Music Finland's 10-year-anniversary article series honours 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. In the 8th issue of the series, we take our hats off to Jori Hulkkonen, one of Finland's internationally best known DJs and producers.
Hulkkonen, 48, describes his career spanning over three decades as "going with the flow". The pioneering techno and synthpop visionary says he's been in sync with trends a couple of times over the years – and that's when his most successful works have happened.
Jori Hulkkonen says he's first and foremost a music lover. Other attributes such as artist, DJ or producer come always after that when defining himself.
"I have an insatiable craving and curiosity for new music. If being asked when's my favourite music been released, my answer is: tomorrow", Hulkkonen says.
He dates the birth of this need back to the late 80s when in his teens he browsed through the music section at his local library in Kemi, listening to everything from rock to jazz to classical and beyond.
Kemi is a town on Bothnian Bay in Lapland with population of only 20 000 inhabitants. It was a fertile ground for young Hulkkonen's musical awakening: Kemi is located close to the Swedish border so living there he could listen to Swedish radio stations, which at the time played more interesting – even electronic – music. And across the border in the Swedish locality Haparanda, he found record stores that carried broader selections of vinyl.
Started from the top
Hulkkonen first moved from Kemi to Oulu, where he started making his own music. He says he was already dead serious about making music, even though it was just a hobby at that point. Hulkkonen befriended Jukka Hautamäki and Ari Ruokamo and the three of them formed Lumi Records in 1993. On their label's first 12" compilations, containing techno and deep house, Hulkkonen used aliases such as Avalon Unbounded and Electromantic. He soon realized that as a somewhat introverted teenager lacking industry contacts, running a label meant basically filling his flat with boxes and boxes of vinyl.
"I still had the ludicrous self-confidence of a twenty-year-old, so I started sending demos to every label I loved. I had this unprejudiced image of what was hot in 1995 and considered myself riding on crest of that wave."
When all of the revered techno labels that Hulkkonen sent demos to, such as Carl Craig's Planet E and Peace Frog, wanted to sign him, he knew he was doing something right. Hulkkonen ended up signing with Laurent Garnier's and Eric Morand's record label F Communications partially because they were running a booking agency as well. There was only one slight problem: Hulkkonen had never performed live nor even considered playing a gig. It simply wasn't an option in Northern Finland.
Nobody's ever exported my music, I've taken it with me around the world.
"So I spent my spring and summer of 1996 behind turntables, eight hours per day. Learning to play and putting together a live setup."
Hulkkonen played his first gig abroad at Paris's legendary Rex Club with Laurent Garnier. Only a couple of weeks later he was on his first tour, sitting on the backseat of a car with the Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills, Garnier riding shotgun.
"I started from the very top. It motivated me immensely, I wanted to be good, to be worth the spot."
Throughout the late 90s and the early 00s Hulkkonen spent his time touring approximately 200 days per year. Clubs, festivals and all kinds of other events all over Europe, Asia, North and South America, became familiar to him.
"I've always joked that nobody's ever exported my music, I've taken it with me around the world."
Turku state of mind
Fast forward to 2022: In the beginning of June a couple of Hulkkonen's friends take him to the Turku market square for a coffee and a jelly doughnut, a local specialty known as 'piispanmunkki' (translated: 'bishop's doughnut'). They continue to the Aura riverbank and listen to a carefully curated playlist of songs about the city of Turku. These include Turku Airport by Jimi Tenor & Freestyle Man and Juna Turkuun (translated: 'Train to Turku') by Seija Simola. Hulkkonen is taken for a ferry ride, known as 'föri' in local dialect, and their entourage ends up having pizzas at the Ruissalo docks. That day marks the 20th anniversary of Hulkkonen residing at the southwest coast city and Finland's former capital, Turku.
"Turku is a liberal city that has understood the meaning of vibrant cultural and night life. I've settled well here but still I feel a bit like an outsider. My roots are so deeply in the North."
Hulkkonen has decided to live in Finland even though he recognizes it might've been wiser to relocate to Paris or Barcelona at the peak of his career. He says that he appreciates the safety nets of the Finnish society. They've enabled him to focus on his art.
I work on several projects at a time and when finishing one I want it off my hands as soon as possible.
And judging by his Discogs profile the last ten or so years have been prolific. Hulkkonen says that after spending a good decade touring he now enjoys staying put and being in the studio. He needed an output for his increased creativity and founded Blanco & Tinto (another wink towards Turku: Blanko and Tintå are restaurants next to Aura bridge), a label that was first designed for releasing non-album singles only. Soon Hulkkonen found himself releasing albums via Blanco & Tinto as well, the latest being the excellent retrofuturistic and melancholy-drenched synth-pop album "Songs Birds Refuse to Sing" (2021).
"I'm troubled by the thought that I will lose my inspiration one day. I work on several projects at a time and when finishing one I want it off my hands as soon as possible, and Blanco & Tinto has made that possible. I don't intend to stop working with different labels but on the other hand it doesn't mean that much having a certain logo on your record nowadays."
Got it made with the guy in shades
Jori Hulkkonen has not only worked with different labels but collaborated with other artists and producers as well. One of Hulkkonen's biggest hits is a cover of the 80s new wave classic Sunglasses at Night by Corey Hart. He used the pseudonym Zyntherius when releasing it together with Tiga.
The hit collaboration dates back to the year 2000 when Hulkkonen had released his "Helsinki Mix Sessions" cd via Tiga's record label Turbo. After the cd release party held in Montreal, Hulkkonen and Tiga were listening to some new records at Tiga's studio. One of them being Miss Kittin & the Hacker's cover of the Eurythmics' classic Sweet Dreams.
I'm usually a couple of years ahead of my time, or four years behind, but in the past 30 years I've been in sync with the era a couple of times.
"We were like, hey, should we try something similar. I suggested Sunglasses at Night because the riff is in my backbone, and Tiga noted that in fact Corey Hart was a fellow Montrealer. The cover was literally done in 45 minutes."
After a couple of weeks the duo decided to send the track to the German legend DJ Hell, who released it on his label International Deejay Gigolo.
"And from there on, the song started living its own life. This is a classic example of just fooling around in studio and not thinking much of it at the moment, and then ending up looking at its legacy almost like a third party. I'm usually a couple of years ahead of my time, or four years behind, but in the past 30 years I've been in sync with the era a couple of times, one being "Selkäsaari Tracks" (1996) and the other Sunglasses at Night."
Hulkkonen says he found the needed courage for collaborations around the Millennium and learned to trust other people in the studio.
"I found confidence in my own assets and understood that I'm really good in some certain fields. And this fellow I've just met has strengths in other areas, and together we can create something really fruitful."
One of Hulkkonen's longest-running collaborations started when he produced Villa Nah's debut album "Origin" (2010). Hulkkonen befriended the other half of duo, Juho Paalosmaa, who asked if Hulkkonen wanted to write songs with him.
"We wrote three or four songs during the first sessions, and we're like, okay, this could be something."
Most of my career, I haven't had a strategy, I just go with the flow and see where it takes me.
Sin Cos Tan was formed. The band had a productive stint. It released three albums in three years: "Sin Cos Tan" (2012), "Afterlife" (2013) and "Blown Away" (2014).
"We were really proud of the last album, it was one our finest work, a beautiful theme album. We had great expectations towards it but the response didn't live up to them, of course not! We were a bit frustrated and even burnt-out and decided to take a small break."
Hulkkonen and Paalosmaa scheduled some studio and writing sessions annually but they lacked focus. During the pandemic Hulkkonen browsed through his archives and managed to dig a handful of Sin Cos Tan -like ideas. That was enough to set a new spark for the duo in studio. Sin Cos Tan's fourth album, "Living in Fear", will be released in the fall.
"It really happened organically, not forced, not planned. Like most of my career, I haven't had a strategy, I just go with the flow and see where it takes me.