The Towelling Inferno

Dave Rimmer, Mixmag, 22 December 1997

In funny old Finland, everyone drinks Woodpecker cider. Even old grannies use mobile phones. The most fervent dance craze is not techno, but tango. So what the hell is Mixmag doing wearing a towel and listening to techno in a sauna? A-ha...

The Finnish for "Let's have sex. Your place or mine?" is "Mennäänkö meille vai teille?" And the even more crucial phrase "Nokiastani loppui virta" means, of course, "My mobile phone has just run out of electricity." It's part of Helsinki's charm, this maddeningly difficult language. But there is one Finnish word that is common cosmopolitan currency. The word for a Finnish custom that has spread worldwide. A word that clubbers might mutter metaphorically when crammed into some ill-ventilated dive. That word is 'sauna'.

So what else would you call a new Finnish dance label? And how else to launch it but with a party in sauna? This has to be the very definition of a 'hot ticket', which is how I came to be sitting at 3 am in the Helsinki room of one Rafael Rybczynski, 'Director Of International Repertoire' at the fledgling Sauna Connections label. The following night's sauna party will celebrate the release of an inaugural nine-track compilation, but tonight there's a party in Rafael's flat.

Somewhere. The flat's enormous, with long corridors disappearing murkily into the distance -- so big that party noises don't penetrate as far as Rafael's chamber. The pair of us sit there talking shop, me having just arrived in this very strange town. Rafael looks like a down-at-heel sociology lecturer and seems incapable of giving a direct answer to a direct question. Any enquiry -- about music, about Helsinki, about what manner of grass this is we are smoking -- sends him off into a labyrinth of vagueness. Before coming to Finland he worked with Dimitri From Paris and DJ Cam, but I can never get him to explain in precisely what capacity. Sure, official-looking photos of these artists are sitting on the table between us. But then so is a Bonnie Tyler alarm clock.

The flat apparently belongs to one Sami Hyrskylahti, a writer who spends most of his time in Russia. Sami met Rafael at the Love Parade in Berlin and gave him a copy of the CD which is now playing -- 'Astra' by St Petersburg duo New Composers. Rafael waves at the speakers, currently emanating a lush and cheerful species of techno laced with some very odd Russian samples. "This," he declared, "is what brought me to Helsinki. And the women too, of course." A little laugh. "Also the architecture."

Now Rafael's in partnership with a publisher called Eeropekka Rislakki (picture, on the left) and the New Composers are one of the acts on their 'Sauna Connections' compilation. As are Koneveljet, a Finnish group whose name means "brothers in machine". Rafael plays a CD by another group called RinneRadio, explaining that Koneveljet are two of this lot, plus a fellow called DJ Borzin. The RinneRadio album is called 'Finnish Ambient Techno Chant' and features a 'Joik' singer from Lappland doing weird vocal undulations. Last year RinneRadio won Finland's Best Jazz Band award. From what I've heard of Koneveljet, they play either jazzy jungle or bouncy trip hop. It all seems terribly improbable.

As we talk, stoned Finnish youth wander in and out. A woman curls up on Rafael's mattress to relax with a philosophy book. Later, a guy in a suit stumbles in and collapses face-first in her place. Then along comes a blonde clad only in her underwear. She cuddles up next to the unconscious guy. Soon a kind of critical mass is achieved, with a dozen or so people milling about. Sharing a joint with a Finn called Tommi, I become aware of a commotion on the mattress. The scantily-clad blonde is fighting off a second male form in a tangle of legs and arms. There's a lot of pushing and kicking before I realise the second guy is Rafael, at whom the girl in the underwear is shouting: "Pervert! Get away from me, you pervert!"

Rafael, now on his feet, is shouting back: "Well, you asked for it!"

Half the room dissolves into a hubbub of angry recrimination. The other half takes absolutely no notice at all.

"You know," says Tommi, gesturing approvingly at the scene around us, "Last year this apartment was voted Community Of The Year in Helsinki's City magazine."

YES, Finland is a strange old place -- stuck up in the far Northern corner of the continent. speaking a language that bears no relation to any major European tongue, sandwiched between Russia and the rest of the world. The biggest group ever to come out of here was The Leningrad Cowboys. Everyone drinks Woodpecker cider. Even old grannies use mobile phones. The most fervent dance craze is not techno, but tango. Every summer over 100,000 people gather at place called Seinäjoki for the tango equivalent of Tribal Gathering. Strange.

"The spiritual connection is quite close between Helsinki and St Petersburg," explains Valera Lakoff of the New Composers. The two cities are also geographically close, and Finns and Russians can travel back and forth with few of the visa difficulties anyone but Finns have in going to Russia, or that Russians have going anywhere but Finland. "Helsinki is our connection to the the West," he adds.

Shaven-headed and heavy-browed, with black leather jacket and turtle-neck sweater, Valera looks like Yul Brynner playing a submarine captain. He and the other New Composer, Igor Ver, have known each other since childhood. In 1983, when Igor got a job as a sound operator in a theatre, the pair began playing around with a couple of reel-to-reel tapes and assorted sound archives. "To mix up different styles of music with technical dialogue, like space talking, plus effects and industrial noises -- this was the opening idea of the New Composers."

They made "science music" for the Leningrad planetarium, and ran a club night in the basement. They sent a tape to Brian Eno, who, intrigued, came over to meet them. This led to them spending a few months in England in 1990, where they recorded 'Sputnik', the first Russian house track, for Ark Records of Liverpool. "Our friends from Britain were the first people to help Russian artists," says Valera. "A big, big thank you to them."

Back in the USSR it was collapsing communism, mafia mayhem and money, money, money. "That period was very disgusting, in a very heavy way." Still unable to release anything through the early '90s, Valera and Igor used the time to learn. "Before we were only collagists. Now we work more as normal composers -- with singers, or making soundtracks."

Not that there are any singers on their current stuff -- only trumpeting elephants, robot voices and porn video samples. Some of it is their reworking of material given to them by Brian Eno, who has been living in St Petersburg while working on an installation at the Russian Museum. "Of course, whether it's released is up to him. But I feel we are now in the right moment."

"THERE are 300 tickets being sold," Rafael had said of the sauna party. "And there will be 300 towels." Visions of hundreds of crazy Finns running around naked. I'd been wondering where I'd put my pen and notebook.

The reality is somewhat different: an installation in a former Nokia cable factory now turned cavernous cultural centre. Sauna as art. It's not even a Finnish sauna, but a Swedish one. In the enormous hall, artist Peter Johansson has constructed, out of wood, a couple of changing rooms, a catwalk leading round to a sauna cabin up in the air on stilts, and some steps leading down from it into the obligatory cold pool.

Next to this is a small stage, where DJ Gamma is kicking off the entertainment with some deep, dubby techno (I recognise a couple of Maurizio tunes). There's a small dancefloor area which remains mostly empty, and some tables full of fully clad Finns, who all talk quietly without ever moving their arms -- maybe 100 in all, when the night reaches its peak. The only one responding to the music is the spotterish German techno journalist gyrating by the bar, here to report for Raveline magazine.

The sauna bit is like a film going on in the background, strangely dissociated from the music. We glimpse the occasional person, dressed only in a white towel, ambling to the sauna cabin, or descending for a cold plunge, as if in some silent parallel universe. Unannounced, Valera takes the stage to DJ a set of fresh New Composers material. Two Finns promptly sit down next to me and begin talking on mobile phones. I decide I should check out the sauna.

Up in the cabin it's, well, hot -- a paradoxical kind of chill-out room, with oddly muffled music. It's also the only place in Helsinki where no one is using a mobile. Suitably spaced from the heat, I jump into the cold pool and watch Valera for a while. He dances strangely, like a Thunderbirds puppet. From here, bollock naked and up to my neck in icy water, it's the musical part of the event that seems like the parallel universe.

I then notice Koneveljet on their way to the stage -- dressed in bathrobes, fake beards, goggles and with towels over their heards. The effect is faintly Arabic. Originally, Kimmo Kajasto and Jari Kokkonen wished to conceal the fact that they were from RinneRadio -- the disguises became a trademark. "We want to create fake personalities," says Kimmo, "a lie in every corner."

Are they lying to me now?

Kimmo grins. "Maybe."

The pair have been working together for seven years, mostly in RinneRadio with wind instrumentalist Tapani Rinne. DJ Borzin, an Iranian who grew up in Germany and came to Helsinki "for a woman, of course", was originally their sound- mixer but is now also a fully fledged "brother in machine". Koneveljet began as a hobby, says Kimmo, but since Sauna offered them a album deal, "I guess we have to take it more seriously."

"Making music should be fun," adds Jari, who speaks slowly and with great gravity, like a wise old Indian chief, "even if it's serious."

"A lot of dance music is too serious," continues the ever-grinning Kimmo, "sticking to particular categories. I would like to cross all those boundaries."

The pair speak of mixing free jazz and jungle, techno and trip hop, and the set they now play -- Kimmo and Jari on keyboards, Borzin twiddling knobs - certainly seems to jumble up all these things. The final piece mangles the melody from the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. But the highlight is 'Man On The Moon', a daft, rubbery slice of trip hop that finally gets me and photographer Daniel dancing -- even though I despise the way it samples Rutger Hauer's dying replicant speech from Blade Runner.

After the sauna, I now start investigating Koskenkorva, a lethal Finnish variant of vodka. I down six before someone tells me it's 40 per cent alcohol -- and I still have to interview Corporate 09.

The other featured artist on the Sauna compilation, and not playing tonight, this turns out to be an austere-looking fellow in a suit called Pertti Grönholm. Formerly a partnership between Grönholm and Mika Vainio of Panasonic, Corporate 09 were responsible, he claims, for the first ever Finnish techno album, 'Mind Probe'. After that they went their separate ways, and the project is now Pertti's way of relaxing from work on his PhD dissertation about how history was distorted in Soviet propaganda.

Corporate 09's two ambient techno tracks on the CD remind me of Berlin's Effective Force/System 01, but Pertti claims never to have heard of them. The tracks are old. Soon he'll be working on both new material ("more danceable, like dream house") and on live performances ("I've never done one before.")

"In work I try to deconstruct a narrative," he explains helpfully. "In music I maybe try to create a narrative." I decide to return to the Koskenkorva.

THE evening comes down gently. Once the general public have departed, the artists and their friends chat and smoke and drink. It's like the club equivalent of sitting round the host's kitchen table at the end of a party. I learn that Saturday night sauna parties are common in rural Finland, and that Finns disdain Swedish saunas as "too mild". In fact, Finns seem to disdain Swedes, full stop. Various people get up and DJ short sets, culminating with Rafael. He begins with an old track by New Orleans rhythm'n'blues pianist Professor Longhair, of all people, then ambles through some drum'n'bass, and ends up with Laurent Garnier's 'Crispy Bacon'.

Yes, it's been a strange night. But that's Helsinki for you.

* 'Sauna Connections' is due for release in January.

Copyright © 1997 Mixmag.

[Sauna Connections]