Kimmo Pohjonen: Break out and dive into music

What a horrible mistake! After claiming that accordion doesn´t rock, STALKER had to discover that this is not quite true. Even this instrument rocks – when in the hands of Kimmo Pohjonen. If you know the soundtrack of the Finnish movie “Jadesoturi” (“Jade Warrior”) you surely agree, otherwise watch this clip. This quite talkative Finnish music pioneer revealed to STALKER why adapting and expanding the possibilities of this “most uncool instrument ever” was such a pain-in-the-ass, that music is no sport issue, and what´s the attraction of a dress that resembles a vagina…

So how are you, and what is your latest project?
We are recording a KTU album, Pat Mastelotto (rhythm devices, samples), Trey Gunn (warr quitar), Samuli Kosminen (samples) and me. We recorded two sessions in Austin, Texas, I will go there next February again to finish the album, our first studio album. We did one recording of a live album a few years ago, but this is the first we did in studio, and so I´m of course quite happy (laughs)

I noticed you don´t play not so many shows, so is in general the case that you don´t play live that often?
It´s just the fact that Pat is living in Austin and Trey in Seattle, this year we did a tour in the States, I went there for the tour, once they came to Finland for a small tour here and then some gigs in Europe. I think we do 8-10 gigs a year when we find a place … with my different projects I do 40-50 shows a year.

And why don´t you play more often in Finland?
Yeah, I guess it´s because my manager is from Texas also, he is living here in Finland, so perhaps he doesn´t really know how to handle Finland (laughs). There was some talk that I should play more concerts here, but somehow 95 % of my gigs were outside of Finland… I would like to do more here, for example at Rock festivals, I played once a solo at Ilosaari Rock, a daytime bill, and there were so many people and they were having fun, they liked it a lot. But I think in a way that many Rock festivals are a bit too narrow-minded to realize that they could have something different. I´m playing quite a lot at Jazz festivals, although this music has nothing to with Jazz, nothing. They are maybe a bit more open-minded in a way. A few times I played at Rock festivals, and many times in rock clubs, and actually it always works really well. I like it a lot.

I would like to play more at Rock festivals,
but many are a bit too narrow-minded

So how would you define your music? Usually you`re put into the “world music” section… (or also „Suomi Pop“, „New Age/Ambient“, the ed.)
Yeees… (sighs) luckily I don´t need to it. I´ll leave it to the journalists, to the audience, to the people to define it. I have been playing at Jazz, world music and Rock festivals, and it was working, so I don´t see any reason for myself to define it, to put it in one box. Because for me it´s just music, but in a way it´s music which has lots of energy, and I like music with power and energy, and that´s the only thing that I can say.

Watching your performances on TV or internet, your performance style, you seem to me more like a Shaman than a musician… and when you´re singing, are there actual words or is it more like Joik (= traditional Sami vocals, the ed.) style?
OK, I hear this expression “Shaman” quite often, and okay, maybe there is a reason for that. For me every concert is like diving into music, I don´t even actually want to make small pieces where I stop or raise clapping, I just start playing and I finish playing; if the audience want to come, join, dance or clap, they can come, but they don´t NEED to. So for me it´s a kind of trip where you try to go in, some kind of … diving, you know… into a painting… in a way it´s always a trip, what you do when you´re playing. And I also do voicing quite a lot, for some people it´s like joiking, for some it´s a Mongolian thing, for me it´s nothing like those, it´s just voice and sounds which I have found from my throat (laughs)

So it´s more like an additional instrument, not so much about lyrics…
Yes, no lyrics at all. For me it´s also… I happily keep a free expression for myself and for the audience also. I could not think about singing words or lyrics.

That means every show is totally different? How much is improvisation?
It really depends on the project. For example the Kluster project with the Kronos Quartet was pretty much written for them, but my parts were open. With KTU we have pieces and structures, but there is a lot of improvisation. And with the French percussion player Eric Echampard, we have been playing quite a lot of Rock festivals also, this is totally improvised, 100 % improvised, we don´t rehearse anything. And it´s really interesting diving into music, and then, if there is audience reaction – and Rock audience usually is reacting – it´s funny how you start more and more communicating with the audience; and it´s a bit different with this project because we are only two guys, and he is a heavy drummer, if we play in a concert hall or in a rock club. You suddenly push totally different, the music is much much heavier when you play to a standing audience, then there is more dynamics than for a seated audience.

I saw that clip where you play Jimi Hendrix. Are you planning more like that?
No, that was really just for the Patty Smith Meltdown, and they asked me to do something for the Hendrix evening. I was there once, and for the David Bowie Meltdown also, we did David Bowie covers. Actually I don´t like to do covers. All the projects in which I play, is mainly my own music or music which is made by those guys I´m playing with…

So how was it to write the score for “Jade Warrior”, dealing with somebody else´s ideas?
Yeah, it was as interesting project in many ways. It was a good director who really agreed with us about the music, and we could really put our own thing there. That was the reason why I went to that thing – I realized that they can take the stuff that I normally do, because in any way you have to adapt to the film, it has to serve the film. But I realized with that movie that I don´t want to be a film composer.

Did it work that way that you saw the scenes and then made the music?
Yes. And some of the music was already written, because then the director wanted some of the stuff that we had done already. So it went both ways. But anyway, this movie making, making music for a movie, there is always the aspect that you have to serve the film, and I want to serve myself (laughs).

What was the most difficult thing, finding your way, realizing that you had to do something about the instrument, or electrifying it?
Everything, I must say. That thing that you have such a kind of traditional instrument… and I started with tradition, my father played accordion; so that you can break your way out of that world and find your own way to play – it´s a long way… In a way it helped that I played in a couple of rock bands…

But there you didn´t play accordion?
Actually I played accordion! (E.g. with Ismo Alanko´s band, the ed.) That kind of helped a little bit with the idea, because in the first band where I played the drummer was playing so fucking loud that I had to really push and pull my accordion, so that helped my to find this physical approach. But then, this electronic side which I have been working on for about 10 years, it has really been a pain in the ass to work with, because no-one from the accordion scene knew how to guide me to these things.

Without my gear I feel naked on stage.

Therefore I feel gratitude for the technician Mikko Linnavuori, who is at the moment Tuomas Holopainen`s (Nightwish) personal tech guy, who just rebuilt and refixed my gear. It was a huge work and planning for him to make everything as I wished. The meaning of the gear for me is as important or even more important than my instrument. Without my gear I feel naked on stage. So the fact that it works and it´s made especially and suitable for my purposes, is a very important part of the sound and my playing.

And I think my accordion at the moment is like a big bomb or a nuclear power station with all these wires and things, and it has been big work to find all the way. But now I´m really happy at the moment, because I really know that my sound is the thing that I want. It´s big. It´s bigger than for guitar players, I can get bigger and more dynamic sounds than with any other instrument at the moment I know, combining this acoustic instrument with electronic instrument, because it´s MIDI-fied, and in the MIDI there I have sampled accordion there, so I have 2 accordions, acoustic and electronic, and when I combine those sounds so I can get really huge dynamic for the instrument, really huge, and that helps … for example, Pat Mastelotto who is the KTU drummer, is playing so loud, nobody else can play that loud, so that moment you play with him you really can have the counter, you can reply to his sound (laughs)

So what came first, the idea for the music you want to play, or the modification of the instrument?
In a way all these things little by little went together, but then finally when I did my solo concert in 1996, then I decided that I want to use my voice, I want to use only amplification for the accordion, and then I bought my first gear, it was some pedals and those kind of things – so in that solo I really put all these elements together, and now I have developed this idea in the past 10 years.

And how many people thought back then that you are completely crazy?
Yeah, I guess many, quite many… it´s a funny thing that when you play such a kind of instrument like accordion, so people call you crazy. I have been called “the crazy accordionist who plays Jimi Hendrix” or “bad man of the accordion” or whatever, all those names. If you are a guitar player it´s really much easier (laughs)

And you never had the idea just to switch the instrument?
Yes, before I started this way, I nearly quit. I couldn´t find myself in the instrument. I went to Tanzania to study some African music, or to Argentina for Argentine music, and I was a bit out of it – but then I realized that, anyway, the instrument I know best is accordion, because I have been playing since I was 10 years old. So I just had to find the way how you can play that as a physical instrument, and little by little I started to think about that idea to have the amplification and all these things, and improvisation and stuff that I composed for the instrument – with those elements I found out, “hey, that´s not so bad, it´s quite OK”.

You play the button version accordion, how about the piano version?
Actually, many people think that button is more difficult than the piano version, but it´s vice versa. My father played piano version and he wanted to buy me the one with buttons, because he knew that the button version is easier. And that´s why accordion music is so boring, normally, because the accordion button version is built in a way that you can very easily play very technical things. Then the music gets boring, when people are playing such kind of fast things, just like doing music as a sport thing and virtuoso… One big for me was really to give up about this virtuosity. You can do the virtuoso things if you really have the feeling the meaning for it, but it´s more like a thing WHAT you play than just have your fingers going fucking fast and you really don´t get anything about that.

One big for me was to give up virtuosity 

Well, it´s the same with some virtuoso guitarists… I don´t want to mention names…
Yes, I know many guitarist players who I cannot stand, because they are just showing their skills, but then sometimes you hear guitar players who really listen to what they are playing, then it´s great. And to the sound, because the sound is important. So it´s a very delicate thing, where is the limit, when does it start to be too much sport (laughs)

Soon you´re going to play in Australia – for the first time?
Yes, it´s Sydney city festival, in January.

Any expectations?
Not really, although it´s the first time in Australia, a solo gig… I guess it´s quite the same, wherever you travel, there´s not such a big difference. OK there is a different surrounding, but the concert places – club or concert hall – are quite the same kind of places. It´s interesting to go there, because I know via copyright reports that they have been playing quite a lot of my music there on radio (laughs).

Is there one concert you are particularly proud of?
Not really… but there was one show at Royal Albert Hall in England, as a solo, and when I went on stage and saw the whole place, I thought “wow, this is cool” (laughs) But sometimes at a very cool place the concert is not so good, sometimes in a very small club you have really great shows – they are not correlated that way…

What was your most bizarre concert experience, for example with people expecting something different…
Yeah… a couple of times something like that happened, luckily not so much… you would expect much more, having this kind of instrument… in England one guy in the audience was talking all the time, he was so pissed off, he hated me so much, he was talking throughout the whole concert, he could not stand it, and it was even in a concert place! And one story from Finland – there was one elderly lady, and I think that she came to the wrong concert, she went out pretty soon, after the first minutes and said to the ticket counter person that this was the worst thing after Winter War (laughter) I think that was a pretty good concert review (more laughter). I am actually very proud of that comment. If you can play accordion in a way that somebody thinks it´s “the worst thing after Winter War” …

Yeah, that´s really something…

The worst thing after Winter War 

Actually a couple of Finnish Metal bands have been including accordion – both the sound and the real instrument – in their music, e.g. Finntroll, Moonsorrow, Korpiklaani. What do you think of that?
I have also seen some Russian bands, I think it fits great, and better than that normal keyboards. But for me, so far of what I have seen of accordion in that surrounding, it nearly always faces the problem that it´s not really well thought through how to do the sound. I mean, in those cases you need really high-class well-planned microphones, built inside the instrument. There´s no way trying to play without micro inside the instrument. I have special ones for my accordion. The other thing is – I think just the pure accordion sound, for me, it´s not enough, you need to have some processing, you can use a couple of effects there or somehow boost the sound better, anyway, if you´re playing in a harder band you have to have a sound for that (laughs)

In your website calendar you mention this “Earth Machine Project”. What is this about?
This is a very interesting project. Some of my friends found out about a festival nearby where I was born, more up North from here, a place called Rämsöö, a very small village. They have this huge Machine festival, where they have all these huge engines, machines, helping to make energy, Finland was built up in the 20s with those, and these machines have a huge sound, sort of Techno-Metal sound, and then I realized that I would like to mike them (= put microphones to them, the ed.) and create a surround sound, which I am always using, and then play music for this festival. Those guys agreed, we did a concert already, and now we do it again in June 2008. And there is another piece where Jukka Perko and Samuli Kosminen, who did this originally, will also come and do their thing. And what was great, my agent in England, when she heard about this, she started arranging a tour for me in England. In February I go there to pick a few farms where they have good machines and engines, and I record them, so that I can compose music, and then in May I´ll have a tour there, at 5 farms…

That sounds… pretty… crazy…
It´s pretty crazy, but it´s funny how well it works! When you put the sound on a PA, it´s amazing how well it sounds. I also had a battle with a motorcycle – I put a motorcycle on stage, a microphone there, having a duo with a motorcycle – it worked perfectly.

So what are you doing when you are not making music?
If I don´t play, so then I guess the only thing I do is working my bicycle and go to swim (laughs). I don´t teach; I compose music for different projects and I perform, that´s totally enough for me. At the moment I have 5-6 different bands anyway, my own projects where I´m playing…

… which is typically Finnish, having at least 3 projects…
Yes, I myself try to keep it that way that I don´t get too many bands, but I allowed myself to do my own projects, that´s a different thing for me. I don´t want to play always solo, it´s nice to have sometimes 2, 3, 4 guys – it gives me some kind of variety of the work that I´m doing, because anyway, this is work what you, do so it´s great to have separate different projects.

It´s pretty crazy, but it´s funny how well it works!

Which kind of music are you listening to, what is inspiring for you?
It´s mostly what happens in Electronic music is interesting for me at the moment. Somehow I hear something new, some new sounds happening there… electronic noise, real heavy stuff… I am a sort of impatient guy, having done so many different types, such a lot of music in my life… so I always change my mind… in the last few years what you hear from Electronic music somehow feels that there is something new. But, OK, when you also do music and compose, so unfortunately you don´t listen to much to something else.

Would you say that your instrument now much more “cool” than when you started?
It´s definitely cooler than back in the 70s, then it was really uncool, it was the most uncool instrument ever, so I wonder… I must have been a really well-behaved child when I played accordion in the 70s. But of course it´s more cool nowadays, it´s more widely used, and also the fact that my instrument is totally different, what I´m doing sound-wise than 20 years ago – and that way I can tell that my sound is 1000 times cooler than it used to be even 10 years ago…

Looking back, is there something in your career you see as a mistake, that you would have done in a different way?
Definitely I wouldn´t like to put anybody onto do this path I went with accordion, because it was really… heavy, starting with Folk music, going to Classical and back to Folk and then little by little finding your own thing – so it wasn´t really an easy way. I´ve been so fucked up many times, but anyway, maybe, looking back and seeing the good sides of what you have done, different kind of things – that way it´s great. But I really hope that people, who start play accordion in the future, they could immediately start from there where I am now. They should not have to go the path that I was going, but immediately buy this gear I designed. I know that´s difficult, because nothing like that is on sale – but having this as a standard gear for accordion on sale, that would be unbelievable. It would be so great if somebody could get it immediately and then develop it further…

Maybe somebody is coming up with an idea how to customize it and put it in stores…
Yeah, I hope that will happen, then people can choose what they play, because I wouldn´t like the idea that people play the same stuff that I am doing. Because that´s boring (laughs).

Well, finally, a real stupid question: Why is “The Vagina Lady” your number 1 friend on your myspace-site?
Because I went to her webspace, and she is the only one who I don´t know personally, all the others there are my friends who I know personally… I don´t remember how I found her and her webspace, I kind of felt that she must be really cool. And I also read what was on her site, so I just wanted to put it there.

I like her dress… I wished I had it for special occasions, like embassy reception… (laughs)
YES! I would like to have one of those dresses on stage, I would be really happy… actually – as sometimes I have a dress on when I´m performing – I was thinking to get somebody planning a dress like this for me. Like a huge vagina. That would be really cool.

The problem – you couldn´t really see it when you´re playing…
No, the accordion is here (points at his waist), so you can see all of it from there, so I hope some day, inspired by her, I´ll have a vagina skirt (laughter)

Thank you for the interview!

If you want to find out more about Kimmo´s musical spectrum on CD, a few tips:
Pinnin Pojat – probably the most “Folk” of his oevre, a very minimalistic duo project with Arto Järvelä
In the section “Suomi Pop” or “Suomi Rock” you can find Kimmo in the line-up of
Ismo Alanko ´s Säätiö on the CD “Pulu” – also Folk/Ethno elements
Toni Rossi & Sinitaivas on the CD “Avaruusvalssi” – a Rock/Pop crossover, two songs were composed by Kimmo
KTU and their CD “8 Armed Monkey” – as mentioned in the interview, KTU is the most recent band project, and probably the most ROCK – although stunning crazy psychedelic…
In my opinion the album Uumen – with drummer Eric Echampard – is put in a totally wrong category (“New Age/Ambient”) – if I´d call it “Progressive Atmospheric Rock-Jazz” it rather gives you the idea what to expect…
Kalmuk with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, Abdissa Assefa and Samuli Kosminen follows a rather classical music approach, but contains plenty of weird – Shamanistic? – hypnotic, driving, exciting elements
Kluster might be my favourite CD so far – intense, atmospheric and so-not-like-accordion-sounding…

AND: There´s plenty of videos and sound-samples on Kimmo´s website… so check it out!

Klaudia Weber

reckless and merciless dictator, so KNEEL! In other words, editor-in-chief, translator, website and ad admin, "Jane of all trades" - - - addicted to books (everything between Lord Of The Rings & quantum physics) and music, mainly Metal made in Finland. Furthermore, there's painting, drawing, movies, theater... so you can expect some variety on this website too. MA Master of Arts, English and American studies & Media communication = completed two full studies parallel within 5 years; very proud of my achievement - a bit later in life thanks to a scholarship - as a working class girl in a highlyconservative-romancatholic nation...

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