A woman offends the Lord of the Forest and comes to a bad end. That, in a nutshell, is the narrative of the song Tapio, named after the pre-Christian Finnish god of the forest. The band Radiopuhelimet (“Radio telephones”) released this song, written by their guitarist Jarno Mällinen, on the album K.O. in 1990, and it is still one of the most frequently requested songs whenever the band is performing live.
Although Radiopuhelimet perform in Finnish, their music exudes a raw power that carries beyond the language barrier. Over a 30-year career, this cult band has packed itself into vans to tour locations as diverse as Petrozavodsk and Berlin. Founded in the city of Oulu at the far end of the Gulf of Bothnia in 1986, the band presents a fascinating blend of urban and rural psyches: the respect of city boys for the forces of nature on the one hand and a detached observation of the madness of the world from the sanctity of nature on the other.
Blues from the woods
Radiopuhelimet released their 14th album, Saastan kaipuu (Longing for filth), in June 2016. The band has always had a whiff of high-octane petrol fumes around it, much in the vein of Detroit-based bands such as The Stooges, its heartbeat attuned to Motown on overdrive. But these urban influences are only one side of the coin. It is equally easy to imagine the manic fury of the music of Radiopuhelimet as stemming from the fierce Arctic natural environment. Drummer Jyrki Raatikainen lays down an apocalyptic groove over which vocalist J.A. Mäki holds forth with the intensity of a lay preacher. His lyrics often address nature and how human beings relate to it.
“I don’t know if we’re about bricks or bogs. We’re about both. And when you go back far enough to the roots of music, it’s all about earth and jungle,” says Mäki, the vocalist and one of two principal lyricists in the band.
Mäki identifies the roots of his music-making as going back to blues in particular. For him, blues is not a museum exhibit or a chord sequence; it is timeless core music. Therefore, it is in a way the genre of popular music that is the closest to nature. The austere appearance of blues is touching because it conceals universal themes.
“The fate of a person, the fate of a community, the fate of a nation. Their relationship to the world around them and to the inner world of the singer and/or the narrator of the song. The life of a little person, the life of a nation,” Mäki explains.
When Mäki begins to write lyrics on these ageless themes, the story or its setting often turns to nature almost of its own accord. “Nature provides all kinds of inspiration. A walk in the woods actually brightens the mind, prompts ideas and sets moods. But nature is not just about woods, bogs and countryside. Nature is all around us, and inside us too,” says Mäki.
The nature of human beings
The lyrics of Radiopuhelimet are not just about nature at large but about human nature too. Their songs contain strident criticism of the consumer society and point to the power of nature as opposed to the insignificance of a human being. For myself, one of the most memorable moments was something that Mäki said in an introduction at a Radiopuhelimet gig a dozen years ago. It should be carved in stone and set up somewhere: “People say that nature takes revenge. Nature doesn’t take revenge. Nature reacts.” Today, Mäki puts it even more succinctly: nature is. No matter what happens to humankind over time.
Mäki’s relationship to nature developed as an emotional bond in childhood, but a rational bond has since emerged to complement it. The more he has learnt about the destruction of nature, the more his rational mind has begun to clamour for its protection. On the other hand, humankind has set up the very concept of intelligence as a weapon for defending its own supremacy over all other species.
“By this self-defined intelligence, humans justify harnessing nature to serve us, the superior beings. There is a tragic contradiction here. Much of what humans perpetrate is utterly unintelligent. There is no other species on this planet that wreaks so much destruction as to gradually destroy its own living environment.”
Mäki emphasises that when he writes about humans, he of course identifies himself as a member of the species. His lyrics thus have a broad streak of self-irony.
Finnish landscapes, nevertheless
Notwithstanding all of the above, the lyrics of Radiopuhelimet are not all about the destruction of nature, the end of the world and the decline of humankind. They are also about a sacred beauty that humans do not always appreciate. For all its aggression, the band’s music may also be heard to embody natural forces: the brooding air before a cleansing thunderstorm, the roaring of waves breaking against a rocky skerry, the clamour of male capercaillies engaged in a territorial dispute.
The natural imagery in Mäki’s lyrics is frequently based on personal experiences. He often sees his lyrics as images in his mind when writing. What does he think about if he wants to see something beautiful? “Just now, on this summer evening: a sunlit, windswept rocky shore in the Archipelago Sea. The sea is fragrant and stretches out to the horizon far away, a seagull cries and flies on, the eternal rock is warm underfoot.”
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Main photo: Tomi Palsa