Pekka Pohjola - The new Impressionist

Interview by Claes Johansen for the Danish music magazine MM, May 1983.

There is one big disadvantage about being Finnish and trying to break through internationally: your name. Finnish names are so damned difficult to pronounce for people with other mother tongues (but remember: always put emphasis on the first syllable). Nevertheless, during the 1970s a few Finnish bands and musicians managed to break through even outside of Scandinavia. The most well-know is probably Jukka Tolonen, but it appears that finally the rest of the world is now becoming aware of Pekka Pohjola, an outstanding and unique bass player. The word "finally" is not coincidentally chosen here, for Pekka Pohjola is no newcomer to the musical business. His background story is also the story of Finnish rock in general through more than a decade.

Huset in Magstrśde, Copenhagen, on the top floor, in Musikcafeen, is where Pekka Pohjola usually performs with his band when he is visiting our corner of the world. I descend the staircase down into the musicianís dressing room. "This is Pekka," Iím told, as if I didnít know already. And he remembers me too, because I approached him the last time he was here to have a couple of albums signed.

Scattered around the rest of the room are a bunch of totally exhausted Finns. Itís hard to imagine how in a couple of hours they are supposed to go on stage and perform. They roll their eyes and rís, and then suddenly all of them get up and leave, except for Pekka Pohjola and keyboard player Jussi Liski, a rather young chap.

These two are practically lying down in their chairs in front of me. "The others are going out to get something to eat," Pekka says in English. I take out a pad of paper and warn him: this will be the story from the very start until present day, and it wonít just be about Pekka Pohjola but equally as much about Finnish rock in general. He accepts, and it seems to me I could make him agree to anything now, completely worn out as he is after a successful tour of Germany.

So ladies and gentlemen: I give you the story of one of the most remarkable bass players in rock history, Pekka Pohjola, and of Finnish rock in general. New readers can begin here.

The Early Years

PP: I started playing piano very early on, not getting real lessons, just progressing through trial and error. My parents are both very musically orientated, and my father decided that I should play the violin. I hated violins, so when my teacher at school asked the class who of us wanted to learn to play that instrument, I wept while I put up my hand [music holds a prominent position in the Finnish school system, cj1983]. I played the violin for 15 or 16 years, in rock groups too, but then I abandoned the instrument.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I started listening a lot to the Beatles and later on Jack Bruce. I listened closely to the bass lines on their records. I really liked the dark sound of the bass, which was the opposite of the violin.

MM: What kind of bass did you have at that point?

PP: I didnít have a bass at all, I used an old cello with its strings tuned down. I joined a band called Jussi and the Boys (a kind of Finlandís answer to Bamses Venner, cj1983). At that point I was 18 years old, which was in 1969, and I was with them for six months. Our gigs were divided into four sets, one consisting of some really good music, the other three of dead boring dance music. We never practised, so I was always looking confusedly at the others, fumbling my way through the repertoire.


PP: Then I joined Wigwam.

MM: How did that come about?

PP: It was Jim who was behind that. Jim Pembroke, I mean.

MM: The English fellow Ö

PP: Yes. He had moved to Finland, something about a girlfriend as far as I recall. He had a band before Wigwam, called Blues Section, who were very good.

MM: Didnít they do an album?

PP: Yes, thatís true, itís very hard to find these days. Occasionally, they would go on stage dressed in uniforms from the American Civil War [it seems that Pohjola is confusing Blues Section here with a group of expatriate Englishmen living in Finland in the 60s, called the Renegades. In fact, the uniforms in question werenít actually from the US Civil War either, but looked more like US cavalry garb of the 1880s, but letís not digress now, cj 2020].

MM: So Wigwam had an English frontman and so did Tasavallan Presidentti, I think his name was Frank Robson. Was it impossible in those days to make it with an all-Finnish band?

PP: I think that state of affairs was coincidental. Besides, Frank Robson wasnít the frontman of Tasavallan Presidentti, that was Jukka Tolonen.

MM: How did Jim Pembroke get the idea that you should join Wigwam?

PP: There was this place, a club in Helsinki called N-Club, where you could go and jam with other musicians, and thatís what I did. People came to have a look, and they could hardly believe their eyes because I was so young. And that was where Jim saw me.

MM: What happened to the groupís former bass player, Mats Hulden?

PP: He wanted to concentrate on his studies. Now and then he writes lyrics for other people and makes illustrations for record sleeves and that kind of thing.

Tombstone Valentine

PP: Kim Fowley came over from the US to produce an album with us. He wasnít pleased with our guitarist (after a short discussion involving Jussi Liski, we agree on the name Vladimir Nikamo, cj1983), and so he suggested that Jukka Tolonen from Tasavallan Presidentti should play with us in the studio. The result was an LP called Tombstone Valentine.

MM: You wrote a couple of the tracks on that Ö

PP: Yes, I wrote the music for one of Jimís lyrics, and I also wrote an instrumental piece.

MM: Featuring some violin Ö

PP: Please, donít mention it!

MM: How did you feel about Tombstone Valentine, apart from the violin issue?

PP: For a long while I really liked it. I listened to it a lot. But the problem was that we were three songwriters. Jukka Gustavson (organ player and singer, cj1983), Jim Pembroke (pianist and singer, cj1983) and myself. This caused some tension. In the middle of it all stood our drummer, Ronnie ÷sterberg, feeling a bit squeezed. He was the freak of the group, you might say.

MM: The record was released in the US as a double album Ö

PP: Yes, that was a strange affair. One album was the real Tombstone Valentine, and the other was a messy compilation of old numbers by Blues Section, some material from the early Wigwam LP, and then there was a big band number sung in Finnish. It was a strange album!


MM: Then your first solo album came out.

PP: Pihkasilmš Kaarnakorva, that was in 1972.

MM: Who were you inspired by at that time?

PP: Frank Zappa.

MM: But still there is something special about that records, as can be said about all Finnish records from that period, is that an inspiration from folk music or what?

PP: In fact, at that time everyone in Finland wanted to sound like the American bands. Jim Pembroke, for instance, was totally crazy about the Band. However, the problem was that no one actually bothered to listen to American music enough to be able to really copy it. Thatís why it ended up as something else.

MM: Making solo albums was rather common at that time, wasnít it? Jim Pembroke made two of those.

PP: Yes, and in fact it was Wigwam who played on those. The first one is a really good record.

MM: Even before your first solo album, Wigwam had made Fairyport. Thatís a double album.

PP: Yes, there was a problem with that. We had too much material for a single record and not enough for two. So side four we recorded live in a club, with Jukka Tolonen on guitar. Itís a long jam, and at the time we thought it sounded very good. Today I can hear that itís rather unbearable.

MM: I wonder if anyone has ever listened to the whole of that side.

PP: I agree, itís terrible, the sound quality is so poor. But otherwise it was a good album.

MM: You wrote a few of the tracks. It doesnít look as if the others held you back, though you were so young and a newcomer in the band.

PP: No, no. They didnít do that at all.

MM: You wrote the music for one of Pembrokeís lyrics, something like: "Out of sight thereís something in the air/Even though she knows itís there/She donít give no clues nowhere Ö"

PP: Itís so many years ago, I had almost forgotten that song.

MM: The violins were good, though.

PP: Oh, no!

Jukka Gustavson

PP: Being became the last album I made with Wigwam before I left. My feelings about the group steadily waned during the entire period when I was a member. I was pretty disappointed.

MM: But before leaving you released your second solo album.

PP: Harakka Bialoipokku.

MM: Thank you! What do you have to say about Being?

PP: It was an outstanding record, but it really shouldnít have been released under the Wigwam name. It was Jukka Gustavsonís solo record. True, the rest of us wrote some of the material, but what happened was the Jukka approached Jim saying, "Jim, write a song in this here style." And then there were the arrangements (deep sigh). Jukka had this idea that there should be clarinets and saxophones and so on included, but he wasnít able to write it down himself. So what happened was that he would sit by the piano and play the different melody lines for me, and then it was my job to write it all down. That took a full week of work from dawn to dusk.

MM: It must have been good training, though.

PP: Yes, but still Ö After that record we did a tour of England, which actually went very well, but on our return to Finland, Jukka left the group. I knew what now lay ahead, for Jim and Ronnie were definitely in favour of a more pop-orientated direction. That was why I left, too.

MM: Subsequently a double live album was released.

PP: Yes, it showed a rather strange side of Wigwam. The reason was that the songs we recorded on our albums were almost impossible to play live, and so we tended to do other peopleís songs. The Beatles, John Lennon, old blues numbers, the Band etc.

MM: You also used to do some songs by Procol Harum.

PP: They were a fantastic group.

MM: I dare say so. But on a different issue, itís not that I want to open up old Wigwam wounds, but didnít you make a version of a Sibelius composition, and it fell apart completely?

PP: No, it definitely didnít fall apart. We did an arrangement of Finlandia, Jukka and I, and it was rather good.

MM: At some point, and on the live album, you had been joined by Pekka Rechardt.

PP: Yes, Rekku we call him. It was I that got him in the band, since we didnít have a guitarist and I thought he had a tasteful way of playing. He has a nice vibrato, which goes back to the fact that he used to play the cello.

At this point in the interview, Jussi Liski suddenly wakes up. For most of the time he has been lying down looking a Pohjola and me, only speaking very rarely, mostly about how he was too young to know much about the things weíre speaking of.

JL: This is making me curious, Pekka. Did you perform Finlandia on stage with violin and cello?

PP: No, we were playing our usual instruments.

The two of them exchange a few words in English and Finnish, which seem to answer Jussi Liskiís queries.

MM: Are there no existing recordings of your version of Finlandia? Wasnít it planned to be included on an LP?

PP: It never came about. And there is no live recording of it either. Itís all very sad.

MM: Why wasnít it recorded, if it was as good as you say.

PP: I donít actually know, itís a strange thing. Every time we wanted to record something, there was never anyone around to do it, and when there finally was someone, for some reason we didnít want to be recorded. Itís very strange.

[Actually, it turned out later that at least part of Wigwamís arrangement of Finlandia was recorded and survived. It can be found on the 4CD box set Anna mulle lovee (Love/Siboney LXCD 605, 1994), cj2020]

Made in Sweden

PP: I left Wigwam in í75, and for the next six months I was a member of the Jukka Tolonen Band. It was an unbearable situation. The other members were constantly coming and going.
What happened then was that Georg Wadenius (Swedish guitarist of international fame, e.g. as a member of Blood Sweat and Tears, cj1983) and a Polish keyboard player by the name of Wlodek Gulgowski met each other in New York and agreed to revive the band name Made in Sweden. They wanted the other members to be from the Scandinavian countries.

MM: But there were no Danish members.

PP: No, because the intention was only that they should be from Finland, Sweden and Norway. I know full well that you have some very good bass players in Denmark.

MM: You made a very funky album Ö

PP: Very funky, yes, that was due to that guy Gulgowski. He made a solo album, too, Sound Check, which is even funkier.
In the beginning, Made in Sweden worked well. Apart from Wlodek and Jojje (Wadenius, cj1983) and I there was one other Finn, drummer Vesa Aaltonen [formerly of Tasavallan Presidentti, cj]. And then we had a very good Swedish singer, Tommy KŲrberg. He was the one who fell out with Wlodek, and then the whole thing went off track.

MM: Georg Wadenius one said that the situation in the reformed Made in Sweden was that there was one Polish guy who was talking all the time Ö

PP: (laughing) Ö and two Finns who just sat in a corner staring into thin air. Itís true. Jojje made a song about me and Wlodek called The Talker and the Listener.
We dissolved the group, and Vesa and I went back to Finland. I spent a couple of months doing nothing. I thought that perhaps it was time to make something of my own, my own band through and through. But then Vesa came along and suggested we form the Group.

MM: Who made one LP Ö

PP: A horrible LP, yes. That was bad. We made all of it in the studio, writing and everything. We just needed to release a record, that was all we cared about.

MM: Did you tour?

PP: Yes, yes.

MM: That would have been with Seppo Tyni on guitar. Whatís happened to him?

PP: He has gone home to Pori (Swedish name: BjŲrneborg, town in West Finland known for its thriving jazz scene, cj1983). Heís playing in a big band now.

Mike Oldfield

MM: Many people probably know you best for the fact that Mike Oldfield Ēhelped you outĒ on your third solo album, The Mathematicianís Air Display from í77 (this album has been released under two different titles, Skuggornas Tjuvstart in Sweden, and Keesojen Lehto in Finland, cj1983). Can you tell me something about how you got in touch with Oldfield?

PP: This goes back to the time when he had just made his second album, Hergest Ridge, and it had been heavily criticized by the press, so he wasnít feeling too great about himself. His record label, Virgin, tried to get him back on his feet again, and among other things they asked me to come over from Finland. Mike Oldfield had heard my second album and he really liked it, so Virgin arranged for me to be flown to England and taken out to Mikeís estate. Then we went for walks out there and chatted for a week, not making any music, just talking. And the result was that he played a bit on The Mathematicians Air Display. Itís something I very much regret today because Mike has a strong personality Ö I do, too, but heís stronger. Quite simply, he made too many decisions, and I didnít want to be promoted on the back of his name.

MM: The record has been reissued with a large sticker saying Featuring Mike Oldfield, or something like that.

PP: Please donít talk about it.

MM: But that wasnít the last thing you did with Mike Oldfield. There was some talk about him starting to play live.

PP: Yes, and I was hired to play bass. That was all, they just called me up and asked if I wanted to, and I said yes.

MM: What is your own opinion on Mike Oldfieldís music?

PP (after a long pause and some face-pulling): Ö Iíd rather not make a statement on that.

Standing on his own two Feet

Pekka Pohjola played bass behind Mike Oldfield on stage for roughly eighteen months, then he made his fourth solo album, Visitation, released in í79. The record was very well received in Finland and Sweden.

In 1980 the Group changed its name to Pekka Pohjola Group, who released an album that only exists with a Finnish Title, Kštkšvaaran Lohikššrme (try to walk into a Danish record shop and ask for that!)

At this point Vesa Aaltonen had left the group which now, apart from Pekka Pohjola, consisted of Seppo Tyni on guitar, his younger brother Pekka Tyni on keyboards and Ippe Kštkš on drums. After the release of the record, Nštsi Rosvall joined them on percussion. The band toured through most of Europe, yet on its return to Finland in í81 it was dissolved.

After dealing with some personal issues, Pekka Pohjola returned to the public limelight by the end of 1981 with an entirely new band consisting of T.T. Oksala (formerly with Piirpauke and Kojo) and Peter Lerche, both on guitar, Leevi Leppšnen on drums and Jussi Liski on keyboard. This line-up released the album Urban Tango in í82, after which its members set out on a string of longer tours.

With this group it seems that Pekka Pohjola has finally created a solid platform for himself. The members seem to form at tightly woven, well-disciplined unit, and Pekka Pohjola feels it is the best band he has ever played with (MM: But thatís what youíre supposed to say, PP: Perhaps, but I actually mean it).

So Pekka Pohjola believes that with this band he can present his music in a better way than ever before. And how is it possible to describe this music? It is rock, of course, symphonic perhaps, at least with a strong inspiration from classical music. There are obvious references to everyone from Bach to Debussy and Mussorgsky (and Ö Sibelius). Still, these various pieces fit together in a way that only a few composers are able to achieve, the result being wholesome in a manner that never comes across as artificial or laboured.

MM: Do you ever feel that you have been underrated?

PP: Perhaps, but I understand that it has to be that way Ö

MM: Is there something you want to say before we end this interview?

PP (after a long pause): Ö Honesty in music, thatís what itís all about!