Interview with Finnish Accordion Player Kimmo Pohjonen

I meet Finnish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen in the cafeteria annexed to the Vanemuise Concert Hall in Tartu (Estonia), the venue where he will be playing one hour later together with Samuli Kosminen and Proton String Quartet. Pohjonen is a very popular character in Estonia and people really love him, nevertheless the venue is totally packed and sold out to see live this talented and unorthodox musician. Opposite to the stereotype that hangs on Finnish people, Kimmo is talkative, happily speaks up his mind when reflecting about his life and work and… he is also hungry! The previous sound check took a bit longer than expected because they have a new guy debuting with the lightings and Kimmo devours mercilessly a plate of fish and potatoes while answering my questions minutes before the show:

Kimmo Pohjonen

Thank you for your time Kimmo. You have just recently released the second studio album with your band KTU, Quiver. What can people expect from it and what are the differences with the first one 8 Armed Monkeys?

The first album we recorded it pretty quickly, during the first gigs and the material was made in a few days; Lots of improvisation on that first album. So for the second one we wanted to make more a “studio album” and differently, my goal is that I wanted to get more “colors” from each person, each of us had so many good things they could make an album alone so this was about putting all that together. There was more dialogue here, I would say that in the first one it was like altogether talking at the same time and here we have work from everybody and then sometimes we shout. I like this record a lot, with some records you have the feeling that it could have been better but I am very happy that we did this as we wanted.

Samuli Koskinen (who is also an active member of the Icelandic band MUM) is not an active member of KTU anymore, although he has collaborated in some songs of the new album. What was the reason for his “departure”?

Samuli has a very busy family situation, he has a small baby and he really wants to be home. And then he also works with MUM and they try to take it easy with MUM also. So when it was found out that he was so busy it was natural that he was a bit put aside, meaning he won´t be playing in the live gigs. So in a way we are now only three so something happened for the band also, we became more communicative and maybe with a different energy than before. But when we made the recording we sent all the material to Samuli and asked if he wanted to mix something and play so… his shadow is there with us!

Is there a chance that he could come back in the future?

Well, we feel now very comfortable as a trio. If the day comes in the future that he wants to come back, we will have to see what is the situation but at the moment we continue just the three because it really works. I thought, ok it is a pity that Samuli is not with us but then when we started to play we felt like “ok, but it is a great move also”. There was also so much stuff coming from everybody so in a way now with 3 guys talking, it is easier to keep the speed.

Are there many crashes when everybody is so creative?

Well, of course we have too many ideas and we have a process where sometimes we are having arguments; it would be stupid if it would not be like that. That is the thing when 3 artists are working and they put the 110% there so sometimes we crash but it is also wonderful to solve these things.

And you are a bit different than the average Finnish guy, not keeping your mouth shut!

Yeah, as Pat says, the sign that this is made is when Kimmo is happy hehehe. I thought we were kind of sharing but then I think…umm maybe it is me! But well, anyway, it is an interesting process. I like also that we have some duets there in the record opposite to the first one where everybody is just playing, giving now more air and space.

We are very comfortable as a trio now in KTU" -Kimmo Pohjonen-

How were your beginnings as musician? I know you started quite early playing as a child.

It was a long path, a long process. I was playing folk stuff first and then playing just normal accordion music and then going to lessons, I was supposed to be a classical musician and that was at that time my really big goal, to play in big concert halls some classical material as a soloist. I thought I did not want to play accordion anymore.

So how was the experience in Sibelius Academy?

I was supposed to go to classical music department but then I changed my mind at the last minute and I heard about Folk Music Department and it changed my life upside down again. I liked the idea that it was about world´s music, it was everything, and with many different instruments. Then at the end of my studies I found “my instrument” again.

You were also learning to play and travelling around the world in Tanzania, Argentina…, weren´t you?

Yes, that was also part of that idea that I was in love with the instrument, that thumb piano in Tanzania and in Argentina with  bandoneón, but then when I realized the guys playing bandoneón, they were born for that, they are so good! For being at the same level, I should have been born there or training 10 years and maybe I would not be as good as they were. So I thought, ok maybe I should turn back to my instrument, accordion. But I wanted something different, with more electronics, more improvisation, I wanted also do solo, I did not want to think about other people if they liked what I do or not.

I met a couple of years ago dancer Tero Saarinen, you have collaborated also with him. It was interesting that for him, same for you, he likes freedom and experimenting with his dance; he traveled and studied in Japan… Do you find that it is important for a Finnish artist to travel and opening the eyes abroad?

It is more about that when you are young and you are studying, it is important to be into different things: to go to concerts, to see dance, theatre, movies… But then you have to find your own way to do your own thing and forget about the rest. Like Tero did. I learnt Tanzanian music, Argentinean music, etc but now when I do my thing I realized I did not want to put any of those things into my music. I improved learning those things but it was also about all the life before learning these things. Before you build the house, you must have the materials, and then you build your own house. I would suggest to every young guy, hey go and see different things and enjoy them but when you start to do your own things, maybe it is not so good anymore to follow those others and follow just yourself and find your own way.

How did you feel when starting to play the accordion? How do you describe the relation?

It has been rolling upside down all the time. When I really remember that day when I remember “this is now my instrument and I know what I want to do with this instrument”. That day was 24th of June, a day I was doing my first solo at Sibelius Academy. I had a good sound system there and when I was packing my instrument, I heard new sounds from my instrument with the echoes. I thought “this is the thing for me”. Finally I heard something I had not heard of anybody doing. After that I continued that dialogue with my instrument and I did not have any doubt with my instrument.  It is very difficult to develop the instrument because not so many guys have done it, but then for 10 years I have been very happy with the instrument, no problem at all. When I was a young guy I was kind of ashamed of playing accordion and now I am so happy I did not start playing guitar or something like that, because with this instrument you are always radical or innovative going on stage while with guitar everything is already done. It is not that I want to do different things just to do things nobody did before, it is just that I want to please myself with new ideas and that keeps me going.

I want to please myself with new ideas and that keeps me going" -Kimmo Pohjonen-

I heard also that you have broken many bellows in your career…

Yeah, that is a perfect example that I was so frustrated and then in an interview I told about it and somebody read it and called me and told me that he could build better bellows, and after that no more problems, I can play several concerts with the same bellows. That is how it goes, you struggle and then you find the solution.

You project a bit of a rebel image; your look for example is out of the stereotype.  Does it has anything to do with having had strict teachers in the past  and then trying to act later totally the opposite than expected?

No, I remember in the 80s that I hated all the hippies with the BMWs and so on, and I did not want to have the same look, so in a way that is being rebel.  I don´t know if something to do with music but with my personality. I wasn´t afraid of being different. That was not so easy. When you are under great teachers and then you start to do something totally different with confidence. In arts people are studying, but at same point they have to kill their “teachers” and do their own things, and some students do not have enough confidence to do it. It was like that with the first solo concert I did, I did not want to please my teachers or my father, just myself. Of course it is great if other people like it too but that is not the first thing. If you see the music people are doing nowadays, it is done just to please audiences, radio stations, buyers… I want to be totally against that thing. If there are no people in the concert, then hey I play for two people.

Kimmo Pohjonen

You have created soundtracks for movies, created music for multimedia projections, for circus, you have collaborated with Ismo Alanko… what is left that you would still like to do?

Luckily there are still many projects I would like to do. If it comes a day that I am tired to do new things, maybe it would be about time to finish with what I do. I have many ideas, but the problem is the time. 8 years ago I wanted to do a project with wrestlers. In Finland there was a tradition from 1920s to 1960s, there were wrestling competitions and when the guys are grappling, they literally farted, so they need music, accordion players, to cover the sound of the farts. It is such a great story! I even talked to some old musicians who had played in those competitions. I wish I would have been there seeing wrestling and accordion playing. Of course I would need to do it again in my own way. Maybe that project could happen next year, it is just one idea. The sound of the accordion is an endless world. I combine acoustic accordion together with electronic accordion in the same instrument. As long as I feel developing the sound and getting different sounds, that is enough for me. When I won´t feel it anymore, that will be the end of my days as an artist.

Have you had guys coming to you interested in learning to play accordion with you?

No, they have asked me to teach, but I can´t teach because I travel so much, but there has not been a guy yet who came and say “hey, I want to explore the sound as you do”. If that kind of guy would come, I would be ready to help and give some guidance. I really wish to see some day that people continue with that work on their own way. But yeah, the time is always the problem because you have to concentrate also on your own stuff.

Some years ago you did a project with Tapiola Sinfonietta, Kalmuk, and you pushed the musicians there to experiment more with their instruments, trying new positions, etc. Have you done very weird things playing the accordion?

I think there are no limits for it. If for example I want to spin around with the accordion, I do it. I want to find new things and that makes me explore. Of course for example when I see the cello musicians I play with, sometimes I can see things like “hey, this guy could do something better with that” so I try to encourage people to do something, even very small things, new for them. It is the whole idea of being human being and then you do not need to do your work exactly the same every day. You can have different rules. You have one life so you have to be carefully not to get stuck with one idea or only one way of doing things. I try to do it with myself and open my eyes and of course I do with other people also.

What can you tell me about the Earth Machine Music Tour? You played some gigs last year in farms and see that this year you will continue with it?

Yes, it is a great project planned to be a kind of “side project”, but now we will continue with it.  I did it in England and Finland and now we will go to Australia also. I collaborate with farmers, who have never performed. They are unbelievable! People are not so much into farms or countryside anymore, so when somebody shows interest about what they are doing, they are so nice and helpful! They come there with their machines, you have audience. They come in front of them and they have their machines sound with microphones. Then I sample the sounds from the farm, so basically it is music made for that particular farm. I perform with people who have never performed before, a new thing for them and me. And they really liked it a lot! It is a great reward. Some people in the audience had never watched a concert before. There are many great aspects in that project. I would like to do it here in Estonia some day in the Leigo Lake festival in Otepää.

How do you feel about being in Estonia?

Estonia is definitely one of my favorite countries. There are really always good concert here, and it is easy to come and easy to play due to the short distance with Finland. I have many friends also here.

Do you plan to make gigs with KTU?

Yes, we plan to do gigs in June-July. We have plans to play in some festivals, we still have to confirm. (Phillip, his manager, intervenes at that moment to give some names and locations almost confirmed like Ruisrock in Turku, Czech Republic, German gigs, Tallinn) so hopefully we can come here.

You always said you express yourself the best when playing solo; any chance to have a solo album in the near future?

I have been thinking about it a lot, but there are always so many projects ongoing that it turns to be at the bottom, and I wonder why. I don´t know how to answer this question. At the moment, I know that I won´t do it in a near future because there are so many projects now, but I wish I would do it again at some point.

Photos by Kalle Björklid, Mikko Hannula and Marita Liulia

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