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Paths to the Underworld; an Interview with Pyhä Kuolema

Pyhä Kuolema

Pyhä Kuolema


An Interview with Pyhä Kuolema

by Jarno Alander


It is impossible to discuss the Finnish neofolk scene and not have the names Tervahäät and Pyhä Kuolema come up sooner or later. In late November 2014, I had the opportunity to have a short chat with Mikko Pöyhönen, the mastermind behind both of these projects. Tervahäät was due to play a live show at the Kaapelitehdas complex (a former cable factory, now converted into an independent cultural centre) in Helsinki. However, due to circumstances beyond their control, Tervahäät was forced to cancel, and was replaced on the bill by Pöyhönen’s solo project, Pyhä Kuolema. The headliners of the show were the black metal group Rude for Revenge. The group’s frontman, Sami Kettunen, is known also for his work with the Bestial Burst record label, as well as the director of the Endless Flame of Gehenna documentary. The show was organised by the artists themselves, completely independent of promoters or commercial music venues. There was no entrance fee, only a voluntary collection to cover the artists’ travel cost. The concert was truly underground in a very literal sense as well, since it took place in the labyrinthine basement of the immense former industrial complex. During Pyhä kuolema’s set one thing became perfectly clear: unlike some other artists operating in the neofolk continuum, Mikko Pöyhönen can sing. The man’s strong, resonant voice is perfect for his darkly exalted and (national) romantic songs. After the show, I wanted to give the man some time to recover, and then eventually went over to pull on his shirtsleeve. The following discussion went as follows:


Heathen Harvest: First of all, congratulations, between songs during your set you mentioned that you have gotten engaged today!

Mikko Pöyhönen: Well, not quite. Today we finally got the right-sized ring—the engagement itself took place this last fall equinox. Now we finally have a ring in the right size, and on the finger of its rightful owner.

HH: Excellent, congratulations to you both. Actually, it was only late last night that you and I both found out that the opening act of this event had changed. That is, in place of Tervahäät, the opening act of the show would be Pyhä Kuolema. Can you tell us a bit about the project and the kind of music you perform?

MP: Pyhä Kuolema has been around for four or five years by now. Before that I had a project called Tuhat Kuolemaa Sekunnissa with a couple of friends. Later on, I made the decision to finish with that and continue making music on my own. Pyhä Kuolema plays Finnish folk music, based on the English neofolk tradition and on Finnish wanderer songs from the 1950s, mainly by Tapio Rautavaara, but also by Olavi Virta to some extent. The lyrics are folksy, with some psychedelia here and there. Even though my songs are fairly uncomplicated and populist, they still usually require more than one listen to open up to the listener.

HH: What kind of audiences do you perform to?

MP: It varies quite a lot. I have done quite a few strictly neofolk shows, and then I’ve been on the bill in slightly more eclectic events. This one we are at now belongs to the latter category, with Ride for Revenge on the bill, and so on. For the most part, I usually share the bill with some of the other domestic avant-garde artists of this country. I like to play live as much as possible, of course, but with this being a small country the number of opportunities is limited.

HH: What kind of a message do you wish to convey with the name Pyhä Kuolema (‘holy death’)? Do you mean that death itself is holy, or that in the right circumstances, the death of an individual person can be holy? Death is also present in the name of your previous project Tuhat Kuolemaa Sekunnissa (‘a thousand deaths per second’)—are these names somehow related or connected?

MP: Pyhä Kuolema was originally the working title of the final release of Tuhat Kuolemaa Sekunnissa. This record never got made because we were busy setting up Tervahäät with my friend Kaarna. In fact, it was he who convinced me to continue making music on my own, so I went on to compose a few songs for a solo project, which did not have a name at that point.

Then one day I, when I happened to be thinking about what to do with those songs, I got a parcel from the United States. The parcel included a seven-day prayer candle with an image of the goddess Santisima Muerte. It was that which really sealed the name of the project.

Death as an entity is holy. It is eternal and impossible to overcome, and at the same time as multifaceted as any other figure dancing on a Pagan altar. As an event, a person’s death can be holy, or at the very least we all have the right to try to hallow it.

HH: Although all Pyhä Kuolema songs are in Finnish, you have also played in America, is this correct?

MP: That is true, I’ve played in the United States with several projects a few times. I also played a Pyhä Kuolema show at Stella Natura in 2012. That festival has had quite a few Finnish performers over the years, after all. Last year may have been the last time it will be organized; I wasn’t there myself then.

HH: What kind of experience was Stella Natura? How did the audience receive you?

MP: The reaction was surprisingly positive. We were there for a show with the band Maa, which I was in at the time. The next day I also had my own solo show. The whole thing was a bit absurd at first, since after all, I was singing in a language which probably no-one in the audience could understand. Nevertheless, I received quite a few comments later that many people in audience thought Pyhä Kuolema songs have a strong melody.

Many others write songs by first coming up with a chord progression, and then creating a melody on top of that. With me it is the other way around, the melody comes first. When the melody is strong enough, there is no longer a need for a common language. Even those who do not understand Finnish, can sense a certain vibration, and it becomes more than a simple aesthetic experience. It leaves its mark on a person in other ways as well. Or, at least that was what more than one person told me later. It was a beautiful, memorable moment in time.

HH: Where exactly did the festival take place again?

MP: In the Nevada desert, in the midst of real wilderness. Several thousand metres above sea level, up a mountain. The audience was a cross-section of alternative America. There were lots of metal folks there, especially in 2012 there was a strong black metal presence. Also there were quite a few people from the American so-called alternative right, as well as Asatruars, and finally lots of hippies, pure and simple. And when I say hippies, I mean people who are “hippy” in a positive way. It seems to me that hippies often no longer know any of the things one would assume hippies to be good at—for example, things having to do with the environment, or writing books about psychedelic experiences. In this country, being a hippy means occupying an entire different spectrum these days. But over there, there were plenty of handicraft workshops, organic foods, and other things related to alternative lifestyles.

HH: Hippies in this country have lost the ability for any of that.

MP: Amazingly, that is so. And to think of what craftsmen and artisans we have been in the past, as a people. Or still are, I suppose, to some degree. Nevertheless, at Stella Nature that side of things was very well represented.

HH: If we think about neofolk and black metal—which you mentioned, and which is on the bill at this event as well—in purely musical terms, they are not especially close to one another. But these genres still have the same audience to some extent. The overlap is quite significant. Both of these are also in part connected to the alternative right, which you also mention. How would you describe the state of that scene in this country?

MP: Given what a small country this is, we have an incredible number of bands and other projects. In the last five years or so, the separate scenes have become intertwined with each other. Alternative folk, black metal, and things like noise and ambient have become inseparable from each other. There is also quite a bit of cross-genre cooperation, for example the between the black metal band Goatmoon and the harsh noise project Bizarre Uproar. There is clearly an affinity of spirit there, and I believe there is also an affinity of the mind.

The audience has also had their ears opened; the musical spectrum that people follow and pay attention to has spread wide open. It is not so much about what the music sounds like or what instruments are used, but rather the general feeling and spirit of the thing. David Tibet once coined the phrase apocalyptic folk, which was misunderstood by a lot of people, in my opinion. Anyway, here we have a slightly similar outlook: we are following the roadsigns towards Tuonela (the underworld in Finnish mythology).

Pyhä Kuolema  |  Credit: Justine Murphy

Pyhä Kuolema | Credit: Justine Murphy

HH: If we look at all of that from a political point of view, how would you go about presenting all of this to the outside as desirable and attractive? I don’t want to use the words ‘cool’ or ‘fashionable’, but something close to that, anyway.

MP: My own songs are personal and each listener can take from them whatever he or she needs in life. Tervahäät, on the other hand, makes music that is slightly more aware and involved; we like to think of it as a healing force of sorts. There is clearly a call for it, and the worldview and models of thought already exist among the local alternative right, and—why not—the traditional right as well.

But to create appropriate art for that … it is a bit complicated. And as far as the music goes, it may not have been presented to the audience in a form that fits these times. If we think of old Finnish singer-songwriters such as Irwin Goodman—who played popular music in the true meaning of the word—their message was always contextual, tied to their own time. And that whole outlook needs to be updated. As for myself, I have no interest in making purely political music. I do not have the interest, the time, or the ability.

If we think of the current alternative avant-garde scene is this country, we seem to be searching for a mythical Finland—not something that has been lost, but rather something that is yet to be found. Of course, it is also traditional, as far as anything can be, in a time which has abandoned all traditions. To a large extent it is, instead, about creating new traditions, which has been going astonishingly well so far. There are so many bands and so much shared outlook and mentality. A good example is this very show; we are not backstage in some bar, or conducting this interview in the toilet of some bar to avoid the noise. Black metal and other alternative music has embraced a mentality of moving itself to the countryside in the last few years. We no longer want or need bars and clubs in cities—they are nothing but trouble. Just think of Goatmoon’s recent problems at Gloria (a live venue in downtown Helsinki). We much prefer to give them the finger and go play somewhere else. And even if we are not downtown, easily accessed and in the middle of everything, those who really believe in this will find their way here.

HH: I understand that you were involved in setting up this event?

MP: Yes, I was the one who originally invited everyone else along.

HH: Are you planning to make a regular event of it?

MP: Unfortunately that is not possible, but in the city of Oulu, we arrange an annual event called Veljesiltamat each autumn, around mid-August. That is more of a tradition, whereas in Helsinki it is difficult to find venues. This is an example of what I was just talking about: instead of battling with the clubs and bars, we prefer simply to go somewhere else.

HH: Yesterday (November 28, 2014) the parliament approved a certain proposed law (gay marriage), which deals with what appears to be that most important issue of all human history, if not the history of the universe itself—or at least so you would think, looking at the coverage by the Finnish Broadcasting Company or the mainstream press. Do you have a take on this whole hysteria?

MP: For my own life it makes no difference one way or the other, but just as I have done before, I will continue to passionately display the rainbow flag on the body of my guitar, among a few other symbols. This means that certain people in my own circle will finally receive equal treatment in this republic. I am actually surprised the law was approved, but like I said, personally it is of little interest to me.

HH: Alright, is there anything else on your mind that you would like to mention?

MP: Well, not much. Pyhä Kuolema will begin recording a new release in January, and we are also planning a split with the RAC band Vapaudenristi. In other words, for now we are just waiting for the new year.

HH: Very well. Thank you very much!

[Originally written in Finnish for Sarastus web magazine.]