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Rock and Travel: Freaks and Classy People Rock and Travel: Freaks and Classy People
by Juliette Roques
2008-09-11 08:49:37
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Everyone has a different concept of what a city is or means to them. One person will focus entirely on the atmosphere, while another pays weight to the stories surrounding the city. It is impossible to sum up one place in songs or visual art but varied answers can make up a whole, like jigsaw pieces of a puzzle, completing a picture.

In
Rock and Travel, the author sets out on a tour of Helsinki, asking various musicians and artists to act as guides, showing off their favorite place. While one sight does not a city make, many can make up a whole and so a new picture of the city gradually emerges.

***********

Freaks and Classy People
– a Kallio bar tour courtesy of Underwater Sleeping Society

It was supposed to have been a two-hour affair, a quick meeting, in which Okko Nieminen, lead singer / guitarist of Underwater Sleeping Society and Olli Varis, the band’s “keyboard wizard, “ in their manager Toni Ritonen’s words, take me to a place they like to hang out at, to see Helsinki as the locals might experience it. Instead, the evening turned into a bar crawl that only ended many hours later because everyone had to get up early the following morning.


underwater1_400 “There’s an event at Kuudes Linja, “ Okko states two seconds after saying hello, then explains that this will be the last time the club is hosting Happy Mondays, an evening affair of good music, cheap booze and bring-your-own-food-we-will-grill on the patio, somewhere between a rock festival and your friend’s own backyard. Their hectic schedule of practicing for their September 19 gig, upcoming tour and the release of their third album in October is entirely absent from the evening’s atmosphere.

We meet at Baker’s on a Monday evening, to have a quick chat and kick things off. The night won’t end here but it’s a good meeting point, considering its city center location and its many tourists, despite the fact that it’s not a place either of them would consider typical of Helsinki. It is, as Olli points out, a venue with nothing to distinguish or redeem it from the countless other places to drink in this world. Both of them favor Kallio, with its array of bars and what Okko refers to as the right mix of “freaks and classy people” - this last one in direct reference to Kuudes Linja, which might not be conveniently located downtown but at least has an atmosphere.

They are friendly and easy-going, wanting to know where I’m from and how I ended up here, questions I would ask any stranger I engage in conversation for longer than two minutes and in fact have done so several times. Both of them are genuinely interested in the answers they receive, and, considering the evening’s program, curious as to how well I know Helsinki already.

“We’ll take you to much better places,” Okko promises once I have finished listing some of the venues I know and have been to. His smile implies that you haven’t really seen anything in Helsinki until you’ve been to the places they are about to take me to. It is easy to feel comfortable in their presence. Even though they have been friends for a long time, their banter is not exclusive, ditto their feeding off each other, even as they try to decide on one more place we can go to in Kallio. But first, upon hearing that this has been on my to-do list for the better part of a year, they decide to take me to Torni for the view, which turns out to be magnificent. Olli, who is a self-professed history buff, explains a little bit about the history of Torni on our way there, mentioning that it served as the headquarters for notorious Russian government officials during and after World War II when the "Russians wanted to ensure that we followed Moscow armistice and did everything they told us to do.”

*

Considering that Finland is usually mentioned in the same breath as hard rock, metal and melancholy ideas, one would be forgiven for imagining Underwater Sleeping Society in the same genre. They are, in their own words, “not at all” a typically Finnish band. They do not, as Okko explains, “follow any trends in Finnish music”. Journalists have pointed this out frequently, as have those, who engage with their music on a non-professional level. When asked what the traditions of typical Finnish music would be, Olli laughingly answers with, “melancholy whining.” However, when Okko points out that they “do have a little bit of whining” in their songs as well, he concedes that the band’s music might fall under “international whining.” 

This dialogue perfectly illustrates their friendship of quick fire dialogue and finishing each other’s sentences. There are no ego trips here, no attitudes of one is better than the other, just three people sitting in a bar, enjoying the evening.

It is important to note though that they are not trying to sound anti-Finnish, a statement, which Olli quickly points out can quickly propel one into hot water. They are not rejecting or trying to reject Finland and its music per se. Rather, this is due to the bands that influence and inspire them, mainly from the U.S. and some from England. There’s Radiohead for one, and also Pink Floyd for Okko. While Olli is leaning more towards The Flaming Lips and Death Cab For Cutie

“I think we shouldn’t make the list any longer,” Okko suggests after warning that there are about fifty pages’ worth of bands that could be mentioned, “Because it would go on and on forever.” But Olli points out that one more band should be included, The Beatles. I have to ask them about ABBA then, not because they are from Sweden and this brings back memories of a group of Australians, professionals in Helsinki for a conference, sing ABBA songs in the middle of a bar (as one of their colleagues pointed out, “they wanted to sing something Scandinavian and ABBA is the only Scandinavian music they know”) but because along with The Beatles, ABBA to me, constitutes the perfect party music. “ABBA” they both immediately echo with glee and Okko begins reminiscing about last New Year’s Eve, when they were listening to ABBA at his place “just as the fireworks were going off in the sky.”

As we look around and the guys point out various sights, the conversation turns to Helsinki as a city. “I went to Tokyo in May, which was really cool,” Olli says when asked if there is one place here that he can imagine somewhere, anywhere, else in the world. “They had little bar streets, like on Helsinginkatu in Kallio. It’s a little bit like that, it has the same feeling.”

On the tram to Kallio our reminiscing about the Rock, Rytmi, Rakkaus concert that took place the weekend before is interrupted by Olli, who would like to point out another historic fact.  “The bridge we’re going across now used to be the division between the working class and the bourgeoisie.” His comment brings to mind a similar story by a friend, of those living closer to the city not allowed to cross the bridge into Kallio as children. That this social division is not an issue anymore, is perhaps most evident by the presence of the Hilton Hotel, smack in the middle between both areas, overlooking the water.

*

Kuudes Linja, with its makeshift patio and the lanterns dangling from the wooden ceiling seems the perfect setting to discuss the 60s and the music the decade had to offer. It’s easy to stretch your imagination, especially after a meal of grilled sausages and mushrooms (bought at SIWA, the only place that stays open every day until 11 p.m.), sitting at a table with Okko’s friends that we have traveled back in time and space to another era and place.

Olli’s face immediately lights up when asked to name some songs that to him define the 60s.  “I love this topic,” he enthuses, “Because I’m such a fan of '60s music. I’m not sure if Okko agrees with me but the first song that comes to my mind is Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changing". I’m a really huge Bob Dylan fan. I think it sums up the political side of the 60s quite well, the optimism of it. And "A Day In The Life" by The Beatles. I would say because it’s hazy, a bit of a druggy song.  But it’s really progressive and musically very interesting, very progressive. It symbolizes the experimental side of the '60s, musically.” His final choice, as a “huge fan” of the band is The Doors’ "Break On Through To The Other Side", for its “wild searching of oneself.” And, as he points out, “the drugs are there as well.” Okko, suggests adding "Tomorrow Never Knows" by The Beatles and Love’s "House Is Not A Motel", for no other reason than “it’s a good song to the list.”

*

Our last destination for that night is Ompu, a lively bar in Kallio with paintings exhibited on the walls and people clustered around various tables when they are not ordering drinks at the bar or heading to the smoker’s room. It is only a short walk away and right upon entering, we are greeted by a group of their friends, occupying several places by the door. Introductions are made, and a chair is pulled up. The discussion centers on current events in France and America, politics in general. Even Martin Luther King Jr. is evoked in a friendly, non-threatening exchange-of-our-views political discussion.

Jokes fly because what else is there really to do in a situation you can’t help. But this is not a political rally, in fact it is someone’s birthday, a champagne bottle is making the rounds at the table and everyone drinks to the birthday girl’s happiness, health, upcoming year and whatever else we can think of. She smiles at me when I congratulate her and urges me to drink. People are constantly coming and going. One of their friends extends an invitation to a music festival the following night and both, Okko and Olli, encourage me to take up the invitation. When the conversation turns to Finnish, they translate when one of their friends doesn’t beat them to it. Sitting and talking about life in general and traveling plans, I invariably think of the conversation we had earlier on about music that to them defines Helsinki.

""The Finger by Cosmobile"," Okko suggested, which immediately, prompted Olli to look at him and suggest, “Rubik’s "City and the Streets"." "That would have been my next one,” Okko laughed before adding, “Everything by Shogun Kunitoki, a really cool, artistic band that shows something about Helsinki. It’s really underground music. Not that popular but it’s definitely a cool band in Finland, no other band like that.”

*

To make up your own mind as to how Underwater Sleeping Society defines Helsinki, catch them at their September 19 gig in Nosturi. For details of this gig and additional information, see: www.myspace.com/uwssoc

Thank you to the band’s manager Toni Ritonen of Backstage Alliance for arranging the interview and Okko and Olli for an authentic tour of downtown Helsinki and Kallio.


   
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Simon2008-09-11 21:18:23
Cool name! Will chk you out.


awake floating individual2008-09-11 22:35:29
I wonder if coming from the undergroung scene and especially from the bars of Kallio they shouldn't call themselves Underspirits Sleeping Society xD


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