BTSB interviews Arttu Takalo
Arttu Takalo sits down and hands me his resume. It’s impressive – ten albums (solo and with his band), over 40 artists worked with, 26 compositions, and a Jazz Musician of the Year award. But it all started from “a quite common story of a father who wants his child to be something better than he himself.”
Explaining his history with music, he speaks with interest and pride. He tells his life with music from the beginning, juxtaposing jokes with critical events. Maybe because he is a musician, I wasn’t expecting such good storytelling.
He got his first drum kit when he was eight years old and started playing piano when he was nine. He admits to hating the piano when he first started studying it at the North-Kymi Music School. But his classical percussion studies there led him to the Päijät-Häme Conservitory in Lahti and the Kouvola City Orchestra at the age of thirteen. He describes the situation as “quite weird” because his hometown is full of Iron Maiden fans and here comes this kid who wants to be a percussion soloist. But he says, “I thought myself different, like an artist person, sensitive and stuff.”
It was also at this age that he saw Severi Pyysalo playing the vibraphone on TV at the Pori Jazz Festival. Seeing Pyysalo was the first time he said to himself, “I want to play like that.” The second time came when he saw videos of Michael Mainieri, one of Takalo’s greatest influences, and his band Steps Ahead.
Takalo continues his story in a chronological and annotated manner. He points out in order the parts of his life that he feels were most important. And he points out just how important they were. He says entering the Finnish Army (a mandatory requirement for Finnish males), where he was in the band, was “the third most important thing in my musical career.” This is because it was in the army that Takalo met Jarmo Saari, the guitarist with whom he would start XL. And of XL, he says, “it was, and still is, the most important band. I kind of grew up in that band.”
XL was labeled as a progressive rock band. All the members were classically trained, but as Takalo says, getting a record contract was still “very difficult.” They were fortunate to meet some people in the music business. Heikki Savolainen and Jukka Hakoköngäs asked the band to do a jazz piece for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and everyone liked it so much that they stretched it out into an album. After that, five albums and a DVD followed suit, all involving problems finding a company to produce the material.
With the release of his new album last week, BTSB sat down with Arttu Takalo to talk about the recording process and what his new album sounds like.
Click the play button to hear the title track, “Protocols of Dancing,” from the upcoming album
This is your fourth solo album so, does the recording process get easier with the more albums you make or is every album its own separate thing?
Well, some things are the same. I think I’m getting better with the routines in the studio. I’m working with Speedy Saarinen, who is the engineer, because I’m not engineering myself. I’m only playing and producing but I’m not playing with the computer. I’m not good with that so Speedy is doing that stuff. So this is the third album with Speedy, the first album was with Heikki Savolainen from the XL era. So, with Speedy it has been very easy. We even do some commercials and theme music together now because the symbiosis is very strong. It works very well, so that thing has gotten even better and I can trust on that. But otherwise, it’s always a mess because Rockadillo isn’t a major label and we don’t have the money, and we don’t have a place so I always have to find a place where we can record. Now Speedy has his own studio in Oulukylä so things are going to be easier for the next album. And always before it has been very difficult to find places so I have been using old friends in Sibelius Academy, they have a couple of good studios, so I got there kind-of for free or I paid some dog money. But I know most of the classical in Helsinki and some of the rock players like Marzi [Nyman] and they come like, “Yes, of course I’ll come.” So it’s cheap to make albums; that hasn’t changed. It’s always like when you start the album, “I have the right idea it’s going to be this and that. And we’re going to take it easy.” But finally it’s like, “Well, we have two days. Let’s play.” And we have to play there and then move the stuff there and do this and it’s always helter skelter. So it hasn’t got any better staying in the same label and selling almost nothing but I kind of love the process, love doing that, because then I can always go to play with some famous guy or girl and get paid well and play great studios, so that I’m ready to do [my own] stuff.
So, when you saying that you have so many friends in the business, do a lot of them meet the same problems of not having enough money or places to play and solve it by doing the same thing and calling their friends?
Yeah, I think it’s quite common. Like Marzi [Nyman] is doing his album, actually yesterday he was playing in Oulunkylä with Speedy, and I’m going to play on Marzi [Nyman]’s album. And the drummer and bass player Anssi and Harri, they play on both albums and we play on their albums.
How long did it take to record this album?
Because it’s so difficult to arrange, we had to play here and there and now and then, so we started the last day of September last year when we did the first recordings at Speedy’s home. And the last recording day was in January.
Is that a normal amount of time?
Well, for me it is. Almost every time it has been about three or four months. But not everyday, we do the drum and bass stuff, and the guitar takes maximum three days and the rest of the time is for strings and if there are any visitors on the album and my own stuff – keyboards and vibes.
So what does the album sound like? What were your influences for this album?
Well, it’s called Protocols of Dancing, so that tells something about it. But, first of all, when I started to plan this album, I wanted it to sound like Depeche Mode, but it doesn’t sound like that because I’m not an electronics guru. So it sounds like my version of Depeche Mode, less electronics, more playing because Marzi [Nyman] is playing some ruthful heavy guitar solos and Anssi is playing loud drums so it’s like electronics combined with a live style, almost rock playing. And some of the tunes sound very big and sometimes progressive and they have clear, simple, naïve melodies as usual. And two or three of tunes are quite romantic, which is very ‘my stuff’. But it’s hard to describe my own music.
What does a classically trained musician look for in the music he listens to? What’s some of the better music you’ve heard recently and why?
[Sighs] It’s always difficult. Well, I’ve had a period from January, this is strange, where I’ve been listening to Miles Davis and his period of electronics from the end of the sixties to the beginning of the seventies. So it’s very free music and as a younger man I hated that music because it had no reason and meaning for me, it had no simple recognizable melodies. And now, well, maybe it’s because the making of Protocols of Dancing was so strict and the notes were correct, now I enjoy listening more freely. So, nowadays, I enjoy listening to the free flow of music.
So depending on what you’re recording, you almost listen to the opposite?
Sometimes, yes. But of course, the end result is always you never can predict what happens. Even if I have a dogma of some kind – “Now I’m going to make an album like this,” and I have, like, do this, do that – it never works that way. It always comes out like a child or something, like, this is it and you just try your best.
Were there any other problems recording this album, like some things you can’t control or some things you learned from?
I think both in writing and composing, and in actual studio situations. About writing, I decided I have to be more profound or strict about the stuff I bring into the studio or into the rehearsal because we had only one rehearsal before we went into the studio because the guys are very busy. So I had two or three extra songs I hadn’t taught myself well enough so the guys were like, “What are we going to do?” They weren’t as creative enough as I had hoped so I decided next time I have to know myself what I’m going to do with the current song. I had two or three songs which went to the garbage. I really have to produce it better by myself and use the time better. And also in the studio situation, you know, how to act with players and visitors and how to arrange the day – when you have time to play the drums, when the bass, the guitar, and that kind of basic stuff – because the three previous albums had been done so here and there. So it would be nice to have some better schedule. It would help me to be more free about my playing. If I was only producing the album, it would be almost easier but now I also have to play and I have to find time to do it properly. Now it was like, “Ok, it’s only half and hour and two songs.” And I have to leave it there.
Protocols of Dancing Official Release Date: Wednesday, May 14 at Tavastia