.:.OUTCAST BY CHOICE.:.
An Interview with Mikko Aspa
Mikko Aspa is known as a bit of a Renaissance man in the field of post-industrial counter-culture. Based in Lahti, Finland, the man seems to be endlessly juggling a mind-bogglingly wide variety of endeavors with his own musical projects, several record companies, and constant collaborations with other artists.
Aspa also is or has been a pornographer, a cartoonist, and visual artist. He also operates a record store in his native town, which has become a bit of a Mecca for devotees of extreme and marginal music.
In the following interview, Aspa shares some of his ideas on the nature of art, the dichotomy between mainstream and alternative culture, politics, nationalism, and on life in general. We also ask him for his take on the current “refugee” crisis of Europe.
Heathen Harvest: What originally set you on the path you are on now? You seem like a hardworking and achievement-oriented person, who most likely would have succeeded no matter what area of enterprise you had chosen. Was it a case of an inner drive or need, or have there also been some life experiences that have made you do what you do?
Mikko Aspa: Life as a teenager in a small town, during the recession of the early 1990s, did not offer an endless variety of alternatives. I have always been interested in doing things on my own terms and have applied that to whatever interests me, as much as circumstances permit. One thing led to another: first in the fields of pictorial “art” and comics, then on to music and all sorts of other material.
I was already recording and releasing my own material by the time I was fifteen. I corresponded with people all over the world who shared my own interests to some degree. That time—before the internet came along—was remarkably different from today, but every contact I established led to something.
No one can create a ‘subculture’ on his own; it takes a wider group of people and the right moment in time. In different circumstances, it all would have manifested itself in a different manner. Throughout my life, popular culture as a wide phenomenon has not interested me at all, apart from a few singular obsessions. Modern mass-entertainment culture as it exists today, in its mundane form, does not interest me one bit. As a rule, I have always found myself drawn to the marginal and the extreme—in some cases identifying with it, in others merely trying to understand and approaching it with more of an investigative perspective.
Especially these days, when the distance between mainstream society and people capable of any sort of independent thought (regardless of what they think) seems to be inordinate, there is no reason to bind oneself with any received rules and norms. It is better to throw gasoline into the flames.
I’m not sure how to define ‘success’. A single web-camera recording of someone vomiting, or some Instagram video of someone doing aerobics for their ass can receive more attention than everything I have ever done combined. That does not personally bother me. Personal success is not as important as living a meaningful life where the things you do actually have a purpose.
HH: I suppose that success can be measured in each case individually, depending on what any particular person wants to achieve. Is there anything you still haven’t managed to do that you would like to in the future?
MA: I am rather callous at this point in my life, but on the other hand, I already have done so many different things that I no longer get an extreme sense of enthusiasm or excitement over any single new project. This doesn’t mean that I consider it insignificant, however; it also doesn’t mean I’m jaded. It is merely the result that I live this way. It’s not just a matter of isolated single incidents that require creating emotional hype over them.
What I would like to do is sever myself even further from the world of a capitalist reality. Not that is has any kind of significant role in my life at this point, but in the future it will hopefully matter even less.
HH: Do you see all of your projects as parts of a larger lifework that should be approached as a whole?
MA: A large part of my activities have not been completely public, so for an outside observer, getting the full picture of the whole of my work is not even possible. I have tried to fade the person I am into the background since the very beginning, allowing the material itself to do the talking. The point is to cut out the distorted cult of personality that is present in so much of our popular culture. It must connect with people as it is, regardless of whose name or face it is associated with.
Some of my endeavors are well-known while others have retained their anonymous nature up until now. All of it can be seen as a part of a larger whole. Very clear connections can be seen within different parts of practically the entire corpus. The edges that are furthest away from each other may seem contradictory to an outside observer, to say the least.
The larger whole is a personal journey; it is also an incomplete one. It also possible to observe certain different eras and trajectories within it. Ultimately, however, nothing has changed as far as my own motivations go. I deal with topics that interest me and which I consider important or essential. The ways I do this and the ways different ideas are interpreted can vary.
HH: You say you dislike the idea of a cult of personality being created around you. I myself have seen hints of something like it in publications outside of this country. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, from a Central European or North American perspective, Finland is such a remote and even slightly mystical place. If someone says they like one of your projects, but not another one, have they misunderstood something?
MA: No, they haven’t. Even though, for example, Grunt, Clandestine Blaze and Vapaudenristi clearly have many things in common, the material in question is musically, aesthetically, and ‘strategically’ very different. Each project must stand on its own feet—on its own merits. The person in the background inevitably leaves their own personal mark, but hopefully it is more than a mere signature. The world is full of bands and full of art that gets noticed solely based on the ‘brand’ of the people who produce it, not the actual content itself. This is the situation I try to avoid.
HH: In a previous interview you state that, in a live setting, your goal is to control the situation and the circumstances completely. On the other hand, many live venues, especially in very marginal genres, can be a bit dodgy when it comes to the PA system and so on. Is your objective still the same in these situations? How much time do you generally spend preparing for a live show?
MA: I don’t recall this interview. If I may take a guess at what I had in mind, it probably had something to do with the idea of being able to deal with any situation that may arise, whether it is a technically ideal location that is specifically designed for live performances, or a gig played in daylight in the corner of some dingy room.
I do not strive for any kind of restrictive control because that would lead towards a pre-planned slavish repetition rather than anything authentic being created in the moment. Control is always good if it is understood as an ability to be wielded when necessary—an ability to react to challenging situations and to put yourself on the line, even in the absence of certain safety nets. This is the difference between real creators and people who merely perform.
How I prepare for gigs varies. There must be enough content to deliver, but on the other hand there must also be enough room for spontaneity. As a rule of thumb, I take all shows seriously, rather than just as an excuse for traveling, drinking, or ‘fun’. Neither do I think of them as ‘career opportunities’ or something that will look good on my résumé.
HH: Living in the moment is, of course, important in a live setting. I would imagine it is irritating that the audience seems to focus more and more on recording and photographing the shows, only to live through later on social media?
MA: I certainly can understand the need to document culture. I myself have filmed or photographed innumerable gigs. What I do not understand, however, is why it must be done by so many people and so badly. What possible function can a lousy thirty-second recording, made with a mobile phone camera, possibly serve? Or a photo that only has the purpose of reminding the person who took it that he has been there? The way I see it, there is a need for people who document, report, and archive, but it would be splendid if those who are free of that burden had the ability of throwing themselves fully into the experience.
I personally represent a movement that seeks to take art away from trendy bars or circus-like music festivals. This is important in terms of the experience. We are not outcasts who have failed at popular culture, but rather we have consciously stepped outside of it. There is no need to try to forcefully drop certain similarities that may still remain.
HH: Will there be new areas to explore in the future in the form of a new genre, or possibly a completely different form of art or format? Do you believe you will continue with all your myriad projects in the foreseeable future, or do you believe that, at some point, you will feel the need narrow things down?
MA: My main outlets, bands, and the rest of the core work have always remained more or less the same. On the side there has been a lot of puttering around in the moment. I don’t consider excessive specialization to be in any way ideal. To me, it looks too much like just learning one trick and then repeating it again and again. Reality may set its own limits to what I do (demand for records, distribution issues, the possible disappearance of entire formats, etc.), but I do not believe I’ll ever simply quit. Rather, I’ll just choose new ways of doing things if the old ones are no longer practical.
HH: You do not come across as a particularly politically oriented person, but still here and there one hears miscellaneous nobodies shouting—from a safe distance—that you are a right-wing extremist, a ‘Nazi’, or some other form of what they perceive as a political degenerate. Vapaudenristi, of course, has lyrics that could be interpreted as political in this nature. However, I interpret them as surrounding ethno-nationalism, associated with the idea of being Finnish or of any other nationality. It has to do with a blood heritage that any person either has or does not have. For example, the song ‘Ei maata ilman kansaa’ (‘There Is No Country Without a People’). Any comments on this?
MA: This will depend on how you define ‘political’. If the question is, do I represent some clearly defined, ideologically pure line of thought or political party, or do I vote in elections, the answer is, of course: I most certainly do not.
If you phrase the question differently, you may come to the conclusion that I am an extremely politically oriented person. For me, ‘politics’ equals ‘worldview’. I am not interested the administrative issues or economic policies that mainstream politics are dominated by. I am interested in the issues in the background. I represent radicalism that rejects anthropocentrism and liberal humanism, but I am not especially dogmatic when it comes to deciding who I can collaborate with in order to advance these ideas.
HH: Regarding the above: Do you get a lot of hate mail?
MA: What is ‘hate’, and how much is ‘a lot’? In my opinion, these things gets blown out of proportion. It is clear that there are people who appreciate what I do, and others who do not. That is the name of the game, and it is useless to complain about it.
HH: Clandestine Blaze released a new record earlier this year, and will also play a full-length live set for the first time ever at the Nidrosian Black Mass in December. Could this show be considered part of the same continuum as last year’s Black Flames of Blasphemy festival, where you performed a couple of Clandestine Blaze songs (‘Psychopatia Sexualis’ and ‘Fist of the Northern Destroyer’) with Mgła?
MA: It is a direct continuation of that gig. For a number of years, Clandestine Blaze has been experimenting with the possibility of a live performance, with different line-ups. So the initial result was one song performed half-publicly, but so far there has been nothing more than that.
HH: How did your collaboration with Mgła come about?
MA: I know Mgła’s founding member from back when the only things Mgła had done were instrumental demos with a drum machine. Already at the time there was an intangible, inexplicable element, which promised much more than the demos concretely delivered. I invited Mgła on to the Crushing the Holy Trinity compilation simply based on those relatively modest merits. That inexplicable spirit, which had been there since the earliest recordings, came through on those recordings and has further refined itself over the years. We agreed that we would try a few songs at the Mgła rehearsal place during one of my visits to Poland. Along with the vocals, I also handled the drums at the time. We finally settled on the idea that we could play a few songs live.
HH: Although you describe the sensation with Mgła as inexplicable, could you still try to explain how you recognize a kindred spirit when one comes along?
MA: In this case, beside the music, it was a case of being able to communicate. There was clearly potential and insight in what was being created. I am interested in visionary people who have the ability to step outside the mainstream, and who are not entirely predictable.
HH: What makes you decide, “I want nothing whatsoever to do with this person”?
MA: Opportunism and a propensity for back-stabbing. I also have low tolerance for any kind of half-assed, self-pitying behavior, but I can get along with people who have been cursed with these attributes if I know what to expect beforehand. I don’t often need to make these types of decisions myself. Others do that for me.
HH: Quite a few of Clandestine Blaze’s best songs, in my opinion, can be rather difficult to arrange into live versions. What sort of a show can we expect?
MA: This is true. Most of the songs have not been created for a live environment or even to be experienced in any kind of ‘social’ setting, let alone for entertainment. The songs for the set have been chosen primarily based on how well they’ll work live. Most of them are from the more aggressive and succinct end of the spectrum. We will also concentrate on more recent material rather than go for any kind of nostalgia. I have no intention of putting on any ‘special’ gigs that are so popular in today’s environment. The songs have been chosen to support the set as a functional whole, that’s all.
HH: What if someone else wants Clandestine Blaze for their show or festival? What needs to happen for this to become a possibility?
MA: A couple of other gigs are in the planning stages, but nothing has been announced yet. There is plenty of demand, though. I won’t know until after the show if I’m interested or not.
To some extent, the whole concept of the ‘metal music festival’ irritates me, but I can work with that within certain parameters. Also, some kind of black metal tour does not seem like the natural way of doing things. I would prefer to perform at very small events—as small as possible. I cannot tell you anything else about the future at the moment.
HH: Nicole 12 raised quite a lot of debate at the time, which cannot have come as a surprise for you. Did you think of the debate as in any way useful, or would it have been better to just focus on the music itself?
MA: Generally, the only thing you see is a predictable chain of stimuli and of reactions to them. Most of the parties who have reacted that way are, in almost every conversation, on the level of a drooling dog. They simply cannot help themselves. It can be great fun to study these conditioned reactions. It will also provide you with direct analogies of any human interaction. Consider the hot topics here in Finland at the moment: The actual discussion takes place between those who can step back from this automatic chain of reactions and follow it from a distance.
Nicole 12 was a project that lasted twelve years and died on its anniversary: June 11, 2011. Each release approached the topic from a somewhat different direction, but I don’t see that there has been any real discussion of these artistic nuances. One could also turn the whole question around: rather than focusing on just the music, you should focus on the totality of the thing!
For many, the project is just an easy and distasteful exploitation of extreme imagery. Considering the outrageousness of the topic, that element obviously cannot be denied. But that was not the only thing behind the project.
HH: Many of these automatic reactions seem to have a performative and ritualistic aspect that is directed at friends, one’s ideological reference group, or the world at large. A herd mentality seems to be on the increase, despite the fact that people have more information available than ever before to make up their own mind. Advocates of provocative art or music have often said that it has the merit of shaking people out of their stupor and forcing them to think for themselves. Do you think this is a worthy goal?
MA: It is, but I am not sure of the reality of it being achieved. Any art that is created is made to awaken thoughts and feelings in the person experiencing it, whether the people experiencing it are the creators or other people, personally or collectively. Nothing prevents a collective experience from being just as authentic, far from the negatively charged idea of ‘herd mentality’.
For example, the idea of addressing people on any themes of community will immediately be charged with elements that people who have suffocated themselves with self-centeredness will deem reflections of herd mentality.
The endless mass of individuals produced by the modern world is far more uniform and lackluster than any member of a group who honestly accepts the default values that the membership of the group comes with. Think of what a horrific world it is we live in, when there are still people who think of themselves as a man, or a woman, or even a Finn, for example. Even these groups are quite multidimensional, unlike the whiners whose little pigeonholes, created ex nihilo, are now coming apart at the joints.
Without exception, the idea of sub/counter-culture is to deviate from the norms of the mainstream. The goal may not even be to convert others, but rather the quite elitist idea that those who have the capacity to do so will understand it. In fact, a certain elitist and hierarchical undertone is a necessity.
HH: Some have expressed that the idea that the whole idea of Deathspell Omega is to create a spiritual attack at the listener. I myself do not get the same impression, but it is interesting that some others do. Can you comment on this?
MA: Generally speaking, almost all music is an attack on the listener. For some it may be a negative sort of attack, and for others a positive one. For example, in a nutshell, the idea of Freak Animal Records is to release music that produces strong reactions in the listener—even releases that seem to be ‘just music’ on the surface. Not that I use that phrase in order to downplay the value of music. I believe that simple sound by itself can have a lot to offer, and it should provoke something in the listener. Energetic is better than lazy.
In the case of Deathspell Omega, I dare suggest that the number of listeners the band has, in comparison to the material itself, must mean that it indeed is an attack at on the listener.
HH: Let me ask you about another one of your projects in Vapaudenristi (‘Cross of Liberty‘). Unfortunately, I missed the Riimuradio podcast where you spoke about the band in more detail, so I apologize if I am making you repeat yourself. I myself have never been a huge fan of RAC, at least when listened to at home from a record. Vapaudenristi, however, is an exception here, perhaps because of the significantly better lyrics than the other bands in the genre usually create. Can you tell me a little bit about how and why the project began?
MA: I have been listening to different kinds of punk and related forms of music for about as long as any other type of underground music. I have also been a part of the so-called punk scene for as long. As a young boy, one is vulnerable to peer pressure, so it felt natural to oppose ‘fascism’ and so on, mostly because no one could quite explain exactly what fascism is. A very early Grunt release was cancelled at a certain record company because the lyrics were ‘fascist’. This caused me to step back and wonder what exactly made them fascist?
Before long it became clear that certain strains stood apart in the mass of nihilist rebellion and endless vomiting. Just a brief look at somewhat more interesting and esoteric identity politics created the immediate realization that this is what I had been outlining for myself all along.
When I was younger, it was difficult to identify with some random drunks getting aggressive after-hours, or some religious, conservative man in a suit, who were all called ‘Nazis’. A subculture that in the modern world has been buried rather deep, and the ideology and attitudes towards life within it, as well as the subsequent experiences they gave me, provoked a different reaction in me.
I have always appreciated music that is brutal and coarse, but honest. I can appreciate technical know-how and a high visionary ability in creating music, but nevertheless, I have been most taken by the sound that is created when someone operates beyond their own personal abilities. This is best represented by placing guitars in the hands of a gang of street brawlers. They have never had any need for nerdy finger training or a desire to be seen as a ‘proper musician’. There is only a burning need to create a burst of hatred, or of some other emotion. Many old-school punk bands had this dimension to their sound, but very few of the newer ones can recreate that feeling for me. However, in the old RAC scene, this element is at its most extreme.
I am drawn especially to harsh, rough, masculine, blunt hammering—to material which does not attempt anything impure. So much of rock ’n’ roll has been domesticated into mere house-trained entertainment. However, the material under the moniker of RAC has been isolated from any opportunities outside of itself. I suppose that it is the last embodiment of real anti-establishment outlaw rock ’n’ roll. While nearly every other subculture has been framed, mounted on museum walls, and made into the subject matter of nostalgic documentaries, this one is the final holdout of real rock rebellion. The mainstream can only see it as a warning example, and in the future, probably increasingly as an objective of interventions by the authorities. It is no problem that much of the material in the genre is relatively boring or unimaginative. It boils down to whether you are here as a casual listener in search of entertainment, or are you really here as one of the rock ’n’ roll rebels who live it instead of only consuming it?
During the 90s, I would borrow classics such as No Remorse from friends and found I enjoyed them. In the same way, I familiarized myself with all the usual suspects in our own domestic scene. It wasn’t until the 2000s that I began to actively find more records from this genre. I haven’t been a passive onlooker in anything. If something interests me, I am all the way in immediately.
Vapaudenristi was founded sometime in 2006, and the first demo came out early the following year. This was not a project driving forward any particular, determined agenda. I simply wrote songs on topics that I was preoccupied with at the time. Most of them dealt with simple, everyday feelings of anger and frustration. I spread the demos around by mail or during the shows that I went to. There were no plans for a full-length album or gigs at the time.
The form of Vapaudenristi that is an actual band with a full line-up is quite a bit newer. In fact, it was created after the first full-length album. That had been preceded by four demos and quite a few other recording sessions. Vapaudenristi doesn’t represent any particular group; rather, we have played at events organized by many different parties. Vapaudenristi is at home both at tough guys’ clubhouses and at more art-oriented contexts.
The band does not follow any dogmatic path, but for the last ten years or so, songs have been written based on whatever felt right at the moment. But the formless hatred of the early years has been giving way to a more ideological approach.
There has been quite a bit of feedback about the lyrics being better than the average in this genre. I suppose this has mostly to do with the way things are expressed, because in terms of ideas, there is nothing new on offer. I believe that the ideological tilt is present in many of our domestic bands, and the quality of the written texts is fairly good, in general. What is required of the listener is to let go of the easy, ironic stance of an onlooker and to sincerely take part.
HH: Right now, the future seems grim for all of Europe. I myself believe that we will come back from this, but before we do, things will get much worse. How do you see the future for this continent? To what extent do you feel that external social conditions affect or possibly place limits on your work?
MA: I am certain that we will see radicalization and revolts on a European scale, in a way that most think we now look at from a purely historical perspective. Just look at the situation in Finland: a country where traditionally you could not get people on the streets no matter what you did, and suddenly now in 2015, there is a nation-wide mobilization of hundreds of regular folks on the streets. It may seem like a small percentage given the entire population, but an alternative interpretation would be to consider this a completely game-changing shift in this society.
It may be necessary to accept the idea that this is not a temporary crisis, after which things will return to ‘normal’. It is an absurd thought that hedonism and self-indulgence alone will keep the populace of decaying nations at bay, if increasing numbers of them believe that something is fundamentally wrong.
The current problems deal with the economy and flood of immigration, but there are also problems stirring beneath our perception of a totally different magnitude, such as our unsustainable relationship with the environment and, with it, fundamental questions about human life. What could this be, or should be?
I do not believe that any mild, loose compromise will answer the challenges ahead. No small adjustment to correct the present problems will do anything to fix the larger background problems as they appear. I am referring to, for example, the impossibility of the present way of life continuing much longer, or the inability of the modern humanist set of values to provide answers to the questions we are now being asked.
I experience alternative culture as a way to awaken the questions that will slide the process forwards; to create ideas of a life that could be completely different from what it is in the present moment; to possibly offer ritualistic experiences, which allow a person to react to future challenges. I do not experience it as a way to be content with seeking a return to the past, because as a result, we would be confronting the same exact problems all over again. I see very few relevant frameworks within which even units as small as nation-states can be harnessed to work for a common goal. One good starting point for something positive is, in my opinion, a dynamic nationalism, which still has untapped potential at this point in human history. No return to the past, but rather an ability to create something new, vigorous, and relevant, while shedding old dead weight and retaining a strong perspective.
HH: Thank you for the interview, Mikko. This last space is yours for anything you feel is left unsaid.
MA: Thank you for the interview and best of luck for Heathen Harvest for the future!