The Wire

In Writing

Mika Vainio 1963–2017: Finland’s great stone-faced sonic violator remembered by Rob Young

April 2017

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.

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