The dark arts
Finnish musician and writer Kauko Röyhkä on Satanism, taboos and pleasing people.
Published: October 26, 2011 (Issue # 1680)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
Finland’s Kauko Röyhkä pictured in Stirka bar and launderette during a trip to St. Petersburg last week.
Finnish rock musician and author Kauko Röyhkä spent last week in St. Petersburg enjoying old Italian paintings at the Hermitage and immersing himself in the atmosphere of underground music venues such as bunker club Griboyedov.
One of Finland’s leading rock artists, famed for his powerful lyrics, Röyhkä was born Jukka-Pekka Välimaa in 1959 in the small town of Valkeakoski, but grew up in Oulu in northern Finland.
He is now based in Turku, where he lives with his wife Olga, herself a singer and the frontwoman of indie rock band Olga, and their young son.
The St. Petersburg Times caught up with Röyhkä at the local indie bar-cum-launderette Stirka to speak about his musical and literary career, which has resulted in some 25 albums and 15 books.
Is it true that you originally wanted to be an author, but ended up as an author and rock musician by chance?
My first novel and my first record came out at the same time, in September 1980. I’ve been both a writer and a musician from the start.
Isn’t that pretty unusual?
Yeah, in Finland there was nobody like me at that time. Now there are some musicians who have written novels or something. But I am a professional author, I’ve written about 15 books and made maybe 25 albums.
What field do you feel you belong in more?
I don’t know, I like both things and it’s hard to say. There were times when my music was more successful, and other times when my books were more successful. It’s been 31 years now; it’s a long career, many things have happened.
But I also have kind of a weird reputation in Finland. I’ve always been a bad boy, not a typical musician or writer.
Did you study to become a writer?
I studied a bit of literature at Turku University, but only for one year. I left the university when my book and album came out. I’ve been a professional artist for 31 years now: I’m 52 years old, and I was 21 when I started.
What was Finland like at that time?
It was the time of punk rock. The punk rock thing started in 1977. I was never a punk rocker, but a new waver. I liked artists like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, but also older stuff. And I also liked bands like Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Iggy and the Stooges, stuff like that.
But I chose to write in Finnish, because I’m a literary person and I want there to be meaning in my writing. I can speak English, but maybe not so well, so I can’t express my feelings fully; I need my own language to do that. Lyrics are very important to me.
Did many people write songs in Finnish back then?
At that time, yes. It was before we had these big bands like H.I.M. and Nightwish. In the early 1980s, most bands wrote in Finnish. I think it was the beginning of the Finnish rock scene in the Finnish language, because many good bands emerged at that time.
If you write in Finnish, you can’t cross the border; you have to stay in Finland. But I chose that.
Punk rock in the U.K. was fed by political and economic issues under Margaret Thatcher. Was the situation different in Finland?
The punk rock thing in Finland has a social point too, but I think it represented honesty, saying exactly what you mean, and that could be love songs that are very direct and not as romantic as showbiz songs.
Of course, everybody wanted to have hits too, but there was a kind of honesty in the music, and I liked that and have kept it. I write mostly about personal relationships — issues between people and between men and women, things like that.
The first album doesn’t sound too aggressively punk, it’s more like rock and roll.
Yeah, it’s like rock and roll, but I am writing very directly about hatred between people, and jealousy, things like that. It’s about relationships mostly.
And one thing that is very important to me is otherness, the outsider thing — you’re an outsider in this society, an outsider in relationships, a kind of weird person, because I’ve always been like that.
You are known for your own style of guitar-playing, could you tell us about that?
I try to make a new kind of sound, because I am not really a musician. I play guitar in my own way, and I make my own chords and everything. So the melodies are always a little bit different compared to other bands. My musicians have always been happy about that, because it’s something original, nobody does that kind of stuff.
The song “Kultainen aasi” (Golden Donkey) stems from your “Satanist” period — could you tell us a bit about that?
It was a time when I was very interested in the occult, Satanism and things like that. I was searching for magical and unconscious things, and I was thinking about where everything comes from — the music and lyrics. What the power in us, the power in me is. Sexual things are also very important to me. Most of my books are also about sex or violence.
Have they been translated into Russian or English?
Not yet. Because I’m a weird guy in Finland, and publishers don’t trust me.
I think I always go too far. I’ve done things that are taboo. Maybe I was searching for some kind of enemy in the human race.
What was the reaction in Finland to your first album?
It was negative. But I had one radio hit, “Steppaillen” — “Tap Dancing.” It was a metaphor about a guy who is tap dancing and everybody hates him. So it was kind of a prophetic song, because my first years were like that. But my fourth album was a success, and the end of the 1980s was a good time for me in the music business. The 1990s were a little bit difficult, but now it’s quite good again. They couldn’t get rid of me and now they have to accept it.
I can make a good pop song if I want to, but that’s not the most important thing to me. I want to make music that is interesting in the mind. I want to make people think and react and experience something. I want to write about the things that are important to me and that thrill me, and some of those things can be very bad and controversial. People get confused by that, they don’t know what to think about me. Some people think I’m mad, but some say that I write about things that nobody else does.
How did you become interested in Satanism?
Well, it was an experimental thing for me to do, because at that time, at the beginning of the 1990s, I was very much alone, my life was in a bit of a bad situation. I had too much time to think about things. I went deeper and deeper inside myself. And weird things came out. But I don’t believe in Satanism any more. I don’t know if I even did at the time, but I was interested in it at any rate.
It reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s interest in Aleister Crowley.
Yeah, and David Bowie had a similar thing too. Even the Beatles had Aleister Crowley’s head on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper.” So it’s nothing new in rock music, but in Finland it was something terrible, and many people thought I’d gone mad.
But a strange thing happened, because this heavy rock thing started in Finland in the 1990s, and I was surprised because when I had a gig in Finland and there were suddenly boys with long hair who were into magic. I was of course ten years older than them. But I think people respected me, because they knew I wasn’t trying to please everybody.
What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager?
I think my first love was progressive rock, like Genesis and Pink Floyd and bands like that, and then came the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls — maybe I’m kind of a mix of those bands.
Could you tell us about the book you wrote about Velvet Underground?
It was a book about the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, and also a book about my youth, when I was starting my musical career. The difficulties I had, because we were living in Oulu, where not many people understood what the Velvet Underground was, so we had to tell everybody that it was a very important band. That was the start.
I’ve also written books about war, but they’re not standard war books.
The best-known novel I’ve written was “Two Suns” (Kaksi aurinkoa), about a band during the war entertaining soldiers at the front. It’s a strange band, the people in it are strange; some of them are occultists. I tried to describe music and art in a situation when music and art are not wanted. These people have problems in their relationships, and trouble between them and the army and society. I think the protagonist in this story is music and not the people. And the music gets lost, because most members of the band are killed.
Nobody has written a book like that because normally books about war are about heroism or history or something like that. But I was writing about music and the magic behind the music.
How do you feel on the music scene after all these years?
I am having a renaissance right now, I am a hot thing again. Everything moves on; you don’t want to get stuck in the past.
The past is past. The past is nice, but I want to be part of the future. I always think that the best things I’ll do are in the future and not in the past, because we were so young when we started. We did some good things in the past, but I think we can do better things now. I’m always writing new stuff. I wrote 140 songs for the last album we made, and we used only 13 of them. So it was very hard to choose them, and many good songs were left out.
Kauko Röyhkä’s not-yet-titled six-CD retrospective box set is due out on Stupido Records in March 2012.