Name: Hannu Karjalainen
Occupation: Visual artist/musician
Current Release: A Handful Of Dust Is A Desert on Karaoke Kalk
Recommendations: W.G. Sebald- The Rings of Saturn / Helen Frankenthaler- Mountains and Sea
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Hannu Karjalainen, visit his website www.hannukarjalainen.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started playing guitar in the age of 11. I never had a teacher and I didn’t really know how to play the music I was listening to so I started making compositions for myself that I could play. As a teenager, I had a passion to express myself through all kinds of means that were available: making and playing music, drawing, writing and photography. Music was and remains the way that’s closest to my heart; the most direct way of expressing how I feel without having to put it into words.
After an initial period listening to thrash metal, I quickly found bands such as Public Image Limited and Velvet Underground who opened my eyes to more experimental music. I wanted to explore all kinds of music, from Balkan folk to early 90’s techno, but also more popular music like Smashing Pumpkins or Suede. In the late 90s, Coil showed me how technology could be used to express the deepest human passions and obsessions. In the early 2000s, Fennesz gave me the confidence that you can make a record with just a guitar and a laptop. At that moment I arrived on the path I’m still on.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I definitely started out trying to emulate music that I liked, but my technical limitations ensured that the end result was anything but. In some ways this is still the case! I think if there’s originality in your art it must come naturally – if you try to calculate it, it doesn’t work. In some ways I feel that originality is overrated. For me, more important than originality is a sort of integrity in following your heart. When you listen to your gut feeling, you won’t be able to accept any other manifestation of your art than what rings true to yourself. And then you will, and can only ever sound like yourself.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I am self-taught as a composer and musician, so in the beginning the challenges were to understand how certain sounds were made, how to differentiate between instruments, how to structure music, how to record etc.
As time goes by you become more aware of the technical things and there is a danger of losing that freshness and unpredictability that you have when you are just starting.
I try to overcome the conventionality that a relative technical prowess may bring, by setting up situations in my working process that allow for mistakes and random decisions to alter the results. In fact, many of my favourite moments in my own music sprung out of (what I originally saw as) mistakes.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are the most important pieces of gear for you?
I started making music in the early nineties, so obviously the set-up has changed a lot over the years as technology and my tastes have evolved. In terms of electronic music, my first studio was basically a Fostex 4-track recorder borrowed from a friend and a Korg workstation synthesizer that I was able to borrow from my school occasionally.
I’ve had varying periods of activity making music and the environments have changed a lot over the last decade or so, as I lived in three different countries and stayed a lot in artist residencies. For many years, my studio was based around my laptop for convenience as I was on the move a lot. I guess it says something that I didn’t produce a lot of music that I’m proud of or that I would ever release during that time. When I relocated to Helsinki a few years ago I was able to get a steadier working environment and build a small studio. Pieces of gear have come and gone as I’ve experimented on different ways of working. The laptop remains the center yet I have some cheap old keyboards, an electric guitar, a piano and I like to use old samplers and tape recorders as sound-shaping tools.
I’m not that attached to gear. I think my philosophy is more that I’ll work with what I have and accept that as a limitation. Of course, there is some gear I like better than others (and generally hardware better than software) but almost anything can be used to create something nice with some creativity.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I know my limitations as a musician and I’m very happy to live in a time when technology has made it possible for non-musicians such as myself to make music. Technology is great in situations when you’re stuck and you need to shake things up a bit by letting some randomly-generated elements enter your vocabulary. I have various ways to use software for that. But in the end, the human has to decide which bits of randomly-generated noise actually work.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My music wouldn’t exist without the tools that I use, at least not in the same form. I use a lot of sampling - both hardware and software - and I feed in a variety of sounds, mostly my own recordings, sometimes half-finished or abandoned songs, field recordings, samples from old vinyl, cassettes and films. The tools allow me to sculpt new compositions out of recorded sound. I rely a lot on being able to switch between digital and analogue realms. Sometimes I end up doing a lot on microscopic editing in the daw to get a certain sound.
What I’m often looking for in an arrangement is a balance between sounds that sound like they are played by someone in real time and sounds that sound like they aren’t played by anyone – sounds that seems to just emerge from somewhere. This is where the role of technology is essential.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I enjoy collaborations a lot yet I actually don’t do so much of them. I guess music is such a personal expression for me that the idea of collaboration doesn’t often occur to me. That said, I’m quite happy to collaborate when opportunities do arise and surely my music would benefit from doing more collaborations.
Ideally collaborations happen between two (or more) people who have a strong (but different) vision on respective sides. What’s more important to me than how exactly the collaboration happens is the willingness to listen and be surprised. The collaboration can happen while in the same room but it can also happen online with someone you have never met.