Juho “Jun-His” Vanhanen | Enter the Void

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 30/11/2017.

Two weeks ago, Oranssi Pazuzu teamed with another band from Tampere, Dark Buddha Rising, for a unique performance named Waste of Space Orchestra at Roadburn. The Finns were playing at the festival for the third year in a row. In 2017, I caught Juho “Jun-His” Vanhanen, guitarist and vocalist of the band, a few hours after their set on the Mainstage of the festival, to know more about the inception of the psychedelic trip into the unknown that is Värähtelijä, their last record. Wild, daring, swirling together krautrock, black metal, and much more, the album left listeners terrified, bewildered, and more often than not, amazed.

Unwrapping the twists and turns of the music but never unveiling its mystery, Jun-His talked about the elaboration of Värähtelijä, his aims as an artist, his views on his own art. “Everything is there and still, you can’t figure the reason behind it, behind existence,” he explained: instead of looking for answers and not afraid to stare into the void, Oranssi Pazuzu chose to embrace the unknown.

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© Samuli Huttunen

You played Roadburn last year in Het Patronaat, a small venue which was so packed a lot of people couldn’t get in. This time, you played on the mainstage. How was it? 

It’s been really fun! I think it’s the biggest stage we’ve ever played on, it was really good! Indeed last year the venue was completely packed, that’s why Walter [Hoeijmakers, artistic director of Roadburn] asked us to do it again this year. I’ve been a regular visitor at Roadburn for about four years before I ever played there, even before or around the same time that we formed the band. It was some kind of fantasy or dream to play here, so now playing on the main stage was really a big thing for me!

It was very crowded and people were reacting very strongly in the front rows… When you play, you all look lost in the music, but are you aware of the reaction of the crowd, is it part of the experience for you?

Yes! I wasn’t wearing my glasses, luckily [laughs]. You can definitely feel the vibe of the crowd. When the band plays live, the music creates an atmosphere on stage and the goal is to spread it in the venue. If you can do that, you can feel the reaction of the audience even if you can’t see them. It’s present there.

You are five on stage, and each one of you looks completely lost in his own thing. How do you work all together live?

We’ve known each other for a really long time. Everyone is his own unit but there is still some kind of musical discussion going on. You throw a ball to someone, someone answers… I think about it as learning how to read the other person’s mind, in way. Through this kind of non-verbal communication, you can function both as single being and as an unit.

You are currently touring with Aluk Todolo. They play a blend of very different influences and musical styles too, especially psychedelic rock, kraut rock, and black metal, but for a completely different result. Did you chose to tour with them especially?

We’d been talking about touring with them with our booker and manager for quite a long time. We’re big fans of Aluk Todolo and I definitely feel that we are sharing something musically, especially atmosphere-wise. Although, as you said, it’s a completely different result, the goals are the same; they’re reached through a different music. It’s definitely a band that we’ve been listening to a lot after rehearsals; we would spend nights listening to Aluk Todolo, so it’s really cool to be with these guys, they’re really nice.

In interviews, the members of Aluk Todolo say that although their music might seem improvised, it’s in fact not improvised at all—or hardly. How is it for you? What is the room for jams and experiments when you write and when you play live?

It’s a big part of it. When someone brings an idea, a riff or whathever, everything we come up with, we jam. So it’s probably gonna change a bit, or at least we’re going to find a new form for it. Sometimes, we just jam, record, see what it’s worth, and then try to repeat it. Recently, on Värähtelijä, we’ve been trying to make the illusion of jamming so that you can sometimes move really fast from completely freak-out jam stuff to something very composed, to make this change sound natural and surprising at the same time, so that it still feels like it’s the right thing to do. That’s quite precise composing, but we have moments there with noise layers and all that that are improvised. Everything is recorded partly live, and composed and demoed live, so when we actually play live, it’s very natural to do the same thing that we’ve been doing in the rehearsal place before recording the album.

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For Värähtelijä, you tried to work towards a really organic, natural sound…

Yeah, at least to try and capture what the band sounds like for us, and to find that balance between 70s progressive, krautrock tones and really harsh, black metal-ish sounds, to try and get both close in terms of how it sounds. We demoed a lot when we were rehearsing and we tried to make these demos as good sounding as we could, so by the time we got in the studio, nothing was really surprising. Maybe it’s a bit boring, but we never thought: “Oh really, it sounds like this?” We knew what we were looking for and how it should sound like.

You worked with a producer, Julius Mauranen, who mostly works with indie bands. Was it deliberate? Do you see yourselves as a metal band in the first place?

Yes, it was deliberate since we don’t see ourselves as a metal band indeed. There are a lot of metal influences in our music, but as nerdy as it sounds, we’re a fusion band. We deal with lots of different things; some are stronger on some songs or some albums. So we wanted to work with someone who deals with lots of different things too, with a lot of dynamics and who understands how to take things to the maximum. We discussed it a lot: if it goes into extreme territories musically, it has to be the same thing production-wise. It was important not to play too safe with that either, and to have it be a part of what the album is supposed to say.

Värähtelijä sounds like a big step forward. It’s way wilder than your previous records; it feels like you crushed boundaries and really expanded. Was it the point, or was it something that happened in the process?

With Valonielu, we felt like we’d started something that needed to be taken further; that it should be crazier, wilder like you said. We wanted to go deeper into the edges of that sound, to try and find those. Like I said earlier, we also wanted to make it sound like there are no seams between jamming and written parts. To make the flow natural and still extreme. To get rid of the safe things.

Just like you blend the limits between improvised and written music, you blend the limit between styles: it flows from one to the other. Some things come back through the record though: a riff from the first track, “Saturaatio”, can be heard again in the last song, for instance. Was it intentional, after this really complex and intricate trip, to go back to where it started, to land back on your feet?

Good catch! Exactly. It’s partly a tribute to things we love like old progressive rock that have these themes that go around in the album. We were wondering how to end this album on some kind of question mark, like: “What’s gonna happen next?” I had this idea to just take a riff from the first song and do some kind of mutated version of it, some kind of techno version. It leaves a question mark for the listener and for us as well, because we don’t know either. We feel like this album is the end of some path. We definitely now have some kind of clean table and will probably do something else…

What about the EP you just released? Do you feel like it’s part of this previous body of work or is it the beginning of something new already?

It doesn’t really say anything about the next phase, because one of these songs have been recorded during Valonielu sessions and the other one was recorded recently, but had been in our tapes for two albums at least—we just thought it didn’t suit the atmosphere of these. We had these two songs that we liked and that we could make work together as an EP, we only had to record and mix one of them, and we really still don’t know what’s gonna come next [chuckles].

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What is the artwork of Värähtelijä? Previously, you often used drawings (by Costin Chiorenau among others), but this one, while being a photograph, is even more abstract. What does it represent?

We’d been talking about a picture cover for quite a long time. We really wanted to have something that’s a frozen moment, something that isn’t exactly magical in itself but that lets your imagination go wild. It’s actually a pluck of my hair on stage and a lamp! [laughs] It’s a live shot from a show in Prague. It looks like a corridor…

Yeah, it’s like the light at the end of the tunnel!

While making new songs, we would check the picture every once in a while; at some point we really had it on the table where we were working since we thought it might be the cover. The more we jammed and had ideas, the more we thought it was fitting the picture. We really wanted to have a photo that would have some kind of magical feeling in it and that would also fit the band’s concept, which is the idea that there’s nothing boring in an atheistic view of the world. Everything is there and still, you can’t figure the reason behind it, behind existence. That’s how we perceive reality. Even if we know things, it still remains a mystery. To embrace the unknown is a big part of the band’s concept.

What does “värähtelijä” mean, actually?

It means resonator. It means vibrator as well [laughs], but resonator is the closest translation. It has to do with why you create art in the first place. For me and for us, it’s because we want people to resonate to what we do. If people resonate to this then they’re thinking the way we do, which means that we as human beings we aren’t that far from each other, no matter where we live or even the language we speak. The record is in Finnish, but still, it’s some kind of psychological mirror in which we can identify ourselves both in different ways and in the same way. That’s what this idea of resonator stands for.

In the crowd a few hours ago, I could see people literally resonating, physically responding to the music…

Yeah, that’s also what I meant about the atmosphere: hopefully, it spreads to the audience and captures something that is there for both us and the people who listen to it. That’s why I want to do art.

The record is more than an hour long, it’s really dense, and apparently you had a lot more material that you had to throw away. How did you chose what to get rid off?

We did that quite early on, and we didn’t record anything extra. The record had been mostly set a few months before we actually started recording it. We chose what had to be in, what had to be out, but indeed we had twice more ideas and material than what is on the album. We just saw what fitted together. There were some question marks still, things we figured out after recording them, but the idea of the whole album was there.

There’re a lot of psychedelic bands in your hometown—Tampere in Finland—, from you to Dark Buddha Rising or Hexvessel. Why, according to you?

It’s really difficult to say from the inside of it. All of us moved to Tampere coming from smaller cities. Tampere is both a small city and a big city, meaning that you have all the clubs, plenty of music, and lots of artists living here. Even though the city itself doesn’t really support anything like that, still, it seems to be home of different music genres, different art forms. Everything mixes and everybody is working together: you can go and jam with people who are doing hip hop for instance. It’s very fruitful surroundings. We got to know the guys from Dark Buddha Rising very soon after I moved to town, and then we just started jamming. At some point we even formed a band together, Atomikylä. We moved to the same rehearsal place and I think we’ve drawn a lot from them and vice versa. It’s been a very fruitful thing. Tampere just seems to support you. It’s some kind of melting furnace.

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Is your interest in psychedelia, both as something you do and something you listen to, related to your view of the world and of reality, as you said earlier? The arguably defining idea of psychedelia is Huxley’s concept of opening the doors of perceptions: is it something you try to induce?

Yeah, for me it’s about exploring your own subconscious, your mind, and trying to see what’s there. You can find magical things—I don’t mean magical in a supernatural sense; as I told you, my take on life is completely atheistic—that you don’t know how to access, maybe some primal things… You can access parts of your brain you aren’t using the rest of the time through music, through creating art. It’s a way of embracing the unknown: OK, there is this thing here. Can I try and explore it somehow? It’s mostly fascination for the unknown, I think.

The record has been perceived by many people as disturbing or creepy. Do you think it’s because people are afraid of what they don’t know, or because what is there is creepy in itself?

I think the unknown is in your own head. The things that are the most scary to me, that I am the most afraid of, are in my own head. It’s what I might stumble upon in there. Here is the “horror theme” of our music: it’s finding hidden corners; you can be freaked out by what you find there…

It makes me think about the work of David Lynch, for instance, and how he confronts you with some dark part you didn’t even know you had in your own mind, which can be very disturbing indeed…

Yeah, definitely, we are big fans of his work, we’re totally influenced by that kind of things. That’s why we really want people’s imagination to go wild during the shows, to wander around, instead of being locked in anything too precise.

Does your music illustrate your take on the world, or do you actually discover new things, new views on life, reality and so on that might actually change yours during the process, as you play more and more and go further and further with your art?

I think it’s definitely both. You can always discover new things about yourself and the world around you, but at the same time, you want to make your mark, in a way, to express your thoughts where words end, to put it in form of art. Then like I said, you can see how people react and resonate to that, and learn from that experience. Someone else’s views on my work can be different than mines but I can still see the point. Actually how it’s been viewed, and even just the fact of seeing that there can be different views on the same thin can change my own views and my own doings as well.

You released a video for “Lahja”. Just like for the album cover, it’s not psychedelic drawings but a completely new form. Do you think you’re gonna explore that more in the future?

We did the experiment of just giving the song to a director we know after discussing the themes of the album with him to see what he would come up with. I think it was a successful experiment, we’re probably gonna do some more of that in the future, yes.

What’s next for you, first this evening at the festival and then afterwards with the band?

For now, I’m definitely gonna go and see Trans Am and Aluk Todolo, because this time I can really see them with the peace of mind of having my own show done already. It’s gonna be awesome. And then, Mysticum, I think I wanna see that. As for the band, we played 4 shows of this tour already and we have 21 shows to play in the next 22 days. We’re just at the beginning!

You can find Oranssi Pazuzu here and there, buy their records here, and read about Jun-His’ other band Grave Pleasures here.

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