Raoul Bjorkenheim: Guitarist Between Two Continents

Anthony Shaw BY

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I made a record called Apocalypso, and it's a thing originally made with 30 guitars and 8 bass players and 4 drummers. So I got a grant to do it, and went into the studio and I did all the overdubs myself.
Raoul Bjorkenheim is a guitarist born and brought up in the States by his Finnish mother. After completing studies at Berklee he has spent most of his professional life between the two countries, working with the likes of Finnish percussionist/composer Edward Vesala or progressive producer/bassist Bill Laswell. He achieved recognition on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1990's with his own band Krakatau with two stunning recordings Ritual and Alive, the former now being rereleased on Cuneiform. The next two albums, Volition and Matinale, were also instrumental in establishing Krakatau's cred- entials, and there is talk of them being put out 'soon' on ECM.

I caught Raoul Bjorkenheim in the Tse Tse Club Helsinki earlier in May, playing one of his last concerts with his current trio in Finland before his move to New York at the beginning of June. An accidental meeting at the bar lead to a telephone interview a few days later catching him in the middle of his packing. The contrast between the intensity of that club atmosphere filled with the howls and hubris of Bjorkenheim's guitar, bass of Hannu Rantanen and drums of Mikko Hassinen, and the affability of the man at the end of the phone was hard to reconcile. A similar extreme of style is suggested by the 2-word synopsis of Bjorkenheim offered by AMG: dark and ambient. At least in Finland most people associate him with the introspective, arching, aching guitar work he created in the late 1980's with Krakatau. But further research of his portfolio (readily available at www.musicfinland.com/bjorkenheim) provides ample evidence of a broader depth of sound. Two contrasting examples are his collaborations with guitarist/bouzouki maestro Nicky Skopeltis on Revelation (Douglas Music 1997), or his work with the Finnish big band UMO, referred to in the interview. The discussion also reveals the current directions his music is taking him, and what he hopes for on his return to the US.

AAJ: OK maybe I can start off by asking about recent developments and future plans—Â...

RB: Well you'll see on the homepage all the basic information, though you'll notice it's written in rather a trendy tone - we were really trying to get more of a rock feeling to it then. We have been getting quite young audiences lately.

AAJ: Yuh, when I saw you last week in the Tse Tse club it was a very mixed audience.

RB: Yes, at the club it was. But very often at jazz concerts you know the average age is around 40. But the Tse Tse has a different audience, a little younger.

AAJ: OK, so can I ask something about the current juncture?

RB: Well it's a very simple thing really: our rent here was being raised by 50%, and at the same time I had the offer of a flat in New York. It's been a financial disaster living in Finland since you don't make that much money with anything to do with music. I've been teaching here in Sibelius Academy, and doing a little bit of gigging, but also I've been doing some compositional work. I got a grant a write some music, but that sort of work is few and far between. So it's been kind of a scrounging type of existence here. I know it's not going to be a bed of roses there. But I do have some good contacts there, so not least I'll get the chance to play with some good musicians there. I think that's one of my main motivations of going to America: to get a fresh perspective on things. Finland is so isolated in a way, although I feel very at home and part of it. But then again it will be interesting to be in a situation where I don't have anything - just me in a situation where you just have to play.

AAJ: Is that something you haven't had the chance to do over here?

RB: Well I've had that situation—like I was invited to play with Bill Laswell and Nicky Skopelitis' band Ekstasis and we played a gig in Warsaw, where we had just one rehearsal before. It turned out to be a very nice gig. I realised then that I have learnt quite a lot, and have a lot of tools to work with; so I guess it's that kind of experience that I'm looking for. Not that I'm under any illusions, that it will be a bed of roses. You know American musicians usually come to Europe to make their money - in America they just teach!

AAJ: So is it true to say you're going back to the US in search of new stimulus?

RB: I think it's going to be very useful to go and check out those clubs of course - it's a place I have a strong affection for. There's a very strong saxophone tradition. I usually don't listen to guitar players much. I don't feel they have much to offer. Sax players are better story-tellers

AAJ: Yes, I read on one of the covers that you see yourself not so much as a guitarist's guitarist but a saxophonist's guitarist!

RB: I didn't write that but I guess it still applies. There's been a time when I've been reassessing the guitar and playing things that are very deliberately guitaristic, like legato with the left hand, where you get very smooth flowing lines, which you can mix with very rhythmic things that would usually be associated with a saxophonist. That's what I've been working on. So I'm sure that by going listening to Wayne Crantz a couple of evenings it will be a good challenge, and an incentive to keep working.

AAJ: Have you been doing things with saxophonists lately? When I saw you in Helsinki you were working with a 3-piece. Earlier you were working with the modern Finnish bigband UMO. Is it something you have missed?

RB: No, no. We had a saxophonist in the band (Krakatau) for six or seven years - Jone Takamaki. But we also have a big band together called Suhkan Uhka (an untranslatable Finnish pun - I think)) though it's not on the home page yet. It's a large band, with four wind instruments. I also played a gig in Sicily with Tim Hagan the trumpet player - a Tribute to Miles, though we didn't do any Miles pieces! (For those pieces see Electrifying Miles with UMO, Bjorkenheim and Hagen, A-Records AL 73153) So I have had quite a share of playing with wind players.

But I do like playing with guitarists. I've just been playing bass on a rock recording. That was a nice challenge for me to get into the groove with the drummer.

AAJ: And you did this as...

RB:...not under a pseudonym?

RB: Yes, yes. It was one of my ploys - with not enough work as a guitarist I thought there might be the possibility of some work as a pre-rhythm bass. Actually the record I did was with a guy called Jukka Orma, who played with a Finnish punk/rock band called Sielun Veljet. So we did the record with him, and a guy who played with Krakatau called Affe Forsman. And we'd played so many years together, although I'd always been on guitar, that it was very easy to get into the groove.

AAJ: So you're off to the States with an open book?

RB: Well I know some things are brewing. First of all a record I made called Apocalypso, and it's a thing originally made with 30 guitars and 8 bass players and 4 drummers. So I got a grant to do it, and went into the studio and I did all the overdubs myself. It's a record on which I played the whole orchestra - and I designed the cover and produced it as well - so it's something I can really stand behind. That's coming out in September on Cuneiform.

Then there's a compilation of acoustic guitar playing coming out next fall, compiled by Henry Kaiser. I did a record with him a couple of years ago. There are going to be people like Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadborn, Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser of course. I hope this will lead to someone hearing this and calling me and offering a gig, and that will lead to something else. My experience of whenever being in doubt is to just go ahead and do it, because it usually leads to something else anyway!

AAJ: So will you be coming back to Europe soon? You mentioned to me that you would be playing in some festivals...

RB: Oh yes definitely. I have a commissioned work for Avanti, the (modern Finnish) chamber orchestra. That's going to be performed in Porvoo, Finland next summer. That's for violin, electric guitar and orchestra. Now I have finally got rid of this one behemoth, the Apocalypso album, I can concentrate on compositional work.

But my main love is playing in trios, and that's what I hope I'll be doing more.Two months ago I came back from a little tour with these Norwegian musicians called Scorch Trio, a little bit like Scorchio. They tour very often in America with Mats Gustafsson the Swedish saxophone player. And they also play with Kim Vandermark the American saxophonist from Chicago, and their bassist plays with Hamid Drake.

AAJ: So they're in the same vein as you, spending time between Europe and the States?

RB: Yes hopefully, that would be ideal. Well I also expect to do something with Bill Laswell , but that again takes me away from the jazz area. But I wouldn't mind every now and then travelling to Chicago and playing a weekend there, or going down to Oakland to do a gig. I still haven't played the Fillmore West. I still want to do that.

AAJ: You've not made it yet!

RB: No, but I will!

AAJ: OK, how about time for your "ambient music"? That was something I saw on your homepage, and you'd obviously enjoyed doing it at the time, and writing it up!

RB: You mean Phantom City. That's a very nice project. The first one was done by Paul Schutze, an Australian. Well he's been living in London, and he put together a soundscape which he sent to Bill Laswell to add some bass, and then it was sent to me to add guitar. Then it went to Seattle for some trombone - basically it went to 7 different countries, before it was eventually mixed by Paul in Basel. It was like a virtual band. It didn't exist in real time. But then we got a couple of gigs, and it was so easy to lock into what Bill Laswell was doing.

AAJ: And you made one live recording of that band?

RB: Yes Shiva Recoil is released (Virgin AMBT 21). But it's unfortunate these ambient records are hard to find nowadays because they are out of print. I have only one copy myself of them. At the time Virgin did a series on ambient discs, but only pressed a small volume of them. So now that the series is finished they're not reprinting any of them.

AAJ: And it's too early for any re-release?

RB: Yes, and it's too bad because the first one we did, we recorded sending it back and forth, is called Site Anubis (Big Cat ABB 106). I think it's one of the nicest records I've ever done.

On this high note the interview dissolved into Finnish, with Bjorkenheim rushing into his kitchen to save his son Cosmo from burning their supper on the kitchen stove! How the artist must struggle for his daily bread!

I am now eagerly awaiting Raoul Bjorkenheim's return to these Scandinavian shores in summer 2002, and very jealous of any New Yorkers who spot his name on the gig list of their local club - don't miss him, he may soon be appearing near you!

Visit Raoul Bjorkenheim on the web.

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