Finn in discussion with Chris Hobson on “Aaltopiiri” by Pan Sonic (2001).
Pan Sonic go quite a long way back in the history of modern electronic music, being formed in 1993. How and when did you first become aware of their music?
I didn’t start listening to electronic music until around about 1997. I was introduced to Pan Sonic in 1999 by one of my best friends. We discovered and taught ourselves electronic music together. He put me onto Pan Sonic and it immediately had a huge impact. It was only in time that I made my way through most of their back catalogue.
Why did you opt for “Aaltopiiri”? Can you describe what makes it so special for you?
I chose ‘Aaltopiiri’ precisely because it was the first Pan Sonic album I bought. I had one or two of their earlier albums on cassette or CD perhaps, but this was my real route in. In terms of music itself, it probably isn’t my favourite release of theirs, but it is the most important for me. This album was central in a kind of sonic renovation my ears and head underwent around 1999 – 2001, the effects of which I can still feel today. What Pan Sonic really taught me is what techno could be. It broadened my mental horizons in quite radical ways. Beyond ‘Aaltopiiri’ being a key moment for me in this regard, what I like about it is that personally it has the right balance of Pan Sonic’s noisier side and its more bleepy and drone sounds. Some of their later stuff has been a bit too noisy for me, here there is a pretty good weighting between the two.
Pan Sonic underwent several name changes and also shifts in their sound. Is this album the definite moment of their works for you, or is there other music of theirs you rate as highly?
Just because of my tastes, it is their earlier stuff that I prefer. To put it overly simplistically, these are a bit more techno and a bit less experimental. ‘Kulma’ and ‘Vakio’ would be my favourite Pan Sonic albums in terms of actual sound. These are seriously advanced pieces of techno. Most of the techno now floating about still hasn’t caught up to early Pan Sonic.
How would you place “Aaltopiiri” in the history of electronic music?
I don’t think ‘Aaltopiiri’ has any special place, I am not sure which Pan Sonic release deserves to be there, but some definitely do. What I would say is that I think Pan Sonic don’t get enough attention when people are constructing histories of techno. Of course, Mika’s stuff is name checked, but not seriously engaged with. Pan Sonic is – for me – techno at its most elemental and pure, and when you think about the way sounds have developed, what they’ve done is very important.
Pan Sonic often cited Suicide as important influence. Can you hear that sound or that of other pioneering electronic experimentalists in their music? Are there historical predecessors working in a similar field?
My techno genealogy is one that basically consists of me relatively isolated – bar one key friend – in Australia. As I said, we discovered what we could (this what pre-internet days after all), but I was certainly not in a network or circle of people listening to similar stuff, and I’m a slightly awkward age – young enough to have missed the earlier developments of the 80s and early 90s, old enough to miss all the advantages of the internet when it comes to discovering music for yourself. So my musical education is still continuing and a lot of that earlier stuff I never really knew about I am now discovering. I have a feeling in the future I will be listening to a lot more proto-techno and early electronic stuff. But we shall see. I guess this is a long way of saying, I don’t know, ask me again in a few years…
I think Pan Sonic’s music often has a cinematic quality. Could you place them into film music’s history, or is it more a matter of imagining your own film while listening?
Interesting… I have never felt that about Pan Sonic’s music. The thing about Pan Sonic – and one of the reasons they are so distinctive – is that they have such an incredibly powerful and overpowering sound. When listening to Pan Sonic, pretty much everything else disappears except the pure sounds they are developing. So I don’t have any visual associations with Pan Sonic, for me it is all pure sound, nothing more. The only visual that may enter my mind is their super minimal graphic they use in the live show.
Pan Sonic are not only renowned for their releases, but also for their live performances. They have a reputation for challenging their audiences and decidedly sought out extraordinary contexts and locations for their purposes. Did you have the chance to see them in action?
I have been very lucky to catch them 3 times. All have been stunning performances. I’ve seen a lot of live acts in my time, and very few have been better than Pan Sonic – definitely in the top 5. What makes them work so well in a live context is that their music has so much power, it has such a visceral feeling to it, which really translates well. Actually, the first time I saw them I had a horrible migraine but I had to be there. It was very painful, but enjoyable. Kind of like techno sadomasochism.
I recently came across this live recording of Pan Sonic, which I’d like to share with everyone. This gives a good indication of the power and intensity of a Pan Sonic live show. Listen to it LOUD:
Last year, Pan Sonic collaborated with Alan Vega and Sunn O))), thus kind of bridging the gap between their own inspirations and musicians they probably have inspired on their own. Are they kind of in the middle of pre-techno experimentalism and its current forms?
Building on the previous question, the best Pan Sonic gig I saw was when they shared the bill with Sunn O))). Now that was an intense night… Actually the crowd were mostly metal heads and it was interesting to see how well they related to Pan Sonic. But, as I said above, Pan Sonic are not pre-techno. For me, they are techno, techno at its most elemental and pure. Unlike most street techno, the stuff Pan Sonic pushes is not cut with baking soda or sugar, it has a very high level of purity.
Why do you think the scenes of electronic music in the style of Pan Sonic and metal music in the style of Sunn O))) get along so well, whereas other styles of those scenes do not get along at all? Is it all a matter of genre-bending?
I really have no idea. But what bugs me is that in terms of mainstream techno, and the kind of people who listen to it, Pan Sonic is completely not on the radar. Yes, much of their stuff is too experimental, but then again, I really feel that their earlier work especially is incredibly techno. Powerful, raw, brutal rhythms. This is techno! Yet the history of techno rarely goes any further than the Detroit, Berlin and the UK scenes – where do people like Pan Sonic fit in that? At this gig I went to, this was right when mnml was all the rage, but the gig was full of metal heads, there were almost no techno people there. But how many artists can you find more minimal than Pan Sonic? These dudes helped create the template, yet they’ve always had a certain abrasiveness that has limited how widely their music is received and accepted.
Reviews of Pan Sonic’s music do regularly come with descriptions referring to aspects of Finland’s climate and landscapes. Is that for a lack of better descriptions or do you think that their origin is maybe not of any importance for their music?
It is just shitty journalism. I don’t know, but my sense is that Pan Sonic’s music is not motivated by, or referenced, directly to Finland. I have no idea where it comes from, perhaps I need to read the new Mika Vainio book… Still, it is lazy and superficial to assign it to their Finnish heritage. What these guys are doing is complex, conceptual stuff that goes well beyond that one source.
Their output and also the affiliated imprint Sähkö is often viewed as being very austere and determined conceptually, and not very emotional. Do you agree to that?
Not at all. I think Pan Sonic’s music can be incredibly emotional. I remember reading a long time ago an interview with one of them. I may be remembering it incorrectly, but he said that he couldn’t listen to his own music much because it was too emotional. This sounded like a strange comment for Pan Sonic, when their sounds can initially sound so cold and abstract. Yet this makes sense to me. There is a real intensity to the music that generates feeling and emotion. One of the main reasons I chose this Pan Sonic album is that it has the track ‘Liuos’ – perhaps my favourite production from them. If you listen to it, the whole track is just dripping emotion and feeling. To be honest, I love Pan Sonic, but I don’t listen to them nearly as much as I’d like to precisely because I find them too emotionally draining. Pan Sonic are so intense it is exhausting listening to them.
Which traces of their music can be heard in the current techno scene? Would you agree that their kind of minimalism is more present than in the past? Is there some kind of resurgence of the original minimal techno sounds?
I think Pan Sonic and Mika Vainio’s work is referenced only in a very superficial way at present. Mika has a track or two played by Richie Hawtin so people name drop him and play that track. Very few dig deeper into the work these two artists have done, which is a huge waste, because I think they could be employed in more conventional techno DJ sets in some really interesting ways. In terms of techno production, you can hear it in the production of people like Sleeparchive, Cio D’Or and Function, to name some of the most obvious. Sleeparchive frustrates me, because he has done little to improve upon or explore further what these guys already did. Function is the only one really starting to do that, but I think he could push it a bit further too and I hope he does that. Pan Sonic created some space for amazing techno to be created and so far very little of that has been explored. This is a real shame.
Especially Mika Vainio was very active recently. Do you still follow their output? Would you say that it resembles their earlier works or has it changed?
Yes, I’m a die hard. I have my favourites and stick with them. I was troubled to read the other day that Pan Sonic have finished. They have a final album coming out early this year and then they’re done. And the live shows have come to an end. So that sucks. Then again, I am not sure how much more they were able to explore and push within the remit of that project. They’ve got more latitude individually perhaps. Mika’s last two albums on Sahko have been amongst his best, I think. Some great music there. As for how it resembles earlier output, of course it has changed, but they’ve stayed within some pretty clear and obvious boundaries in terms of the sounds and gear they are using. So from that perspective it is not surprising the Pan Sonic project has reached a point where they can’t do too much more with it. They’ve left us with a huge archive of templates and ideas, and I think it is important that current producers and DJs begin exploring what Pan Sonic has done in a much more serious fashion.
Chris Hobson is one of the founders of the mnml ssgs blog, a space he has used to develop and pursue his longstanding love for techno and electronic music. This is driven by a desire to support the sounds he believes in and to broaden the way we think about talk about techno. When not writing about music, Chris is writing about international politics.