Pohjonen Alanko: Quirky people with an absurd sense of humor
Pohjonen Alanko is not just a collaboration between Finnish musical masterminds Kimmo Pohjonen and Ismo Alanko, it is also a geographical place. The name of their project translates into “Northern Lowland”, and it’s inhabited by quirky people with an absurd sense of humor. Their debut album "Voice of Northern Lowland" was released in late October.
“Check this out…”
Accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen pulls out a lampshade. It’s decorated with a light tube and a dish washing brush. He turns the switch and the lampshade bursts in a bright, white light.
“Ismo has a similar one, but it’s made of a football.”
He gestures towards songwriter Ismo Alanko.
“Yeah, and instead of a dish brush it has a toothbrush”, he denotes.
“Have you checked the batteries”, Pohjonen asks.
“Nope, I’ll have to do that by next week”, comes the answer.
The duo are displaying their odd headgear of their performance attire. In addition to these over the top hats, they also wear some kind of faux-tribal, furry robes on stage.
“Our friend [actor] Tero Jartti designed these outfits for us. We came up with the idea and he implemented it”, Alanko says.
“We wanted to make this thing a real ‘show’ and a performance. We wanted to be visual, and the stage attire is a part of that”, Pohjonen explains.
And boy what a show it is. Their avant-garde performance incorporates wild, wordless vocals that escape the barriers of language with shouting, grunting and throat singing. It is accompanied by noisy guitar riffs and an accordion playing sounds that you could never imagine coming from an accordion.
The voice of Northern Lowland.
The project Pohjonen Alanko is an affair between two praised giants of Finnish music.
Ismo Alanko is one of the most well-known Finnish songwriters, who started his career in the late 1970’s in punk and new wave bands like Hassisen Kone and Sielun Veljet. From 1990 onward he’s also been a prolific solo artist and has released sixteen studio albums with his name on the cover.
Kimmo Pohjonen has pushed the boundaries of the accordion more than perhaps anyone ever before. He has collaborated with everything from Finnish top notch folk musicians to progressive rock legends from the band King Crimson and has even composed a “symphony” for farm engines such as tractors.
We didn’t want to have any deadlines. We wanted to take it slow and see what it turns out like – Kimmo Pohjonen
The two have actually been musical companions for over two decades.
“I saw Kimmo live in the early 1990’s and was blown away. He ended up playing in my band for five years”, Alanko recalls.
Pohjonen played in the band Ismo Alanko Säätiö [transl. Ismo Alanko Foundation] on three albums in the turn of the millennium.
“Then we had many years that we didn’t do anything together. Although we met occasionally and spoke that we should do ‘something’”, Pohjonen says,.
They did some one off shows, but the project Pohjonen Alanko began to take form in the mid 2010’s.
“We didn’t want to have any deadlines. We wanted to take it slow and see what it turns out like.”
Exploring the human voice
Initially Pohjonen Alanko was an exploration in the human voice.
“We just started improvising. We hit the record button and took a word, let’s say ‘summer evening’ or ‘vomit’, and started working on the idea”, Alanko says.
“We went into quite deep places and we lost track of time”, Pohjonen explains.
“When we played back what we had recorded, we were often really astonished: is all this made by us?”
Then the accordion and the guitar became involved. The sound mass started to get some structure also suitable for live performances.
We went into quite deep places and we lost track of time – Kimmo Pohjonen
The duo did some shows with sound engineer Tuomas Norvio, known from the experimental band RinneRadio. Gradually Norvio’s role grew larger, since he started sampling the duo’s voices and incorporating more and more rhythmic elements to the sound image. Eventually he ended up as the third member of the group.
“But assembling it all together differed a lot from a normal album process”, Pohjonen says.
“We just listened through everything we had recorded and picked up worthwhile moments and feelings from here and there. Then we just started to mold them into comprehensible compositions.”
“Maybe only the song, Rämsöö, is written in a more normal manner – and by this I mean that I came up with a chord progression and Kimmo composed a melody”, Alanko elaborates.
File under: No rules
Kimmo Pohjonen has had his share of experimental and improvisational performances, but Ismo Alanko has mostly been regarded as a singer-songwriter, despite that his band Sielun Veljet had its strays in the realm of psychedelic and abrasive music.
Still making and performing this kind of music wasn’t an easy task for him.
“I admit that in the beginning I was really scared to take the stage without knowing what would happen. But that was just before the gig. On the stage I don’t think that there is even room for doubtful thoughts. It’s such a comprehensive physical experience”, Alanko says.
“But I do feel that this is very liberating from the music I’ve usually been doing. It reminds me that in music everything is possible, that there are no rules! That was the reason I started to play rock music in the first place. In music you have the freedom and the power to build a whole world in any way you like.”
What is the Northern Lowland?
The two gentlemen have in fact created a realm of its own. Pohjonen Alanko is not just a junction of their last names, but also a geographical place. It exists in the dimension of language and in the heads of its creators, since the names Pohjonen and Alanko literally translate to “northern” and “lowland”.
“It’s a barren scenery, populated by quirky people with an absurd sense of humor”, Alanko sums.
With the outfits the band ends up playing these characters by themselves, he explains.
“They’re dudes who want to dress up all flashy but with junk they happen to get their hands on. May it be a lampshade or some used up brushes”, he laughs.
“And then there’s this younger fellow who has all this technology and doesn’t really understand us old geezers”, Pohjonen adds jokingly, referring to Tuomas Norvio.