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Exquisite Finnish Electronica with Jori Hulkkonen

Jori Hulkkonen produces electronic music for more than two decades now and has been labeled “the most underrated producer in the world”, “a living legend of electronic composition” and “music's best-kept secret”.

Since the debut 12" in 1993, ten artist albums for F Communications and, more recently, Turbo Recordings, Jori has worked and collaborated with people as versatile as John Foxx, José González, Jesper Dahlbäck (as Kebacid) and Phonogenic (as Discemi), releasing dozens of 12" singles on some of the world's hottest labels. He is also responsible for almost one hundred remixes for artists as diverse as Chromeo, Kid Cudi, Robyn and Lydia Lunch, followed by producing albums for the bands Sister Flo, Villa Nah and NightSata — and that’s excluding the side projects! Naturally Steinberg wanted to find out more about this elusive Finnish music connoisseur.

Jori Hulkkonen's studio
Jori Hulkkonen's studio

Tell us a little about your background and how you got into making electronic music.
As far back as I can recall music has always been there. I remember buying my first records in the early ‘80s at the age of 6 or 7, inspired by my older brother, but it wasn’t long before I started to develop my own tastes. Propelled by a strange mix of rebellion against everyone else at school listening to Kiss, W.A.S.P. and bad-hair-rock in general, and the fact that I lived in the north of Finland with access to Swedish TV and radio which were light-years ahead in pop-culture of what was available in Finland, I soon began to lean toward all things synth. Never that keen on picking any instrument, I was always more interested in album concepts, sounds and song structures.

I soon realized that it was a real revolution in music technology what was going on, fueled with my rather antisocial personality, the idea of getting drum machines and synths and doing something totally independent of the world surrounding me was a revelation and very liberating. This led me to buy my first gear back in 1988, and I started experimenting with random electronics and a four-track tape recorder, and that, so to speak, was that. Without having any musical education whatsoever in either playing instruments or with the technology, it has been a learning experience from the start, relying heavily, especially in those pre-internet days, on simple trial and error, which in effect leads to discovering unique ways of doing things, eventually creating your own "sound", if you like.

Finland is not just about heavy metal and double-kick drums, but has also boosted some massive electronica hits over the past 20 years, including Darude’s “Sandstorm” and Bomfunk MC’s “Freestyler” hits as well as your own big 1996 hit and remake of the old Corey Hart '80s hit “Sunglasses at Night” as Zyntherius together with Canadian DJ Tiga. What’s the inside story about the rise of the Finnish electronica scene centered around the Helsinki area?
Actually both Bomfunk MC and Darude hail from the Turku area, and were produced by Jaakko ”js16” Salovaara — also from Turku, a city where I reside and have my studio in these days. It’s actually a rather interesting phenomenon how electronic music came into and spread over Finland and it’s an on-going topic of conversations and controversy even now, but the scene has never been very Helsinki-centered, which in turn has helped the scene keeping heterogenic.

If it’s the Finnish antisocial stereotype that favors technology and dancing alone, or the fact that rock/heavy culture is so dominant here and needs a counterbalance, the underground electronic seen has always been very strong. Spear-headed in the ’90s by experimentalist like Pan Sonic or Jimi Tenor, two key exports of legendary Sähkö Recordings, or the more dance-floor-friendly vibes of Vladislav Delay/Luomo, Pepe Deluxe, to name a few, Finland has always been able to bring something new to the table rather than just following the trends. Personally I've always been torn between avant-garde experimentalism and three-minute pop perfection.

Why did you choose Cubase as your preferred music production software and how long have you been using it?
When I started back in the late ’80s I had an Amiga 500, which I used as a budget-friendly sampler, and an Atari ST running Cubase, which was controlling various MIDI equipment. It was this setup with a mixture of various synths, mixers and effects with which I made all my records up until 1997. I basically had a loop of 2-32 bars running on the sequencer and I mixed everything live to DAT, taking as many takes as needed, sometimes spending all day on a track, others making five release-worthy tracks a day.

In ’97 the computers were replaced by the Akai MPC 2000, which took over both sampling and sequencing. Still mixing everything live, this was the setup until 2002, also including even more synths and a better mixing desk. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to take my productions to the next level, and also work more with vocals/vocalists I would need to do it computer-based, and I never gave the platform a second thought: Cubase offered everything I needed, with a user interface with which I was already quite familiar.

A small assortment of Jori's hardware collection
A small assortment of Jori's hardware collection

You have released a string of tracks on your own as well as together with DJ Tiga over the years. Tell us more about this long-lasting collaboration. What have the two of you been up to lately?
For me, making electronic music has always had that romantic side to it; one person in a studio filled with machines and blinking lights, creating one’s own uncompromising vision of the future of music. As I said before, it has been a learning process all the way, and with it comes the idea of collaborating with other people, and with age I've come to appreciate the idea of two people (rarely more) in the studio which ends up being more than the sum of those two rather than a compromise of two visions, although this is seldom the case.

It takes a certain chemistry between the two. I've been fortunate to find a few people during my career with whom I ”click” in the studio, most significantly with Jesper Dahlbäck, Tuomas “Phonogenic” Salmela, Jerry Valuri with whom I did two albums as Processory, Juho Paalosmaa with whom I just finished our debut album as Sin Cos Tan, and Tiga.

Originally Tiga got in touch with me via our mutual friend, the Swedish techno producer Jesper Dahlbäck, as Tiga’s label Turbo was releasing a series of mix CDs, and Jesper had recommended me to do one, eventually resulting in my Helsinki Mix Sessions CD. At the time Tiga hadn’t ventured yet into making music himself, although as a DJ, club-owner, and a record shop owner he had ambitions, but not the time to get productions started. When I was promoting my mix CD on a few gigs in the States and eventually also in Montreal, Tiga and I had an extra day and we ended up sitting in his loft apartment with an 808, an MPC, some synths and an idea of maybe making some music. We ended up with half a dozen songs, the first ever productions Tiga was involved with. “Sunglasses at Night” was one of those tracks.

Initially we started working on a Tiga and Zyntherius album but scrapped the idea concluding that in the long run having a one-hit wonder as a duo is a lot cooler. Some of those songs have later been evolved into proper songs for either of our albums. Ever since then we try to meet up in the studio, either in Turku or in Montreal, at least once a year to write stuff. Our latest session was in March. We currently have quite a few songs unreleased and we are discussing what to do with them. An idea of an EP featuring our more eclectic pop songs is in the works, then we have our latest party-bombs which we should drop on Turbo later this year, and then always lurking somewhere is the next Tiga album, which naturally needs tracks as well. So it’s a very on-going, organic process that produces a lot of music, but you can never be too sure where the songs eventually end up.

How do you typically go about writing music being involved in such a diverse spectrum of people and collaborations? Does the approach change much when working on your own projects, compared to when working with others?
There are three modes of working for me: working alone in the studio on my solo material or remixes, working alone in the studio on some long-distance collaboration and working with someone else physically present. They all require a totally different approach. Personally I use a lot of creative games when writing songs. One of my worst fears is realizing years later that I’ve been writing the same song over and over again.

So for me it’s very important to find new ways of getting inspired, or actually getting an idea down in Cubase. It’s also one of the reasons why I favor hardware and am addicted to modular synths: they force your brain to take a different path and it doesn’t involve staring at a computer screen and hopefully you end up doing creative choices that distinguish you from your peers. When collaborating I always try to work on my collaborator’s terms — then I change everything when I’m alone again. Seriously though, when collaborating the vision usually takes a life of its own. One of my current projects is an EP together with one of my all-time heroes, John Foxx. Writing stuff is very cool with him as there’s a very clear idea what our sound is supposed to be like in 2012. Coming to this conclusion my brain doesn’t seem to follow the same conventions as when working alone, which is very rewarding.

Do you have any favorite analog vintage gear? And how does using virtual plug-ins and VST instruments fit in with your workflow?
I have a very nice collection of gear, and there’re a few pieces of stuff I’m very likely never going to give up: Roland TR-808, Korg PS-3100 polyphonic synth, and my Euro rack-modular (in a self-built case) called “Marja-Liisa” (named after a Finnish cross-country skier), and my Studer mixing desk. For me hardware is something to get inspired by; not looking at the screen, fiddling with cables, knobs, programming on step-sequencers and boom, you have a starting point.

Usually if I have an idea for a song, I just sit down and work on VST plug-ins just to nail the idea. My records are a mix of these approaches. Most of the rhythm programming, regardless of my drum machine collection, I do on Battery. It's unbeatable, and I use a lot of plug-ins for polyphonic stuff, and then start adding bits and pieces done with the vintage hardware. I sometimes also re-do some of the sequences on the ARP or 303, just to make it stand out from the more generic plug-in production. Overall, I love the idea of using hardware, and its unpredictability combined with the ability record and edit material — a combination revolutionary compared to what I started with over two decades ago.

Do you have any special techniques and “production tricks” that you are willing to share?
No, because I think there are no tricks. For me it’s all trial and error. What might end up in tears and bitterness in one project may be the salvation of another. I guess my tip is to keep an open mind not just in the process of writing, but also when producing or even mixing music. Even bad ideas can give birth to cool ones, and what others, or worse, peers, see as an object of hatred today, maybe the music of the future. So trust no one but yourself when it comes to matters of taste.

How do you feel about online music services like Spotify and digital downloads services like iTunes? Do you see this as a good thing for both big and small record labels, as well as individual artists, or is this cannibalizing much needed revenue from lack of physical record sales forcing many artist to get a day-job?
Very tricky, but because there’s nothing that I as an individual can do about it, I might as well get the best out of it. Let’s face it, for a music lover the times are amazing. More music on your fingertips than ever before with the fraction of the money. As someone obsessed with music it’s hard for me to be against that, even though financially as an artist, yes, it is a disaster. But as the old structures of music industry are struggling to keep a brave face, I feel there is a new infrastructure emerging where labels, distributors and publishers — the substance-wise non-contributing parts of the industry — are disappearing, which should eventually be beneficial to both artists and record buyers. It will take a few more years, though.

Your last album Change Is Gradual came out about a year ago and you have a new album coming out soon under the name Third Culture entitled Negative Time coming out on the Canadian label My Favorite Robot. Any other projects worth mentioning that people should keep an eye out for?
Sin Cos Tan is a new band I formed with Juho Paalosmaa and we just finished our debut album, and we are currently working on our live set and the release of the album, and that’s something I’m very excited about. Then there’s my project with John Foxx, which will be an EP, and we already have a very exciting remix from David Lynch, so that’s a combo I’m sure will raise a few eyebrows. Also another collab-project, Stop Modernists, is about to release their second single. The first one last year famously featured Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys on guest vocals, and this time around we have the classic italo-disco vocalist Fred Ventura.

There are some projects I can’t really talk about yet, including new stuff for Turbo Recordings, but I’d like to mention things such as The Acid Symphony Orchestra, a ten-piece group I write for and conduct performing on one TR-707 and ten TB-303s, which represent the avant-garde approach to club-music I sometimes miss.

Visit Jori Hulkkonen at www.jorihulkkonen.com.