in silence a scream takes a heart…
Mika Vainio 1963–2017
Finland’s great stone-faced sonic violator remembered by Rob Young.
The Wire’s Rob Young recalls the trouser-shaking subsonics of Pansonic’s “Nordic King Tubby”
It’s 3am on a beach in Barcelona, six months from the end of a century. After a long night, the technoid throb from Sonar’s hangar-like venue is receding behind us, and there’s nothing left but the star-spangled sky, and the gentle caress of Mediterranean waves on the shore. Somewhere up ahead, a buzzing bassline is starting to shake our sandal straps. As we draw nearer, there’s a tiny wooden shack, a dilapidated beach hut strewn with fairy lights and a plastic bin full of ice cubes and beer. A little outpost of Jamaica has been installed on the Catalonian coastline, and the likes of Jim O’Rourke, the Mego Records crew, Christian Fennesz and many more are drinking, dancing and paddling in the sea. I peer into the shed to see who is pumping out these deep dubplates, and see none other than Mika Vainio of Pan Sonic, clad in a Hawaiian shirt and a flat cap, working the decks like a Nordic King Tubby.
This was a side of Mika I had never seen. I first encountered him in London in 1994, when I did the first interview outside of Finland with the Sähkö Records collective. This was before Panasonic, but his partner Ilpo Vaisanen was there, as well as label boss and artist Tommi Grönlund and their friend Jimi Tenor. They talked of industrial music worship; of extreme sonic rituals in Finnish forests; of mysterious metal tubes that could loosen bowels within earshot. That trip proved eventful and fruitful: the Sähkö crew blew the circuits of the Brixton venue the Vox at their first London showcase; Panasonic (as they were then known) hooked up with Blast First, were photographed driving an armoured car around London, and DJed behind Aphex Twin’s food mixers at the Disobey club. It was a moment in electronic music when the raw power of electricity had not quite given way to the pernickety possibilities of digital processing. His first CD Metri, under the Ø alias (1994), remains a pulsating masterpiece of atom-clock techno. Mika began as what we would now call a sound artist, creating noise installations using custom built sound generators and sleep-deprived performances. Long before today’s electronistas discovered the improved economics of the gallery space, Mika – inspired by the example of COUM Transmissions/Throbbing Gristle – recognised important connections between electronic arts, performance art and sound experimentation. Panasonic’s live sets had a minimalist logic that drew on the aesthetics of Cold War video art: an oscilloscope projection whose wavy lines of light danced in reaction to Panasonic’s trouser-shaking subsonics.
On stage, Mika applied himself with gravitas; in social situations a silence surrounded him. The few times I interviewed him, it felt like mining for a seam of thought locked behind a stone face. But you knew there were plenty of ideas being cooked up in there, and perhaps the ghost of a sense of humour also. One well known electronic musician told me of waking up in a flat to find Mika staring at the table after an all night drinking binge. He greeted Mika with a cheery “Morning!” and received the granite reply: “You are a mutant.”
Mika came from a small town in rural Finland, socially limited and slow to change. His music was an escape route, a chance to try out wholly other lives. He lived in Barcelona, Berlin, most recently Oslo. His music allowed him to discover the world – Pan Sonic once played a gig on Easter Island – and to work with friends and heroes: Alan Vega, Barry Adamson, Charlemagne Palestine, Carsten Nicolai, Stephen O’Malley.
This morning I pulled out Mika’s 2011 album on Editions Mego, Life (… It Eats You Up). With its tortured and beaten guitars, and cover of The Stooges’ “Open Up And Bleed”, it was a departure for Mika – one where perhaps a glimpse of aspects of his inner life were revealed in track titles such as “In Silence A Scream Takes Heart”, “Conquering The Solitude” and “A Ravenous Edge”. But it’s dangerous to take such clues literally, and in any case, since then, he had moved to Oslo with his partner, the artist Rikke Lundgreen, and was taking part in the city’s vibrant artistic life. His performance at the National Gallery, in response to an exhibition of textiles by Norwegian artist Hannah Ryggen, was a subtle and penetrating layering of drones, bleep tones and static hums, generated from a tiny array of devices on the table. It’s not clear exactly how or why he died; the reasons why he ended up alone on a cliff on northern France on 12 April remain unexplained. I prefer to remember that idyllic night on the Spanish sands, the pleasure he took in the music and the joy he wanted to share. I will miss the jolt of his frequencies and mourn the loss of the quiet determination that lay behind them.
By Rob Young
As one half of Pan Sonic with Ilpo Väisänen, Mika Vainio had a transformative effect on the deconstructed techno that lurks around the fringes of dance and electronic music. In fact, when news of his death last week, at just 53 years of age, was announced, I could think of few artists of his generation who had such a large influence in their field.
Vainio’s influence on ambient and industrial electronic music was somewhat unspoken in his lifetime. He was not a figurehead of a scene, but pretty much all booming palettes of mechanical sound being made today nod in some way to Vainio and his work with Pan Sonic (who started out as Panasonic in 1993 before the Japanese electronics manufacturer of that name threatened legal action).
Music producers are described as writing beats, but Vainio’s beats weren’t beats at all, they were the sound and feeling of a black hole opening up in the centre of your chest. I’m too young to have been around for Pan Sonic’s shows in London in the late 1990s and early 00s, but David Toop wrote, in his book Haunted Weather, of the band’s physical sonics as “a manifesto for the poetry of electricity”. Their sound during those shows was, in his words, like “flares, vapour trails, LEDs, neon tubes close to death, heart murmurs, apertures opening and closing in cement walls, tiny mechanised guillotines snipping the heads from tin soldiers, sheets of led unfurling in underground car parks”.
I saw Vainio play solo when it worked and when it didn’t: the latter was like helicopter blades sputtering to a standstill; but the former could be electrifying. During a show at Koko in London with Nurse With Wound, Vainio and Steven Stapleton made the handrails rattle in their fixings as cacophonous rumblings bounced around the plasterwork roof. My body hummed and the whole place vibrated.
It would be an understatement to say Vainio was not very vocal. While his music spoke volumes, conjuring countless wild images, the man himself did not. I interviewed him in 2013 at his flat in Berlin, for the Wire magazine’s Invisible Jukebox feature, and I was warned I might get one-word answers. He was certainly reserved, but he was also articulate. Surrounded by stacks of records, he identified the intros to delta blues and dub, and spotted a Sunn O))) record in a few seconds flat. He told me stories about the music he loved, about how the outsider rockabilly musician Hasil Adkins always carried meat and sausages in his pockets. He spoke about putting acid house raves on as a teenager in Turku, Finland, and about his first band, a four-piece called Gagarin-Kombinaatti, who were influenced by Einstürzende Neubauten but who only ever played one show. He had been going through their old rehearsal tapes.
I asked him how he felt about influencing a younger generation and he sidestepped the question, saying that he thought of his sound as just a continuation of something that had been done before, combining industrial techno with electroacoustic music.
Vainio released music regularly, often putting out a couple of records each year, on Paul Smith’s influential label Blast First, Jimi Tenor’s Finnish label Sähkö or the British label Touch. His minimal techno output, as Ø, accomplished the ultimate in bare, repeating bleeping motifs – Metri is the Finnish version of Robert Hood’s album Minimal Nation, and was released in the same year, 1994. He collaborated with Björk (who interviewed him in her 1990s Modern Minimalists BBC TV show), with Suicide’s Alan Vega, with Japanese noise musicians Keiji Haino and Merzbow, and he played in a duo with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. He also made multiple recordings with the saxophonist Lucio Capece, among many others.
In recent years, Vainio had slowed down a little, but he hadn’t tailed off musically. His 2013 album Kilo was punishing and spacious, the Gagarin-Kombinaatti recordings were released on Sähkö in 2015, and Pan Sonic’s soundtrack to the Finnish film Atomin Paluu was released last year. As further details of his death are reported – he apparently died in France following a fall – I listen to his sound, not to his story, to work by a musician whose quiet influence is deafeningly felt.
Jennifer Lucy Allan
Tuesday 18 April 2017 15.33 BST