RECORDS
Clearing Up Chinese Whispers: Ukkonen’s First & Last Interview
Posted by Matthew Kent on March 27, 2012

When I first contacted Ukkonen, I wasn’t expecting it to be a simple process given that the Finnish producer’s presence on record has always been anything but. Last year, for example, he opened with Erriapo; 17 minutes long and (at first glance) rather repetitive, it was a bold and perhaps polarising statement for an A-side of a debut release. This was followed at the end of the year by an astonishing mixtape for the No Pain In Pop people, taking Detroit techno and fearlessly making it dance to his own tune of ‘never quite lining up, never quite falling apart’. His Spatia EP, released this month on Uncharted Audio, is a showcase in sparse and engagingly complex rhythms at a variety of tempos; taking in broken down rolling breaks, elegant sweeps and vacuous cracks and splits. Ukkonen’s upcoming album The Isolated Rhythms of… is his most fully realised work yet, making time and space hazy in such a manner that it sucks you into its world completely. It drags you back into its oddly segmented gravitational field as soon as it finishes time and time again.

The personality behind this hypnotic music is seemingly just as complex as the music. Contacting him through his label Uncharted Audio, I complimented the upcoming LP and asked him for some insight into the musical tastes that have lead him to create his highly unique music but it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t as simple a question as it may be for other producers. It transpires that his work is produced in a wholly individual and uncommon manner and thus began a back and forth of sorts… The more Ukkonen elaborates on his work and the ideas behind it, the more the ideology seems to seep out from his personality undiluted. There’s a steadfast approach to keeping the philosophy of his music intact. He’s undiminished by outside influence and harbours a surprisingly playful and mischievous streak that makes the end results of his recording processes seem rather naive and pure.

The following is the transcript of the exchange of emails between Matthew Kent and Ukkonen.

Sonic Router: I’m loving The Isolated Rhythms Of… at the minute. I’m finding myself getting sucked into it a lot, to the point now I’m trying to fend it off until I can get my hands on a physical copy… Can I ask, what artists influence your work, what music do you find yourself listening to? Would you be able to give us some kind of rundown or jukebox type selection for the site?

Ukkonen: Thanks for your compliments; I’m really glad you like the album. I feel very nervous about it as it’s quite; I don’t know… its own style. I’ve had a few people say that it’s got this strange effect – which I’d intended but assumed that I’d failed at – which was to make very long tracks where not much happens, but when it ends you want to play it again immediately!

Regarding the jukebox type idea… my problem there is that I don’t listen to a lot of electronic music, and don’t really have any tracks that I could link to and say how they influenced me or what I like about them. I encountered quite a famous musician by chance a few years ago who told me that he doesn’t listen to any music – my reaction was that he was an idiot. I felt that you have to listen to good music to make good music. At the very least you should have an interest in the art you create; enough that you want to experience it as well as create it. But very soon after that I found that I could not discover any electronic music that satisfied me deeply. I knew what I wanted to hear, but no one was making it.

The idea seemed to stem from something I mention on the album notes: extensive train travel in childhood. I spent hundreds of hours looking out of train windows. People would assume that as a child I’d want to play, but I loved watching the view roll by. The things close to the train would whizz past quickly, the fields and forests in the mid-range would move slower and the objects on the horizon would hardly seem to move at all – and yet suddenly you’d notice they had changed. I always wanted to express this in music.

As an adult I decided, as an experiment, to create the kind of music I wanted to hear in my dreams of my childhood journeys. I sent it to a few people to get some responses to it – I had no idea if it was good or bad. Somehow it had been forwarded to Russ from Uncharted Audio, caught him on a good day and he got in touch to say that he liked the track and would release it, and if I had any more to send them to him.

That led to Erriapo and the great reception that EP got has made more things possible for me. This was music made to express something personal to me… it didn’t evolve from anything. I created it from my own ideas, to my own logic and in my own way, without much thought as to what anyone else would make of it.

Now you can maybe see why being very open about myself and my music is difficult since I’ve become more successful. I am not doing things in the normal way and didn’t expect to be interviewed or have to explain myself. I love making music, it is an all-consuming passion of mine, but I don’t feel any need to be the face of it, or have “me” as the focus of it. It is what it is. People don’t need to know anything about me to enjoy the music.

I’d like to be involved in some kind of feature on your site – I’ve opted out of every offer before, but people are talking about me quite a lot now and I’ve not released any info at all, so it’s almost all come from Chinese whispers… and I don’t feel like it matters that much to correct people, but it would be nice to be more in control of what comes out.

I can instantly see the concept you describe (and you say others have described) of something hardly changing and yet also altering in state in your music, particularly and initially in Erriapo; possibly because it’s something of an opening statement. I’ve noticed in reviews and things that writers are often drawn to the complexity of rhythm and the ‘coolness’ of the music, and there’s often a connotation from that focus that the music is quite icy and sterile. I personally found the opposite; that the music was intended to be quite expressive and emotive, though perhaps through more unconventional means. Is that fair?

U: It’s interesting that you find the music warmer than other people. Music doesn’t contain any emotion in itself. The creator can intend for some kind of feeling to be transmitted, but there is no guarantee that a listener will get the precise sentiment. A deep secret of music is that the emotion lies entirely with the listener. Once you know that and experiment with the ramifications of it, you can create an interesting space where the listener paints the emotional canvas for you. It’s not that I don’t put any feeling into making the music; on the contrary, I invest so much that it can be very destructive to my own wellbeing, but I don’t aim to communicate an emotion. I set up things that will trigger emotional responses that might be different for every listener, but I make no attempt to choose that emotion.

For a long time, I felt a bit weird as no one else seems to talk about anything like this; not that I’ve seen anyway. Pretty much anything I say about music is met by “errr, ok” and blank stares from other musicians. Eventually though, I decided to just let out my ideas exactly as I wanted to, with no regard for what any audience would think.

I noticed that in electronic music, the biggest thrust of progression in recent times has been on the production side of things: new techniques, controllers, software and sounds. I decided to only progress the musical parameters – rhythm and harmony, and to a lesser extend structure and dynamics. I thought it would be interesting to push the musical side and leave the production at a kind primitive level. There’s very rarely anything fancy in my production but there’s some very tricksy things going on in the music sometimes.

Another thing that no one else seems to get is that I don’t use time signatures. People have mentioned that I use weird ones, but it’s not true! The way I write does not use them at all, it completely side-steps the whole concept. I use combinations of loops that are different lengths. Usually the length of any given loop is a two-figure odd number: 23, 51, 79 or whatever. You start combining four or five of those and you can end up with pieces of music that are made up of short repeating elements but the sound as a whole never repeats exactly, even after 17 minutes.

Anyone is welcome to try this out – but I’ll warn you, there is quite an art to assembling music in this way…

I like the way you’ve got little musical pieces on your Soundcloud as a way of an apology for someone at Phonica, or to say thanks to a blog… there’s a real sense of personality there. I think I saw a comment on there that said something was ‘very you’ and thought it apt of your whole output…

Yeah, I like to make those things personal. The apology was because Nick from Phonica wanted me to do a gig and I couldn’t make it. There’s another track that was called ‘untitled’ as it was an album outtake and a lady named Christy left a comment that it seemed a bit sad for it not to have a title, so I renamed it after her. I did a track for the Acidted blog too as they gave me a nice review.

Soundcloud is a bit of a playground for me – I use it for fun projects and to do little things like that that makes people happy, or brightens up their day a little bit. I like to do things like that, it’s fun and I’m surprised more people don’t do it.

It’s interesting you say you try to set up a kind of push and pull between yourself and the listener with this imaginary space, is this what you meant of your Spatia EP being ‘about spaces – spaces in the mixing, spaces between notes and creating imaginary spaces that work against each other in interesting ways’? Are those spaces being left for something to be cultivated within them?

One of the questions I was going to ask was about the mechanics you use to create these ‘journeys’, I felt there was much more complexity there than met the eye and you’ve duly answered and clarified that. Is the use of mathematics a deep influence for your work, and always an integral inclusion? I came across the Ukkonen’s algorithm wiki entry and it seemed an extremely complex but elegant way of conveying the idea of a process that creates a gradual shift from a beginning to completion through successive change (my understanding of what it actually is could be exceedingly off here, my maths is a little shonky)

Oh and I was interested in why you chose very paired down and anonymous ‘white label’ aesthetics for your EPs, and why you chose to run them in limited supply.

You are pretty much right with Spatia, although it was a concept that emerged through making the music rather than something decided in advance. All my stuff offers up mental space I suppose… there’s sensual element and a mechanical element and you can sort of wallow in the sensual side, but the mechanical side is interesting as it stimulates a daydreaming state. Its good music for thinking too, which can be why 15 minutess of music can fly past and you still want more! This music has the same effect on me.

I think, regarding the mechanics of my music, there’s a distinction to be made that is vital to me, but might seem a little strange to other people: I use numbers and have an overwhelming interest in combining musical elements of different lengths but there is never any mathematics involved. I don’t manipulate any numbers; they are just presented and contrasted.

The relation to Ukkonen’s Algorithm was a chance pun that I didn’t even know about until later on – I don’t understand it at all myself!

The link to Uncharted Audio was a chance thing, and it was a risk for them to invest that much in the first EP. We talked about what we wanted and the white label seemed to fit what I was doing best – it also has the effect of concentrating attention on the music as there’s basically no other info to absorb. Plus, limited edition vinyl is pretty much Uncharted Audio’s medium of choice – it fit my music, and perceived audience so it was an obvious choice really

The album has quite extravagant art work, so be prepared for a change.

In regard to the algorithm – Hah! It’s funny the way links can somehow pop up afterwards. I was going to mention the hand painted covers for the album; they really are quite a change, what made you decide to do them that way? I can imagine it took a lot of man hours. You mentioned before that you’d included personal sleeve notes too, is the album an attempt to address some questions posed by the wider audience you’re beginning to reach?

The album covers were just another way of doing things differently – 300 copies each hand stencilled (not by me though)… I believe the guy doing them is still working through them. It’s extravagant but it turns each copy into a unique artwork, so it’s a nice bonus for fans. As for the album notes, it’s just a short paragraph very similar to a bit in a previous email I sent you, about the train travel being an influence…the sense of movement at different simultaneous speeds.

I was listening to your ‘sequel’ to the alternate reality mix on my iPod and it suddenly struck me; it’s referenced several times you’ve got little interest in contemporary ‘dance’ music (you told me yourself), you don’t really DJ, you’ve a background in experimental/avant-garde music and have referenced guys like Steve Reich in remixes. What exactly made you turn to music that resembles (however loosely) music like house and techno?

The first Detroit mix was done for the label No Pain In Pop; they’d asked me to do a mix and I’d said that I didn’t want to do a normal mix, I wanted a concept and some way to make it more unique than just a mix of tracks. It took a few weeks before the idea came together. Erriapo had been released by this point and many people had described it as a weird variation on Detroit techno.

So my idea for the mix was originally to do my own versions of some early Detroit tracks – after starting work on those (the mix took about 2 months I think… a crazy amount of work to just give away like that!) I started thinking about adding another layer to the concept and that’s when I had this alternate reality time/travel dream/vision type thing.

I did the sequel because of public demand…and after finishing that, which was only a few weeks ago I’ve totalled close to 3 hours of new music this year… and I’ve still got stuff promised to people to be finished in the coming weeks. So this is another reason why I’ve had to start turning down offers just now – partly for my own sanity but also I don’t want to release too much stuff and make everyone sick of me!

As for why I started making this music? That’s a good question – it’s one of those things that just came about from nowhere. It started with one track where I’d aimed to bring a bunch of ideas that interested me into a style of music that was not what I sit and listen to. It was chance really that it somehow winged its way to Uncharted Audio. I still don’t know what the exact route was that it took.

I still don’t listen to very much techno at all, although I appreciate a lot more of it now after researching the Detroit mixes – but I think it’s a myth that you have to be passionately into a certain style of music to be able to make it. I love making the music, I absolutely love creating it and it is very satisfying to find out that people are enjoying it. I’m just not a clubbing person, and most of the time I’d rather make music than listen to it. I guess if I was making straight-up techno, it might be different, but my music has got enough of a twist on it to take it slightly out of that genre and into something else.

Speaking of which, I’d love for what I’ve done to inspire some people to be more musically adventurous – starting a trend for techno becoming more daring would be amazing… but I doubt my sphere of influence will expand that far!

It’s probably a good time to mention that Steve Reich’s Desert Music was a big influence, not in the sound or style, but in the sense of being boldly and unapologetically new and intentionally different.

The album is out in a month, right? Any immediate plans after that?

Yes, the album is out in about 5 weeks all being well. After that, who knows, I’ve got plans which are a bit of a right angle to what’s happened so far but we’ll need to wait and see. If things are very successful and any larger labels come knocking, my perverse instinct for doing the wrong thing will probably come into play and I’ll turn everyone down!

Ukkonen bowed out from any more questions at this point, but not before offering ‘a little bit of a twist’…

I was just thinking this afternoon about how I’d not made any info public really before now, and I’d not done any interviews or anything…and my sense of mischief kicked in…I think I might not do any more – just leave you with this material and turn down everyone else. You didn’t ask for an exclusive, so why not give you one!

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So after clearing up the ‘Chinese whispers’ around his music, this may well prove to be the last we hear from Ukkonen as he disappears again, behind the music. The facelessness makes a perverse sort of sense; the more his music was explained to me, the more it changed before me and affected the way I heard it. After our discourse it would seem disingenuous if it was self promoted too much. I do hope that at some point in the future his art gets completely misconstrued again though, it’ll help other people gain even more of a personal insight into his world…

Words: Matthew Kent

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The Isolated Rhythms of… is out next month on Uncharted Audio, Spatia is out now.