Finnish bass player Esa Linna began his professional music career in 1990 with the punk pop band Time Flies. After eight years together, the bands' living logistics as well as changes in lifestyle caused the eventual dissolution of the group. The next year, Esa's musical path led him in a different direction…grunge power pop, and a band called 86 Yourself. At the present time, Esa divides his time between solo work and a member of the band Itamaa.
I recently caught up with Esa and asked him about the release of his upcoming EP, his musical influences and the diversity of his music.
Kat’s Theory (KT): Esa, your solo EP is being released in the United States through Kool Kat Musik (no connection to Kat’s Theory) and your single “Piece of Me” is about to be released to iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, and other outlets. This must be an exciting as well as nerve-wracking time for an artist. Tell me your thoughts on what is about to happen.
Esa Linna (EL): You nailed it - it truly is an exciting and nerve-wracking time. But then again, this is what I wanted. I want to get my songs and my name known, and at the same time I am choosing the songs for my album. When you do all of this by yourself, you have to trust that the music speaks for itself.
KT: Let’s talk about the single “Piece of Me.” The song is hardly an endorsement for a healthy reciprocating relationship. How did this song come about?
EL: I have found that many of my lyrics can be understood as songs about love or relationships, although they are not. “Piece of Me” is essentially about myself. I like to keep my privacy and won’t tell what is going on with my life, unless someone asks. Maybe it comes from the town I grew up in Northern Finland, called Ylivieska. It had a culture that you should not brag too much about what you had accomplished. I think it’s a healthy attitude to keep yourself down to earth. Also the lyrics refer to “my past” and the fact that I won’t bring up the tragedies that my family has faced. Unless someone asks, like now.
KT: You've lost several family members at an early age, do you consider your own mortality as an influence in your writing?
EL: I don't think as an influence that I could recognize, but I am sure it has an effect on my writing; at least lyrically.
KT: You played all the instruments on ”Piece of Me”; guitar, bass, mandolin, keyboards, banjo, cello and percussion. Which instruments did you have formal training in, and which did you just pick up?
EL: I studied cello for six years in musical institute when I was a kid, and bought myself one... 20+ years after I quit studying. Otherwise, there has been always music and instruments near me, so it is natural to pick up and try to play them. I have been playing guitars, bass and keyboards for almost 30 years, but never studied them.
KT: Now at the polar opposite end of the musical spectrum, “She’s Not A Human Being” is a pop tune you’ve written about your cat. My question to you is how do you know she doesn’t like Jeff Lynne (a line from the song)? All kidding aside, the tune is very catchy and reminds me of the pure pop songs of the 60s garage bands. Tell me a bit about the recording of this tune with bringing in Roger Joseph Manning Jr (Jellyfish) on backing vocals and keys, along with a great drum beat by Seppo Alvari Pohjolainen.
EL: To be straight, I don’t know if she liked Jeff Lynne or not, but I sure can say she didn’t like the loud guitar sound!
I wrote “She’s Not a Human Being” back in 2006 and the demo I made was more like country rock than 60’s garage pop. We practiced “She’s Not A Human Being” and “20,000 Days” with Seppo only for an hour before we went into the studio. I booked 4 hours from the studio and we noticed that we had recorded everything I already planned in 2 hours. I wasn’t prepared to sing in the studio, but since there’s two hours left, I sang the basic tracks for the songs.
In rehearsals our playing style somehow started to remind us of The Undertones and The Buzzcocks, so we decided to keep that style. Seppo is the former drummer of Trio Niskalaukaus, which was a hugely popular metal band in Finland, early 2000’s. Since we play together in a band called Itämaa, it was natural and easy to ask him to play drums.
I contacted Roger Joseph Manning Jr. a year ago and he agreed (to my surprise) to take part in the song. I sent the studio recordings of two songs to him, and he chose “She’s Not A Human Being”. I didn’t give him any tips but trusted Roger’s professionality. I received his recordings via internet, we put the tracks together in the mixing phase and it was perfect. The backing vocals particularly are just incredible. I am so proud of what he did to the song. The great organ sound by Roger also gives the 60’s garage pop feel you are talking about.
Most fun thing probably is that legendary Roger Joseph Manning Jr. is singing about our cat. I know that Roger loves cats too. It’s a great tribute to Siiri the cat, who has run away. Hopefully not because of my guitar playing.
KT: The second song on the EP “20,000 Days” is more of a rock song and the fourth “Meat Market” is much more into electronics. In fact, all four songs on the EP are quite diverse. How did you decide on this mix of sounds to include on the EP?
EL: The diversity is somewhat accidental. My first plan was to release a CD single with two tracks, but that didn’t seem reasonable these days. I thought it had to be an EP and recorded “Piece of Me” as the third song. When everything was ready, my friend Markku finished the remix for my oldest solo song “Meat Market”. I had asked him to do it in November but planned to release it only as digital download. When I heard the remix, I just loved it, and it became the bonus track for the EP.
I know the diversity might be a problem for some people expecting me to do similar songs like “She’s Not A Human Being”, but once I started to write my solo stuff, the earliest reviews in Finnish music magazines back in early 2000’s, mentioned that I am bending the boundaries of pop and power pop genre. I like to think myself like that. For the album, though, I try to mask the diversity more. But still, the EP sounds exactly like I wanted it to sound. I love to make whatever I want to with my solo stuff. It’s the sound of freedom!
KT: Last week with the passing of Earl Scruggs, you told me he was the reason you picked up the banjo and why you still have the passion for it today. It seems his influence truly was global. Do you remember how you were first introduced to his music?
EL: My oldest brother has been playing bluegrass for a long time, so from him I learned to listen to artists like Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Tony Rice. I bought a cheap banjo and I still play that.
First time I played banjo for an album was with my former punk pop band Time Flies back in 1995. The Happy Smile album contained the song called “Space Aliens” and we sang in the chorus “Space aliens love country music”. It was aired several times in Finnish national radio and went to a compilation album Punk Plus, which featured bands like NOFX and Dog Eat Dog. I also played banjo for the upcoming Itämaa album. Seppo Pohjolainen is doing also the solo career (by the name Seppo Alvari) with country & bluegrass influenced music … so I play banjo also in his band.
There is also an active bluegrass scene in Finland, so it’s true that Earl Scruggs definitely influenced globally.
KT: About the bluegrass scene in Finland, is it mainly bluegrass or a mixture of bluegrass and country? What about pure blues?
EL: I think there are also groups that mix bluegrass & country.. There is also a bluegrass organization of Finland and bluegrass festival called Rootsinpyhtaa. I am not so familiar with blues scene, although it has been very popular in Finland too.
KT: Your career has led you through several music genres. Tell me some of your other influences.
EL: I must always mention Alice Cooper - Alice Cooper Band and some of his later stuff has been a great influence on me. I started to listen to Alice Cooper probably at the age of six, when I got the Billion Dollar Babies album.
Some other bands that influenced me are Galactic Cowboys and King’s X. The vocal harmonies mixed to different types of musical styles are one of the things I love with those bands. Ty Tabor from King’s X mastered my EP, except “Meat Market”.
Then there’s punk and hardcore bands like Dead Kennedys, Subhumans and All, that have a place in my heart to the death.
KT: I find it funny that you listened to Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies at such a young age. Parents here in the States were totally freaking out about their kids listening to Alice Cooper...he was a very scary rocker back then. How did you get your hands on that album so young?
EL: I guess it hasn't been so big a deal in Finland when kids have been listening to rockers like Alice Cooper. Although my mother is from a religious family, it was OK that my bigger brother gave me the album. And my mother is musical, so I guess she found positive sides for her children listening to music in general, even though the performer might have been scary looking (and sometimes sounding).
KT: You uploaded a sort of play-by-play discussion on how you recorded “Piece of Me” including your secrets to the drum beat, as well as the instruments used. I find it interesting that an artist would go through this explanation. What were the reasons you decided on having this discussion?
EL: I have read recording engineers, producers and songwriter’s "secrets" from magazines and the internet, and it’s always interesting for me. I also wanted to share my views that you don’t always need top-notch and expensive gear to make good sounding songs.
I also use Linux operating system & software for recording and mixing, and that is not so common, so I thought people could be interested about it. I write articles about Linux music software for Finnish music technology magazine Riffi, so it was just natural for me to write an explanation.
KT: You are currently a member of the band Itamaa. What are the differences in style between your solo work and your work with Itamaa?
EL: In Itämaa, I am not a leading songwriter - our guitarist Arto Hamalainen writes most of the songs. Also I am not the lead vocalist and lyric songwriter, which is Mikko Anttonen. I am more in the background, but I think I brought the pop elements to Itämaa’s sound. My bandmates even call me “Pop-Esa”.
This is the greatest time musically for me. There is a special feeling when you are in the band. It’s more social and when four guys are bringing ideas, it produces songs and elements that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But when I do my solo material, I can be my own dictator. That’s fun, too!
KT: As your music is released in the United States, what do you want this new audience to know about your music?
EL: That most of my influences come from American music, but they have been filtered by the Finnish state of mind. We have a long winter and that means when you go to work in the morning, it’s dark. When you leave work in the afternoon, it is dark again. When the sun might shine in the winter time, we are probably indoors and don’t see it. But when we have the summer, the nights are light.
I sure hope people will listen essentially to the songs. There are always melodies and pop songs beneath, although I might cover it with some strange tasting coating.
An interesting tasting assortment to say the least. Check out the new EP by Esa Linna and sample all four courses.
My thanks to Esa Linna for his time and assistance in this interview.
Find Esa Linna at: EsaLinna.com or on Twitter @esalinna
Listen to Esa Linna at : Esa Linna EP
Article first published as A New Voice in America: Esa Linna on Technorati.