Pioneers: Jimi Tenor is still grooving in outta space
Music Finland's 10-year-anniversary article series honors and celebrates the PIONEERS of Finnish music export. These are the bands, artists and musicians who went out to the world with little help and knowledge of how the international music business works – and still managed to find audiences for their magnificent art. The artist we cover on the first episode of "Pioneers" is Jimi Tenor.
In the beginning of the 1990s Jimi Tenor left Finland and took his music across Europe in a DIY manner – along with with other Sähkö Recordings artists. The trailblazer got a piece of crossover success as a part of the Warp Records' roster in the late 1990's. With a career spanning over 30 years Tenor looks back in the form of archival releases while keeps continuously making new sounds.
Leberkäse is a German and Austrian traditional delicacy made by grinding different parts of beef and pork which are then baked in a bread pan. The now deceased Finnish electronic music legend Mika Vainio stormed the stage of an intimate club holding a whole loaf of leberkäse and placed it on the organ Jimi Tenor was playing.
"It was a wild and rugged gig", Jimi Tenor recalls with a grin.
I'm having a blast when playing live and I love to perform. A gig is literally a show for me.
Steve Beckett of Warp Records was in the audience and witnessed Tenor performing a romantic song while petting the Bavarian meat loaf. A couple of days later Beckett called Tenor and offered a record deal. Beckett had adored the minimal lo-fi electronics and smoky saxophone of Tenor's 1994 solo debut "Sähkömies" (which translates to electrician in English), but loved what he saw live that night in Vienna.
Playing live has been both crucial and meaningful part of Jimi Tenor's identity as an artist. He may be a bit laconic and introverted off-stage, but when he gets up there all bets are off.
"I'm having a blast when playing live and I love to perform. A gig is literally a show for me. There's no point in traveling for example to Austria and play the songs as they're recorded and go back home. I want to do everything the hard way. It's a mixture of punk ideology and improvisation. Of course I screw up occasionally but that's the name of the game. I'd rather fail than not even try."
Delusions of grandeur
In 1995, Jimi Tenor released another album, "Europa" via Sähkö Recordings before signing to Warp where artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre were pushing the envelope in electronic music. Tenor's Warp debut "Intervision" (1997) seemed to find its audience with its organ-heavy blend of soul, funk, house and experimental electronics.
Its successor "Organism" (1999) toned down the electronics and focused more on the organic and psychedelic jazzy soul. Tenor's deadpan seriousness combined with the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere dazzled the music media Pitchfork's founder and long time editor-in-chief Ryan Schreiber, who graded the album at 8.6 – still the highest score any Finnish album has had in the publication.
Jimi Tenor now admits that there may have been some delusions of grandeur when he hired a symphony orchestra for his third Warp album. Some 55 musicians, a choir, some bad choices and a mountain of master tape later Warp had only one message to Tenor: "this turned out to be way too expensive, we'll never going to get our money back". In 2000, "Out of Nowhere" was released and Tenor was dropped from Warp.
After over 20 years I'm still paying my debt to Warp. But at least I learned some realism in a time when everything was getting out of hand.
"What could I say, they were right. After over 20 years I'm still paying my debt to the label", Tenor shrugs.
"There were some positive aspects as well. At least I learned some realism in a time when everything was getting out of hand. It was difficult to find a new label because I was that guy who got sacked."
Tenor says there was too much money spent as well on lawyers, who worked on the untimely cut record deal.
"I don't do so complex deals anymore. I'm keeping it gangster style and only measure how thick is the stack of cash."
Revisiting the past
Tenor's stint with Warp lasted for three albums but he recorded a ton of material during that period. There was a vault in Warp's office which was rumored to be loaded with tapes by Tenor and Aphex Twin. Last year Tenor remembered the tapes and asked Warp to send them, which they did.
Bureau B, the German "archaeological" label focused on reissues and rarities, first released a the "NY / HEL / BARCA" compilation in 2020, covering Tenor's Warp era. The unreleased gems from the Warp vault found themselves on a collection "Deep Sound Learning (1993–2000)" last spring. Tenor downplays his own part in creating these releases.
"I just listened to the tapes I got back from Warp and sent about 50 songs to the Bureau B guys and gave them permission to do whatever they want. They are super sharp dudes, kind of like historians", Tenor describes.
I have a tendency to think that some mediocre songs are my best work. But my best songs are of course the ones other people say are the best.
"I usually anyways let other people decide the order of the songs on my albums. I have a tendency to think that some mediocre songs are my best work. But my best songs are of course the ones other people say are the best – at least according to my logics."
Tenor's collaboration with the Hamburg based Bureau B didn't end after the two compilations. There's a book in the works scheduled for next summer.
"It's mostly a photo book: promo pics, live shots and pictures taken by me. Sketches, instrument designs and some text. It comes with an album featuring music in vein of my solo live sets."
It also features a song composed for and played by his litophone. Tenor built the MIDI controlled instrument at his summer cottage using stones, birch and solenoid drum strikers. It was one of many pandemic projects of his.
Jimi Tenor's lates album "Aulos" was recorded right before the pandemic. It was inspired by the forests of Finland but not in any mythical way, Tenor makes it clear. He means a rather practical approach: walks in the woods and writing down any occurring thoughts.
"It may sound exotic to some foreigner but it's as basic as it gets for us Finns."
The album was released by Philophon in the autumn of 2020 alongside of a cancelled tour supposed to support the release. It's a hard situation for both him and the label.
When I notice myself having a cynical thought, I immediately think of some musician from Ghana, for example.
"The label makes its profit selling records on tour and over half of my income comes from gigs", Tenor says.
"But when I notice myself having a cynical thought, I immediately think of some musician from Ghana for example. What kind of income support he has? And even if I'm stuck here in Finland, I can order some instruments online but he can't because Thomann doesn't ship to Ghana! Actually we're pretty ok."
When the world starts to open again, Tenor dreams of traveling to locations he hasn't been to yet – like South America and the West Coast of The United States. But his top priority seems to be Osaka, Japan.
"The food interests me the most, but I'd want to play with a full band in Japan. I've only played solo there. Everybody says that it's easy to go to Japan, that they'll love anything there, but the truth is far from it!"
Tenor returned to Finland in 2004, after over a decade spent abroad. Back in the 1990s, it was necessary to be out there: making contacts at record stores around Europe, carrying Sähkö releases and asking for gigs. Tenor credits Sähkö founder Tommi Grönlund for most parts of the legwork, but the reality is that this duo travelled so much that Tenor doesn't really miss those days. Of course the e-mail eventually made the world a lot smaller in the late 1990s but Tenor still didn't feel the urge to come back home.
Everybody says that it's easy to go to Japan, that they'll love anything there, but the truth is far from it!
In Barcelona there was a real Sähkö "commune": Tenor, Pan Sonic's Mika Vainio and Ilpo Väisänen all had apartments on the same street and Grönlund hosted parties on the beach. In London, he hated mostly everything, except the cultural life. Still, New York, where he spent most of the 1990's, is the most crucial city for him.
"I moved there to pursue a career in photography but found out rather quickly that I don't possess the social skills needed in that profession especially in that city. I managed to get a job taking pictures of tourists."
With the money he got from that job he bought music equipment. And now, after over 30 years, he still is committed in making music every day and most importantly: Jimi Tenor has no plan b.