NEØV and Black Twig have been at the forefront of Finnish indie rock for the past decade. Both groups still believe strongly in the idea of a thought-out album as a whole and in traditional indie pop sounds. But experience has also brought new studio experimentation and a reconsideration of guitar dominance.
The pandemic is playing havoc with live events, but luckily there’s still recorded music – although releasing it hasn’t been problem-free during these weird times. These two Finnish indie bands each recorded a new album before the pandemic struck, but had to wait for nearly a year before releasing them. Now NEØV’s (pictured right on the above image) "Picture of a Good Life" (Clouds Hill) and Black Twig’s (pictured left) "Was Not Looking for Magic" (Soliti) have finally popped up on streaming services. Vinyl releases will probably see the light of day in autumn 2021, while both groups are eagerly awaiting their return to live stages.
“We’ll release the vinyl LP when we tour. Hopefully that’ll be this year, but at the moment the tour just keeps getting put off,” says NEØV’s guitarist and songwriter Anssi Neuvonen.
The band’s line-up is now stripped down, with Anssi and his brother Samuli Neuvonen as the only regular members, but for gigs they’ll be reinforced by bassist Jussi Hietala, familiar in Finnish indie circles from the bands Pariisin Kevät and Rubik.
Best things are born quickly, but the quality is uneven. I guess it’s a mutual maturing process in that we’ve learned how to recognise when it’s worth developing some idea further – Anssi Neuvonen (NEØV)
On Saturday 13 March the trio plays a live-streamed record release show from Culture Arena 44 in their hometown of Kuopio in eastern Finland. The touring schedule after that remains unclear, though.
Anssi Neuvonen says he still has faith in the album as a format – and in physical releases.
“Our label, Clouds Hill, has an analogue profile, and I listen to vinyl records on a daily basis, as well as some singles on Spotify. You have to have singles as part of longer arc of an album,” he says.
For Anssi, the album format also plays a crucial role when it comes to touring, which makes it easier to distribute it widely. On the other hand, playing live forces a band to re-evaluate its own songs.
Finding the counterbalance
NEØV’s fourth album, "Picture of a Good Life", was born as a counterbalance to its predecessor, "Volant" (2019), the group’s first release for the German label Clouds Hill.
The band members had slowly honed Volant’s meditative, electronic atmosphere at their home studios and summer cottages, but while on tour realised that this sound was difficult to reproduce live. They immediately agreed with the label to make a new album from a completely different starting point.
“We wrote the songs on "Picture of a Good Life" quickly, set up the pre-production and went into the studio in Hamburg for a week, right away in late 2019. The album has more of an element of surprise. We didn’t polish anything too much,” Anssi says. He’s mostly responsible for the music and lyrics, while in the arranging stage Samuli joins into filter and curate the material.
I don’t stress out about branding... Our music is such a mystery even to me, as to what people like about it – Anssi Neuvonen (NEØV)
“By this point, Samuli and I have learned that the best things are born quickly, but that the quality is uneven. I guess it’s a mutual maturing process in that we’ve learned how to recognise when it’s worth developing some idea further,” he says.
After more than a decade with NEØV, Anssi sees a bright future for indie pop. In the early 2010s, there weren’t many English-language guitar bands in Finland that were touring widely. By now there is an established audience and modus operandi. In Germany, for instance, there are plenty of radio channels and live venues with the right profile, and a band doesn’t need to squeeze into any particular niche.
“I don’t stress out about branding. At some point we were described as a shoegaze band and I thought that was a segment where we could definitely find an exact international target audience if we wanted. But our music is such a mystery even to me, as to what people like about it. So that kind of categorisation really bothers me,” he says.
New methods, old vinyl
Black Twig, established in 2008, has also just released its fourth album. The Helsinki band’s line-up has changed, but its sound has remained faithful to inspirations such as Teenage Fanclub and Sonic Youth.
Singer-guitarist Aki Pohjankyrö, who’s led the group from the start, says that its records are created with the semi-conscious aim of showing off the band’s current working mood. The first two albums were done in more or less traditional studio sessions, with each musician sticking to his own job. The third record, "Blaze on a Plain" (2016) and the latest, "Was Not Looking for Magic", were created more through collaborative efforts in arranging and final recording.
People have said that this album doesn’t sound like a ‘genre album’. That may also have something to do with a certain timelessness – although this isn’t really a pure classic rock album – Kaarlo Stauffer (Black Twig)
“'Was Not Looking for Magic" started off as an EP, but we decided to re-record it and then it expanded into an album. As a result maybe there was more of the kind of crafting, arrangement and thoughtful work that led to a consistent whole,” says Aki.
According to Black Twig bassist Kaarlo Stauffer, the process was painless, even though it took longer. The key was unhurriedness and the solid foundation of the EP sessions, which allowed the group to create a larger entity with richer arrangements. At the same time, the sound became more universal and timeless.
“When everyone in the band plays several instruments, there’s no problem if you want to add keyboards, strings or whatever. People have said that this album doesn’t sound like a ‘genre album’. That may also have something to do with a certain timelessness – although this isn’t really a pure classic rock album,” says Kaarlo.
The language of indie
The album’s vinyl release has been delayed by a six-month backlog at the pressing plant. The format is in hot demand – and is close to the band members’ hearts. That guided the creation process for "Was Not Looking for Magic".
“This record was definitely made with vinyl in mind, even though for now it’s just 10 tracks out there in the digital world. The vinyl LP is still part of the language of indie pop, and it’s something that I grew up with. It seems like the final result is more there in that format. The cover art and the liner notes create the right context,” Aki says.
“I make a lot of playlists, and listen to vinyl at home, always one side at a time, and this album definitely has the idea of Side A and Side B in terms of the dramatic arc. Even though there are a couple of tunes that stand out as singles, the album is in a way greater than the sum of its parts. All the songs support each other. When you notice one thing, it opens up another,” says Kaarlo. He points to one of his favourite records, Fleetwood Mac’s "Tusk", in which the key tracks and sketchier material alternate in a surprising way.
The vinyl LP is still part of the language of indie pop, and it’s something that I grew up with. It seems like the final result is more there in that format – Aki Pohjankyrö (Black Twig)
The band members agree that their years together have shaved off some of their sharper corners. While finishing up the latest album, Aki and Kaarlo listened back through their older recordings.
“Maybe when our debut "Paper Trees" came out in 2012, there was some special zeitgeist around indie pop. For us, that meant gigs overseas and big festivals. At the time of "Blaze on a Plain" in 2016, it felt like we had made the best record of our career, but listening to it now there’s a sense of trying to show off and lurching from one thing to another, which we didn’t recognise at the time. The new record is a lot calmer and more thought-out,” says Aki.
And while the group’s style has mellowed, indie pop has become part of the Finnish mainstream. As he sees it, the genre is alive and well.
“There’s still plenty of good music coming out. Finland has plenty of interesting indie bands – actually better and more fascinating than ever,” he says.