Emma Warren, Jockey Slut, June/July 1997 Vol 2 No.8
King of geek chic and lounge-lizard grooves Jimi Tenor is a Scandinavian-funk-phenomenom. And he's big in Germany. Emma Warren joined the Finnish fly guy in the land of kebabwurst and champagne. Star shots: Dirk Hasskari
There is a place in Berlin, probably the equivalent of any kebab shop in Britain, where you can buy bratwurst, currywurst and kebabwurst and a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne. For a man who has an omniprescent glass of the bubbly stuff on stage, being able to sup while you sample German sausage is practically heaven sent. Jimi Tenor, cabaret superstar with Fererro Rocher chic and good tunes, is nearing the end of a European tour, and he needs all the refreshment he can get.
The Mojo club, Hamburg. Jimi Tenor walks on stage wearing a black lace shirt, a tight fitting sequinned black suit, with his trademark glasses perched atop his dome. Underneath is a diamante belt which looks like a WBC championship trophy made by a Dynasty wardrobe assistant. Later, he'll take it off and whip the air, or any unlucky members of the front row with it. It is pure theatre, where Eastern European chic, lounge lizard p-funk, and low-fly casio-grooves meet up in the unlikely Jarvis Cocker-meets-Albert Einstein geek-chic of the Jimi Tenor Experience. A lone backdrop droops out, and drops down. It's made of purple silvery strands, which looks alarmingly lop-sided, but very, very Tenor, and really pretty cool.
In the back room, people talk underneath red lights, read papers and look effortlessly bohemian. Tenor tour DJ, VJ and driver, Nicky No-Mix provides the vibes with tracks from Grand Central, Roy Davis Jnr and Herbaliser. There's a Jimi-alike at the front, grinning and grooving. Even the in-house matches have 'Vibes' written on them. Jimi's new backing band walk on behind him, pour him a glass of champagne, and settle into place. There's soul-style horns and sax from Mike and Terry, loose funky drumming from Caroline, and pinning it all down, super-funky bass coming from Jo.
An hour later, as the show draws to an end, Tenor leaps out from behind the keyboard as though he is going to punch someone. He storms over to the MS20 which is waiting handily at the front of the stage. He attacks it, crouching over it, twisting the knobs furiously and intensly. He kicks it, pushes it, hates it. Then he picks it up, holds it aloft, and goes at it with his teeth, rampaging as only a man in black lace shirt can. It makes a noise like Prince playing a squawling guitar solo, or George Clinton's deranged genius. He jettisons it to the floor and storms off. Ten tumolous minutes later, while the crowd clap and cheer, Jimi calms himself with a vodka and saunters back on. "It's time to relax," he says, "like on a Caribbean island talking in Spanish." With more p-funky strangeness, he lulls himself and the audience into a post-coital sigh. And it's all over.
Finland's premier export, Jimi Tenor is something of an underground star in Germany right now, and Jimi mania is evident at every turn. 'Take Me Baby', (which was originally recorded in a Glasgow kitchen,) was a massive club hit, big in all the techno clubs and the gay clubs and was all over last years MayDay parade. It made it to the outside reaches of the real charts too ("not the bogus charts," says Tenor) and each time he plays it the crowd go mad. He is being sponsored by Adidas, alongside the super cool Prince Naseem, and he's currently clad in sports gear and a pair of his own Tenorwear trousers. There are autograph hunters waiting for him after the gig, thrusting bits of paper at him, and shaking his hand. He jokes that he's always getting asked to sign parts of people's bodies "oh yes," he smiles, "I'm often being asked to sculpt someones pubic hair." Even the tour DJ receives a lovelorn fax from a too-shy fan the next day.
So who goes to Tenor gigs?"Wanky little students, I guess" he sneers. "Well I guess they're alright. Nice people. No assholes hopefully. There's not too much fighting, apart from the ladies huhuhuhu."Before the gig the next night in Berlin, a huddled group of fans await his arrival for the soundcheck. It's raining, but they're there, a hardcore of twenty or so, who later that evening will watch the Tenor man do more MS20 destroying business. "Fucking hell," he says after signing away his name a dozen times. "I wish I had known about that. It was too scary, but alright too."
Another early start, the next day. Everyone piles on the bus for the journey over to Berlin, and in between sleeping, eating, and listening to the avant-garde classical music that trombonist Mike has put on the stereo, life settles into a motorway routine."I hate all the waiting," says Tenor. "You wait backstage, wait on the bus, always waiting."The conversation veers from mundane to downright surreal. I offer Jimi some crisps. "I'm not that English," he says, refusing, munching on a pear, and steers the conversation round to a favourite topic; food. Fresh food is good. Sushi is even better. And rubbish microwaved junk food is no good at all. "Microwaves heat up the atoms in the food, and that heats it so when you eat it, it carries on cooking in your stomach, and it causes cancer." Mobile phones get similarly short shrift. "If 90% of people who had mobile phones died it would be alright I think," he says provocatively.
As the bus bumps over and along the motorway, we start talking about Jimi's 'Intervision' album that surfaced on Warp earlier this year. 'Sugar Daddy,' a gothic synth stomp has a tale bubbling under the surface."That was about when I was really penniless in New York," he starts quite innoculously, "so I had to do this thing with a businessman huhuhuhuh which was quite strange. Also a friend of mine was doing phone sex with some mafia guy. What do you do when you're in New York if you don't have any money? You gotta do something. But then I got a job and it was OK."
Fanciful, surreal or down to earth truth? Take his introduction to the album track 'Tesla,' for instance. "This is a story about a very unhappy scientist in Czech Republic after everyone has ripped him off big time. I'm talking big time," he proclaims before howling his way through the song. In Berlin the track is "a very haunting song about a man who is lost in the woods and he can't find his mother anywhere," and in Cologne, on the last night of the tour he introduces it so: "This is a song about a mad scientist dying in his hotel room after all of his inventions have been stolen." That Finnish sense of humour, eh.
Potsdam, near Berlin. We're driving through the outskirts of Berlin, escorting Jimi to the first of three radio interviews lined up for the afternoon. He bought his amazing flashing keyboard from near here for a pittance. It's not far from where he used to live, and where he once saw the Brand New Heavies on mushrooms and thought they were the best band ever. We pull in to the Capitol Radio style Fritz FM, and Tenor is ushered in to the studio, where the interrogation commences.Fritz FM: So, Jimi, how do you say "Hi" in Finland.As quick as he's in, he's off to the next radio station. "It's all rubbish," he mutters as he gets in the car with the radio plugger. Although no-one could say he was the most forthcoming of interviewees, he always delivers in drawling style. He's asked to record a jingle at the next stop off, the newly opened Kiss FM. "Hi, this is Jimi Tenor on 1606. Rockabilly Rules," he says nervously, hopping about in front of the mike. He looks a little bit lost amongst the hype, but he goes through the motions, listening to questions about Finland, and his new Tenorwear line of clothing. "It's like being a chameleon of the night. You can be really cool. I'm making erotic pants where the fly opens all the way round, so it's easy for quick sex. It's strictly mail order for my fan club."
Jimi Tenor: "(unintelligible unless you speak Finnish)"
Fritz: Maybe you should sample it for your next record.
Jimi: Maybe hahaha.
Fritz: Please complete the following phrases. Finland is better than...
Jimi: Living on the moon.
Fritz: Tonight you can expect...
Jimi: Erotic moments.
Fritz: If I'm your female fan, I'm going to make you pleased...
Jimi: Like Jimi Pleased Wimmin.
Fritz: I most regret...
Jimi: My mother not turning up at my concerts.Kiss: Describe your music.At the third radio station, the state radio B-Zwei, Jimi's getting fed up. He's scribbling on a pad and doesn't want his picture taken. Again he describes himself as an erotic artist, and deflects a question about Finland's other musical export, The Leningrad Cowboys.
Jimi: It's erotic boogie. Whatever.
"I can describe it as some kind of strange" says the Kiss DJ helpfully."Are you influenced by jazz?" asks the radio jock. "Somedays," he says. "Other days it's rockabilly, but it's not often German folk music."Later, before more interviews, he's reflective. "I think I'll end up producing or making movies. I think I like the music too much."
The gig at the Loft club that night is full to the rafters. It's in a famous rock venue, The Metropole, and the dressing room walls are covered in graffiti to prove it, as well as scribbles from Beastie Boys Ad Rock and Mike D. Jimi looks more like a mad scientist than ever tonight, grinning scattily, as he fucks around with the effects, groaning and smiling. He hits the keys almost randomly - like a great dancer being able to pretend not to dance - and it creates a loose, funky cacophony that turns the crowd to jelly. At the close of the gig, he leaps forwards off his seat, slithers over the top of the keyboards like a deranged lush and tumbles over it, before giving it serious damage. Whipped up into a frenzy, the crowd laps it up.
Later, cradling his bruised wrist (the result of his stage aerobics) he gives his comment on the night. "It was OK. Whatever." There's a sizeable collection of ironic easy-listening people at the gig, who dance and point and laugh at the sheer audacity of Tenor's vision."Obviously there are comic elements, even if it's not on purpose. I don't know why. People laugh at me anyway, on the streets and shit. Especially skinheads and people like that. You get used to it. I think it's good to have some irony. It's a show."100 km north of Helsinki. The young Jimi Tenor spent as much time as he can playing street hockey, sandwiching it between music school and the music conservatory he attends after school. He was born with another Finnish name that he won't disclose, but someone noticed he looked like Jimmy Osmond and from thereon in, Jimi it was. His dad, a sports coach went on to coach the Finnish bowling world champion. His brother was in a band ("but not very well. He makes a good performance though") and Jimi goes on to join a band with the snappy-sounding name Jimi Tenor and His Shamans."We used to have all these instruments we had made, experimental stuff. One was like an electronic drum machine that went bang bang which ran with a washing machine motor. Then there was a trombone that you played with a vacuum clearer so you didn't need to blow. There was a tape machine with a handle you turned and it went faster so it was kind of like scratching."
He left Finland in his early 20's, moved to Berlin, hung out in underground experimental clubs, and ended up in New York, doing pretty much the same thing, frequently returning to his home country. In between then and now he makes short films, records for the hip electronica label Sähkö, and works as a professional photographer. Design and style are all important, although it's a charmingly non-conformist idea of style. He's still involved with Sähkö, which he describes as "a family thing," loving the design ethic and musical freedom the label nurtures."We printed some album covers at a factory in Estonia, we got them back and the printing was terrible, but that was OK, that was what we wanted, but the sleeves were 5 cm too big on either side so the records didn't fit properly and they wouldn't fit anywhere," he chuckles. "Some pressing plants are really sloppy, but at least the records are normally the usual size. The printing was so bad that we had to get a sticker to say what the record was. We're planning to use them forever."He's really laughing now, the thought of great mistakes inspiring him, and the thought that in a year or so, the Estonian factory will have Photoshop like everyone else in the world, and look like everyone else in the world, makes him very depressed. The difference between people and places is where he thrives. Driving through Berlin he mutters "Everywhere's the same now. The same movies, the same adverts, the same shops. It's terrible, but what can you do..?" McConformity, as you might have guessed, is Tenor hell.
It's a nine hour drive from Berlin to Cologne. And it's raining. "The weather really affects my moods," Jimi comments, which may go some way to explaining his current move to Barcelona. He's already spent considerable time in New York, East Berlin, South America and err, Sheffield - probably the least Tenor-ish place on the entire globe - and Barcelona gets the thumbs up. "it's warm," he says, "it's got good food. It's easy going." The Catalan capital is not as hectic as his last home from home, New York."I tried to do some photographic assistant job in NYC but nobody wanted me because I'm not sociable enough. Photographic assistants are supposed to keep their mouths shut and keep the models happy. I couldn't do that. People thought I was Swedish, 'cos the Swedish have a really good reputation because they're good to talk to. They're nice, clever, intelligent people but the Finnish are not. We just can't deal with anything. I was maybe too shy or something, not that easy-going. Not that normal."
The final gig of the tour attracts another full house. The set is tight, and at the end of 'Outta Space,' Jimi is wiggling his arse furiously against the keyboards, and finishing up with a triumphant yelp. After doing his rock antics with the MS 20, and shouting to the crowd "I've got to go, because tomorrow I have to play Mayday, that motherfucking bastard festival, but I gotta make my money," Tenor walks off looking drained, kicking his arms and legs out in a silent dance. "I think he must like Frank Zappa," says a girl by the bar. Whatever he likes, Jimi Tenor has left another set of people entertained, a bit drained and probably bemused. Unique, self-deprecating and a phenomenon in himself, Jimi Tenor is the least likely pop star in years. An intervisionary for the 90's.
Intervision is out now on Warp. 'Sugar Daddy' is out on June 2nd.
Copyright © 1997 Jockey Slut