Tomutonttu’s Fluorescent Worlds of Wonder

Photo by Sami Sänpäkkilä

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I have no hard evidence for this, but I think there’s a decent chance I’ve written more about Finland’s Jan Anderzén than just about any other artist during Foxy Digitalis’s many runs. From the first time I heard Kemialliset Ystävät’s Kellari Juniversumi, I was hooked. Anderzén’s music is more than just music, though. His songs are miniature worlds. His albums are prismatic universes. As his solo project, Tomutonttu, has become more of a focus, there’s an added layer of whimsy that’s heightened by the kaleidoscopic psychedelic geometry of his artwork. 

I first interviewed Anderzén in 2004 and reading back through that piece, a lot has changed, but even then the ideas he’s chasing today were taking root. Tomutonttu’s newest album, Hoshi, is one of my favorite things in Anderzén’s vast catalog and there’s no telling what’s next.

So first things first, how have you been making it through these last two years? It seems like Finland is one of the few European countries we never hear much about when it comes to the pandemic over here in the US…

Our son was born at the end of 2019, right at the end of the decade, just before the pandemic. When the news about the virus started popping up we were way deep in our own bubble world of wonder, love, and sleep deprivation. We had zero FOMO but in our diaper brain hubris we couldn’t help but wonder: we just created life but did we also make the world stop?

While at the hospital after our baby was born I was brainstorming a stand-up routine about a hospital staff party band. They would perform cover versions of Terveet Kädet (“Healthy Hands”) classics with alternate lyrics about the importance of good hand hygiene. Little did I know that the jokes would get old so fast.

Finland has done relatively well but I guess the scars will become more visible only later. If there was a conspiracy behind all this (I don’t think there is) it would clearly have something to do with creating chaos and general distrust between people. It’s scary to read what the lockdown has done to the community’s psyche. I feel lucky, and privileged, to have this 24/7 daddy project going on so I don’t have time to dive too deep into the muddle-headed discourse.

Kemialliset Ystävät has been around since late 1995, but what are some of your earliest and most formative memories as a child when it comes to music and sound?

Many of my early memories are from my grandma’s house in the countryside where we spent all our holidays. So my early sound memories are from that rural environment: thunder, fire crackling, creaking of the old wooden house, snow sounds, mosquitos, flies, birds, trees. The only music in these memories is from popular tv-shows and Sunday service hymns from the radio.

I remember some songs that my older relatives would sing to me when I was a small child. My parents had some records and tapes of 60s/70s pop and Finnish schlager music me and my sister would be spinning.

A little later, I remember the singing exams in school where the teacher would take us one by one to the echoey hallway for a private vocal performance. The horror of trying to create music with my body but only a faint atonal warble would come out of the mouth.

What came first for you as far as thinking about and creating your own works – your visual art or sound/music stuff? How did you first get started with it?

I always liked art in school and would be drawing and making things for my own amusement at home too. As a teenager the need to express grew stronger and instead of making cardboard characters to stage reenactments of sports events or tv shows, I started focusing on things that existed for art’s sake. One important turning point was listening to the first The Doors CD on repeat and painting my basement bedroom walls, turning the room into a pretty awful jungle abstraction, a club room for creative explorations with friends.

I didn’t have much interest in making music until I discovered some weirder takes on punk rock and lured some friends to make our own racket. From the get go, I’ve been making music that I would like to listen to myself, music that I have not heard before. Still on that trip!

Something I think your work has always touched on for me is something I’ve been thinking about a lot the last few years and that’s this ability for music and sound to create these entirely new worlds. I always think of your work (including the things you do with other mediums besides music) as being these tiny universes with their own mythologies and rules and ideas. When you are working on new things, writing music or painting, etc – how are you thinking about these kinds of things with your work?

While in art school I was thinking about stuff that I then later found out was formulated into words by Jon Hassell with his Fourth World Music concept. Yes, my work with both music and images has a strong world building quality to it. Although often fantastical these worlds of mine are very much part of the real world. They are fuzzy proposals, little pockets of doing things differently, not really places to escape to. Ok, they can be that too.

Shifting from one sound environment to the next one with a somersault always fascinates me and colliding these different moods / approaches / sound worlds is a key element of my compositional practice. And you can see variations of that in my visual work too… which takes us to your next question.

In what ways do your music and sound work and your visual art inform and complement each other? I always think the artwork for your albums adds such an important layer to the whole experience, thinking about Hoshi especially. It’s like this language from this alien world we hear on the album, which I love.

The images and words surrounding the music are very important to me and that’s why I prefer to have complete control over the whole package. It’s wild how much you can tune the listening experience with the information surrounding it. I’ve been releasing music pre-internet and some of my most pivotal moments with art have been with physical music media. Getting hit by these unexpected yet weirdly harmonious multimedia jazz chords made of music, images, and words.

How to present recorded audio in the most meaningful way at this moment in culture is perhaps the main problem I have with my music nowadays. All available options feel more or less like compromises. This challenges me to think outside the box.

Your actual question is kind of too big to answer here. It is something I often talk about without words, within my work. I often look for parallels between different media and try to apply for example musical thinking to animation making, or ornament shaping to music making, and so on.

Related to this, I was listening to Kevätjuhla again recently and thinking about the cover/graphic score and what a beautiful job it does of adding to the experience of the album itself. What first got you interested in working with and creating graphic scores and what’s your approach when you are creating and writing a graphic score? Are there any others in the works right now?  

Graphic scores are a central link between the musical and visual zones. Most of my graphic scores are poetic gestures, art inspired by music’s potential, or imaginary music meant to be played inside your head. When I’ve worked with new music groups (defunensemble and NYKY Ensemble) I’ve used a combination of things: aural guides, visual stimulation, written instructions, and discussion.

I don’t really know how to read musical notation. I’ve said this before, it blows my mind that people can have music in their head and then write it down using this system to communicate it to others. It’s a method from the time before the recorded audio whereas most of my music is a continuation of the “recording studio as an instrument” lineage.

MSHR and Jan Anderzén at Blank Forms

Tell me a little bit about your collaborative projects with MSHR and how those came about? How was the trip and performance in New York this month? And are the online instruments all part of it?

Lawrence Kumpf / Blank Forms approached me a while back about doing something in connection to the Organic Music Societies projects they were working on. Obviously, I was very excited. My part got postponed a few times for different reasons, the pandemic being the main one. I guess about a year ago we reactivated the conversation and decided to go for it. I felt like this was a nice opportunity to work on something with MSHR and also to get to hang out with them more, first virtually and then, miraculously, in the same physical space.

For a while, I’ve talked with MSHR about doing a browser-based collaboration. With Hoshi in the works, I asked if they were into building something based on that. I don’t remember who came up with the idea of turning some stems from the album into instruments that would work as interactive audiovisual remixes.

Blank Forms project came up a little later and we were working on both of these at the same time. After a lot of scheming, file sharing, e-mailing, and talks we met up in Brooklyn a few days before the concerts to put everything together. I made three quilts using some of MSHR’s imagery printed on fabrics and they made a video to be projected on one of the quilts. We both made six quadraphonic generative musical ecosystems we controlled with MSHR’s self-made sonic interfaces. Working on these projects felt like an endless Christmas, having all these wonderful files waiting for you in the shared folder every other morning.

Any future or ongoing plans with MSHR?

We are planning to perform a version of this piece in Finland next summer and we want to release a recording of the music. I’m sure there will be some other projects in the future too. I feel like our hopes and dreams about what art can do are very similar and working with Brenna and Birch couldn’t be more chill.

Last time we did an interview – in 2004 – I asked about all the music and art happening in Tampere. How have things changed in the last 17(!!!) years? It seems like a lot of the same artists are still around and doing interesting things…

Lots of water have flown under the Bridge of Häme. The city of Tampere grows fast and even if they killed the art school lot of young creative spirits seem to drift here. For the last two years, I’ve only been to one live show in Tampere so we’ll see what it will be like after things have cleared up a little.

The last interview was seventeen years ago?! I probably thought I was an underground veteran back then when in fact my adventures were just about to start!

How do your environment and surroundings continue to inspire and influence your creative practice?

There’s really no short answer to this and I’m afraid I don’t know how to do long ones.

Like with everyone else my surroundings have been limited during the last two years and I suppose that has made me more observant of what is happening right around me, in my everyday life. At the same time, entering the parenting zone and trying to work on art at the same time has made me less in touch with what’s actually going on in the world.

My life’s busier now and I rarely get to follow an impulse right away. Making notes about the stuff that I find interesting has become even more crucial.

If the internet counts as surroundings I’ve made the conscious effort to try to escape the algorithmic paths, and get lost on the Internet like in the old days. Trying to find some more offbeat data to chew on. When talking about the internet, “offbeat” might actually mean something “sobering.”

Photo by Janne Rantanen

Any particular favorite albums or moments from 2021?

I listened to more new music last year than I’ve done in a while. Some favorite albums that I’ve been going back to: id m theft able: “Well I Fell in Love With the Eye at the Bottom of the Well”, Polonius: “Son of Checkmate Eternal Warriors”, Boom Edan: “2021”, Nite Lite: “Landcestors”, Lucy & Aaron, Ora Clementi: “Sylva Sylvarum”, Luokkanen & Tanner: “Kvanillo”, Perfect Angels: “Exit from The Ultra World”, DJ Lycox: “LYCOXERA”, Heta Bilaletdin: “Nauhoi”, Wobbly: “Popular Monitress”, Roope Eronen: “The Inflatable Worlds”, Foodman: “Yarusagi Land”. Getting to visit the Milford Graves exhibition “Fundamental Frequency” at Artists Space was definitely a highlight I won’t forget!

What are you looking forward to in 2022 and what are you working on? Any new Kemialliset Ystävät recordings in the works?

I have quite a few visual art-related ideas I want to explore. I hope I can find enough time for free experimentation and failure so that something fresh could come up. I will be making some new solo music and most likely we’ll finish our Kaloja album with Paul F.Ampish. I don’t have any KY plans at the moment but who knows maybe KY has plans for me?!   

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