With the UK's celebration of all things extreme — Birmingham's Supersonic festival — starting next week, we remember the time we travelled to Pori to meet headliners, kraut/prog rockers Circle
Words Phil Hebblethwaite
Photography Joe McNally, Tuomas Laurila
Speak, memory. Only a couple of days later and so profoundly intoxicating was the noise Circle made it’s already become difficult to remember what happened. There’s photographic evidence of pissing in a police box near Liverpool Street at dawn, but was there really a girl dressed as a pixie breast-feeding a stuffed toy? Did Circle make me lose my mind or did some strange elfin lady actually suckle a teddy bear on stage? She did! A girl — some kind of burlesque dancer who was given a 15 minute slot at 1.30am — pranced around for a bit, released her bosom and clamped a cuddly toy onto her nipple.
Circle began at 2am. At some point their singer and keyboard player — dressed in a leather cap, huge studded wristbands and belt, aviator shades, and high-healed two-tone brogues — fell to his knees drooling like a child. It was theatrical, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t completely in the moment. The band continued to build and build their song until he slowly came back to life, pulled himself up to his keyboard and, still slobbering, began to hammer the same chord sequence over and over and over again until we were involuntarily sucked deep into band’s cosmic headspace.
This was the 10th birthday party of Kosmische, the excellent Krautrock night. Circle played Kosmische the year before, too, but their supremely gifted guitar player Janne Westerlund blacked out halfway through their set. He’s one of the saddest looking guys you’ve ever seen — a piss-head but not one who looks like he drinks for kicks. In the nineties he was a member of the short-lived but adored blues/noise band Sweetheart. He subsequently played in an electroclash group called Chainsmoker before joining Circle. He also has another band called Plain Ride that do country-fried singer-songwriter pop with bite. That’s someone else’s description. As for the heavy boozing, there’s a rumour about a girlfriend that committed suicide a while back without leaving a note.
Some people call Circle avant rock, others krautrock, others still prog. Janne is clearly nourished on good, old fashioned American rock’n’roll and it’s his monster riffs that help root the band into something that’s far more earthy than experimental. They go off on these mad and totally improvised sonic adventures, but they’re not Yes, The Grateful Dead or some other jam band. They don’t do drugs, for one, and they’ve got in Tomi Leppänen a drummer who’s like a machine. Tomi, a skeletal and Teutonic-looking skinhead who seldom smiles and that night was wearing a black eye mask like the ones in the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, does not do solos. He’s a lethally taught drummer who seeks precision only and seems to think as long as 10 minutes into a song. Circle’s music builds into a frenzy because of his unwavering dedication to a single, simple beat. All of them are brilliant musicians and charismatic individuals, but somehow they are also Tomi’s slaves. He also has another band. It’s called Aavikko and they’re the original Yamaha boys from Siilinjärvi.
Imagine now a wall of CDs — thousands of them neatly stacked and probably in some kind of order. The way to this wall of CDs is to drive northwest from Helsinki on Highway 2 — mostly just one lane in either direction — past the rough industrial towns of Forssa and Nakkila until Pori. In the summer, when the speed limit is 100kph not 80, the journey will take just over two hours. Come winter, with ice and large banks of black snow lining the road, it could take three. There are plenty of hot dog stands, petrol stations and wooden buildings selling smoked fish along the way. At dusk the low sun flickers through trees as you drive.
On this Saturday night, Pori — described in the notes of the classic Circle album of the same name as “the daughter of the Baltic sea” — looks numb. Those who are walking home do so with bags of groceries from the KKK supermarket, their heads down and their jacket collars up. Pori is far from Russia but it feels like the stale air of forgotten Soviet town wafts through the city. There’s a jazz festival in summer that pulls a crowd but, other than that, it’s far from the tourist path.
In the sixth part of the city, there’s a concrete tower block. The flats in the block are modern. Nice places. One of them is owned by Jussi Lehtisalo and it’s in there that you’ll find the wall of CDs.
There’s a man in an Irish bar in downtown Pori who hates Jussi. This man, a drunk, has made it his life’s work to keep a note of every piece of music that has ever come out of the city, and every musician that played on those records. He hates Jussi because Circle and the other bands that record for Jussi’s label, Ektro Records, are so prolific. Whenever the man sees him, he asks if any new material has been recorded and Jussi responds that, yes, there has been a single and an album and another is due to be mixed next week. The man always says, “You are going to drive me crazy,” but Jussi thinks he’s already mad.
Jussi is the leader of Circle. He used to sing and play guitar but moved to bass and occasional Viking-like barking noises to make way for new talent. That’s kind of how Circle works: the current line-up has been together for a while, but a load of different players have come and gone since Jussi formed the band in 1991. They’re a sort of supergroup. To get the chance to play in Circle you have to be hot shit. They’ve got a reputation to uphold: that of being the most respected underground band in Finland. Perhaps if they moved to Helsinki or Stockholm or Germany, they could become better known, but they’re not interested. Jussi often quotes Bruce Duff from Jesters of Destiny, whose 1986 album Fun at the Funeral he reissued on his label: “You should be making music primarily because you love it. Most everything else is a bonus. If you have fans at all, great. If you can play around your hometown, or maybe throughout your country, fantastic. Recording your music should please you first and foremost — how else could you expect anyone else to get into it? If you do start to become really successful, your troubles will truly begin.”
Of the approximately 25 Circle albums to date, about 10 have come out on Jussi’s Ektro Records. I think. The others were released on a mish-mash of different labels in different parts of the world. A live album recorded for an American radio station is available on an English imprint, but you have to send a cheque to an address in Poland to get a copy. It can get quite annoying and, be warned, not all Circle albums are good. The Pori album from 1998, which features an entirely different line-up (other than Jussi), is a corker and Prospekt and Alotus are worthy, too. Others, like Sunrise, are more straight metal, but none of this really matters because what’s most important is seeing them play live, which they do in the UK most years. True to form, Jussi also has another band — a stoner rock group called Pharaoh Overlord and he’s done two brilliant minimal pop record influenced by Neu! and Trio that feature Circle’s singer playing unorthodox one-armed drum patterns. It’s no wonder the man in the pub gets annoyed with him. At least he doesn’t need to account for the records that Jussi puts out of foreign bands. On his label’s roster along with Finnish music is Japan’s Acid Mothers Temple and Argentina’s Los Natas.
For a period in the eighties, bands like Dingo and Yö put Pori at the centre of Finland’s pop scene. Jussi says they’re the exception; that it is from the dim shadow of winter that the majority of the music in Pori emerges. Jussi finds the autumn — the slow death of the long, summer days and the dreadful anticipation of the endless darkness of winter — extremely difficult. He believes that most people in Pori when they think back to their childhoods remember the long, cold night of the winter months before the brazen light of summertime.
Near Jussi’s flat, attached to a house, is a tiny room. It’s called Koppi (the Hut) and it used to be a sauna. There’s only one window through which, from a distance, a busted-through bass drum skin attached to the back wall is visible. From nearer it’s possible to make out the shape of six musicians and a mass of well-used equipment. The man with his back to the window — curly, thinning hair, round spectacles and a mic gaffered ungainly to its stand — is clearly in charge. He is totally consumed in a cycle of letting his band play, abruptly stopping them, barking instructions, and counting them back in. No time is wasted. It takes 15 minutes before he notices anybody is watching him from outside.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” he says frantically and waves us inside. At a natural break between songs, he stops and says, “Hi! I’m Mika.” His voice is surprisingly sprightly and high-pitched, his eyes wide-open and welcoming.
Mika Rättö is the man in the picture — Circle’s keyboardist and singer, and something of a genuine hero to the people who know him. He’s modest and slightly nerdy, and instantly at odds with the character you see on stage with Circle, dressed in S&M gear and frothing at the mouth. It’s not Circle who are playing in the hut. That band is called Kuusumun Profeetta and Mika is their leader. When they first started out they did this folky kind of music — not American folky, but Slavic folky. Mika sang in both Finnish and his own invented language, and always in falsetto. Because their philosophy is “never carrying on from the previous but always heading for an independent, unique result”, their sound constantly changes. That’s understandable, but a shame if your one of those that loved their magical early album Kukin Kaappiaan Selässään Kantaa. It couldn’t be more different to Circle’s music. It’s graceful, delicate and acoustic. To the joy of their drummer, who Jussi says dreams of playing two bass drum death metal, they later played more straight ahead rock, but there’s a new album out that’s meant to be a return to the band’s earlier “moods”.
Mika’s English isn’t great but he seems to be saying that he doesn’t own any records because he fears they may become a distraction. It’s also why he chose to stop singing in English and calling his band by its translated name, Moon Frog Prophet. He seeks to feel music instinctively and ensure as few things as possible get in the way of his natural expression. He writes and scores plays, too, which get produced in Finland, and paints watercolours. His art is strange — full of marshmallow landscapes and characters with long limbs and twisted torsos. Last year he had an exhibition called Fantasies from the Reality of Fairytales. Those paintings were different — more colourful and detailed and full of things to scare children.
About four years ago, Mika was in a club in Hamburg waiting to play with Circle. They were scheduled to begin at 7am, so someone offered him an ecstasy pill to help keep him awake. He held it between his fingers, examined it and innocently wondered, “What is this!?” before asking for it to be immediately taken away. Tonight, in a sea of local Karhu Olut beer, he is listening to records that Jussi is playing and saying, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, this one is very good, very good!” His friends say that for as long as he’s still talking sense, it’s too early to call it a night. We end up in the Irish bar with the man who hates Jussi and many other members of Pori’s inexhaustible music scene. Herra Ylppö from Maj Karman Kauniit Kuvat is there and so is Harri Sippola of Massive Attack favourites, Magyar Posse.
Later, Mika’s girlfriend will have to help him home only to put up with his incessant twilight analysis of all that he has seen and heard. She says she pretends to sleep but he still carries on. For now, though, he has this to say: “This, right here — drinking in this bar with these people – this is home, this is home.” He’s quite a dude and he was certainly unable of imagining that two people might come from England to meet him. All day he said, “What brings you to Pori?” He thought we were on holiday or just passing through.
Circle tour dates
17 October: London / Corsica Studios
18 October: Brighton / Green Door Store
19 October: Bristol / The Croft
20 October: Manchester / Islington Mill
23 October: Birmingham / Supersonic Festival