Feature Interview

Jori Hulkkonen: The dangerous appeal of nostalgia 

Finnish DJ and producer extraordinaire, Jori Hulkonnen, is set to touchdown in South Africa in September for two exclusive shows. In Johannesburg he will be hosted at the esteemed Inner city. Outer space. event at And Club. The event brand and club space is a respected platform for techno, house and electronica in SA which makes this pairing both serendipitous and inevitable.

With a career spanning more than 25 years, Hulkonnen is responsible for more releases, collaborations and performance pseudonyms than many of us are aware. Most notably his collaboration with Tiga on “Sunglasses at Night” and his live orchestral project, Acid Symphony Orchestra. In a recent interview we discussed growing up in Finland, choosing synth pop over heavy metal, and his never-ending love affair with the Roland TR808.

Angela Weickl: You’re coming to South Africa in September to play two shows. What is your current impression of the country and what are you hoping to discover or experience while you are here?

Jori Hulkkonen: I have some friends who’ve come there to play quite a bit, such as Andy Compton of The Rurals fame or Nick Holder who have told me great things about the country. So my expectations are incredibly high! In addition to dwelling in the nightlife I’m very excited about the chance to experience the local nature.

AW: At a glance it would seem that yourself and Darude are the biggest Finnish music exports, what local music influenced you in your early years as a producer and are there any contemporary Finnish artists who you feel are noteworthy?

JH: It’s true that traditionally there really hasn’t been that much of music export from Finland, as opposed to our fellow scandinavians Sweden and Norway. Commercially speaking the biggest success has surely been in the heavy metal market which has spawned quite a few acts for worldwide fame. But in the electronic side of things artists such as Jimi Tenor or the late MIka Vainio/Pan Sonic have been around since the early ’90s. Also artists such as Yotto, Morphology, Vladislav Delay, and Sasse have built quite a career in the electronic scene, just to name a few. Back when I started out in the mid-late 80s though, there weren’t really any local artists who would’ve been of any interest. Although, a lot of the traditional folk-based music has certainly left its mark on my psyche.

AW: Outside of your homeland, what music influenced and inspired you to become a producer, which artists helped shape your sound and how do you remain inspired up until this day?

JH: I come from the north of Finland, a town called Kemi which is very close to the Swedish border, so when I was a kid I was very fortunate to be able to tune into Swedish TV and radio which in the late ’70s and ’80s were quite advanced when it came to pop culture – at least compared to Finland. So I picked up a lot of things from there, including a lot of Swedish music.

Finland has quite a long tradition in rock and heavy metal, so back at school when all the other kids were into their Kiss, WASP or Twisted Sister, I was always more interested in O.M.D., Depeche Mode, Bowie or Kraftwerk, or from Sweden some artists like Adolphson&Falk. So that’s how I discovered electronic music, thru synth pop, new wave and more experimental side of things. Eventually in the mid-80s the radio shows started playing the early electro, house and techno coming from the USA, and that was a real revelation: realizing you could make this music without being in a band nor having a traditional musical training. So I got my first gear back in 1988 at the age of 15 and started experimenting.

AW: You place a strong emphasis on your hardware setup both in studio and for your live shows. Which pieces of gear have remained in your repertoire since the very beginning and what, if anything, has revolutionized the game for you?

JH: Because I come from an era where it was all about hardware, and having certain pieces of equipment doing a specific job, rather than a software emulation, it has stayed as my preferred way of working. Also, the way hardware allows you to approach creating sounds and unique signal paths you end up coming up with a sound that truly is unique – a task that is a lot harder with software/computer-based production. I try not to become too attached to any piece of gear; they are tools, and I like getting rid of certain pieces after I feel I’m done with them and getting something new in the studio as it keeps things fresh. But naturally there are some vintage gear I’ve had forever and which are the backbone of my way of working, such as the TR-808 drum machine which I doubt I’ll ever give up.

AW: Performing at outdoor festivals is a different experience to playing in clubs, which environment do you prefer?

JH: Coming from the north of Finland where we’re confined indoors some 9 months a year, I still, after all these years, enjoy the possibility to play outdoors. But naturally sweaty, small clubs are where the roots of this culture lie… so it really comes down to the actual party and naturally the people.

AW: What is the most challenging part of playing live and what is the greatest reward?

JH: It’s all about the balance. You need to be able to come up with a performance that musically makes sense; it needs to satisfy the connoisseur and the novice alike, it needs to make people dance, but at the same time you wanna give something more than just a happy-feel good-times. The music needs to have depth some of your fans may find in your records, but also have the instant approachability that works on the dancefloor. And there needs to be a structure, there needs to be logic to the structure, and the logic should not be predetermined, but the the artist should be able to read the crowd and adapt the performance without crossing the artist’s own boundaries. And you need to make it look like you’re enjoying it – which you hopefully are. For me the greatest reward is the performance itself.

AW: Which era in music is your favourite and what song do you wish you had written?

I think nostalgia is the most dangerous thing for someone working in music… the minute you start looking back you lose the focus of what’s to come. But having said that, it’s important to know your roots and history of the music. I’d like to say my fave era is the 2030s, but there’s no denying that growing up in the ’80s has left its mark, and if were to list my all time fave records, a big chunk of the most influential stuff came from that period when the new music technology, synths, drum machines and most notably samplers, broke through and created all these new genres within just a few years. It really was a remarkable, inspiring and unique time in music. A song I wish I’d written? “Being Boring” by the Pet Shop Boys.

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Jori Hulkkonen is also set to play Wolfkop Weekender in Cape Town.