Saturday night at a former tram repair shop, Helsinki’s Korjaamo club. Students and artsy types are packed in to see The New Tigers, a feedback-soaked garage pop band from Turku. On a screen behind them, a woman creates a swirling riot of colour and bubbles using an overhead projector, soda, oil and washing-up liquid.
After the first tune, a darkly cherubic guy in a jumper and tie moves discreetly up to the stage. He has brief words of advice for the lead singer and the soundman, then smiles and nods with pleasure as the second song kicks in with a better vocal mix.
He’s Nick Triani, an Anglo-Italian who’s been igniting the Finnish indie scene for a decade and a half.
After near-fame with mid-90s UK indie darlings Supermodel and the Finnish-American band Treeball, Triani has managed to wear every hat in the industry: producer, radio and club DJ, critic, manager, A&R man – and since mid-2011, record company boss.
Triani’s label, Soliti, boasts seven bands including Cats on Fire and Big Wave Riders and one solo artist, Astrid Swan. A former member of Treeball, she also happens to be his real-life partner. Her fourth solo album, Hits, a collection of Pavement covers, was the label’s debut release – “though that just happened by accident,” says Triani.
“Only a positively crazy and hideously daring person would start a record label in 2011 signing only bands/artists based on artistic originality,” Swan wrote on her blog as the label celebrated its first birthday.
“I guess it was not usual to start a label when I did,” admits Triani. “Maybe subconsciously that’s why I called it Soliti, which means ‘usual’ in Italian.”
A bit of irony in the name, then. Otherwise, though, Soliti is a refreshingly irony-free zone. That’s not to say humourless – but the label steers clear of pretentiousness and snarkiness. Instead, its driving force seems to be a genuine affection for straight-ahead indie rock, drawing on shoegaze and the rest of the post-punk Anglo-American tradition.
Though its groups all sing in English, they mix in Finnish melancholy and even echoes of rautalanka (“iron wire”) guitar rock from the ‘60s. That twangy, minor-chord sound flows through the Cats on Fire, Big Wave Riders and New Tigers discs.
Meanwhile Black Twig and Black Lizard favour a fuzzier, more psychedelic trip. And Delay Trees play subtler dreampop, meandering near Midlake, The National and Sigur Rós territory and into ambient sound collage.
Not surprisingly, there’s also a British accent to many of the label’s acts – which is spurring enthusiasm and gigging in the UK.
The Madchester-mad Big Wave Riders played Brighton’s Great Escape Festival this year while the New Tigers mauled London’s Ja Ja Ja Club. Cats on Fire, too, have begun to strike a chord with their lilting folky-guitar pop. Maybe their Eurosceptic lyrics help, too: the witty “1914 and Beyond” surveys a century of continental history from the Spanish flu to the breakup of the eurozone, set to a poignant piano backing.
The Guardian has declared the Cats’ fourth release, All Blackshirts to Me, to be the “European album of the year” and the fivesome from Vaasa no less than “the best-looking band on Earth”.
“Blackshirts has probably been our most successful album so far as regards reach, with the record available in most countries,” says Triani. “And it’s been quite a big critical hit as well. The album came out in March and people are still writing about it.”
“As far as a record that has grown with the label and certainly had the most impact in Finland, Black Twig’s Paper Trees, which came out last January, has spread the word here about Soliti pretty well,” he adds.
Besides Swan, all the Soliti acts so far have been traditional male rock bands. That changes with the label’s next release in February, the debut album from Paperfangs. This trio features female vocals and a more electronic sound, which has already been put to use remixing various Soliti tracks. They’ll premiere their new songs during January’s Soliti Roadshow, which brings six bands to three cities over three nights.
“We are blessed”
What makes Soliti different then?
“Unique bands and a DIY attitude,” replies Big Wave Riders singer Teppo Meriläinen before a recent gig in Moscow. “The bands can do whatever they want musically. There’s artistic freedom and Nick really supports the bands. I think he’s just motivated by pure love for the music.”
Although Triani has lived through many ups and downs in the music industry, he remains enthusiastic and optimistic.
Triani spent three years as an A&R man at a midsize Finnish label which was sold to a multinational. It dropped him and all the bands he’d signed except electropop stars Regina – the only ones to sing in Finnish. Having lost their back catalogues, several of these bands followed him to Soliti, which offered them a fairer deal.
“I thought it was important to do licensing deals, let the bands own their records, and split everything 50/50,” explains Triani. “It’s very democratic. It’s not great business for me, but I’m breaking even. And as a brand, we’re getting to be quite well known.”
In the words of Swan – who readily admits that she is biased – “Soliti is on its way up somewhere in the staircase where art, music, hard work and a little business meet. To find a record label with passion for great art has always been rare. We are blessed.”
Soliti Roadshow, 16-19 January, Helsinki, Tampere, Turku:
Cats on Fire, Astrid Swan, Delay Trees, Big Wave Riders, The New Tigers, Paperfangs, Black Twig DJs, Nick Triani DJ
13-16 February Oslo, Norway