singing in Finnish, it is also the subject of an award-winning documentary, The Punk Syndrome.
BY Arttu Tolonen
Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät is an unlikely international cult hit. A punk band consisting of four adult men with learning disabilities, singing in Finnish, it is also the subject of an award-winning documentary, The Punk Syndrome. These musician’s ability to sing and talk with extreme clarity about their daily lives makes them a political band – whether they like it or not.
From the very start, punk and politics have had a chequered history together. Bands such as Crass embraced anarchism as a political ideology and made it the linchpin of their existence. The Clash managed to package it in a commercially viable form, though the relationship would run hot and cold. Some bands, like The Buzzcocks, sidestepped the issue completely and projected their influence into the decidedly apolitical 1990s pop punk scene.
The thing is, this was a choice each fledgling band could make and one that they could tinker with at a later date, as Green Day did by going from bratty mischief to the Cinemascope arena-scale politics of a record like American Idiot.
Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät is a punk band that didn’t have that choice. Its very existence is political.
A band is born
Back in 2004 Kalle Pajamaa worked at Lyhty ry, an organisation that offers support services and workshops for the disabled and their families. He met a man in his fifties named Pertti Kurikka at a music workshop. Kurikka was a big punk rock fan.
Over the next five years a band coalesced around Pertti and his blistering punk rock riffs. Another lifelong punk rock fan, Kari Aalto, was drafted in to sing and write the lyrics. Sami Helle plays bass. His listening habits tend towards more technically challenging music like Dream Theater and Whitesnake. Toni Välitalo is a fan of Finnish schlager, particularly Kari Tapio, and plays drums.
Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät got its real start with a movie called Vähän kunnioitusta (A little respect), which tells the story of Siiri, a young girl who wants to live an independent and normal life despite being learningdisabled, and a song called Kallio! that deals with the borough of the same name. It’s north of downtown Helsinki and used to be a working-class neighbourhood. Currently it’s undergoing gentrification and has witnessed an influx of people in the creative industries over the last five or so years.
“My colleague, friend and housemate Sami acted in this movie and we wrote this song right then, so the timing was right. A little bit of the song was shown in the movie and Kalle put the whole song on YouTube,” recalls Kari. “The song became very popular there and soon its popularity was so great and enormous, almost like Hurriganes, that people started wanting to interview us and see us play.”
Despite the changes in the area, Kallio has not lost all its rough-hewn charm and it’s still a natural hangout for people interested in the subcultures that coalesce around punk rock, vintage American cars and motorcycles, reggae music… All of which Kari is into.
“The song itself is about my territory, about my own family, my own hood, which is Kallio. Although I live in [the considerably more genteel] Töölö, I try to spend as much time in Kallio as possible. I try to visit at least every two or three days, if not every day. It all depends on what’s going on. I take the number 8 tram from where I live in Töölö and go to Kallio. So that’s where I often find myself.”
The song has had over 170,000 views on YouTube and got the band started on what has turned out to be a fairly meteoric rise. Its first record, a split 7” single with Kakka-hätä 77 called Ei yhteiskunta yhtä miestä kaipaa (Society won’t miss one man) came out in November 2010. It was released in Germany, too. The band’s next release was a three-song cassette called Päättäjä on pettäjä (Policymakers betray us) in the summer of 2011. Osaa eläimetkin pieree (Animals know how to fart, too) came out in November 2011 and Asuntolaelämää (Dormitory living) the following year, along with a compilation of all their songs, Kuus kuppia kahvia ja yks kokis (Six cups of coffee and a Coke).
Jazz bassists, punk rockers and dance bands
The average age of the band members hovers around 40 and their musical backgrounds are quite diverse. “Before joining this band, I played jazz bass and Kari was actually the drummer. We were called Kolme Kuningasta (Three kings),” says Sami.
“I made electronic music with a guy named Marko,” Kari adds. “We performed in Vähän kunnioitusta, too. But all the other stuff we used to do fell by the wayside once we got started on Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät. This took up all our time.”
“Kari played drums for us, too, until this guy showed up,” Sami adds, pointing at Toni.
“I became a drummer, because Timppa taught me to play drums when I was very small,” says Toni. “And I kept getting better and better and better at drums and became a professional drummer, but I still kept getting better and better. And that’s how I ended up in Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät!”
“Toni came to us from the city of Espoo. Toni lives with his mum and dad in Espoo,” Kari explains, “but we wanted him here, so the city of Espoo arranged a place here for Toni.”
“I come from Espoo to work here,” Toni adds. “This one still lives with mum and dad!” Sami points out.
“Even though he’s already 30 years old!” exclaims Kari.
Fundamentally, the band owes its existence to Pertti Kurikka’s guitar riffs, which he writes drawing from over 30 years of solid punk rock fandom. Pertti remembers the radio playing a lot of punk rock when he was young: “They played Ypö-Viis, they played Karanteeni, they played 013 and Kollaa Kestää…” Pertti lists some classic Finnish punk bands of the 1970s and 1980s. “I’ve listened to Eppu Normaali,” Kari adds. “And Pelle Miljoona, Sex Pistols and The Clash and Ramones and all those bands.”
“One thing we are all proud of,” Sami says, “is the fact that we all know [Karanteeni vocalist] Harri ‘Hate’ Konttinen really well. He gave us express permission to cover one of his songs. He personally gave it to us at Puntala punk festival. We’ve even performed with him, as well as with Pelle Miljoona.”
“Yes, it was at the Maailma Kylässä festival in Helsinki,” Kari recalls. “I’ve known Pelle for a long time, since I’m always hanging out in Kallio. That’s where I meet him. I don’t remember what song it was at all. Kalle had to draw the song on paper for me. I couldn’t even remember it then.”
“We didn’t have any time to practise it, so it didn’t go very well,” says Sami.
“It didn’t go the way it should have and it made me so nervous that I wanted to beat myself up,” Pertti admits. “You know, before this band I had a band that played dance music, humppa and tango with my good friend Ari Pesonen. We had a singer and an accordion player and I played guitar,” he explains.
“Playing is a lot of fun,” declares Kari, “and you get to relax and drink a couple of Jack Daniels and a few Budweisers or Jim Beams and smoke some cigs as you pluck on your guitar. Musicians play because it’s a great way to burn some energy and it brings new dimensions to thinking. It’s a great way to spend the day!”
Punk rock politics
Some of the songs in the band’s oeuvre are overtly political and others deal with singer Kari’s everyday life. Even in the latter the spectre of politics is never far away, since the lives of disabled people are more dependent on vagaries of politics than the average person’s. “I’m a member of the Centre Party. Eight years I’ve been a member. And I’m active,” bassist Sami Helle says.
It’s a fairly uncommon party affiliation for someone who is Helsinki born and bred, but Sami came by this political stance after long and careful deliberation. “I became interested in politics because I wanted to see an improvement in the affairs of disabled people and things related to these special groups we have. I got to know some people in politics and I started looking into things. The more I looked into things, the more I ran into the Centre Party and then things just fell into place,” Sami states. “I’ve been interested in Finnish politics for a long time and lived through the last recession.” Kari has a slightly less nuanced view of politics: “I fucking hate politics. And I don’t really like politicians.” But he does tone it down a touch. “If I had to choose one, the choice would be between Pekka Sauri from the Green Party or the wonderful, wonderful man who gave us the state cultural prize.”
“You mean Paavo Arhinmäki,” Sami clarifies. “Yes,” says Kari, “he’s the one I’d go out and vote for.”
The band has met Finland’s current Minister for Culture and Left Alliance chairman Paavo Arhinmäki on several occasions, including at shows the band has played at Helsinki hotspots like Kuudes Linja in Kallio. The state art prize was awarded to the documentary film The Punk Syndrome.
“He’s a nice guy,” Sami admits, despite the fact thatrom left: Sami, Toni, Kari and Pertti. he votes for the bourgeois Centre Party. “So, Kari, you can’t say all politicians are rotten if you have one or two that you think are OK!”
“Me and Sami fight a lot about the fact that Sami is a politician, bourgeois and likes to live at the dormitory in Töölö,” Kari elaborates, “whereas I prefer to spend time with people who are into old American and English cars and motorbikes. Of my friends, one set listen to heavy metal, another to punk and a third part listen to reggae and a fourth to rap.”
Keeping it real in the glare of the spotlight
All through the band’s rise, film directors J-P Passi and Jukka Kärkkäinen were documenting the band’s life and they released the cinéma-vérité -style documentary film The Punk Syndrome in May 2012. The film was an immediate success and went on to win the Audience Award at the Tampere Film Festival in 2012 and the Film Audience Award at SXSW 2013 in Austin, Texas. The band went to Austin to play and promote the movie, and faced a barrage of questions: how long have you played together, how does it feel to taste success, has the success gone to your heads yet, and so on.
“They asked us all the normal questions they ask all the bands. And no, all this hasn’t gone to our heads. We try to keep our feet on the ground,” says Sami.
“My friends in Kallio sometimes ask me for autographs and records,” says Kari, “and ask us about upcoming shows, so I think it has gone to some of my friends’ heads, not mine.”
“Yes, I think it’s more the people close to us, relatives and others. They get overly excited,” agrees Sami. “But at the same time it’s still so great, because you have to keep in mind that we are four learning-disabled adults, so every once in a while I have to stop and wonder, ‘Is this really happening?’ You know what I mean? This would be so great for anyone, but for us especially. Early on, because all the articles were so positive and the feedback, too, I said to myself that about half of this stuff is not genuine. They don’t really know us, so they’re just saying this stuff, but… It’s gone on for so long now I have to believe that most people are serious.”
The band has noticed that both its success and increased visibility and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film all over the world have resulted in something of a sea change in people’s attitudes towards them and learning-disabled people in general.
“People with disabilities are made fun of and I was made fun of when I was a child, but I’ve noticed, with this band and the movie out there, that people are more positive about us,” ponders Kari. “People have seen the movie and understood what it’s about and what the whole point is.”
“Yes, when I was younger I was always told I couldn’t do this or that,” says Sami, “and now with all the hype I sometimes feel that, despite all the positive feedback, it’s sometimes hard to take it all in. And in that way, too, we are like everyone else. I think it shocks some people who see us and see the movie, that we are just like them. Yes, we are four disabled men, but we are more like other people than we are different from them. We are the same. We are human. Now people tend talk to me as Sami, not as some guy with a disability.”
That the Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät phenomenon has made life easier and more exciting for its members is a certainty. There’s a strong chance that it has opened all kinds of doors and opportunities for other learning-disabled people, too.
“I think the movie and our popularity has been a huge positive thing and now many learning-disabled people have the courage to start doing things like singing, acting in plays and other things,” declares Sami.
“We’ve opened a door for others,” adds Kari. this society and this culture, with minister Paavo Arhinmäki on board in such a positive way,” Sami explains, “and it’s up to other learning-disabled people to do real things and keep that door open, because we can’t do any more. It’s not up to us any more. Now it’s up to society and other disabled people.”
“People have to look at what we’ve done and learn from it,” says Kari. “They need to get out there and do things they love. And they need to show their parents and others that Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät has proved that you need to be alert and brave.”
The trip to Austin to play as well as promote the documentary film wasn’t the band’s first trip abroad by any means.
“We’ve been to many countries,” says Kari.
“We’ve been to Riga,” recalls Toni.
“We’ve been to Europe for several tours lasting four to five days,” Sami explains. “One tour to Germany was two weeks long.”
“We took the ship there and the ship back,” remembers Kari.
“It was our first trip abroad and took two whole weeks. And two weeks with these guys is really pushing it. My nerves were shot,” says Sami.
So Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät is like any other band criss-crossing Europe or North America in a tiny van or a small bus. When they get tired, they get on each other’s nerves and become needlessly cross and mean. Drummer Toni seems like the quietest one and guitarist Pertti seems to take his frustrations out on himself, sometimes physically. Kari and Sami are clearly the extroverts in the band.
The band has seen its popularity in England surge, and was supposed to tour there, too, but things went awry. What was initially supposed to be a tour for the whole band shrank to a week-long promotional junket for Kari and Sami. The band turned it down. “It was a terrible shock for us, with Pertti and Toni not being able to go,” laments Kari.
The loss of a small tour in the UK seems like a minor blip in the band’s relentless schedule. Between April and August, they are scheduled to play 30 shows, primarily in Finland, since the festival season is coming up. The band is playing some big well-established festivals, such as Ilosaarirock and Provinssirock, some mediumsize newcomers like Porispere and smaller events such as Pöheikön Pölläys in Ylöjärvi. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät got its first taste of the bigger festival stages last summer and is eagerly looking forward to this summer, both for the crowds and the other bands it gets to play with.
“I remember our first show in Ilosaari last year. I walked on stage and there were thousands of people there. I almost went into shock,” says Sami.
“I’m looking forward to playing on the same day with Motörhead, the band where the singer and bass player is Lemmy Kilmister,” proclaims Kari.
“And I am proud to say I play a Rickenbacker bass,” exclaims Sami. “That’s the same bass Lemmy Kilmister plays!”
Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät
:: Founded in 2009
:: Members Pertti Kurikka, guitar; Kari Aalto, vocals; Sami Helle, bass guitar; Toni
:: The songs are composed by Kurikka and lyrics written by Kurikka and Aalto
:: Recordings released on the labels Airiston punk-levyt, Punk & Pillu, Hikinauhat,
Mauski Records and Red Lounge Records
:: A documentary film on the band, The Punk Syndrome [orig. Kovasikajuttu
(2012)], has won awards in Moscow, the US, the Czech Republic and elsewhere
Arttu Tolonen is a musician, translator and writer. His natural inclination is to fall between aesthetic cracks.