. Before the session I had thought very strictly about this subject matter and I was very afraid of a situation where nothing new couldn’t be reached by just noodling some sounds out of your instrument. I was so wrong with this. So this session gave me back the trust for a moment and its inspiration. What happened next was that I went to our family’s summer place, gathered my gear, spent two days of improvising and was very pleased with the result. That is what will become my third solo album.
Cyclic Defrost: Is a jam session more complex than performing in solitude?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Playing (especially improvising) with others is all about interacting and listening, a conversation. After all, humans are social creatures and getting along in a flock is one of the most important skills that we have developed during our evolution. So maybe the interaction between musicians is also transmitted to the audience and it reaches some primitive parts of people’s subconsciousness and the audience becomes a part of this unconscious conversation that is not based on words.
On the other hand, performing alone is a deeply personal experience. I hadn’t done it almost at all before my ambient experiments, so I was afraid at the beginning. On stage I felt exposed and vulnerable. The concerts begun gradually to be more emotional for me, when I started to understand that I’m not expressing any other’s feelings but my own and that’s ok. There is still some talking, but it is led by me alone. If I succeed to get people to listen, then they’ll become the other party of the conversation, but their role is more passive than other musician’s role in an improvisational situation. Playing alone is a bit like sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch.
Cyclic Defrost: What were your best experiences performing live?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Almost every live performance have been important experiences, because occasions for performing live are so rare in Finland. After all, I’m working in the marginal edge… But I would consider both of my performances in Estonia as the most memorable. First one was the one that you saw at Kukemuru Ambient 2018 and the other one was at Vilsandi Trance 2019. Of course it’s also the road trip experience that makes them so special, but I remember that at Kukemuru Ambient I felt very good all the time and the audience was on the same frequency with me. That is probably the most important aspect of performing live: the feeling that you have a connection with the audience and that you are making the end result together by concentrating on the moment. And actually I could experience the same feeling during my last streaming concert last April. That was probably the most emotionally captivating concert experience I ever had. The whole world was shut down, but somehow I could feel the audience in my garage, which was a very weird, but wonderful feeling. I was actually very nervous before the concert and it was increasing the weirdness, being at my own house with my own family, yet having some sort of stage fright. Then I began playing and got relaxed. I had already decided that I would do everything as slow as possible to calm myself down. In the end I had tears in my eyes and felt a strong connection with the world. I’m happy that it went so well, even though I did everything by myself and it was the first ever streaming experience for me.
Cyclic Defrost: How do you imagine the ideal context for a concert?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Ideal context is a small and intimate festival experience in some special (preferably weird) place. I was once playing in an old short wave radio station, for which occasion I composed ”Transmission” and the surroundings were perfect. Ambient music is a medium that benefits of the surroundings. The music and environment are complementing each other, so that’s why ambient concerts are very often held in special places. That suits perfectly for me.
I also like the audience to be knowing what they will hear. I don’t want to play my music for a huge audience that isn’t listening, but to a handful of people who are really experiencing the sound. I’ve done my share with background music while playing in different cover bands.. The quantity is not important, the quality is.
Cyclic Defrost: Could you pick your favourite studio gear and explain why? is there a pedal that you’ve been constantly using since you started working on music?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Well, there are many, but above all is The Strymon Big Sky reverb. That is a pedal that makes everything sound wonderful. It’s like a Midas Touch. Most of the sounds on my first album are just volume swells to Big Sky and that’s it. I knew it would be my choice of reverb pedal when I first heard it. I’m constantly planning to buy another one…
Cyclic Defrost: What was the hardest thing you had to overcome to dedicate to the arts?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Well, this is maybe the hardest question to answer. Thinking of my situation, I’m not dedicated to the arts in a technical sense. After all I’m having a day job as a music teacher. But what I feel is that right now I’m fulfilling my artistic needs in the most satisfying way in my whole life. The balance is key. Sometimes I worked short periods as a full-time musician and during these times I was not in a condition of finding my own voice. There was just too much music business in a way. Trying to make a living with music in a small country like Finland is really hard, unless you play what people want to. On the other hand, when I did work that wasn’t inspiring (like selling guitars), I felt frustrated and not inspired about making my own music. Now, working with music as a teacher and making a living out of it, I feel myself inspired and full of ideas. I don’t have to force anything out of me anymore. The joy of making music has been found. The overcoming of my accident was the turning point. After that I understood the value of the actual process and the real musical passion of mine. It is ironic that cutting my finger made me happier with myself and I’ve been more contented with my work since then. So maybe after this contemplation I’d think that the hardest thing was to get along with my own artistic work and also getting myself balanced with what I’m doing with my life in general.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s the latest great piece of music that you’ve discovered?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: There are many, because I’m constantly buying new records, but I’m very much after older music, so I’m a useless person to ask for any new music. Something that I’m a bit ashamed of. There are many new albums of artists/bands that I’ve been listening to for a long time, but maybe my latest ‘new’ discovery was The War on Drugs and especially their album ‘Deeper Understanding’. But even in this case the album was released in 2017 and I fell in love with it almost two years ago! What I love about the album is its texture (the sounds) and even though the music certainly isn’t ambient, there are some qualities in the expression of their music that are reminiscent of ambient. And of course I am listening to a lot of music that is far from ambient, yet I have noticed that many things that I’ve admired in the past and present have some kind of resemblance with ambient music. Good examples of this are Miles Davis’s ‘In a Silent Way’ and Tuvan throat singing as well as The War on Drugs. It’s hard to explain, but maybe while listening to those, you’ll understand.
Cyclic Defrost: A crate digger! What type of records are you usually looking for?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Krautrock, kosmische music, Berlin school, ambient and other early electronic music from the 70’s are probably what I listen to the most at the moment. Recently I’ve been mostly into old Klaus Schulze stuff and I bought all the missing pieces from my collection from the 70’s. That’s mostly because I just read a new biography of him. Reading quality biographies and books about music and musicology research is my other beloved hobby.
Oh yeah, and Scott Walker! I’ve been listening to him almost twenty years now and been aware of his newer, more experimental albums. But finally when I bought ”Tilt” in autumn I was awestruck by the emotional rollercoaster that it is! A marvellous sonic adventure… Recently I also bought some old Vangelis vinyls that I haven’t owned before and I really liked ”Earth”, which I didn’t really like about ten years ago, when I listened to it for the first time. It’s great to see that musical taste evolves all the time. Mahavishnu Orchestra has also been one of these ‘findings’ that I didn’t enjoy twenty years ago, but right now I’m in love with all of their stuff.
Cyclic Defrost: What is it with Finland and ambient music? Do you also relate northern locations with ambient/drone? Have you ever thought of the connection between ambient and metal?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Finland was recently chosen once again as the happiest country in the world. I was thinking about the very nature of general Finnish mentality and I came across one thought. I could think of a certain attribute in the happiness of Finnish people: the happiness is a kind of quiet personal contentment about how things are. Finns are regarded as quiet and introvert people, which is not a very accurate generalisation, of course, but there’s something that I can relate to about the thought of being quietly happy about the state of the world, which becomes apparent very often somewhere amid the nature. We are not expressing the happiness loudly and proudly, but quietly inside ourselves. Maybe this quiet happiness inside is urging some people to make music that expresses this contentment? I don’t really know, but on my behalf, I believe that this is the case.
The other aspect about the locations is probably about the fact that most Finns feel a strong connection to nature. That doesn’t mean that most of us are wishing to live in tents in the wilderness. Personally I’m indeed a kind of ‘indoor’ man, who likes to spend comfy life listening to music and reading books, but there is always a place in my heart that yearns romantically back to nature. I’m fulfilling this need by traveling to our family’s summer place, located in a remote place. All humans have their personal relationship with nature, but amongst the Finns, I guess, the relationship is strong, even if we’d actually visit the nature quite seldom.
Funny that you asked about metal and ambient, because during my studies in University of Jyväskylä I wrote a little part of one essay about the reminiscent of black metal and ambient. With a first listen these two genres could be considered as the two opposite poles of a general musical continuum. But after a closer contemplation, both are quite close. Both are emphasising texture and conveying of mood. Black metal is all about painting a grim landscape, when ambient paints different ones (not always). It is not a coincidence that many black metal artists have been composing dark ambient music as well. But when thinking about more conventional metal, I’m not finding much common ground. In Finnish mentality the above mentioned quiet happiness is present in ambient, but much of the metal stuff is about agony and longing like Finnish schlager music. To be honest, I’m positioning metal (in general) on the same continuum as schlager, while ambient (and black metal) are residing on a more experimental continuum.
Cyclic Defrost: Any main differences in ‘the local scene’ from the times that you started getting into ambient music, and nowadays?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Not much actually, but I see the popularity of ambient music gradually rising. There is a certain demand for slow things in hectic society. It will always be a niche genre, but in Helsinki there has been more and more activity around. It’s a shame that it’s about 450 km away from here…
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve seen you listed as playing the keyboards/organ and even making horn arrangements for the Surftones, could you describe your relationship with the bass as opposed to these instruments?
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: It’s kind of a funny thing that I regard the bass as just one instrument amongst the others and I’ve never identified myself as much as a bass player than as a musician in general. Right from the beginning during my pre-teen years, when I started playing, I didn’t want to see myself only as an instrumentalist. I was playing guitar in the beginning, but my big brother decided that I’d play bass in our band, because I was the youngest (I guess). I thought: ”OK, I can also play guitar for my own pleasure and the bass is as interesting as a guitar”. So it was just a twist of fate that moulded my designated instrument.
Instrumentalism never suited me well. There’s also nothing in bass guitar that I don’t like; it just happens to be the instrument that I master most fluently, while others are more supportive in nature. It’s weird that the musical education system always places instrumentalism first; only after you’ve mastered one instrument, you can call yourself a musician. I went through this educational system and it took me many years to understand that the music is not about playing, it’s more. Music is about sounds and emotions and there isn’t a consistent measured way of defining wether the music is high-class or not. Recently I’ve been fulfilling my teenage dream of owning synthesisers and during this weird year with Covid, I’ve focused more on those. I’ve never played so little bass guitar in my life since my pre-teen years, so at the moment playing it feels wonderful.
Cyclic Defrost: Teaching music gives you the opportunity to introduce unconventional genres to new listeners.
Juha-Matti Rautiainen: Unconventional genres in music is certainly a thing that I’d wish to be able to share as an educator. I’ve tried to implement this thought by conducting a course about creativity in musical technology. My goal is not so much getting students to listen to certain genres, but opening their minds to a new kind of thinking about what music really is. It surely isn’t just about arranging tones. My philosophy on this subject matter also includes the DIY-thinking; you can do it, if you want to. There’s never a situation where one couldn’t compose any music. I’ve never thought that one would need certain special skills, knowledge or tools to make music. One’s mind is the only limit. The mind can be a very dangerous limiter, when you’re stuck with the idea that your music isn’t enough. As I referred above, I still regard some aspects in musical education system to be old fashioned and unable to renew, even though the system is certainly going to a right direction. The musical education system doesn’t encourage musical diversity as much it encourages tradition and virtuosity. The problem is that the new cannot be found by repeating the tradition. I would like to enforce the creativity and open mindedness in my students. I really hope that they’d find their own personal voice and not being muted by the obsolete and narrow minded understanding of music.
You can find Off The Map by Juha-Matti Rautiainen & Nemesis here.
Portrait picture by Aija Rautiainen