Deadpan Sonics

Will Montgomery, The Wire, March 1999

Moving to Barcelona hasn't blunted Pan Sonic's enthusiasm for seriously noise damaged electronica.

The first advertising hoarding you see as the taxi loops away from Barcelona airport is a large, glowing Panasonic sign. The Japanese megacorp have got in early, stamping an imprint on the eager traveller's mind. Barcelona has long projected a peculiar allure, a combination of pleasure and dynamism that seduces most visitors. The 'city of marvels' of novelist Eduardo Mendoza's ebullient formulation has always been a place of commerce. Historically, it has looked away from Madrid and outside Spain, but it remains to be seen whether its cherished cosmopolitanism can withstand global capital. The Catalan mercantile spirit has practically obliterated pre-Franco currents of sedition. But woven into the seams of the city is an appetite for pleasure, experiment and adventure that resists colonisation.

In setting on the name Panasonic - all sound - Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen chose to site their adventures on the contested ground of an international brand name. The Japanese electronics colossus took a surprisingly long time to force the Finnish duo to recant. Now Pan Sonic, they are still a localised spike of subversion inside the engulfing corporate presence.

Mika relocated to the Catalan capital last year, joining fellow Finnish ex-pats Jimi Tenor and Sähkö label boss Tommi Grönlund (Ilpo commutes between Turku and Barcelona). I arrived late on a Friday night after a flight made strange by insistent Easy Listening versions of "Light My Fire" and other pop evergreens. It seemed stranger still that a visit to Pan Sonic should start with such candyfloss. There's nothing fluffy about Pan Sonic. In fact the starkness of their music colours the entire trip, bringing a taciturn surrealism to the business of negotiating the city. Though I lived here ten years ago, Barcelona will seem intermittently strange, as the quiet presence of my interviewees points up the ectoplasmic fluff of consumption.

Mid-afternoon the next day, our party meets up with the Pan Sonic duo outside the vast Gothic cathedral in the old part of town. Mika is dapper in a cap, sunglasses and fine shoes; Ilpo is rangy, goateed and flight-jacketed. We make for the tightly packed warren of streets around the Born area. "Would you like to go in the cable car?" Ilpo is the chattier of the two and more likely ot crack a smile. Mika is more self-contained, periodically coming out with precise questions and observations. In front of strangers they relate to each other like family members between whom all has been said. We drift slowly towards the sea. Bright sunlight filters down into the narrow streets that run between high buildings dripping, long, green Persian blinds.

We pause outside the massive flank of Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th century Gothic church, now shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. I catch myself wondering what Mika and Ilpo make of the high severity of the upreaching lines inside. Then I wonder what I'm wondering at. The high severity in Pan Sonic's music is infecting my perceptions. How do they feel about these churches, these people who make that sound? I've invented a frame for them, exaggerated their asceticism perhaps, and it's coming into conflict with the colours, sounds and sensuality of the city. Yet when they talk about it, the appeal seems straightforward enough: "It's the atmosphere, the feeling of the city," says Mika. "It's really beautiful, it's quite laidback and the people are friendly."

Pan Sonic are certainly here for the music scene - not exactly cutting edge, despite the city's well-programmed annual Sonar electronica jamboree. Has Barcelona's atmosphere and architecture had an impact on their work? "It's hard to know because our music is changing anyway," says Mika, "but I'm sure there is something." In any case, the new album, A, is more complex and varied that previous releases, with a broader palette of sounds and more rhythmic eccentrity. They tell me they've aimed for a tripartite structure, moving from slow rhythmic pieces, through a minimal stage, into a more aggressive ending.

We cross a hectic road into Barceloneta, a little district jutting out into the sea and crammed with seafood restaurants. With the sun on our backs we at last reach the beach, only fully opened up to the city during the pre-Olympic flurry of recostruction in 1990-92. The wind is up and people are flying kites. Mika and Ilpo, who've come from light-starved Finland via light-starved London, look like they might be happy.

We make for the huge stanchions supporting the transbordador - a cable car built in the 1920s. Somewhat alarmingly, only now does it seem to be having its first major service. The only bit not falling apart is the car itself. We take the lift up the tower and peer down at the impossible yachts of the super-rich. Just as the car sets off across the harbour, five loud young Australians pile in, filling the ten minute trip with volleys of scatological chit-chat. What on earth do Pan Sonic make of high volume monologues on "scratch 'n' sniff undies"? Ilpo thought they were English.

The sun has begun to fade when we take taxis to Pan Sonic's base in Poble Nou - new village. Once a Catalan stronghold before the city fell to Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War, the 19th century industrial district has seen an influx of artists. The factories have all gone, replaced by a mixture of working class residential and post-industrial urban caprice.

The flat is in a typical old Barcelona building fronted by a heavy wooden door, a couple of floors up a winding staircase. Unsurprisingly, Pan Sonic are no fans of soft furnishings. Inside its bare walls, there are a few ancient armchairs, a table, records, CDs, ranks of empty wine bottles, but no central heating.

The one room studio contains analogue Moog and Roland equipment, a Casio toy and Pan Sonic's custom-made gear, which looks something like out of a 1950s science lab. The music is fed onto a miniature portable DAT machine. It's all very simple and some of it's broken.

We face off each other across a low table and start an interview. So, what is it about, this thing they do?

"For me the most important thing in our music is the sound itself," says Mika. "The structure is secondary. For different kinds of tracks, of course, we're looking for different kinds of sounds. But I still don't know myself what it is in a sound that attracts me. There's some kind of nature in the sound itself, some kind of information. Maybe that's also what makes me like some music and dislike other music - the amount of weight and meaning included in a sound."

Pan Sonic certainly aren't beating a nostalgic retreat into an analogue womb. At the heart of their music is a piercing encounter with electronic sound. Pan Sonic famously work with basic but powerful tools. They hardly use synthesizers, preferring the tone generators designed for them by collaborator Jari Lehtinen. Just how important is he?

"He's responsible for the Pan Sonic sound," admits Mika. "After all, most of the sounds we use are from these instruments. We never know how they will end up. Of course we discuss beforehand how it will be. But then he has this attitude that he makes his own conclusions and puts on his own ideas. When we get the instruments there are a lot of things we don't expect at all, based on his ideas. He thinks very differently. He doesn't think in a musical way, he thinks in a technical way. So his ideas and solutions can be quite odd. But that means we get things that would never come to our minds."

In the studio Pan Sonic record straight to DAT, with no overdubs. They use limited effects, such as a delay device, and have just started to make analogue samples of their own sounds for organising into more complicated structures. Like occasional collaborator Carsten Nicolai, they're interested in accidental sounds: Mika has recently been making music solely from the hisses and clicks of the mixer.

Pan Sonic's attention to the weight of a sound manifests itself most clearly live, when they can produce moments of juddering physical intensity. Improvisation gives their concerts a rough-knuckled tension. Someone working behind the bar at London's Garage during las year's four-day Pan Sonic/Suicide double bill reported that her body had become so attuned to the sonic pounding, she found it unbearable when it stopped. "We like it to be a physical experience as well," says Mika. "I really enjoy loud volume if a sound system is good. Our music's supposed to be physical."

Oddly enough, for musicians with such a rigorous aesthetic, they are enthusiastic collaborators. In London in 1996 they participated in Rude Mechanic, a six week long art/music event, some of which has just been released on CD by David Cunningham's Piano label. Pan Sonic were there every day as resident tone engineers, engaging in six hour conversations with, among others, Kaffe Matthews, Hayley Newman, Bruce Gilbert and Scanner.

"It was an exhausting experience," reports Mika. "We got hours and hours of recorded material. What you hear on the CD is about two per cent of what was recorded."

Where does their purism fit into such a range of sonic experience? Don't all these extraneous influences muddy the waters?

"I don't think so. I haven't recognised it," says Mika. "Maybe that's the interesting thing, to see how it turns out if we have different methods of making music."

"Perhaps it has an effect, like the environment, but you just don't notice it," interjects Ilpo.

"With David Cunningham it was really beautiful and quite unlike what we normally do," reprises Mika. "But I really like all those six hours that we recorded. Kaffe Matthews was a good one as well. But none were really bad."

Their recent collaborations are varied to say the least. They've recorded with FM Einheit, formerly of Einstürzende Neubauten, and Bruce Gilbert, as well as contributing to a Michael Gira project. Last year they joined up with Suicide's Alan Vega to release the flawed Endless album. Ilpo has remixed Hecker, and Mika has performed with Pita, both from Vienna's Mego label. Mika is also working on a sound installation with Sähkö's Tommi. And so it goes on. Meanwhile, Mika's rich body of solo work continues to grow.

In their early thirties, Pan Sonic retain an affection for club culture. Mika used to organise illegal Acid House parties between 1989 and 1992, before the police pressured him and his cohorts to stop. One of the paradoxes of Pan Sonic, whose aesthetic can appear so tightly focused, is the breadth of their musical tastes. They go for the noise of guitars, for example. "I used to listen to a lot of groups like Big Black and Hüsker Dü and early Bad Brains in the 1980s," confesses Mika. "I like a lot of Keiji Haino and Caspar Brötzmann, the way they use the guitar. It would be interesting to record with a guitarist, someone who's playing in a similar way." Ilpo also likes Haino, especially his singing. More surprising is their desire to collaborate with Hasil Adkins, the legendarily unhinged West Virginia rockabilly recluse. Yet an emotional directness and rawness link performers as diverse as Haino and Adkins with Pan Sonic. Among the rows of albums propped against the walls of their flat is a large collection of ska, rocksteady and reggae.

"I've been listening to rockers for 20 years," says Ilpo. "That's a lot of time listening. It has always been like normal life. I never thought it would be an influence or anything. I'm also interested in ragga. The attitute and atmosphere is very honest. It's, 'Believe in what you do, whatever equipment you have'."

"That's true," agrees Mika. "In ska and rocksteady it didn't matter what equipment you had or if you played wrong. You can hear really great tracks where the instruments are out of tune and they are playing wrong, but it sounds great. Also ska and rocksteady are often very lo-fi. But what I enjoy is a certain pureness of sound and the nature of the sounds they are using. With old blues it's the same thing. It's so concentrated. If you compare it to well-recorded music - pop, Techno - they sound really watered down."

Live, Pan Sonic music has some of the pulverising force of a reggae sound system. However, I suggest, their work can carry a chilly freight of unemotion at odds with the warm Jamaican sounds they have grown to love.

"Sometimes the tracks are cold and emotionless on purpose," says Mika. "But quite often as well it's the opposite of that. The tracks have many different types of feeling. Sometimes they are comical. There's a track on the new CD where in the end this short organ sound comes up and then the track cuts out. I think it's quite comical."

"Of course it's up to the listener," continues Ilpo. "We like to give a space to the listener to feel how they want. People have different backgrounds to ours and respond differently."

Despite their music's rigour and purity, they aim to leave it open. "Many musicians and artists have this idea that there's only a few people who can really understand what they're doing because they have their own really strict view," says Mika. "For us it's not like that. Everybody has their own way of feeling and seeing it."

Pan Sonic music constantly bleeds into adjacent fields. Mika remixed a track for Björk, who returned the favour by featuring them in a UK TV programme she presented. The video for the crunching "Urania", from 1995's Vakio, received heavy rotation on MTV. Then there are their art projects: the aforementioned Rude Mechanic, as well as sound installations in Rotterdam, Minneapolis and Paris. They have performed in the revolving restaurant in the Fernsehturm, a TV tower in East Berlin, with their trademark sinewave projected onto the nearby Volksbühne theatre. Last year a design student made them a limited edition Arctic Rangers model kit, containing two Pan Sonic 7"s, one of each beats and drones. So do they care about pop audiences? Are they interested in the art crowd?

"We never think which kind of audience we'd like to reach," says Ilpo. "We just continue going wherever it goes. I don't really like fully going into being an 'art band'. ["That would be boring," inserts Mika.] If you play in clubs to a normal audience, that's reality, I think."

Another area they leak into is 20th century composition. Last year they performed John Cage at London's Barbican with Gavin Bryars, Bruce Gilbert, Nicolas Collins, David Thomas, Susan Stenger and others; and they have also performed Alvin Lucier's Music On A Long Thin Wire. For the latter, a length of taut wire passes through the poles of a large magnet. It is set vibrating four times at four different frequencies, producing a surprisingly wide spread of sound. "The original Alvin Lucier piece is really fantastic," enthuses Mika. "Musically and physically, how the piece is constructed, it's ideal. It's very simple, very minimal thing, but at the same time it's very plentiful, and it's always changing, always different. It was really interesting and fun to construct the piece by ourselves, even though it didn't work exactly as we wanted on the night because of an amplifier problem. Our idea was to make a hardcore version of the original, to drive more power to the wire, as we did in Finland when we rehearsed the piece. The idea was that in the end there would be so much tension in the wire that it would start to glow. And then after a while it snaps and that would be the end of the concert."

Pan Sonic are never so affecting as when the music is at its most machinic and unforgiving. Like Kraftwerk and Detroit Techno, they search out the soul in circuit boards. They've built up a sonic repertoire that runs from sepulchral purity to bleeding wound roughness. A forthcoming EP will explore the forceful end of its range.

"It's even more of a redneck thing than the last EP, Osasto," says Mika. "All the tracks are four-by-four stomping, brutal things. Maybe not brutal..."

"The Germans love it," interjects Ilpo.

"Brutal I consider something else," retorts Mika.

"I think our music is not brutal," agrees Ilpo.

"Live sometimes, but I don't think the CDs are brutal," Mika concludes, as the tape runs out, bringing the interview to an end.

Later on we head out for dinner. It's half past eight on a Saturday night but still too early for anywhere appetising to be open in Barcelona. We settle on a restaurant by Santa Maria del Mar with pink walls and nerve-janglingly insane music. What a strange place to spend time with these two, I think. We eat in near silence. Mika and Ilpo sit side by side sharing a large rice and crab dish, painstakingly teasing the pink flesh from its hard shell.

Some time later we meet Jimi Tenor and Tommi in a bar in the Gothic quarter. I remember when it was a gay bar, pre-Olympics, the walls decorated in priapic murals. Now it's a downbeat place, quieter - like the whole city. Mika takes his cold home to bed and we set off on a bar crawl. Jimi takes us to what turns out to be a hostess bar, with a lowlit David Lynch ambience. Jimi reconnoitres its dark recesses gleefully.

These Finns haven't much time for the cleaned up city of Euro-commerce that Barcelona is becoming. They seem uninterested in its upmarket districts, gravitating instead towards the vanishing squalor of the old city - towards the seedy streets walked by Pepe Carvalho, the great gastronomic gumshoe of Marxist crime writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban.

Pan Sonic sounded very strange when their first releases came out. They were clearly something to do with Techno, but using test tones as a template was stretching things too far, according to some critics. Failing to see the utter seriousness they invest in their work, one interviewer even asked them if they were "taking the piss". Way wide of the mark, yes, but it underlines how their music is more than passing strange - it makes you listen hard to the way it is put together. They seem to take delight in treading a borderline between pure sound and music, and presenting the findings in popular form. Their ability to straddle so many disparate scenes without compromising their sound is admirable. It's not about extremes. Their commitment to hearing the world their way is fiercely observed. Like any worthwhile art, their work jeopardises settled perspectives. And as with all music of value, the recordings continually take on new shapes as time passes.

The new Pan Sonic album, A is out now on Blast First.

Copyright © 1999 The Wire.

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