The grant funds and foundations that support art festivals like Avanto usually refrain from commenting on the grant applications they receive. This year proved an exception for us, as we were told over the phone that “yes, well, you used to have people like Erkki Kurenniemi and Pekka Airaksinen as domestic headliners – but this Läjä Äijälä then… that’s not really the kind of…”
Läjä who? The vocalist and songwriter of “the oldest hardcore punk band in the world” Terveet Kädet, one of the founding members of Finland’s first industrial group Aavikon kone ja moottori, the singer of The Leo Bugariloves who play subverted mainstream pop, the renowned underground comics artist, among many other things.
Aavikon kone ja moottori
Rewind 25 years back in time to the faraway, secluded northern town of Tornio, where the artier youth become distressed by the local narrow-minded religious fundamentalists and their anti-cultural mindset. Veli-Matti “Läjä” Äijälä draws, Seppo Oförsagd photographs, and Pekka Ruth collects sounds with his reel-to-reel. “In a way it was better with all the other extremities around. If you have a tendency toward being the oddball, in that sort of an environment your eccentricities go way beyond,” Äijälä reminisces. “All the amps and effect pedals I could borrow, I made them feedback and screech, I still have hours and hours of those recordings, a whole archive of them. That’s how it all began,” Pekka Ruth remembers for his part. “When I first met Läjä and he heard all that, ha ha, wheezing and whirring, he was overjoyed, and we took it from there. Seppo was probably something of an ideologist in the whole thing.”
The boys got their influences from across the border, the Swedish half of the twin town of Tornio and Haparanda. They read about Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire in the NME, and the one decent music store in Haparanda was able to order the records within a few days from Stockholm. “I remember we used to talk about futurism, dadaism, the Soviet art of the twenties, the dedication of artists then working for their cause 24/7. And Bunuel’s L’Age D’Or… But if we try to sum it all up, it must have been about… how the world didn’t make any sense,” Ruth explains.
In keeping with punk’s DIY ideology, selfreleased records were the bee’s knees, and in 1979 they exuded a special kind of glory and pioneering spirit. The twenty-somethings named their label Ismon Karkean Brutaalit Aavikko Levyt (word-for-word “Ismo’s Crudely Brutal Desert Records”) – IKBAL for short – whose inaugural release was the one-sided 7” single Karavaani (“Caravan”) by their own trio Aavikon kone ja moottori (“Desert Machinery & Motors”, as in a shop’s name). A year later they followed with another one-sided 7”, Rakkaudella sinulle (“With Love To You”). The music was a monotonous kind of synth drone, whose nuances went mostly misunderstood until the consequences of 90’s techno became apparent. Pekka Ruth was largely responsible for the musical input, while Seppo Oförsagd’s specialized in naming the records and other “conceptualisation”, including the great cover art.
“We talked a lot about how playing the synthesizer was more like listening, like wading through radio channels until you find a station to your liking. And that’s how I still come up with my sound,” Ruth says. Aavikon kone ja moottori planned a third single, which was to only feature a speaking voice. The idea was to record an elderly person explaining the use of a traditional wooden kitchen utensil. Äijälä, though, was kept busy by his new band Terveet Kädet, and Aavikon kone ja moottori folded for good when Äijälä and Oförsagd relocated to Helsinki. Oförsagd had acted as chairman of Tornio’s pop music association until he disassociated himself from music circles altogether. Ruth, for his part, stayed in Tornio, working as the soundman for a local theatre group, recording other Northern bands, and submitting his compositions for local performance artists’ acts. After years of unsung development, his underground electronics resurfaced in the 21st century in the shape of two excellent CD-Rs on the IKBAL imprint. Premium Selection is an instrumental easy listening pastiche, faithful to the finest detail to the laws of the gas station cassette genre. In 2003 he released more experimental electronics on the Huono Olento (“Lowly Creature”) CD-R, which, like the early Aavikon kone ja moottori recordings, is amazingly in a totally contemporary international class. “I’ve tried to quit and sever the links to this side of my persona, but to no avail, I just need to keep mongering these sounds. At some point I understood all this is more about music therapy than art, for example. That feedback from the amps has been so strong.”
“Even though the new hardcore punk, if anything, was experimental avantgarde, it was too much even for the intelligentsia, which had been fascinated by ‘counter cultures’. For them, it was ‘too crude, too inept, too primitive’, Jyrki Siukonen summed up at the counter culture seminar of the Helsinki Song Festival.” (from Jee jee jee, a monumental history of Finnish rock, published in 1998). Formed in 1980, Terveet Kädet ("Healthy hands") is regarded by the historians as part of the third wave of Finnish punk, the effect of which has been likened to that of The Reformation. The punk musicians who had started in the 70’s had become mainstream favourites, and the younger punks considered them as sell-out rock stars.
Chroniclers have focused on the “official” anarchist, anti-war ideology of hardcore punk more than on the psycho-history of the punks – their tendency for self-destruction, anti intellectualism, and the emphasis on their own deficiencies that bordered on idiocy (although laced with a sense of dashing black humour). For many, this was a round-the-clock subcultural mindset, for others, like Terveet Kädet, it was more about expressing it artistically.
Läjä’s lyrics for TK brought some of hardcore punk’s mental planes to their extremes: “Pussy sniffers/ on heat/ are tormented by/ anguish over people” (the lyrics for Haistelijat in their entirety). In the early 80’s TK were also an integral part of taking punk’s musical progression towards its logical end – speeding up the tempo. The main inventor of the new gear, though, was the English band Discharge. The story of how Discharge’s first EP quickly made its way to Tornio with the help of the interrailing members of the Finnish punk band Lama has become the stuff of punk folklore in Finland, resembling the story of Velvet Underground’s 1966 debut single Loop, which found its way in the hands of Pekka Airaksinen, who proceeded to create Korvapoliklinikka Hesperia, Finland’s first feedback composition. By the end of 1980 IKBAL released Terveet Kädet’s first EP Rock Laahausta Vastaan (“Rock Against Dragging”). Besides its fast tempo, it already featured another special characteristic common to most of Äijälä´s output: monotonity and tension that remains unreleased and hints at chaotic forces lurking right underneath the surface.
The years of 1982–84 were the zenith of Finnish hardcore punk, after which it began to fragment itself. Musically this meant either taking the artcore direction embodied by the ex-TK member A.W. Yrjänä’s band CMX, or the more popular choice: a mixture of punk and the new speed/thrash metal, which was also TK’s way.
Terveet Kädet remains one of Finland’s best-known cult bands abroad. The sales figures of their licensed records reached dozens of thousands, outshining many of our 21st century exports, especially if you consider the total lack of professionalism in Finnish rock export business in the 80’s. The fact that TK’s relatively highlypublicized U.S. tours in 1985 and 1990 were both cancelled at the last minute due to missing paperwork and shady partners summarizes perfectly the “ineptness” and the “primitivity” of both hardcore punk and the Finnish rock business in those times. Having dozens of releases under their belt during 20+ years, TK have kept comparatively quiet for a couple of years now, but the band is not ready to call it quits, Läjä assures us.
So’s You Could Do What Pleases You
Like most fanatic activist movements and avantgarde sects, hardcore punks were, despite their “official” anarchism, rather intolerant and conservative. Läjä found that too: “I thought, why couldn’t I do whatever pleases myself. What started to bug me with TK was when the guys kept saying ‘why are you listening to this and that sort of stuff, it’s not punk’. Best of all was when I tried to explain about Albrecht Dürer, the artist, and these punks were all like ‘Albrecht what? Is that punk?’. I was just like, ‘Bloody hell, you don’t know who Albrecht Dürer is? What do you mean - is it punk’? Don’t you worry about if it’s punk. All they ever cared about was if something was punk or not.”
Billy Boys started as a duo with Läjä’s older brother, during hardcore’s most intense era, and their first single Mystery Train -84 came out in 1983. After the initial, more industrial approach, the group expanded into a 4-piece and toned down the effects-laden drone to concentrate on playing “bad music”, trashy electronic rockabilly in the spirit of Legendary Stardust Cowboy and other trash eccentrics. At the same time Läjä took up wearing an Elvis-style glamour suit on Terveet Kädet gigs as well. Later he took the project to its extreme as a solo Billy Boy, whose released output consists of one side of 7” EP released on a Polish label in 1996. The other side of the EP features Läjä’s minimalist electronics project The Kolmas, whose contribution could be seen as the missing link between Pan Sonic and Suicide – recorded in the late 80’s.
Arguably the prime manifestation of Äijälä’s brand of monotonism is his blues duo Sultans, whose raw minimalist boogie resembles something akin to an instrumental John Lee Hooker, or, within the Finnish heritage, J.O. Mallander’s Decompositions from 1970, which “sampled” Afro-American riffs much like a stuck stylus on vinyl. Even the venerable Finnish magazine Blues News (est. 1968) have taken notice: “For the spoiled blues purists of today, Sultans can strike as too primitive ‘unmusical clatter’, which sure makes you wonder what the blues used to be all about… A blues man without the guts to dig Sultans is not a true blues man!”.
In the late eighties Läjä also formed a group called Death Trip, which played heavy and hypnotic one-chord rock. Influenced by all manner of droney bands between Loop and Swans, they used classic Stooges-style riffs repeated to tantric effect without hope of release. The song titles – Chainsaw Goddess, We’re Gonna Die Tonight, Please Skin Me Alive etc. – betrayed a cartoony theme of death and sadomasochism. In those times Läjä also actively drew his humorous S/M comics which he published in his own comix zine “X”, sold mainly in porn shops to boot. The episodes starred heroes like Elvis, J.S. Bach and the long-time ex-president of Finland Urho Kekkonen.
“In art and music you can do whatever pleases you. Nothing in life is compulsory except dying, unfortunately. At least so far. If someone invents something that frees us from dying, I’ll be the first in line… For me, death is a daily, increasing source of anguish. Somehow it feels like everything I do these days is about conquering the fear of dying. Or, you start to laugh your head off…”
A Joke With the Punch Line Missing
“99% of avantgarde is crap, just like 99% of ‘official’ culture is crap. It’s just easier to dupe people with because in avantgarde all you need to do is be the first in doing something. If today’s thing were slapping yourself with steaks, and tomorrow you started slapping yourself with herrings, you’d get a scholarship and a professor’s chair,” divulges Ruki Vehr, guitarist in The Leo Bugariloves, when we discuss the programmatic avantgardism of Avanto programme. Vehr, Pupu Lihavisto and the Finnish rock-star-to-be Kauko Röyhkä were contemporaries of Aavikon kone ja moottori in the near-by northern town of Oulu in the late 70’s. Their activities were all geared towards provoking everybody: not only the bourgeoisie of Oulu and “the Stalinist cultural elite” but also the southern punk rockers who seemed to be doing nothing but keep repeating their slogans.
Their circle of friends published a fanzine called Tilt Zeitung, and also formed the first line-up of Kauko Röyhkä’s band Narttu. What they had in common with their contemporaries in Tornio was a strong belief in that you needed to build your counter culture on your own ingredients. This can be heard clearly in the music of early Narttu and the 500 Kg Lihaa band project they started in 1982. The latter used mostly classic Finnish poetry from early 20th century for their lyrics.
In the late eighties Lihavisto and Vehr ventured to ask Äijälä to sing in their new group they named The Leo Bugariloves. “We are a mainstream band that puts chance, bad editing, and recklessness to good use,” Lihavisto says. He writes the songs together with Vehr, but Äijälä has an uncanny share in how their absurd lyrics turn out: “Läjä is a living editing mechanism, a formalizer of sorts, that transforms the original story into pure Dadaism by leaving out syllables or whole words. The end result is like a joke with the last sentence missing.” Pekka Ruth of Aavikon kone ja moottori has recorded most of The Leo Bugariloves’ output, and the band members are quick to recognize his influence on their sound as a whole.
Tuija Karén, Samuli Alapuranen and Pupu Lihavisto have made music videos for The Leo Bugariloves over the years, and many of them have been popular favourites at the Oulu Music Video Festival. Avanto will screen Karén’s Viiden Tuulen Lakki (1995), Lämmöllä Ja Antaumuksella (1996), and Muukalainen (2002), as well as Alapuranen’s Capsula De Rosca (2000), and Lihavisto’s Maisemakuvia Livojoen Varrelta Käsin (1994).
At their most active in the mid-nineties, The Leo Bugariloves kept themselves out of the public eye for seven years until they self-released their first full-length Help! last summer. The Avanto date is their only performance to celebrate its release. Help! seems even more baffling and inexplicable than their earlier work. The compositions bring to mind some of the early nineties radio-friendly synthetic pop/rock or even the style of the commercial jingles at the time, and the tones alternating between upbeat and melancholy rarely seem to connect with the delirious lyrics or Äijälä’s virtuoso interpretations of them. It may take another 25 years for this music to feel totally natural to us.
Avanto and Bad Vugum Records have cooperated to release Passions Of Läjä Äijälä, a compilation CD featuring Aavikon kone ja moottori, Terveet Kädet, Billy Boys, Billy Boy, The Kolmas, Death Trip, Sultans, The Leo Bugariloves and Läjä Äijälä. The CD will be on sale at Avanto venues.
Aavikon kone ja moottori will perform at the Avanto Nightclub in Mocambo on Thursday, November 18th.
Sultans will perform at the Avanto Nightclub in UMO Jazz House on Friday, November 19th. The night will start with a screening of the short film The Man And His Wardrobe (31 min., 1993) directed by Pupu Lihavisto and featuring Läjä Äijälä.
The Leo Bugariloves will perform at the Avanto Nightclub in Gloria on Saturday, November 20th. A selection of The Leo Bugariloves music videos will be screened as well.