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Lauri Porra forges his own path

by Petri Silas

After three solo albums in the jazz-rock vein and a colourful career that has taken him from jazz to power metal and beyond, Lauri Porra is preparing to introduce the world to his new classical venture Entropia. He is the great-grandson of Jean Sibelius and he feels all borders between music genres are artificial or arbitrary.

Bass player and composer Lauri Porra (b. 1977) decided to make music his profession at the age of fourteen. Knowing his bloodline and background, it would be tempting to deem this decision as a natural choice. For the sake of narrative, one might even imagine some mystic providence behind his decision.

Hindsight makes for a handy tool and we’ll get to Porra’s background later. But first, let’s visit the teenager in Helsinki in the early 1990s. Lauri is the youngest of four children, with an engineer father and professional oboist mother. All children play a string instrument.

"Life was good, I spent a lot of time by myself and thanks to our very free upbringing there was no huge pressure”, Porra says now. ”I was something of an underachiever at school and my cello studies were going nowhere fast.”

One autumn semester at the Käpylä Music Institute marked an epiphany for Lauri. His regular tutor was absent and the substitute teacher preferred methods which were not usual in Finland.

Zsolt Puskas came from the Eastern European school of music education,” Porra reminisces. ”Watching me getting ready for my lesson, laying out my stuff and placing all my extra scores on the floor, made his blood boil. Zsolt yelled furiously because by casually piling the papers on the floor I had shown a severe lack of respect for music.”

After the initial shock, Porra realized that Puskas had unknowingly introduced him to something important: discipline. The pedagogical merits of such methods are questionable but the message came through and Lauri adjusted his attitude towards rehearsing.

Out with the cello and in with the bass guitar

With his classical studies over, Porra found a new instrument in a new musical environment. Up until then, he had taken the individualistic way of preferring Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s works to the pop and hard rock so prevalent on his classmates’ musical menus. Now an iron fist was about to clench him.

”My puberty kicked in literally overnight. I must have begun secreting some adolescence hormone very rapidly because one day I announced at the breakfast table that I would go and buy a pair of jeans, a hoodie, a CD player and some records. I had heard metal music and was hooked,” Lauri says.

When I compose, I try to follow my heart and write the sort of music that I myself would want to listen to. But whatever the musical style or point of departure might be, musicians are always aiming for the same thing: to make sounds and music that evoke feelings and thoughts from the listeners, and to engage in a dialogue with the audience.
Lauri Porra (Entropia album booklet, BIS)

The year was 1991, a good vintage for metal, rock and their variations. Lauri’s choices reveal that he was emotionally drawn towards the dark end of the spectrum and a particular instrument.

”I got The Black Album by Metallica, Blood Sugar Sex Magick by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nevermind by Nirvana and Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus. Songwriting and expression aside, I became infatuated by star bass players like Flea and Les Claypool. These kind of virtuosos and metal music as a genre fit well with the traditions of classical music and jazz that were already familiar to me.”

After discovering Metallica’s earlier classic Master of Puppets (1986), Porra came across a musician who was very different from earlier idols, like Pekka Pohjola and Jaco Pastorius.

”His outrageous bass playing, eccentric dress sense and tragic untimely death made Cliff Burton my hero. What a character, what a magnificent musician and what a story. I got a bass guitar, started grinding on it like crazy and enrolled at the Oulunkylä Pop & Jazz Conservatory.”

These choices would define Porra’s career and life as he quickly became the most talked-about bass player of his generation in Finland. His relentless training regime and voracious appetite to play in every possible band made him fluent in styles ranging from metal to jazz and bossa nova.

”Ogeli [Oulunkylä Pop & Jazz Conservatory] was a pretty good institute with some fine teachers but the main thing for me were my fellow students. I forged life-long friendships with guitarists like Timo Kämäräinen, Tuomas Wäinölä and Mikko Kosonen and pianists like Tuomo Prättälä. It was a cauldron of activity.”

Listen to the third movement of Lauri Porra's Entropia - concerto for electric bass and orchestra on Yle Areena:

Stratovarius, Sibelius and the silver screen

Porra says he turned pro at the age of 22 when guitarist Ben Granfelt took him on European tours supporting Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy. The next important step was a trio where Porra and Mikko Kosonen backed up singer Emma Salokoski in a jazzy bossa nova setting. However, metal music was calling again.

”I was invited to join guitarists Alexi Laiho and Roope Latvala, singer Kimberly Goss and drummer Janne Parviainen in Sinergy. The level of musicianship and the sheer firepower of that team was off the charts”, Porra says. ”Such extremely technical and progressive death metal was a new thing in 2002 and I was overjoyed to see my old friend Alexi blazing a trail for the entire genre with Sinergy and Children of Bodom.”

Session work and gigs followed in rapid succession, and the next big change was already around the corner. Porra’s close friend and colleague Tuomas Wäinölä had collaborated with singer Timo Kotipelto from Stratovarius and before he knew it, Lauri was playing bass for the multi-million selling power metal juggernaut.

”It was another dream come true even though the ship hit the rocks soon after when Timo Tolkki, the band’s guitarist and mastermind, began to have serious issues with his mental health.”

Tolkki’s 2008 exit crippled Stratovarius only temporarily and the band has now released four albums with new guitarist Matias Kupiainen - and continued touring as relentlessly as ever.

”Aside from the musical rewards I cherish the fact that Stratovarius travels so much”, Porra says. ”Getting to know new cultures is one of the best things in life.”

The mental capital acquired by these experiences is important in Porra’s work as a solo artist and a movie composer. Inspired by his big heroes Pekka Pohjola and Jaco Pastorius, Lauri writes moody music in a 1970s jazz-rock vein for his Flyover Ensemble. And perhaps at least subconsciously inspired by his world-renowned great-grandfather, he creates music for the silver screen and classical ensembles.

”Yes, I am a direct descendant of Jean Sibelius. And this seems to be a big deal for some people”, comments Porra on his heritage. ”But for me, it carries no real significance. And I don’t mean to sound arrogant. I find it lovely that my concerto Entropia gets performed in the US and Norway alongside works by my very famous forefather. However, I want to stand on my own two feet.”


Featured photo: Jarmo Katila

Porra's Entropia at the Oulu Music Festival on 15 & 16 March, 2018.