Steve’s Gig Diary: 2004 Finland Tour
Manchester, Wednesday 28th January 2004
I arrive at the Greenhouse (Stockport) in blizzard conditions, as England's press goes whiteout crazy like they've never seen snow before. Luckily the ramp up to the rehearsal room has been well gritted. Anyway, we're off to the real frozen north from some real snow, so this will be good preparation.
Gary and Duncan are already setting up the gear in the very big room for us to have a few hours' gear check ahead of the trip, and a chance to get familiar with any modifications. Some promising improvisations emerge quite readily over the next few hours, not so expertly recorded by yours truly with the microphone polarity set firmly to 0 degrees (mono) by accident. Drat.
After fish and chips, Gary returns home to do his packing and Duncan and I get to work on the crib sheets for our sound selections (with 100 + to choose from it's way beyond remembering) I'm delighted to see that the Fender Rhodes mixed with strings has returned. Delightful. A last orders trip to The Bridge (minus Gary who sensibly chooses sleep instead) is followed by a listening session in the basement, during which Disc 7 of the new boxed set seems to present itself as a candidate for a new album in it's own right. Of course we'll be up against it to get it out in time for the gigs in March, but 'twas ever thus.
Manchester, Thursday 29th January 2004
Up at an agonising 6.30am and out of Gary's house into a cab to the airport at 7.30. The expected traffic chaos due to the snow has not materialised and we're there well ahead of check-in time. We get an unwelcome shock when we reach the weigh-in desk, our combat tools are heavier than anticipated despite carrying the bare minimum for a non-PC driven Electronic band (We're not much into utilising Personal Computers to create our music either). Admittedly it is somewhat heavier than the golf clubs or skis they normally deal with, so we get clobbered for an extra £247. The path of the musician is littered with such obstacles, if we'd taken it on a boat we'd have been ripped off for having a transit van. You can't win. Perhaps it'd be better if we stayed at home, did our day jobs, paid our taxes and watched TV like we're supposed to do.
Still, spirits un-dampened we grab a bacon butty and some coffee and are soon sitting on a half empty plane to Helsinki. We set off slightly late and on take off there's some classic panicking from Gary who is watching the monitor screens which have cameras on the runway for take off. As we leave the ground the camera point switches from the front plane to showing the view from underneath, at which point Gary exclaims through his fingers "Aaaagh! We've gone upside down!"
There are some great views from the plane as I relocate to a window seat armed with my digital camera. There's an amazing circular rainbow with the spectre of the plane in miniature in the middle of it. Wow. Gary has also been charged with stills photography duty and has a camera the same as mine, although he has expressed his reluctance to try anything too arty.
The flight is two hours fifty, plus two hours forward in time, and we fly over Norway and Sweden before arriving at the Gulf of Finland and Helsinki, situated on the South coast of the country. It's only minus 4 degrees outside so all the layers of clothing we've been warned to bring might not be strictly necessary, we are from the North East of England after all.
We're met by Marja-Leena from the organisers Cartes, and we squeeze the flight cases into her car without too much trouble. It's an interesting drive to Tapiola (10 miles west of Helsinki between Helsinki and Espoo the main cities of Finland) there is a thick layer of snow on the main road so none of the road markings are visible. The car slides about a bit, but Marja-Leena laughs it off, it seems to be pretty normal over here.
The Tapiola Garden Hotel overlooks the Espoo Cultural Centre where we'll be playing, and in between is a huge man made lake framed with pine trees. The water is frozen and has people walking across it without a care. The air is super clean and the surroundings are still and quiet.
We have a couple of beers and some food in the lobby bar before heading across to the venue for the opening of the Virtaa event. It's a great modern hall complex, the nearest comparison would be the Queen Elizabeth Hall or Royal Festival Hall, capable of hosting concerts, theatre and exhibitions. There's a couple of video installations which are beautifully filmed dual screen pieces depicting the breakdown of communication and the alienation between individuals in relationships. Nice vignettes with excellently constructed soundtracks. The recording of the water sounds in the rowing boats sequence must have taken a lot of effort to get right. There are pairs of FM stereo headphones available for listening. The other film `Last' has dialogue in English and becomes the source of various repeated key phrases within the camp over the weekend, none of which I could possibly repeat in a family diary such as this.
After a couple of large red wines we head back out into the white surroundings for a skidding competition which Gary wins hands down, my trainers have too much grip. The bars we seek do not present themselves very obviously, so we return to the perfectly satisfactory surroundings of the hotel. Contrary to rumour, beer is not £8 a pint or whatever we were told, in fact we paid the equivalent of £2.75 a "nearly pint". Estonia (directly over the water from Finland) is joining the EEC and this has led to a realignment of prices between the two countries and booze has therefore come down a little. Up in Gary's room (nearest the lifts and therefore gear store and communal room for the duration) we listen to disc 7 again and try and arrive at a decision on it being the next LP, before turning in somewhat slightly dazed.
Tapiola, Finland. Friday 30th January 2004
We're up for a post breakfast interview with Marja-Leena who is writing her programme notes and also hoping to write a feature in the press about the upcoming event. The conversation goes well, with all three of us contributing, and it's pleasure to sit and chat about the band while overlooking the great white lake. Marja-Leena disappears with her notes and we get stuck into some coffee.
At 12.30 we're meeting Otso Pakarinen, an electronic composer who lives in Helsinki and has very kindly offered to show us around. He contacted us via the Beyond EM mailing list, and he arrives at the hotel with our CD stock that we have sent over in advance. We first pay a visit to the venue to leave some display copies of the albums for interested visitors to Virtaa. Gary looks in a local paper that just happens to be carrying a feature about a local music shop, accompanied by a photo of several vintage guitars, "Take us there" he exclaims. Luckily it's extremely close and in a few minutes we're standing surrounded by guitars and a decent selection of percussion that keeps me amused at least for a while. I buy a few pieces to use at the concert and Otso and I retire to the café next door and I pray that we'll get to see something other than planks of wood with wires stretched across them before it gets dark.
Duncan and Gary have had their fill for now and are already debating shipping costs and the seemingly reasonable prices of the goods on offer as Otso takes us towards Helsinki and parks in an area with a fine vantage point from the coast out to sea. The sea is frozen all the way out and beyond the small islands that populate the coastline, and it' s still sub zero on the thermometer. Our first sight as we leave the car is of two gents dressed in nothing but towels coming up a small jetty after bathing in a specially made hole in the ice. Very refreshing I'm sure if your heart doesn't give out in the process and I'm certain it must cast serious doubts on any near future likelihood of fathering children.
After some serious photo taking we walk wind-chilled back to the car. Otso takes us on further travels around the coast and we stop at a great sandwich bar that serves excellent smoked salmon. We then head off for a whistle stop tour of Helsinki as it begins to grow dark, but it really doesn't seem too dark as the snow makes the sky look dark blue rather than black. Aye.
We stop in a couple of places including the massive church in the centre of the city, near all of the parliament buildings and government offices. The appearance of Helsinki is not unlike that of London in terms of the scale of the buildings. It's great having Otso as our host as we get to see a lot in a short time, and also find out about what everything is. Helsinki is a port and has huge vessels moored all around the coastal area, there's a cruise ship being painted as we survey the scene.
Otso takes us to his studio in a very well kept industrial unit, within which he composes music for TV as well as his own projects. There's an impressive Roland Modular System 100 with six units linked together, a PC and keyboard and some super-sized monitors. It's a very comfortable space and gets us thinking about how wonderful it would be to have our own space like this. Leaving everything permanently set up would be a wonderful thing indeed. We return to the hotel via a glimpse of the magnificent Sibelius monument and thank Otso for his sterling efforts in what has been a very full day in and around Helsinki.
We're sitting in the lobby bar nursing an early beer having seen Otso off when we can hardly help but become aware of a bizarre situation unfolding in front of us. At reception an enormous lady seemingly dressed in traditional costume arrives with a man in a tuxedo who can best be described as considerably smaller than her and paralytically drunk. He's staggering around the lobby bar giving off tangibly dark and threatening vibes that far outweigh his physical size. We wonder if they are local celebrities or soap stars or something because no-one at the reception bar seems at all concerned by his demeanour. In the background but seemingly connected to them is a fat, ugly, bearded Hell's Angel type who sits next to us but at a distance from the happy couple. He's not drinking but chain smoking and looking as miserable as it's possible to be on this earth.
The performance in the bar continues as the happy couple stand up, sit down, argue, sit in reception, argue some more, stand up, stagger about etc all under the watchful eye of Mr Miserable. On a seat in the lobby, is a set of bedding that they have brought with them, which strikes us as a tad unusual as hotels usually have quite a bit of their own. We can only conclude that something seriously depraved and somewhat messy is on the cards. Mr Tuxedo's eyes continue to spit out the darkness in his soul, as he staggers upstairs with his glass of beer and the ludicrously dressed fat woman. Mr Hell's Angel follows (again at a subservient distance) with the all the bedding. We pray that they're not in a room next to one of ours.
To try and put the images of no holds barred bodily product exchange out of our heads, we go for a refreshing stroll around the snowy streets of Tapiola. Amazingly, we're not in the mood for more drink, and I'm certainly in need of an early night, so after having finally found the bar we were looking for yesterday, but not having a drink, we return to our rooms to prepare for gig day.
Tapiola, Finland Saturday 31st January 2004
Aaah, the joy of a decent night's sleep. I left my balcony door slightly ajar and it's blown so wide there's now a lovely sub zero gale blowing through the room, along with flurries of snow. I don't get on with air conditioning, give me the real thing, the colder the better. We're late down for breakfast and Marja-Leena who is picking us up to take the gear to the venue (it's near but not THAT near). We soon catch up, and it's not as if we'll need too much time to set up. It's snowing quite heavily now and there's a foot or so on the ground in places. We're surprised to learn that this is quite unusual in South Finland, and they certainly seem to have even more problems gritting the roads than we do in England if that's possible.
Over at the snappily named Kulttuurikeskus, the stage is busy with equipment, including two impressive structures belonging to artist and festival organiser Ilkka Niemelainen. There's a large metal-framed laser harp big enough to stand in and play with ease. Then there's also the I-Tube which is like a giant theremin coil. Both look and sound like great fun to play with...
Already set up and to the right of the stage are the three men of Centrezoon, Markus Reuter, Bernhard Wostheinrich and English singer Tim Bowness who immediately introduces himself and the band. Over the next couple of hours we find out a bit about each others bands and backgrounds and what has led us to be sharing a stage on a Saturday in Finland. He's been involved with some luminaries of music in various capacities as musician, record label and promoter and if time weren't pressing to sort out the gig preparations we could have spent several more hours finding a great deal of common ground. That's the thing I love about musicians, we are one big global family with often only two or three degrees of separation.
The soundchecks go very smoothly and well ahead of schedule, and it all sounds great. There's a good soundman who unfussily gives us what we need when we need it. Then, the icing on the cake, a Mellotron arrives courtesy of local keyboard legend Esa Kotilainen, who sadly does not speak any English but we can at least show our appreciation with a few CDs. It's in lovely condition and we immediately power it up to stabilise it in time for the performance. It is the only working Mellotron in Finland. We are honoured.
Then Space Commander Jukka Mikkola introduces himself, bang on cue. He has presented his "Space Junk" radio show for over ten years, and it's thanks to him that we got the gig. He's played our music for years and it's good that we popped into his mind when the organisers were looking for an international band. He's going to be broadcasting tonight's concert and we disappear to the luxurious backstage facilities (no really, ours even had a piano in it) to do an interview for his RMI special . In the middle of all this Gary is rung for the second time this weekend by a journalist from the Financial Times wanting his opinion on a company that Gary is currently dealing with in his other life. So we have the bizarre scenario of him being interviewed by the FT and a Finnish radio presenter simultaneously, about entirely unrelated topics.
We spend an hour or so with Jukka and his microphone before leaving the venue in search of some food. A Tapiola Saturday afternoon is much the same as anywhere else, except that the families out shopping are pulling the kids along on cool plastic sleds instead of using buggies. We have a bumper feed to get us through the gig and return to the hotel. It's just before 5pm here, 3pm in England, and Duncan and I's chosen team (Leeds) are playing Gary's (Middlesbrough). We'll actually be mid-concert during the second half of the match. I switch the TV on in my room and there's some bizarre chariot-racing going on in the snow. I'm just about to take a snap for the racing boys back home when it's interrupted with live coverage of Norwich vs Sheffield United. This in itself is a coincidence as Norwich is where Tim from Centrezoon lives.
It's 0-0 at Norwich and indeed 0-0 at Leeds as we make our way over to the venue. All is quiet at the concert hall, and there's no sign of the sound crew, but our main worry is whether there'll be an audience to speak of. The snow has been getting gradually worse, which may prevent people travelling too far, but we're looking upon it as a paid recording session for Finnish Radio at the very least. Back in the dressing room we're slipping into our super new stage T-Shirts each with it's own battery powered flashing neon light design.
Audiences must be very punctual in Finland, and as we hit the stage at exactly the appointed hour there's a good gathering of brave souls to lift the spirits. We take a minute or two to recheck everything and tune the Mellotron, "There's no guitar" says a worried looking Gary as he anxiously checks each of his 57 pedals. It does however work fine when he eventually realizes that he hasn't plugged the lead into his guitar.
We start very quietly indeed with Duncan playing extremely subtle noises and me on Flute. Gary unwittingly adds melodic feedback to the piece via a strange and unforeseen interaction between his electronic T-shirt and his guitar pick-ups. Luckily he has the presence of mind to switch the T-shirt light box off, and seeing that this does the trick it stays well and truly off. I'm sitting on the drummer's stool and it really is a much better idea to sit rather than stand like I have been doing recently. The piece develops gradually and really nicely, the monitors sound absolutely perfect, like listening to a good hi-fi. It makes all the difference and is the best sound I can remember having onstage in a long time. We bring the sequencer rhythms in, the volume goes up and we're in `the RMI zone'. It's a real shock when I glance at Duncan's watch and see that 30 minutes have evaporated already, the best musical moments really do take you outside of time.
Following my now customary opening remarks ("It's nice to be here in Finland" and other such strikingly original stuff), we go into a second improvisation, a slower one in 'A' which again develops at a considered pace with plenty of space and subtlety, I think we're getting the hang of this lark. The transition to `E' is seamless and I hit upon some great sound selections (all done on the fly of course, so it doesn't always work well) there's a twinkling tremeloed sound that I could play all day, it adds a little lightness and changes the nature of the 'E' section which is usually dark and doomy into an icy and bright feel befitting the surroundings I suppose, although I don't pretend it was intentional. RMI is about leaving things to the magic of chance but it's great when these connections are made.
Just time for a final sequencer work out which again goes well. The endings, segues and dynamics are near perfect tonight and to me it feels like one of the best performances we've done. We could have played another ten minutes, but like Spinal Tap we also pride ourselves on our punctuality. Outside in the freezing snow it's time for the obligatory post gig smoke (best of the day) and Gary checks the Leeds v Boro score on his phone. Leeds conceded three goals in the second half and had their goalkeeper sent off. Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse. Gary insists on reading every syllable of his SMS match report out loud despite threats of physical violence from Duncan that could put the whole future of RMI in jeopardy, and therefore irrevocably change the course of world history. (It cost him £4.01 and was "worth every penny" he says).
Back inside and it's stage clearance time, but I decide that I'd be more useful selling CDs while the iron's hot. I grab the CD box and arrive at the video installation room where there's a waiting throng. I go into solo salesman mode until Gary shows up as well. There are people who have followed our music for years who are probably as surprised as we are to see us playing live in Finland. The band name is taking on new significance, we really are becoming an international outfit.
Lots of questions, answers and good wishes later and we retire to the communal area where we can have some food and watch the Cartes Art Machine on TV monitors. It's an impressive spectacle with heavily textured free jazz stylings alongside electronics and ethnic influences. There's some virtuoso playing from flautist Juhani Aaltonen who is apparently the top player in Finland and probably exists in my jazz encyclopedia. Ilkka meanwhile, pulls out all the stops with the Laserharp.
Centrezoon get the call in the band room that it's their turn, and disappear to get ready for their performance, and I seek out the audience member I have entrusted with my camera. He's done a great job, although it's been in shoot mode for two hours and is so hot you could fry an egg on it. We take seats in the auditorium for the latter section of Centrezoon's set and it's a good multimedia performance with twin screens showing black and white industrial footage. Tim Bowness' voice is reminiscent of the mighty Terry Bickers' singing with Levitation which is intended as a compliment. Markus sounds very Frippian on his axe and with some critical beats supplied by Bernhard it all hangs together very well. They finish with a beautifully restrained piece featuring electric piano and plenty of space. The evening's been a truly refreshing experience, three bands of great diversity that make up a very enjoyable whole.
The wonderful Marja-Leena is once again on hand to whisk our equipment back to the hotel and we grab the opportunity to get it sorted out. I have a brief chat with Jukka before he departs to face the worsening weather in his car. We arrange to meet Otso back at the hotel and soon we're in the bar again downing a few beers joined by Otso and his wife and a few others who have been at the concert and have positive comments to make and friendship to be briefly shared. As Otso and his wife depart, the bar is closing and we look through the window from the bar to the nightclub downstairs, there's a clear view of the stage, and the band looks very interesting indeed judging by their vintage equipment. The guy who's been working the bar is discussing the finer points of Iron Maiden with Gary and eventually offers to get us in to the gig free which we readily accept on the grounds that we can get more beer, there's girls to be observed and the band The Clifters are bloody brilliant and perfectly fit our mood of post gig euphoria. There's some classic idiot dancing going on (mostly by idiots it has to be said), the sound is superb and they play Beatlesque pop crossed with dirty R&B, with a twin guitar line up that's right "in the pocket".
Before long Gary and I are boogying our tits off, and it's a long time since I can remember doing that I can tell you. Too easy to compare and contrast but the vibe seems less full of bullshit than it is in England, with the accent more on having a good time. It's not a heavy atmosphere with stupid bouncers and relentless shit music, just people having a good time and laughing a lot. Before long, our attention is caught by a doll of a girl with blond hair who is simply gorgeous, 'Dancing Queen' could have been written for her. Her dance routine is well rehearsed but charming nonetheless and she doesn't even appear to be with a bloke.
After a few minutes idle drooling, I initiate a bout of glass spinning fun the like of which again we haven't done for many a year (Empty plastic glass is placed on the floor and sent into rapid spinning motion by prompt foot action on the base of the glass). The aim is to keep the glass spinning for as long as possible and it's great to watch it fly off in the direction of the dance floor and see people's legs get tangled up as this mystery spinning object hurtles towards them. We leave just before we push it too far, and anyway, they've stopped playing the groovy Euro-pop and have reverted to the usual dance fodder.
It's back to Gary's room for a playback of the gig tape and a biffter, I only have one bottle from the mini-bar which is very restrained of one. The performance is great and I'm particularly pleased with my own contribution (the last performance in Holland was a little lightweight from me in retrospect). I think having a Mellotron and somewhere to park my arse helped. A wonderful, friendly, fun and hassle free night. Thank you world. Bed @4.15am.
Tapiola, Finland Sunday 1st February
More precious hours of sleep grabbed, the beds at this hotel are actually comfortable, and breakfast doesn't finish until 11am. I make it down first where Tim, Markus and Bernhard are tucking in to something decidedly healthy looking. I spend a good while in conversation with them while keeping an eye on the kitchen staff who have a habit of whipping the grub away before you're ready. Duncan is in his traditional post party fragile state, but not too bad. He goes back to bed after breakfast, while Gary and I sort all the gear out to be ready for Marja -Leena who's meeting us at one o'clock. Goodbyes to the Centrezoon boys and promises to keep in touch, and we're on our way to the airport. The snow's at least a couple of feet deep by now, and we're sliding all over the road. We make it safely, offload and thank Marja-Leena for her sterling efforts on our behalf. It's been a joy to be treated so well.
The airport's calm, there are no cancellations yet, but the tarmac is a frenzy of activity as fleets of snowploughs attempt to keep the runways clear. I buy a souvenir of Finland fridge magnet before boarding the plane. The runway seems very icy to me, but I guess these guys know what they're doing. Duncan sleeps by the window and I move to the other side of the plane where the sun is, to take yet more pictures. The memory card has 123 photos on it documenting the trip.
I have a couple of gin and tonics and the hostess offers me brandy quite unexpectedly so I chuck one of those down as well. It's dark by the time we hit Manchester but we've got our two hours back, so it's not too late in the day. We get a black cab back to Dane Road, get the gear straight into the cars and back to the Greenhouse before returning to a most welcome plate of chilli and a beer courtesy of the wonderful Mrs H.