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 band featured on the 3rd "Pioneers" article is Circle, one of the most idiosyncratic Finnish rock bands from the past decades, who turned 30 years this fall with a bang.
While Circle has always enjoyed critical acclaim, their latest album "Henki", recorded with British folk rocker Richard Dawson, has the world's music media practically on their knees. On this "pioneers" -article, we asked Circle's Jussi Lehtisalo to run down the band's history. Also: Scroll down and find to a 20-track playlist of select cuts from Circle's exhaustingly deep back catalogue!
Sideways Festival is a cozy boutique festival that marks the beginning of summer in Helsinki. Like every other big festival, it was cancelled two summers in a row for pandemic reasons. Next year's program varies from the post-rock mainstays Mogwai to experimental pop's visionary Oneohtrix Point Never and the first official billing of Richard Dawson & Circle (pictured in the photo above). It isn't the first gig Dawson has performed as a part of Circle, though.
June 2019 was exceptionally hot in Helsinki, sunscreen and beer were equally spilled during the Sideways weekend. Helsinki Ice Hall served as the indoor venue of the festival as well as a refuge from the scorching sun. When the veteran hypnorockers-cum-avant-garde metallers Circle appeared on that stage there was a moment of collective head scratching: Who's the seventh member?
It was – surprise, surprise – Richard Dawson, the acclaimed freak folk singer-songwriter from Newcastle. That evening Circle performed versions of songs to be found two and a half years later on their collaborative album "Henki", out now via Domino's imprint Weird World.
Henki's lead single Lily was turned into a music video by the long-time Circle collaborator Mika Taanila. Instead of the usual online music magazine, the video was premiered at World Snooker Tour's website. And in an equally hilarious, but most identifiable Circle-like manner, the album was praised by Financial Times.
"Everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame, like Andy Warhol said. We've tried to postpone our moment in the spotlights for as long as possible", says Jussi Lehtisalo who founded Circle in Pori in the early 1990's.
We've tried to postpone our moment in the spotlights for as long as possible. We're down to our last five minutes and time's inevitably running out – Jussi Lehtisalo
Lehtisalo "counts" that they had already used 10 of their 15 minutes back in 2010 when Dagens Nyheter, one of the biggest daily newspapers in Sweden, called Circle "the best band in the world in every category".
"We're down to our last five minutes and time's inevitably running out. Tomorrow there will be something else to buzz about."
Circle's twisted but uplifting prog rock and Dawson's multi-faceted stories about plants – superficially – but in reality life, death and fate were appreciated in the music press as well. "The more Dawson and Circle lean into their eccentricities, the more their music resonates", wrote Pitchfork. The Guardian called the album "a botanical rock classic". Mojo gave the album five stars, Uncut 9 out of 10. Henki appeared on several year-end lists.
"It's astonishing to get these positive reviews. For a brief moment it feels as we exist."
Three decades of carefreeness
Jussi Lehtisalo runs down the 30 years of Circle's history rather quickly.
"In the 90's we were interested in minimalism and monotonic rock music. Then our interests were shifted towards more theatrical music and then to synth-driven rock that manifested as yacht rock and AOR. And then from improvised rock and roll to hard rock."
In reality it is a bit more complicated than this. According to the music database of Discogs, Circle has released 54 albums. Henki is their 30th studio album. Then there's 17 live albums and 7 limited cassette only releases spanning from collaborations to live recordings to studio outtakes. And a lot more musical explorations than Lehtisalo described above.
"I understand the idea of achieving the best possible end result when building a house, but not when talking about art. It only alienates the listener. When there's a humane aspect in art, it's possible to supplement the music with one's own experiences and worldviews. Our philosophy has been carefree and we've avoided blandnesses like criterion of quality."
The first albums "Meronia" (Bad Vugum, 1994) and "Zopalki" (Bad Vugum, 1996) are often mentioned as the "best" Circle albums. The loud and repetitive hypno rock serves as a good entry point to the band's world but there's a lot more to discover. For example the post-rock epic "Taantumus" (Bad Vugum, 2001) which introduced the theatrical vocalist and keyboardist Mika Rättö.
I understand the idea of achieving the best possible end result when building a house, but not when talking about art. It only alienates the listener – Jussi Lehtisalo
Or the starting point of their heavy metal krautrock era, "Sunrise" (Lehtisalo's own label Ektro, 2002), where Tomi Leppänen's motorik beat blew minds. Or the ominously sneaking dark trip of "Forest" (Ektro, 2004) conjured by Janne Westerlund's guitarwork. Or the full-fledged psychedelic rock swarm of "Rautatie" (Ektro, 2010) that added second and third guitarists Pekka and Julius Jääskeläinen to the fold and cemented the band's line-up.
Majority of Circle's discography is missing from streaming services and even some of the mentioned albums are out of stock. Lehtisalo says this kind of "hidden reality" interests him: these records have a potential to born again and find new audiences some time in the future.
Circle expands beyond the recordings released under Circle's name. The Gesamtkunstwerk encompasses a variety of side projects and spin-offs such as Pharaoh Overlord, that has 20 releases in its discography, or Motorspandex, a one-off project created to serve the purpose of the NWOFHM (New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal, an umbrella term coined by Lehtisalo for a pseudo movement) universum.
"We've built this big picture for 30 years. Trying to understand all of this is like starting randomly reading from a bus filled with books. It's easier to draw conclusions from the headlines and pretend to know everything from the subject."
Magic in the making
Regarding to Lehtisalo, the most crucial moments in Circle's history are related to playing live. He acknowledges Grateful Dead and Acid Mothers Temple for them.
"Grateful Dead's philosophy was that improvisation is easier when there's a frame for it, a starting structure, a motif from where it can be taken to whichever direction."
Circle went on tour with just a couple of riffs and played improvised music for two to three hours every night at venues run by psychedelic rock aficionados.
"The world is filled with skilled players whose infrastructure collapses if a guitar solo or a triplet doesn't turn out as immaculate. We had the courage to throw ourselves over nothing. Going to unknown places and creating something on the spot can be significant for the artist but very awkward for the audience. But when it succeeds, it can be unreal. When we took on improvisation, it was quite factitious at first but where it drove us at best was really meaningful."
Going to unknown places and creating something on the spot can be significant for the artist but very awkward for the audience. But when it succeeds, it can be unreal. – Jussi Lehtisalo
Lehtisalo sees the UK tour with Acid Mothers Temple as an important factor in Circle's reputation. The Finns toured with the Japanese cult freak-out act for 14 gigs in the Fall of 2001. Acid Mothers Temple was a hot name and the venues were packed. It turned out that Circle's music resonated with their crowd as well.
"We were opening for Acid Mothers Temple and didn't get any fees. Our only income came from record sales at the merch table. We somehow managed to get enough money every night for the cheapest room at a Travelodge, where half of us slept on the floor. And the same thing over again in the next town. After that tour it wasn't difficult to get gigs in the UK, and the word started spreading to Central Europe as well."
That tour marked also the first time Circle's and Richard Dawson's paths crossed. It wasn't love at first sight, at least between Dawson and Circle: Dawson recalled in a recent interview that he spent most of Circle's set talking to a girl he tried to impress.
"But now we are Richard Dawson & Circle", Lehtisalo states.
"We could gladly be that to the end of the world. That is a thing I'd like hold on to. These kinds of bonds happen only a couple of times during a lifetime. We're trying to create art that inspires others to live and enjoy."