Going underground with Alamaailman Vasarat

Alamaailman Vasarat have been creating experimental genre-defying music for a decade and a half, mixing elements of tango, klezmer, jazz, psychobilly and cabaret into a completely unique sound. We asked band leader Jarno “Stakula” Sarkula to talk about the group’s “fictional world music” and recent musical ventures ahead of their first ever UK show at Lifem – The Finnish Line 2 November.

How would you describe the history of Alamaailman Vasarat?
The band started up one sunny afternoon in May 1997 when I had just bought a soprano sax which I couldn't play at all. I called up my drummer friend and eventually more guys joined the following weeks. I composed a few songs to start us up and within a month or so we got some basic sound together. From early on, we decided that there won't be any guitars and we will blend different styles, but keep the line-up and sound quite simple and mostly acoustic in nature. It took us a while to achieve that and there's still so much to explore, but the original principles are still in there.

Your music has been able to escape genre limitations from pure Klezmer or “world music” especially in its raw punk approach hinting influences from metal. Where do you feel most at home musically?
I don't think we have a home or favourite style in that sense. If the song has a good solid foundation composition wise, meaning good melodies and structure, it is just a matter or trying out different styles and choosing the best for the occasion, or blend it a little. For example, many of our heaviest, most energetic songs can also work as slightly weird and creepy ballads.

Alamaailman Vasarat means “The Hammers of the Underworld”. How did you choose the name?
Some years before the founding of the band, during our unemployment days, Marko and I had a duo with cello and flute, and we performed in Helsinki’s metro cars for quick cash. We had our own, slightly weird medieval-like compositions, and this duo was called Alamaailman Vasarat because of the underground, obviously. The duo seemed like spiritual predecessor of the actual band and we decided to keep the name.

Your latest album “Valta” (Power) was released in 2012. How did this album develop the sound of Alamaailman Vasarat?
Most apparent change was in the line-up. Santeri Saksala's drums evolved the band sound towards heavier and more rock sound but still retained that light and creepy touch for slower songs. For example, in the song "Uurnilla" he plays a creaky chair throughout the song plus one triangle hit. At the last stages of recording period, Jarkko "Jargeli" Niemelä joined the band. His virtuoso touch on trumpet and alto horn made quite a difference in sound compared to earlier releases.

The album Valta was released in Japan by King Records. We’ve heard that your visit in Japan this spring featured some unusual experiences. Could you tell us more about these?
The spring 2013 visit was a little bit different than previous times, yes - close to the Asahi Art Square, where we had two performances, we also had an Alamaailman Vasarat Cafe with special Finnish food and band photo exhibition. We also performed there and even cooked some traditional fish soup for the audience! A special drink called "Stakula's Green Tentacle" (made of the Finnish drink Lonkero and matcha green tea) was served for the audience as well. Additionally, we performed in an old C-cassette store in Asakusa and also on a river boat. It was a very interesting and surprising weekend.

You work with several custom made instruments. Can you tell us more about these?
Perhaps because of my bass player origins, I still have a longing for lower sounds. It started with the release “Maahan” in 2007, for which I got a contrabass clarinet, and “Huuro Kolkko” (2009) introduced Eb Tubax, now a constant companion on gigs. She's a special saxophone-type instrument built by German instrument designer Benedikt Eppelsheim. She's in contrabass saxophone range and roars really low and angry, but also sweet as black honey when needed. Most importantly, she's designed "in many curves" which means her size is somewhat manageable for bringing with me abroad. While specializing mainly in really low woodwinds, Mr. Eppelsheim has also built a really small sax for me, called Soprillo, which plays an octave higher than soprano sax. Aubergine-black in color like my Tubax, this little ghoul is engraved in snakes, skulls and spiders and screams so high and loud that it needs to be played with earplugs almost. Surely a sound you will hear in upcoming releases! 

This year’s LIFEM festival is called the “The Finnish Line” with a full Finnish line-up. What would you say is Finnish in the sound of Alamaailman Vasarat?
Pump organ itself is in many ways very Finnish. When I was in school, all the hymns and simple songs were always played by pump organ. Sound like that stays in your head. Also, some of the harmonies and melodies we use do have that Finnish melancholy in them. And gloomy, dark humour, of course.

Alamaailman Vasarat will perform at Lifem – The Finnish Line in London 2 November. For more information, see Kings Place’s website.