I rarely interview musicians I haven’t been a fan of for a long time, so I’m used to them warming to me rather quickly. Jim wasn’t quite that easy to win over. In retrospect, I think he was still recovering from the loss of his close friend Ronnie. I also heard that the murder of John Lennon had hit him hard. He seemed tired from the start and, perhaps, a bit depressed. But it got a lot better as we went along and ended up being a really nice interview with a lot of laughter and smiles. We went to a restaurant together in the evening, after a gig with his band The Surfin’ Pumpkins, and stayed sporadically in touch over the years.
I don’t always keep the interviews I make. But I have kept and cherished this one, as I still cherish the memory of meeting the man who has enriched my life so much with his pure genius for writing songs and lyrics. Is he internationally underrated? Grotesquely! But the recordings won’t go away and some day, I’m sure, the world will finally catch up with Jim and fully understand just what it has been missing.
Claes Johansen, January 2007
Claes Johansen: So what about rubbish this season – do we have to pray for improvement?
Jim Pembroke [laughs]: I don't know ... improvement in rubbish! Let's say it can't get worse in some ways, I suppose, so the only way is up! I'm just trying to keep on making new songs. We've got this new band called The Surfin' Pumpkins, oh yes, we're gonna arrive with a splash ... maybe. We got about half an LP's worth of material ready and the intention is to get it together by the end of this year so that we'll be able to make a new record by the beginning of next year. It's been some time now since I've made anything of my own.
Party Upstairs was the last one.
That's right and that was mainly solo with just a guitar and piano. In the meantime I've been doing a lot for different singers here, writing a lot for other people. With a fair amount of success, too.
The odd single ...
Here and there, yeah.
It's hard to keep in touch from a Danish point of view.
I'm sad to hear that because Denmark was always one of the nicest places for Wigwam to play. We sometimes got the feeling that we were as popular, if not more, in Denmark as we were in Finland. We had some great receptions in Aarhus and Copenhagen. We played the ... I forget the name of the big festival.
Yeah, we did a couple of tours in Denmark and could have done a lot more, I reckon, but it never came off. But Denmark's always been a nice place. Maybe we will find ourselves playing there with our Surfin' Pumpkins next year. You never know. Would be nice. [Unfortunately, this never happened, but I saw the Surfin' Pumpkins play at a couple of places in Helsinki around this time and they were excellent, cj.]
Then I'll have to write the complete life story of Jim Pembroke first so people will come and see this geezer and find out what he's up to. So, are you Finnish or are you English? Well, you obviously weren't born here.
No, I was born in London, but I get by here. I've been here long enough. Something has to sink in. It's the exception now that a word in Finnish comes up that is not familiar to me. I know just about all the words and nearly all of the meanings. After all, I've been her almost half of my life now. Well, it's getting to be that, seventeen years.
Never felt like going back?
Not really, no. I came back from New York three weeks ago. I was there for a month, and New York was a place where it would be nice to stay part of the year, say a quarter of it, and as far as England is concerned it would be nice to spend part of the year there. But my base has been Helsinki now for all these years and I can't see any changes coming up in that department, at least for the time being. I have my child here and I have my work. I find that I have enough to get on with here.
Do you have a job besides being a musician?
No, not really. My main thing is writing songs and then I write quite a few lyrics to other people's songs. There aren't too many people here who write half-way decent lyrics in English and I find a demand for it.
Do you save the best ones for yourself?
I always try to but with the way it's been over the last three-four years I always let them go anyway, and most of the time people have made very good versions of my stuff. But there are some things I would have liked to do myself and I probably will try to some time. Songs of mine that other people have recorded, like Kojo and Riki Sorsa and Remu & the Hurriganes.
Royals, too. They're part of history now, of course.
Your lyrics often seem to be about leaving. Either the main character is leaving someone, or somebody is leaving him. Do you think that has anything to do with your own departure from England?
I suppose it is related in some subconscious way. I don't know. I guess it is also because some of the greatest songs ever written aren't about feeling good. They're about feeling not so good. Songs like 'I heard it Through the Grapevine'. Well, these songs are not about feeling good, but they make you feel good because they are such good songs. If a song like that was about a happy sunny day on the beach it wouldn't be the same. The sadness gives it that intensity ... the blues, you know. That's where I started, really, along with the Beatles and the Stones. Rhythm & Blues was my starting point and it's always the thing I come back to. The blues started me off, really, along with all the stuff that came out of America in the late fifties.
Let us get it all straight from the beginning, then. You were born in January 1946.
What kind of background did you have socially in England? And in which part of the country?
I'm from North England [in fact, North London, cj.]. I come from a normal working class family. But I'm no working class hero. I got accepted into Art College at whatever age and quickly became disillusioned about it because I had the totally wrong idea about what Art College was. I thought it must be one of the grooviest places in the world. In a way it was and still is. But it was also just like being back at school again. And in between came things like rehearsing with bands, friends and that, and when I was sixteen or seventeen music took over.
What about 'A' levels?
I got a lot of 'A' levels, that's why I got accepted into Art School. A, B, B-Minor, C-Major, that's my alphabet.
So you really got into music when you were still living in England?
Very much so. But at that time I had no intention of making a career out of music at all. I didn't even have that when I first came to Finland. Actually, I had a job at what I was supposed to be, in an art studio in London. Good enough job but it just wasn't interesting. You achieve what you think is the thing you want and for me it was a job in a commercial art studio, designing and so on. But it was the same as with Art School, the pull of music ... nothing else held any interest for me, really. We had teenage bands already. The Stones and Downliner's Sect who were all over London. London was the big R&B place in 1962, 1963 and 1964. This is the old story with the Beatles all mixed up in it. I dug the Beatles for their way-out music. It really sounded way-out at the time in the sense that it wasn't just the 12-bar blues any more, which is what most of us grew up on. Easy to play, though I didn't play anything. I just sung. I was always the singer. In the end I discovered that it wasn't difficult to play a 12-bar blues. But music, what it actually means on paper and how to do it, that came along with the Beatles. They turned me on to actual music, you may say, in the way that I'd be wondering, 'Well, why does it sound like this, what chord is this?' So I gradually started teaching myself all the chords, first on guitar. Then one day I had this great idea: since I was making songs already the piano would be a handy thing to compose on. You've got your left hand for the bass or the chords and you can fumble with the melody with your right hand, and you've still got the voice, too. So that's three instruments in a way, whereas with the guitar you've only got two. At least that's what I thought. So I found myself wandering through the chords, five hundred thousand chords or whatever.
While you were still in England?
No, actually, I was in Finland when I started getting into the piano.
When exactly did you move here? Pretty early on?
I came the first time in 1965 and stayed a year. I thought, 'Well, that's enough, done Finland.' Went home to England and found myself back here in Helsinki again six months later because I realised that things hadn’t changed in England at all. I found the same negative things were happening to me. Well, I just came back! And funnily enough, the first night I was back I bumped into Måns Groundstroem who had this idea of a band called the Blues Section. So it was just like walking straight into a whole new chapter of my life. I didn’t realize it was going to lead to things like Wigwam. But you get offers thrown at you and you try to take it as a challenge. People would ask me for songs and I’d give it a go and usually come up with something. This is mainly after Wigwam folded, after 1977 I suppose. But the problem is that if you write a song today and it’s recorded tomorrow and it’s a hit next week, that doesn’t mean you’ll see any money for maybe a year or eighteen months even ... if you see any at all, what with the tax man and things. But I’m not complaining about that. I’ve found that work gets thrown at me so I try to do my best.
You didn’t actually appear on any records in England?
No, no. In fact, the whole music thing only started for real here in Finland. Even when I came to Finland the second time I still hadn’t any ideas about playing music on an everyday professional basis because I didn’t particularly see it as a very steady profession. But in the end you find that you have to do things and in my case I was able to do so many that I just kept going. After Art School I thought, 'Well, if I want to learn anything from now on I won’t go to a place like that to learn it, I’ll just try to teach myself.’ So music came up and the first thing I thought was, ‘Right, I won’t take any music lessons. I’ll try to sort it all out for myself.’ I studied thousands of songs, went through all the Beatles material, went through everything by Dylan and the Band, through Hollywood musicals and Glen Miller, just for the fun of it. I went through thousands of songs, which I most cases I can’t remember now. But I did it for the fun of it. It wasn’t like a task. I don’t know if my lack of formal training makes me come up with something original by accident. The laws of music have to be broken! Well, let’s say I try not to be too conventional musically, and once in a while it makes for something original. At least I hope so.
You certainly have an ability to make your music and lyrics fit together.
I always like writing and doodling ... funny stories and things.
One might suggest that a British person would inherit a certain sense of the absurd from writers such as Lewis Carroll.
Lennon surely was a fan.
Well, I’ve always been an admirer of Lennon’s stuff because he didn’t compromise. Songs like ‘Lucy in the Sky’ and ‘A Day in Life’ ... it’s hard for others to keep up with that kind of level and I guess John himself had some difficulties with it, too.
Going back a bit now, you started playing in Blues Section along with Ronnie Österberg and Måns Groundstroem.
Yes, and Hasse Walli and Eero Koivistoinen. They were jazzers and we put that band together not thinking it would be any overnight success or anything, it was just that people were getting into the blues at that time. John Mayall had started to appear in Scandinavia and I had been listening to him since before I came to Finland. I knew about it and I really liked it already so getting a group like the Blues Section started was very easy. The funny thing is that it became almost overnight the most popular band here in Finland and stayed that way as long as it was going, which was about a year or so.
You made one album and a few singles.
Yeah, some of my first attempts at serious song writing were on those records. Funnily enough, we still do one or two of them today.
Judging from those early songs you were very much into the Beatles, but also into other artists.
That’s when the Band came along, and Procol Harum. Also, Stevie Winwood was always one of my favourites.
It’s funny because the Band and Procol Harum inspired each other as well.
Both were two-keyboard set-ups. With Procol I liked the classical approach and with the Band I liked the country blues and rock vein. But Blues Section was a band which was totally different on record from what it was on stage. We didn’t do the songs from the records ‘live’. Mainly, we just did the basic blues materiel. It was very much a band that improvised. I wrote some bluesy songs at that time, too, though most of my writing was based around not too familiar chords and a bit of melody. I was always into that, but at the same time I always liked Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, quite simply for the feel.
The Blues Section disbanded and Wigwam came along. Who was in that band from the beginning?
Ronnie Österberg, Nikke Nikamo and Mats Hulden. We started off as a four piece and did a single called ‘Must be the Devil’. But then Jukka Gustavson joined and we started making LPs. When Pekka Pohjola joined on bass we were back to a four-piece again. We then had a band where three people wrote music. There was a lot to sort out. We had no problems with coming up with material, which can perhaps help keeping a band alive longer. There was so much happening. But the trouble was that we could hardly play any of Jukka and Pekka’s stuff on stage, whereas my stuff could be played. It was more simple and straight-forward, I guess. With Pekka and Jukka there would be a lot of arrangements and it was impossible to reproduce on stage. We didn’t need so much of that stuff with my material. It was just the songs as they were.
Quite a few people have told that that your role in the band was quite limited in the beginning. You would jump around on stage, banging a tambourine and sing some harmonies.
You could say that Wigwam at that stage was mainly a trio with an extra singer thrown in, no extra charge. I just did some vocal bits. The others were very virtuoso and there would be quite lengthy instrumental parts. But then I started picking up the piano and we started to bring that into the band, and I started playing it on stage. It was nice to take more part in things. It’s true that before that time I was just waving the maracas and tambourine and doing the singing bits, and in that respect it was very limiting and frustrating.
Did you ever think, ‘What the hell did I come here for?’
No, I was a member and a fan of Wigwam. I dug the whole thing and I just happened to do the vocal part, which in some people’s opinion there could have been a bit more of in the beginning. But it all balanced out as time went by. I found myself able to write stuff and the band would play it. We would do it on stage and people would like it. So I left my stand-up lead singer days and became one of the group.
You mentioned the Band and Procol Harum. But despite the double keyboard set-up these bands were still pretty guitar dominated. Yet Wigwam had no guitarist at all.
We had no guitarist because there was no guitarist we could think of that would fit in. The only one whose name came up was Jukka Tolonen and he had his own thing going so heavily at the time with Tasavallan Presidentti. He had his own measure of success and apart from him there were no serious candidates. But then Rekku Rechardt turned up, gradually.
Before you tell me about that I’d like to hear a bit about Kim Fowley and that part of the story.
Kim Fowley had heard some old Blues Section material and some Wigwam stuff and he phoned me from L.A., saying that he wanted to come over and produce an album for us. I knew him by name. He had become a millionaire as a teenager and blown it all. He was with the Hollywood Argyles – ‘Alley Oop’ – and Napoleon XIV – ‘They’re Coming to take me Away’ – and he was the general loony about town, the possessed! Now he suddenly turned up on the scene here, saying he’s got a lot of royalties from a Byrds song that he wrote. Together we made ‘Tombstone Valentine’ in a few days. We were living in the studio, practically. He was a very, very funny and way-out character, but most people didn’t get his sense of humour at all. He was so outrageous that people would be taken aback.
Especially at that time in a place like Helsinki, perhaps.
Yeah, he was so out of place when he came up here in his outrageous purple suit and wild green shirt and hair standing out. He was very freaky. But he was a nice guy. He also came up and did a song or two at a couple of gigs that we did. He did things like walk over to a table with a table cloth and about fifty bottles on it and say he would rip the table cloth out from under the bottles and nothing would be disturbed. So we had a drum roll and of course all the bottles go all over the place and cause a total chaos. But he would just shrug and say, ‘Oh well, it went wrong.’ Just general things like that. He would try to speak Finnish after two days and go ‘krpfkrssfff’ in a bar trying to order a doughnut or something. And people would very carefully turn away and say, ‘Oh ... funny bloke.’ But I spent quite a lot of time just hanging around with him while he was in Helsinki.
You wrote some songs together.
Well, he’d sit in the studio and have a few NMEs and a few Melody Makers in front of him and cut out one line from here and one line from there, and stick them all together and see if it made a lyric. And he would say, ‘No, that bit there about the moon and the food doesn’t go,’ or he’d cut a bit out about this and that and used cars ... he made lyrics like that. He’d do things like stand up and shout, ‘I have it! My genius tells me ...’ And we’d say, ‘Oh yeah, here we go again!’ No way could there ever be a dull moment with Kim around. I’d like to see him again. He knows I’m still around because a friend or two have been in L.A. now and again and talked to him. As far as I know he is out in Beverly Hills with his cars and things. But he hasn’t been seen in these parts since. Maybe he will make it again. He always turns up once in a while, finds funny bands and promotes them. He’s looking for ‘the new Beatles’ all the time.
Did he convince anybody in Wigwam that this would be your international break-through album?
No, actually it broke up the band. Mats and Nikke couldn’t take his behaviour. But this is more than necessary, I suppose. Still, in a way it was a turning point because after that Pekka Pohjola came in. It was transforming anyway at that time, but having Fowley around in the middle of it all speeded things up. Not long after we found ourselves going with a new band. This went on through Fairyport and Being and a few of my solo albums. We were a quartet until Rekku came in. At that time the line-up was practically breaking up, when Måsse said he was ready to put his bass back on and join. Rekku definitely wanted to carry on. I wanted to go to India but everyone said, ‘Let’s just carry on.’ And so we were a quartet again: Måsse, Rekku, me and Ronnie.
So it was almost a Blues Section reunion.
In a way, yes. It was the rhythm section and the singer from the Blues Section with a new guitarist. We started working on what came to be Nuclear Nightclub in the end, which is probably one of our best known records. People seem to remember that one best, anyway.
It’s a good title. Sticks in you memory.
I got that title from Rekku. It was apparently the name of a school band he had sometime or rather. I thought it would make a nice title and I got a song written around it, based on the image of it. Mats Hulden made the cover and Paavo Maijanen produced the record. Pave was always the phantom member of Wigwam. He’s the master of coming up with things in the studio, harmonies and so on. Pave was connected with quite a few things because of his ability to make things up on the run. One of the things that comes to mind now is on that song ‘Kite’ where the word ‘spirit’ is repeated by a group of voices. He came up with that. It’s actually about six voices and we got quite a sound out of it. Wigwam was always creative in the sense that we would make things up on the spot. That was not the whole thing, of course, but it was always open for anybody to throw in any ideas and Pave was very good at that. He was very patient, too. I would never have the patience to mix things and that side of it all. But you would find these tendencies to perfectionism within the group. The drum sound had to be exact, and the guitar sound and the guitar solos. Rekku would be quite amazing when it came to staying with one thing and not giving up. He was like a dog with a bone until he got it right and that’s a great thing. That was the good thing about that line-up, everyone was giving all they had.
You took in some extra keyboard players from time to time, at least two different players. Esa Kotilainen was one of them.
That was before Hessu Hietanen, also known as Pedro, joined. Kotilainen is another of these masters of instant creation. You ask him to try something and he will come up with some really incredible things. He never joined as a permanent member. He always had other things going on. But then Pedro turned up, who has always been one of the champion keyboard players around these parts and a funny bloke, too.
I’ve seen your name on a few of his solo albums.
Over the last three years Pedro has made a solo LP every year in January and on the one he made last year was an old Russian folk song called ‘Matushka’, which means mother. I wrote an English lyric for it and sang it. It was Number 1 here last summer. I was up north at the end of last week playing a few dates and people played it on the juke box a lot. I heard it playing all the time. You get funny successes like that.
How about getting Wigwam back together again and start touring?
Every summer they have some big concerts here in the Park and the guy who runs them in fact said to me, ‘What about a Wigwam reunion concert next summer?’ I said, ‘Sure, if anybody else is into it.’ But it could never be Wigwam again without Österberg. It would be like the Beatles without Lennon. So in that way Wigwam is gone because Ronnie isn’t around any more. But that doesn’t stop me from going on to the next thing, which is my new band. We play ‘Nuclear Nightclub’ and ‘Freddie are you Ready’ and for me they are every bit as good as Wigwam ever did them. So the music still hangs together. We don’t want to make a new Wigwam out of this band, but we found that some of the songs work so well that we just had to do them. And people here know them.
It is difficult to imagine what a Wigwam reunion would be like, apart from the problems with replacing Ronnie, because the group was so many things over the years. It really changed a lot when Gustavson and Pohjola left.
I suppose you could say there were basically three different Wigwams. There was the Hard and Horny Wigwam with Mats and Nikke; then there was the Being and Fairyport Wigwam with Jukka and Pekka; then it went on to Nuclear Nightclub with Rekku and Måsse. But though the music changed the spirit was always the same, I guess.
I only ever saw Wigwam once, at a gig in Copenhagen. I must admit I was pretty disappointed. It was in December 1977, shortly before you disbanded, in Saltlageret. You all seemed pretty tired.
Saltlageret, yes. I remember. That was a funny gig. Just before we started some character jumped up on stage and came on to me and said, ‘As soon as your guitarist starts playing I’m gonna jump up and hit him.’ I thought, ‘What is this? Who is this character?’ And it put me off, at least. The others asked, ‘What was that, what happened?’ I told them what this guy had said. Now, that’s not the way you welcome a band who try to come and play for you and play well. But that happened, and that was at Saltlageret. I don’t forget that. I wonder what that character’s doing now. You’d like to imagine that things like that don’t bother you. You want to think, ‘Okay, this guy’s got his problems, we just get on with the music.’ But I don’t know. I can’t remember how the gig went ...
The thing that disappointed me was that you all seemed very tired and uninspired. It might be because of what you just said. Esa Kotilainen was on keyboards ...
Yes, and he was absolutely not into the songs at all. Perhaps he knew five or six Wigwam songs, which were what I had come to hear, the songs from the albums. It would have been fine if you had played ten songs by the Band and ten by Procol Harum and ten Wigwam songs, but you played only four or five Wigwam songs, one by the band – which was ‘The Moon Struck One’ – and then you just jammed for the rest of the evening. Not solos within the songs, but hour long jam sessions over sets of chords.
That was probably at the end of one of these sex week tours. We did some of these things and they really blow you out. No excuses or anything, but the thing is that not all gigs can come off. It depends also on whether or not the audience is into it and if you are tired or not, and do you need characters to come up and threaten you before you start. I was pissed off by this type. I don’t remember what he looks like or anything, but if he ever hears this interview he can come up to me sometime and explain what he had in mind. I can give anybody a listen, surely. I don’t know if he remembers, but I do.
Looking back on all the Wigwam albums, which one do you prefer?
I guess Nuclear Nightclub is the easiest one to listen to. For me, that one succeeded the best. There were nice things on different albums, but on the whole I guess Nuclear Nightclub can’t be beaten. All the albums have different appeals, but the sound we got on that one had something fresh and bright and warm and happening about it. It was just a good sound and we happened to have some good songs, too. We had just started a new group, almost, so it was very outward going.
How did you launch your solo career, whilst the group was still going?
The record company said, ‘What about a series of, say, three solo LPs?’ I thought, ‘Okay. I can’t think of three but I could try and think of one.’ I wanted to do something which I could never have dreamed of doing within the Wigwam format, stuff which I would never seriously suggest for Wigwam to play. So I started trying to write all these really strange songs. I said to Pekka, ‘Look, I’m gonna make it so difficult to play on bass that you’re gonna crawl the floor and say, “No more!”’ But Pekka played everything brilliantly and couldn’t be caught out. We had fun making it. It was basically Wigwam as a trio, and Jukka played on a couple of songs. But I was trying to avoid making another Wigwam record because I consciously wanted to make something which would be totally what you wouldn’t expect, and in that way I succeeded. But in the end it turned out that Pekka played bass, Ronnie drums, and Jukka played the organ on the odd song or two. So it’s as phantom Wigwam record, really. People still come up and tell me they like that record. I always like using different kinds of voices and so on. I did it as a faked night club thing with faked guest appearances, all sorts of mad things going on. But then with the next one, Pigworm, things went a little bit back to normal. I had wanted to make my first solo LP as crazy and outrageous as possible, and then a more normal album with Pigworm. With the third LP, Corporal Cauliflower, I had a lot of fun with the lyrics, changing everything around completely. The thing was that when I first came to Finland I had no idea that there was a Finnish language. I got this image of the Finnish language which seemed very funny to me. It just seemed like a lot of wooden blocks. Now, how would English sound if you could imagine it as wooden blocks? That was my starting point. I don’t know if it makes any sense but what I did was that I changed all the meanings around and mixed it all up, threw in a bit of Shakespeare and a bit of James Joyce and generally just tried to let it all fall down and see what would happen. That’s what I did with about three songs. It was such heavy going, however, that I couldn’t make a whole LP like that. I suppose that once again it was an attempt to make something half-way original. Something you wouldn’t normally hear.
After Wigwam broke up you kept a low profile for a while.
I’d had enough of the band thing, actually. I just found myself offered more work from other people, friends of mine who were doing the same thing. I wrote quite a few things for different people and they just became successful. I found that I didn’t necessarily have to be in a band to make a living. But as time goes by you do need a bunch of people who are into playing music, to move you and inspire you to write new stuff. So I gradually found myself playing with different groups here and there. House band, blues bands, all kinds of different things. Pedro’s stuff. Well, I’d be writing, mainly.
Then you formed the Jim Pembroke Band.
It was meant to be a solo thing because, as I said, I wasn’t into getting a band together again straight away. But we gradually found this Jim Pembroke Band coming together for my new solo album project, and it got to be such a good band that we kept it going for a while.
Again, that band looked like a kind of reunion. The bass player, the drummer and the vocalist were all from the early Wigwam line-up.
It was going back again. It’s hard to find other people you can play so easily with. A lot of people have said that the record we made, Flat Broke, is much underrated. I haven’t heard it for a long time but there were a lot of nice things on it, such as ‘Long Lost Cousin’ and ‘Hard Top Lincoln’.
I think it’s the best album you’ve ever been involved with.
Your lyrics ... I don’t know if it’s just me but they leave a very strong impression on me. I seem to perceive them in a sense which is beyond explanation. You can’t understand them as such, it’s more like either you find yourself on the same wavelength or you don’t. You can’t explain it to others except than by saying, ‘I dig this stuff and it means something to me.’ When I got the Flat Broke album I had to lock my door for a week and put the headphones on. ‘White Suspenders’ in particular I find is a great song.
That was me trying to emulate Robbie Robertson from the Band because I always admired his ability to create whole timeless little stories. I dug that about the Band and found that I could do it myself to a certain extend without necessarily feeling that I was copying anybody too much, because it’s a universal thing, really.
It reminds me a bit of Randy Newman, too.
I haven’t heard all his stuff but I’ve heard a lot of it and I really like his things. I’ve a couple of his song books, and even though I haven’t heard all of the songs I still play them in the way I imagine they might sound. If you have got any good Randy Newman tapes then send them to me so I can see just how wrong I’ve been playing his songs!
Warren Zevon is another piano singer-songwriter in the same vain.
I’ve only heard the odd thing and it sounds really good. He’s got glasses, hasn’t he? Plays guitar as well?
Yeah. I’m not surprised to learn you are into these Americans. Sometimes you even seem to sing with a slight American accent.
I guess Americanism just crept in. The truth is that a lot of the influences we had in Wigwam came from America. But then a lot of other influences obviously came from England, too. I didn’t get so much into the West Coast scene, Buffalo Springfield and so on. It sounded all out of tune to me. I was mainly into English bands, but America had ruled the music kingdom for so long, I guess. I used to listen to Dion and Del Shannon and things like that before any musical career started up. Maybe in those days everything in America really was the biggest and the best. It was as bit like that, you know. One tended to automatically consider stuff coming out of America as superior. But the Beatles and the Stones changed all that, musically.
It’s strange, though, hearing you sing in an American accent, using specifically American words.
I don’t consciously try to sing in an American accent. I guess that it just creeps in without me noticing it.
But how do you write? Are you on some sort of dope some of the time? A lot of it seems to be subconscious, particularly around the time of the last two Wigwam albums and your third solo album. Those are the ones where the lyrics are most difficult to get into, for me at least.
My rhythm of writing and things ... well, there really is no rhythm. I’m just working all the time. But it seems that my best stuff comes out at four o’clock in the morning. I guess I’m more of a night owl than a day person. I find that the peace which gives you the chance to write, and maybe think about a thing or two, tends to appear in the wee, wee hours. The night time is the right time. I don’t know if that makes for more subconscious flows or whatever.
You don’t deliberately smoke a joint and then start writing?
I’ve don’t that, sure. But it’s not a general rule. I’ve never really felt that I needed to be stoned to do things.
Did you ever consider the scenario where ten wardens might burst through your door with a straightjacket?
Some of my songs may sound like that. But what happens in a song is not necessarily what is happening to the person writing it. A lot of it is just imagination and situations, like the song ‘Just My Situation’. I just tend to remember something and then use it in a different context. Take a song like ‘Dog Tales’ from the Flat Broke album. That’s roughly based on a series of incidents. But I don’t know what it all means. I don’t really analyse it much.
It’s very funny at times.
I always like a laugh and I don’t think that anything should ever be so dead serious that you can’t have a laugh at it.
‘Dandruff under my egg/And in my cucumber stew/And my sandwiches too ...’
That’s from the Tasavallan Presidentti LP.
‘Gotta change shampoo or something.’
[Laughs] Yeah, I dunno. Maybe I’d drunk too much coffee or something. Also I tend to write ever so often lines and bits of ideas and then I find them one day ...
You don’t fear that the mill might suddenly run dry?
No, not really, because it has become a way of life. I don’t let myself get worried about that. As long as you just carry on with what you do. Say, if you play the guitar ... you can never lean everything about it, and if you think that is the case you may just as well try doing something else. I don’t ever feel I can learn so much about songs writing that it would make me unable to come up with something new. In fact, it took me a long time to get away from the idea that a song has to be tremendously complex to be any good. To some extent that was the attitude I had in the early Wigwam days and there are a few songs from those times where I actually did go all over the place. After that I had to take the long way back to a simpler format. Then you get a thing like Nuclear Nightclub and it’s all pretty straight-forward, but it works. Like a lot of the stuff that came out of America in the late fifties was dead simple, but it had a certain magic about it. It didn’t have to break any new musical ground as such.
Party Upstairs I’d like to talk about. That album is a weird one, isn’t it?
Sure, it’s as weird as I am.
Why didn’t you just do it as a straight piano and voice album?
I could have, but at the time I was doing these duo gigs with Jukka Orma. The whole idea of making the album you’re suggesting had been in the air for three or four years and I’d always said no. I couldn’t imagine that people would listen to anything like that so I just put it off. But it came around that this digital recording machine was brought here and they decided, roughly, that I could be the guinea-pig. With this digital thing you can’t mix and you have to do the whole thing one hundred percent live and play the songs in the right order. If you do the fifth song and you want to do the first one again you have to erase everything else. So it all has to be done very much ‘live’. Perhaps I could have done it with just a piano, looking back, but then I would have done that and couldn’t do such an album now. Anyway, I’m mainly concentrating on getting this new band going.
Has it still got that same old Pembroke flavour?
Perhaps it has all become as bit more rhythmical. This is a band that can play anything: Latin, Calypso, blues and straight rock. Their scope is tremendous and there may be one or two things which have more tom-toms and congas going on now. I don’t know what will happen. With Wigwam we got to the point where we almost broke through, but the last push-through never materialised. There was a time where you could say that Wigwam should have moved to London for six months. But there were things like families and dogs, you know. It was too much of an upheaval. Well, the simple fact was that the guys just wanted to stay in Finland. But there is a big if in the history of Wigwam. If we’d done this and that we could perhaps have gone a lot further. It got to the point with Wigwam where we could do a six week tour and just about cover our costs. We could do, say, Scandinavia. But it got to the point where we said, ‘Well, we don’t want to be touring for six weeks and only just be able to pay for the ticket home.’ We were at that frustrating point where nothing worked except the music. Still, given the choice I would always rather have it that way. I would rather have that than a situation where you have the best equipment, the best roadies, the best hotels, the best places to play with a band that’s lousy. But the whole scene was changing at the time when the going got rough for us, with the punk thing coming on. And that was a good thing in many ways. Perhaps I didn’t like that it was all so negative, though one might argue that by being so negative you’re also being positive in the sense that in order to build you must destroy some things, too. But to just destroy and let it stay at that is not a good idea, of course. Generally, however, I thought that the punk thing was really positive, especially here in Finland, and there was a great reaction to it. In a way it freed the Finnish lyricists. You suddenly had a lot of young groups coming up, screaming things in Finnish which had never been said before. Pretty heavy social comment. Things like that need to be said anywhere, and in that way it was very positive. It was positive in the same vein as, say, the Sex Pistols, and so on. But the violent part of it worries me. We had the chains and the aggro side of it here, too, which I can’t dig in any way.
The problem with Finnish punk internationally is, of course, that nobody but the Finns can understand the language.
That’s it. That’s why there are a lot of good bands here that are never really going to be heard. It can be very frustrating for these people. You can’t you go to, say, Denmark and start screaming in Finnish.
Have you tried writing in Finnish yourself?
I have tried but it comes as natural to me as writing in Chinese, really. But I have tried it, and I’ll try it again sometime.