Musician Anton Nikkilä and filmmaker Mika Taanila talk to Jennifer Lucy Allan about archive recordings by their high school six piece, Swissair
Around dawn on 20 June 1982, six 17 year olds went to Tervasaari, a small island of parkland near Helsinki, set up their equipment and began to play. The music is like a starter version of This Heat: strange and loose but compelling, with steady tinny rhythms lashing together loose guitar chords, meandering vocals, melodica, a battery operated Soviet synthesiser, the sound of a zip and birdsong.
The group was Finnish six-piece Swissair: Jari Härkönen, Pietari Koskinen, Mikko Kuussaari, Anton Nikkilä, Juha Soivio and Mika Taanila, and the recording was one of the last they made, now included on Viimeinen Kutsu 1982 (which translates as Last Call 1982). It is being reissued on cassette by Ektro sublabel Ruton Music, along with a trio of other tapes made by Swissair members. The recording concept Nikkilä says he lifted from a John Cage text, which he was reading at the time, with the ambient sounds of the sea, birds and distant traffic noises treated like instruments. “There is a letter that survived where I talk in these Cagean terms, where I suggested we do a recording session outside,” says Nikkilä over Skype. “I was talking about going to parks or industrial areas because the traffic and the factories would be making so much noise we wouldn’t have to play a thing.”
Taanila remembers the influence of the Cage texts (which Nikkilä borrowed from the local library) on the group, and their desire to be less commercial in the way they worked: “We were seeking alternative and more open ways of making art and music. At 17 the feeling that there should be no limits was very strong, and we felt almost everything – especially in Finland and the Helsinki music scene – was really traditional and conservative, or limiting. That was the reason we started to play outdoors, it became more and more conceptual and open, and in a sense, immaterial.”
Swissair formed when they were 15 (they were all born in the same year), and were named after the logo on Härkönen’s school bag (“a blue, chic bag which he had got travelling somewhere with his parents,” recalls Taanila). They made recordings from around 1980, clocking up 60 or so hours of material and releasing lots of it on short run cassettes on their own label, Valtavat Ihmesilmälasit Records (which translates to Enormous Miracle Glasses), run by Nikkilä and Taanila. The scene they engaged with was not so much Helsinki, but a wider international network of DIY cassette labels. The cassette column in NME in the early 80s printed addresses of tape labels alongside reviews, and they would write, swapping tapes with other labels in Europe. They built one strong connection with an Italian post-punk label called Compact Cassette Echo based out of Pordenone, even releasing material made by some of their members. “On an emotional level, what it meant for communication and motivation was very strong,” says Taanila. “Being very young and part of this culture, where everything seemed possible and you could find like-minded people in Spain, Portugal or Scotland, I think this changed my life.
“Helsinki was very conservative, it was the Soviet era and while we were not really part of the Eastern Bloc, we were very much under Soviet Cultural influence,” he continues. The Soviet influence manifests in one tongue-in-cheek Swissair cassette that never got released: Live In Bratislava (the group never played in Slovakia, and in fact rarely played any live shows at all).
Taanila and Nikkilä remember their influences being post-punk and industrial groups, along with Nikkilä’s self-directed tour through art history, which took in Cage alongside Fluxus and other movements. Musically, they mention The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and perhaps most audibly, This Heat. “This Heat was a revelation of what music could be in the future,” Taanila enthuses. “Each track was so different in style. It's wild, very strange and it sounds dangerous.”
Some Swissair material has been rereleased through Nikkilä’s N&B Research Digest, and Viimeinen Kutsu 1982 is being reissued along with three other cassettes: a looped collage piece made by Taanila in 2013, a sample-based piece of whirring machine sound by Nikkilä and a cassette of naive melancholic pop made in the 80s by Swissair member Pietari Koskinen as Ferricjohnson.
Viimeinen Kutsu 1982 turned out to be a sort of dead end for the group: “It was the final abstraction, or collapse of what could be the next step,” Taanila describes. “At the time we got on fantastically well. We were the closest friends. But we disbanded because it became impossible to find even more abstract ways to make music, or something like that anyway. We also had different interests: some of us wanted to get good grades, and I became more interested in dreaming about films.”
Nikkila is now a musician and translator, working with Russian music and texts, and is the unofficial Swissair archivist, having collected surviving copies of the tapes they made from boxes in cupboards and basements. “These are just the best bits,” he says. “There is a lot of really awkward unsuccessful stuff, because we recorded in this unselfconscious and uninhibited way, but that means there are also gems there.”
Taanila echoes this sentiment. “Thinking about it now, why it still feels an important part of life, is that it was simply passion, without any career plans,” he says. “Speaking for myself, I never had the feeling that I should make my living out of music. Somehow it was more intuitive and exciting.”
I ask what part sound plays in his films now. “In a technical sense it's separate, but I’ve always used a lot of sound and music in my films. Recently I’ve come back to the idea of making some of the film music myself, so this loop cassette is cinematic in a way, and was originally made for an audiovisual installation. More recently I did two short films based on archival footage, for which I made my own music. So maybe that’s something – I’m getting old, and things come in cycles.”
For Anton, hearing some of the old Swissair recordings has been a surprise, because some of his ideas are coming back around unexpectedly. “This happened to me recently,” he laughs. “I was thinking that I would really like to make a really silent piece of piece of music on a drum machine and a synth. But suddenly I realised, this is an old idea! I did it when I was 17! It makes me happy hearing these recordings, because I’ve already made that idea!”