A month after his death, the Sähkö founder and friend recalls a musician who “created a language of his own”
Mika Vainio was the most dualistic person of all. On one hand he had an extreme sense of beauty, and on the other, demonic shadows and death.
He was well aware of his divided mind and used it as a fuel for his art. I first met Mika in the mid-1980s in Turku where we were growing up. There was a small active group of teenagers who were into various underground oddities, gathering films, books, magazines and records from around the globe. Mika was one of the central figures in this gang, and had a large collection of rare findings in art and music. His house was always wonderfully set up like an altar for his findings, though after several years there would be a tendency for him to leave these belonging behind. He wanted to be reborn regularly.
His imagination was immense and he was perpetually interested in music, art and history. Many contemporary things were irrelevant to him. Mika didn't have the smallest will to please anyone – in 30 years I never saw him engaging in small talk. He only spoke to strangers when necessary and if he felt uncomfortable, he kept quiet. That caused a lot of confusion, as anyone who’s met him will know. And then suddenly, when Mika liked someone – it could have been a homeless person on a street – he would talk gently with them for hours. With those he liked, his generosity was overwhelming. On more than one occasion he spent all his money to make dinner for his friends.
Another prominent element in Mika's character was his opposition to authority and establishments. As a young kid he was expelled from school for not paying attention. With no-one having expectations for his future, he started to read and study by himself – fiction, science fiction, nonfiction. From that background he created his cryptic picture of the world and of life. I like to call it his own metaphysical science. I always admired the references Mika threw in our conversations – his imagination was endless and he chose his words carefully. He liked unusual expressions, and you could never predict what you'd hear next. He had an exceptional memory. It was never a good idea to open a conversation with a cheeky remark, as he would remember it forever.
One of his passions was food. Pansonic's Japanese hosts know that Mika always insisted on having the strangest seafood available. He described his own way of cooking as "puumies [woodman]" cooking – coarse flavours, animal organs, beans, root vegetables. And meat. Here's an excerpt from the Touch Recipe Book, a project inspired by Vaino: "Woodman's Horsemeat (for two persons): cut one kilogram of raw tender horse filet to thin slices. Place on a large plate and spread sea salt, black pepper and olive oil between every layer of meat. Store." One of his favourite artists was rockabilly musician Hasil Adkins. An archetype of the woodman, Adkins would often carry meat and sausages in his pockets.
We founded the Sähkö label together, and the label released the first recordings by both Panasonic (as they then called themselves) and Mika's Ø project. In the late 1990s, the whole Sähkö crew moved to Barcelona, first Jimi Tenor, then myself, then Mika. He had a beautiful old apartment in Poblenou. It had a marble kitchen sink with deep carvings made by the running water and time. In Barcelona he got interested in wines. I remember he had a beautifully organised wine rack in his clothes closet. But again, having that was far too neat. After the wild 'Wood Men' weekend in 1999, where Pan Sonic threw a reggae party on the beach, Mika and friends finished drinking the bottles from the shelf together. Petrus, Francis Bacon's favourite red wine, was the last bottle opened on Monday morning.
Mika didn't have any formal music education, but had a vast knowledge of music of all kinds, call it classical, modern classical, world music and experimental electronic or electroacoustic. It was only quite recently that Mika categorised his own music as electroacoustic. He couldn't read music or write notes – instead he created a language of his own, based on sounds and silence transforming into rhythms. The chords or melodies he wrote were created by trial and error.
My way of working with Mika didn't change much in 25 years. He was definite with his ideas, and very rigid with details – he would give me the finished tracks and cover photo and that was it. Once I changed the track order for the double vinyl version of the Ø album Oleva without asking him, and he got furious and didn't talk to me for four months.
I always had a personal preference to Mika's subtle and quiet tracks. At some point in the early 1990s I suggested he have a listen to Harold Budd. He looked at me amused and said he'd had his records since the early 1980s, and the next day he gave them all to me. Last summer Mika told me that he'd been corresponding with Budd for the past few years, with handwritten letters.
Tommi Grönlund, Helsinki, May 10 2017