Foggy Notions Interview
Words / Pictures: Melissa Doran
"My dad was always saying that the first people who moved to Finland must have been complete nutcases to like that kind of a place, where it's so dark and so light," Says Esa Ruoho, the quietly spoken Fin, who is Lackluster.
Go find his music in the electronic section, and a trial listen through his back catalogue will reveal the workings of an old fashioned beats-with-everything man - some of the most beautiful blissed-out, melodious tracks, complete with high doses of happy factor. That's then juxtaposed with the next track being an unnerving glitchfest, underlayered with so many sinister distortions that you'd have to do a little monster check under the bed before lights out.
Ruoho's been living in Dublin since January 2004, to be with his girlfriend, and to play some gigs, and is now about to leave, returning home to Helsinki.
We begin the interview and he launches into a strange account of the circumstances which lead up to his most prolific times, pre-Ireland, and the composing of the main bulk of his Merck released Showcase album. Like many a struggling artist, his fatherland was on his back, offering career guidance.
"Around '97 or so I got my calling papers to go to do conscription," he begins. "Ah it's really brilliant! First we have this movie which was all like (adopt a rousing propaganda voice) 'Go to the army! You'll find a mate! You'll be great! You'll be attractive to the opposite sex and it'll be really brilliant!" Then after that you've got maybe two, three, or four hundred questions that you have to answers truthfully and the questions are absolutely priceless!" He pauses to have a little head-shaking chuckle. 'Do you feel that there's a wire stranding your head? Like, a hoola hoop is squeezing your head? Have you ever thought really horrible things about the people you love? Have you thought about being a flower gardener? Do you have mad nightmares? And stuff like that. I answered them and the first year they gave me a reprieve for a year, which basically meant they thought I was completely nuts but they thought I might improve after a year.
"The next year," he continues, "apparently my answers were so preposterous - they were truthful by the way - that I had to be taken to a psychiatrist to verify whether I was completely insane or not and that person gave me a two or three year reprieve. But then the next year I was unemployed and I decided that I would go to the civil service, and I got my, you know, nut case papers removed by going to a psychiatrist and convincing them that I wasn't nuts.
"I finally got called to Civil Service for November, so I go to Social Welfare and tell them I'm called for Civil Service, I can't get a job, I can't take vocational training, I can't go to school, I can't do anything, can you give me money until November? And they were like, 'ok'. So I sat around at home from July to November. If you take any note of Showcase you will realise that most of those tracks were made between October and November '99, and that was basically my most productive time because I didn't have to worry about money, it was always gonna come. I had nothing to do, nowhere to go...I'm still hoping that something like that will happen again."
Ruoho's album, Spaces, the second album made under the auspices of the Finnish government, was also the second album of his to be released. (Showcase ended up being released as his fourth). It came out under his birth name, released by U-Cover. It's fantastically claustrophobic and dark. This makes perfect sense when the circumstances surrounding its formation are revealed. "I made it whilst I was doing my Civil Service in Helsinki County Jail," he begins. "I was an I.T. help desk person in there so I had a lot of time on my hands, helping the secretaries. But I'd been going into the prison areas to eat my lunch, and that wasn't, obviously, the typical romanticised, big lunch room kind of thing that you see on the telly, but it was more for the guards, and they basically picked on me because they were all like 'I went to the army and you're just a long haired hippie you...'
The winter will fall around Esa pretty soon after he returns, sparing only a few hours of sunlight per day. "Whatever it is with Finnish musicians," he explains, "say people who make drum and bass stuff, when it's summer they're all making like, atmospheric, rolled piano, bright, fun, drum and bass, jungle stuff. But whenever the winter comes they're doing dark sets, with the hoover bass line - (that deep, wonky, straight-from-speakers-to-your-gut sound/sensation). And it's really really really dark."
So, how has this past year and a half of regular sunshine affected him? "It was refreshing to be here, I feel like I've changed, grown, 'cos I haven't really been in a new place this long; lived in a relationship this long, and kind of been out of touch with my mates over the 'net for so long...I know now a little bit better about how I'm put together. A friend of mine has thought about me that something's happened in my music, that it's a bit more grown, that it's changed."
Part of this change can be heard on one of his new albums, Slice, another released on U-Cover. This album is his baby. He loves it completely, and for one prone to complaining, there's nothing on it that he's not happy with. It's full of really heavy, focused, detailed pieces, here with synth pulses guiding you through a ghostly underworld, and there with a step into the strobe lights for a little boogie.
His second release this year, out by the end of October, is called What You Want Isn't What You Need and will be released on New Speak. He explains the title as being "a kind of a pun on the people who still want Container stuff." He tells me that most of hte labels that get in touch with him are still harping on about this very successful debut, the Focus release from 2000, whose commercial success was never matched by his subsequent releases.
"I hope that the majority of people who love Container and think that it's the best thing I've ever done will listen to that (What You Want Isn't What You Need) and say 'yeah, it's more of the same but we want something else,' and then they might check out Slice... I'm leaving breadcrumbs maybe, so that someone might realise that something's been going on since Container."
With the immensely prolific output of what will be seven albums in five years, it's surprising to hear that only a fraction of his material has been released. "I've got loads and loads and loads and loads of unfinished work," he states, with the stereotypically impassive Finnish delivery, "that doesn't really get finished because either my machine isn't fast enough, or, it's too difficult to know where to take it...a lot of my stuff is left on the cutting room table because I can't finish it," he explains. "If you have a band playing, that band doesn't stop at the highest point of the song because the guitar player has forgot how to play, it doesn't all grind to a halt. Whereas when I work, that's exactly what happens. At the highest point when I work I want to do this and I want to do that, but I can't because ...of unmusical technical difficulties."
Couple this with physical listening difficulties and it gets a lot trickier to fathom how he gets stuff finished at all. "On account of my ears I don't spend much time tweaking sounds...If I'm looking for a new sound my ears might get shot immediately. [Then] I'm normally licking my wounds for a day and a half. But the thing is that that might lead to like, days and days of me just moping around not doing anything."
This ear damage became apparent to him about three years ago. "At some point of time I was just really into making stuff very crunchy and I really paid for it. Basically, I'd have headphones on; I'd tweak everything to the max so everything would be really like, skittery skattery on the high end. And at the same time my ears would get really tired. And since I had such good headphones it got to the point where I was just wrecking my ears constantly. Also, faulty programmes would explode in my ears."
Ruoho is heading back into his old local scene, one which he inhabits with fellow Fin and electronic producer, Lassi Nikki, aka Brothomstates. There would be a Lackluster collaboration with him, if with anyone, if Ruoho somehow managed to have a second brain, "that woudn't go into conniptions". He recalls one of the unsuccessful collaboration attempts:
"This me and Brothomstates thing is funny because we were supposed to play together at a gig, and he came over to my place and we plugged everything in. He had his sound card and his laptop, and I had my laptop, we'd got everything right, everything was hooked up, everything was ok. And we launched programmes and he made a sound and immediately his laptop fried, it completely like, died, and he went home, and he spent twenty-four hours in a row trying to fix the machine up. Then he had an insulin shock, because he's got diabetes but that's neither here nor there, but he collapsed, ended up in a hospital for a few days, missed the whole gig, and I had to play on my own without having basically practised anything...I mean, we were supposed to jam, and then his machine's memory chips give away and completely fry, and he himself ended up in hospital so I mean...I obviously blamed myself as I am wont to do..."
Esa doesn't appear overly excited about leaving. The Irish audience warmed to him immediately, from hearing him on Donal Dineen's radio show, to his first appearance, and his first ever festival headliner, at Mór in 2003. He released his Remixselection_one album through Dublin's Psychonavigation label here, and he played regularly at various electronic nights. "There'd be loads and loads and loads more going on in Dublin, gigs wise, than over in Finland. But that doesn't mean that's there's not gigs, it's just that over here I'd be more interested in going out to see stuff... See, over there they don't have the smoking ban. So I'm going to be battling the noise, the tobacco, the cost of everything, my preconceptions of other people, my negative perception of myself, and you know, the Finish mentality and everything. So, am I gonna see some gigs? Maybe, I dunno."