They Arrived in San Francisco, Their Handmade Electronic Instruments from Finland Did Not

My unedited fanboy interview with Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen of Pan Sonic in 1998.

[Originally published mid-late 1998]

Panasonic, or more legally Pan_sonic as they may now be called, whatever… when I first heard them on a Finnish techno compilation called “funktio” I can’t remember feeling more elated or scared. I think perhaps both. I remember laying down in my living room listening to the cd with the volume on full blast and imagining the cold, pure places between sound waves. Sound bulges and thumps so inhuman yet beautifully and humanly sculpted… heck… listen for yourself. [Link updated]

Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen, the duo behind Panasonic had been asked to present their music at a design conference I attended at the end of May in San Francisco. Alas… their instruments, which consists of boxes of homemade electronic equipment, got held up at the airport in Memphis (“home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks”), so they couldn’t perform. I can imagine some Tennessee customs billy poring over their gear and not having a CLUE what it could be. So instead of a scalped recording… I interviewed the men themselves!

quick note: about halfway through typing the interview out I noticed something really strange about Mika’s speech patterns… so I started typing them out verbatim.

Friday, May 29, 1998 at 3:33pm

Ryan How’d you guys get involved in playing music for fashion runway shows in tokyo?

Mika So… through our friend Brian Griffin from London choreographer video director he knew these people in a fashionhouse he’d been working with and he introduced our music to them and they contacted us.

Ryan Does the music communicate well there?

Mika You mean communicating with them? well not really, I mean umm..they have quite a different way of thinking and sometimes we have some not really problems really but sometimes there were for a while trying to understand what they mea n because they have so different way of explaining things. but all together it has been a really interesting experience.

Ilpo The organization and stuff like that worked really well.

Ryan Did you have customs problems getting into Japan?

Mika No.

Ryan What are your feelings about playing for graphic designers at this conference [fuse98]? [Link updated]

Mika I don’t feel anything really that special. of course it would have to be nice to play here because of the really nice hall and nice sound system.

Ryan Will you get a chance to play tonight?

Mika Maybe… our equipment’s in Memphis. They only delivered one of our boxes there’s three of them all together.

Ryan The equipment in question, does it look like a bomb?

Mika I don’t know… I really don’t know why even… its not as complicated as the one we have here

Ryan The beginnings of Panasonic?

Mika We had both been making music. I had been working with the Sähhko label, the Finnish label, and I had some releases over there, but then we just decided to make something together. and that’s how we started and first we didn’t have much plans to continue it any longer . we just made one 12" through the sahkko label, but after all it was working quite well and it kept going and we then we got invited to play in Disobey/Blast First! the english label and then they wanted to make a co ntract and at first we were to produce one CD and we decided to make it work with them and now it has continued for a while. I don’t know how long anyway it will be…

Ryan And you played in mostly small spaces?

Ilpo Lots of club gigs and galleries.

Mika Limelight of new york for 3000 people.

Ryan What was the reception like?

Mika Its very mixed

Ryan It’s not exactly danceable… does it confuse people?

Mika Yeah… There are reactions like that in places… I’m thinking limelight half the audience went away straight up when we started they just go to another room but then the other half were staying there and listening very carefully. I think they thought something interesting was going on.

Ryan Did their bodies move in any way?

Mika Well some of them yeah but most of them were just listening.

Ryan I remember the first time I listened to your cd. I was on my computer and I had to turn it up… it was amazing. That’s why I had to track you guys down. Did you expect to have that kind of impact on people or was it just that you love sound? Is there a deeper message or methodology that you use to produce your music?

Ilpo Well… mostly its kind of pure sound that’s the main thing. We don’t actually think of any kind of piece of ideology.

Ryan Is it music to YOU?

Mika Well… I don’t know… I’ve never been interested about that kind of… I mean that’s the quite common question.

Ilpo That’s your problem.

Mika I mean… I don’t care really. I mean… if it sounds good that’s enough for me. Like in everything… like “Is it art?”. I mean that’s… never been important for me. I like some things.

Ryan Who receives your music best? east? west? can that distinction be made?

Mika I don’t know if you can say who the best audience.

Ryan Who do you think “gets” your music?

Ilpo You can enjoy it in so many levels so many ways so… I don’t really know… you can kind of enjoy something if you feel really bad or if you feel something and also if you feel really good its weird…

Ryan What did you do before you were playing in Panasonic?

Ilpo I was in the art school studying painting. then doing some sound stuff

Mika Well I’d been making music here and there already from the early 80’s but then I started more serious in the late eighties and early nineties. But ever since then I’ve been working many places here and there for a year or a… ther e were many different kinds of jobs but I mean just here and there making music sometimes… drinking alot.

[here’s where I started typing out Mika’s phrasing… weird!]

Ryan What happened when you discovered the Panasonic sound?

Mika Well I mean it just it happened… it just happened to come out like that. it was nothing we we had in our mind in any special style or sound or anytihng we just started to make some started to make music or sounds that’s how it ju st turned out to be. Its its nothing we we planned or or were were looking for for any any certain direction or or or style or sound.

Ilpo And also that connected that we had some of these instruments they were originally made made for these performances and we had them made for a group group they were made for them so later we started to use them for ourselves.

Mika Yeah they have quite a unique sound so that they are in a way responsible for the Panasonic sound.

Ryan We’re at a design conference… what are some of the images that go through your mind when you are twisting knobs and pushing buttons?

Ilpo Pussy. [he grins]

Mika Yeah mostly sex and food.

Ilpo And Elvis… girls… kinky.

Ryan [laughter] Are you serious?

Mika Uhhh… well of course it happens sometimes but I mean its its the wrong way to say its images, its more something else then just any any you know I mean I’m seeing an image is of course there are somethings, but how should I say o f course it affects me and it makes me feel certain ways but its not any kind of really images that’s the wrong word its just something

Ryan Like memories or ideas?

Mika Well more like well more like more abstract more abstract feelings or something which is quite difficult to really explain

Ryan When I hear your music, I think its just so raw the listener brings to the music personal thoughts, ideas inspired from within… its just so basic… its like seeing a pattern of dots and then what is seen in the dots is what it means to the viewer… instead of some rock band screaming lyrics and telling the audience what to think… I think its a reversal for Panasonic… you provide a place for ideas to go.

Mika Like also, that’s the that’s the thing with the with the music because the works are always connected with something… what you can imagine or so they are in a way showing you or or directing you works so so anyway connected to im ages and ideas so in that way the instrument and music is more free free what is for us its more free from that… we we never even if we we have some ideas about our tracks or something, which is quite rare actually, then to be connected to some kind of really clear object or a or a or image or anything like that anyway we we never wanted to to direct the listeners to think the same way I think we want to leave everything free free for the listener to to. that is the rub because anyway because what you t ell people what to think then they were make their own versions everyone makes and steal it their one way and different ways there’s really no way to to make anyone really understand so called artistic way to make people understand what you mean really be cause it will always be always be different.

Ilpo I think what happens in peoples mind is they think some something of their own some some idea or whatever then they hear some sound, it can be Panasonic or whatever, then it locates to connect to some other thing

Ryan Like getting remapped?

Mika Like maybe… that’s one possibility… but that’s very interesting how mixed reactions you can get and how how different ways people can be reacting to to our our music and sounds… maybe well, that’s another question anyways… because its some certain track we can meet many different people who have many different feelings or or ideas about…

Ryan So when the fashion industry is catwalking to the Panasonic sound does that seem appropriate? It provides a very strong image.

Mika Well… of course, we knew that would happen… that kind of situation before hand…. but uh… I don’t know anyhow it was working quite well.

Ryan Do you see application of your music in the future for other projects like that?

Ilpo Well… if they want to…

Ryan An interactive Steve Reich machine, similiar to ReBirth, was exhibited at the conference … what would you think of an interactive Panasonic machine… ?

Mika Yeah… well why not? We’ll try anything, I don’t know…

Ryan The computer as a medium can remove the artist or producers and empower the listener… couldn’t recreate the genius, but certain instances of what sounds like Panasonic could be reproduced. How would you feel about turning your work and the things you feel like you do into a mass medium?

Ilpo I think that’s ok… it doesn’t matter how its made… it sounds good. But anyway, we have already done it so why to do it again? Why not do something new.

Ryan You love the performance?

Mika Well… I wouldn’t say that I love it. It may be one out of three four compared to one through six I really enjoy cause it… the computer there’s always some problems with the more or less with the sound or or the situation or we’ re too hurried there’s no time for a sound check… or just happen to be in the wrong mood, don’t feel like performing at all. so… its actually its its, but when it works then it then it…really is I really enjoy it when it happens I mean… its not t oo often… But I mean I think that’s quite common for everyone who’s… well not everyone of course, there’s bands who enjoy anywhere but still I think its quite common… its the wrong time for when you have problems

Ryan Where do you think Panasonic could go? Like if you lost all of your specialized equipment right now, like it was destroyed in Memphis… what would you do?

Mika [silence] Well we still have quite alot of stuff in our home studio we could stay quite the same of course maybe our sound would change a little bit because we wouldn’t have our custom instruments.

Ryan You’d recreate the instruments?

Mika Well no I I don’t think we would we would build up any more the same things. I don’t think they are even possible to be done anymore because some of those oscillators and and parts on those instruments are not anymore in production . not available anymore.

Ryan So if you could collaborate with any person in the universe, who would it be?

Ilpo King Tubby, but he’s dead…

Mika or Elvis Presley..

Ilpo Elvis Presley…

Mika I mean… there’s so many people

Ryan Maybe Scratch Perry?

Mika Sure, well yeah… of course he’s great, but I mean I would say the last 20 years he’s not been quite that interesting, there was some good stuff but I mean what he did in the 70’s was of course really remarkable.

Ilpo But also how to cooperate with him…

Mika Well Captain Beefheart would be a worthy example or perhaps some Japanese guys like Masonna or Heido Keiji…

Ryan What are your stateside plans?

Mika 2 weeks here in San Francisco then a show in Los Angeles on the sixth.

Ryan Will you play in SF?

Mika Yeah maybe if we get our instruments, we don’t have anything else planned here… if we aren’t playing tonight then we are not playing at all… I mean, if someone invites us and wants us to play somewhere then we might play somewhere, but otherwise there’s no plans. We leave the tenth.

And that was the interview.