Keuhkot: One-Man Multimedia Finnish Avant-Garde Vaudeville Act

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While traveling in Finland on an infinitely clear, unseasonably warm day in June, I spent an afternoon at Helsinki's modern art museum, Kiasma. I was accompanied by Kari Heikonen, the gaunt, mustachioed cofounder of Europe's?and perhaps the world's?finest, most adventurous record label, Bad Vugum. He had just completed the eight-hour train trip from the company's headquarters in Oulu, a city that lies roughly 135 miles below the Arctic Circle.

Shortly after entering the trapezoidal edifice of gleaming glass, we inspected one of the sculptures on display?a pyramid of alternating flowerpots and chamber pots in which every other receptacle contained either a rose or a dried blob of excrement. "If this crap can make it into Kiasma," Heikonen said, contemplating the piece with subdued, unmistakably Finnish skepticism, "Kake should have his own museum."

"Kake" refers to Kake Rainio, aka Kake Puhuu, the brains behind the one-man, multimedia, avant-garde vaudeville act Keuhkot ("Lungs"), who performed that evening at Semifinal, the basement venue located below Helsinki's premier club, Tavastia.

"'Kake Puhuu' translates as 'Kake Speaks'?just like 'Tom Waits,'" laughs the blond, slightly elfin provocateur, who sometimes sports a mangy neck-beard. "The name fits because I can't sing at all."

Chances are you haven't heard Keuhkot's third album, Minun Käy Sääliksi Bilharzialoista ("I Pity the Bilharzia Parasite"). Issued late last year, this disturbing, import-only milestone was easily the most solipsistic and confusing, yet detailed and inventive, release of 2000. Rainio is one of those rare modern thinkers who deserve the oft-abused and overused designation of "genius." A truly out-there individual who pukes on the masses below his ivory tower, he brings a nonironic, manifesto-writing fervor and a misanthropic sense of humor to his free-associative social critiques. The titles of his LPs and EPs, among them Keuhkot Latistaa Totuudenetsinnän Sanahelinäksi ("Keuhkot Makes the Search for Truth into an Insipid Jumble of Words") and Mitä Otat Mukaan Muistoksi Sivistyksestä ("What Do You Take Along with You as a Souvenir from Civilization") tend to summarize his outlook.

"It's music from a one-man village, made from my own constructed traditions and way of playing instruments and anti-instruments," he says. "The lyrics are my own philosophy, which is that I can't accept prepared thoughts; the adult world is full of automatic mindlessness. Most of the time, I'm criticizing human culture. I hate new media and technology because they have made the level of expression worse. The whole species is ridiculous, and I have a good laugh at it from my perch."

His whimsical prophecies and homemade hubbub are absolutely peerless. Sure, Rainio has antecedents?the Residents, No New York, the Sun City Girls, Mark E. Smith, Spike Jones, Wagner, Arabic folk?but nothing sounds much like Keuhkot, whose tunes often resemble the rantings of a fanatical despot being hassled at a kebab house by clowns masquerading as a noise band. In a voice reminiscent of a choked, infuriated Peter Lorre, he babbles wordplay-filled nightmares with titles like "Pääministeri Muuttuu Geometriseksi" ("Prime Minister Turns Geometric"), "Uuskiiman Ihana Väristys" ("Neo Horny Vibration") and "Älä Koskaan Kuuntele Ihmisiä" ("Never Listen to People") with the conviction of a machete-brandishing mental patient. Stiffly strummed guitars clang, synthesized percussion stutters, hypnotic woodwinds undulate, and some one-string, ethnic instrument saws lazily at your skull. Interludes of postapocalyptic peace briefly eclipse Rainio's highly entertaining barrages of madness and comedy.

"I'm just plucking," he confesses. "I can't really play any instrument. When I start to learn, I quickly change the instrument. Uncontrolled sounds are most interesting. I use a home-audio program where I can record and sample, also four-track and mini-disc recordings with running MIDI. I usually sing in a potato cellar and record there to four- track. That creates the best atmosphere, and the analog recording has a better dynamic. A wheelbarrow was my first echo unit. I stuck my head in and sang inside the barrow and it had great, metallic reverb. At the same time, I realized it would make a good percussion instrument. In my first live performances, I danced with the wheelbarrows, bounding through the audience. The other special sounds on my recordings are just my explorations. I touch and hit surfaces and record them to mini-disc.

"Finnish people have roots in Asia," he continues, discussing his fondness for Middle Eastern themes. "I don't relate to Anglo-American music. Also I have traveled much in Morocco and Turkey and found much local music, which is most interesting to me?local stories and musicians. My wooden flute is from Istanbul; I don't know its proper name. The one-string violin, called kamngia, is from Taroudant in Morocco. It's made from chair legs, and the case is donkey hide. The playing technique is similar to torturing a cat by bowing the tail?poor cats. Music should be spread by foot, like when the gypsies went from India to Turkey, the Balkans, Spain and Morocco. It should not be spread by record companies and MTV."

Keuhkot's live shows and videos involve lottery machines, headdresses, lecterns, log-and-carrot giveaways, moving sculptures and the hajusinfonia ("smell symphony"), in which a half-naked, wild-eyed Rainio mixes chemicals onstage and fans the resulting odor into the audience.

"It's very dull to watch one man sing and play guitar. I had to envision something greater. When I'm in bed and I can't sleep, I discover rope loops, mad-scientist inventions, chemical reactions. My performance should not be something that you would expect at a club or a bar. Smell is such a primitive form to express, so it goes straight to feelings and memory. The audience can forget the real situation."

When asked about his fans, Rainio responds, "So many are ordinary people, which is great. I don't want to be a crazy village man singing to drunken weirdos." He does not see himself as a novelty, either. "I'm the only sensible person. I say what should be kept silent. I don't appreciate anything so much that I can't muck with it. The world is what's crazy."

For more than two years, he has lived in relative isolation, working in various media from a converted schoolhouse near Pomarkku, in rural, southwestern Finland. "The township has only 2600 inhabitants. There's space to make art, exhibitions and concerts in the same building. I'm privileged. Here there are old forests and clean air, but also biting, big, bloodsucking flies called paarma. In the winter, I have to heat the house with wood. I'm stuck because of the snow and I feed the birds. Housekeeping isn't exactly art, but it gives me time to think and plan.

"I admit my art can be difficult to understand without being familiar with every form of my expression. My photos are like my music, made from collected pieces that I mix into one image. The objective world through the camera's eye is not enough for me. I have to manipulate it?build it first, then take a picture. When I have an idea, I draw it on paper and then make the photo. I don't appreciate photo manipulation on a computer. My sculptures are made from unusual materials?liquids, pumped gas, plastics, silicon, mud. My created organisms are an important part of my videos and they are best shown in installations. They also smell."

Rainio's visuals?biomechanical creatures and multiple images of his bare-assed form, usually juxtaposed against drab industrial settings?adorn most of his album jackets. "Naked shapes describe the human as a clone of body and mind," he says. "These clone people think and act the same way. They have the same feelings for everything that surrounds them. Their world is made from ugly buildings, wonder machines and a lifeless environment. They are only objects, like elements in an element-made world. The world is a large, sand square where the clone people play. In photographic art, the human form is usually described as esthetic, beautiful and ideal. I just want to show the low side."

Rainio began doing that in 1985, in Tampere, a former factory town that doubles as Finland's second-largest metropolitan area. By the late 80s he had become the bassist in Liimanarina ("Glue Creak"), the simultaneously feared and revered burnouts whose crude, acoustic scab-punk is some of the most inspirationally caustic rock 'n' roll in recent history. Kake Puhuu appears on their 1989 EP Maailman Tylsin Vittumaisuus ("The Most Boring Fuck-Up in the World"). In turn, most of Liimanarina supports him on Keuhkot's first singles from the same time period.

"My songs were too progressive for Liimanarina's tastes," recalls Rainio. "It was frustrating to always make toilet-level music, to use only tape-recorder mics. For the drummer, it was only one rhythm?we called it 'the idiot-bastard rhythm.' I had always been recording by myself at home, before I ever intended to perform. At first I tried to get other people for Keuhkot, but they played 'right' when it should be 'wrong,' and they had problems."

After several years of remarkably vicious output in the early to mid-90s, Keuhkot's insular crackle grew more electronic and less strident. "I just got bored with the sounds," he recalls. "Also, I can't afford new, acoustic instruments. Now I'm bored with electronic sounds, so please give me money to travel abroad to get exotic instruments."

Rainio's latest efforts, such as Minun Käy Sääliiksi Bilharzialoista, consist of understated, less distracting digital spew animated by non-Western sparkle and no-wave squawk. In fact, Keuhkot may again expand into a full band with multiple participants. "It's still only in the formative stages," he says. "It will be acoustic, with no machines, real lutes and other ethnic instruments." He also leads an 18-member vocal ensemble called the Choir of Organisms and participates in the supergroups Kirvasto and Eturivi with members of such underground luminaries as Circle, Sweetheart and Ektroverde. "There will be many surprises and disappointments in my music," Rainio foresees, "to my ordinary and weirdo fans."

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