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Pihka is My Name is the conceptual Audio-Visual project of Lasse Turunen and Henna Helasvuo. It follows the journeys of an imaginary friend in the form of a winsome pink robot, who has outlived their purpose. Straight off the page the concept sounds exciting but when I had the chance to immerse myself in the music and videos of Pihka is My Name, my jaw dropped ten storeys.
The music sweeps through a series of emotive soundscapes, fusing synth pop and cinematic sound design before kicking up the intensity with driving electro beats. These powerful instrumental tracks could tell a story all of their own but once listened to in context of the beautifully realised videos, the project takes on a whole new life.
I had a cross-continental chat with Lasse and Henna to talk about their inspiration behind the project and how they put it all together. See them perform on Camden Live Stream #36
Hi guys, how are you doing over there?
Lasse: Yeah, pretty good. Just finishing up our album that is going to come out in March.
Is the album going to include any of the releases you’ve made already or is it entirely new material?
Lasse: It’s not entirely new material. There also is going to be three songs that we have released already, which is ‘Binaries‘, ‘+-‘ and ‘Little Bubbles‘. Those tracks are going to feature on the album as well.
It seems like quite a grand project. How long has this album been in the making?
Lasse: Yeah, it certainly is! It’s been in the works since 2017. That’s when we first got the idea of an imaginary friend creating an album of electronic music and we’ve been working on it ever since. Now we finally get to release it! We’ve been working on the animation and the graphics too and have a great team doing that.
This is mostly a DIY project. All of it has been invented and made by us and that’s really important for us; to keep all the artistic elements in our hands. We have a publisher and a manager, we have PR people outside of our closest circle, but we are just sending them finished material, all ready to go. We want to keep all of that in our hands.
What projects were you both involved in before this?
Lasse: We used to play in a Finnish speaking band called Pihka Ja Myrsky. The name is sort of similar but we didn’t have the character yet. It used to be a five-piece pop-rock band with guitars and drums and such. We made three albums together. But now we just wanted to… we didn’t want to do vocals anymore. *laughs* We just wanted to do something else.
Henna: Yeah, move away from the pop world and that kind of song structure.
Lasse: Yeah. and move away from traditional instrumentation, more towards sound design. So the third album of that band remains their last, at least for the moment.
The videos for Pihka Is My Name are very impressive and seem to fit the songs like a glove. Do you have the ideas for the videos before you start the tracks or are they born out of the music?
Lasse: Well, I think it goes both ways. The final details of the videos come when we are actually in the process of making them. The latest one called ‘Little Bubbles‘ is made by myself but the previous videos, ‘Binaries‘ and ‘Plus Minus’ [‘+-‘] were made for us by other professionals because we just can’t do everything ourselves, there just isn’t time, although we’d love to.
When you hand over the work to other teams, are you leaving the story in their hands or do you present them with a storyboard?
Henna: We have the main storyline for Pihka and then…
Lasse: … style wise we give them free hands. The first video, ‘Binaries’ was more like motion graphics/computer graphics. The guy who made it, my brother by the way, we wanted to give him the freedom to do his thing.
The same with the second video called ‘+ -‘, that is by Elli Maanpää, who also designed the Pihka character at the beginning of the project. She’s more into traditional animation, like 2D animation and painting. We don’t know much about those formats, so we wanted to give her her freedom. We just gave her the concept that we wanted to have Pihka discovering the climate emergency that humans are in right now.
The third video I made by myself. It’s all 3D graphics, which I basically learned in order to make it..
You learned 3D graphics to make this video?! That’s pretty impressive!
Lasse: Yeah. I just wanted to do it myself. It’s been my dream for a long time to have the time to do 3D animation. Because of the tragedy of Covid I finally had the time as there is no clients at the studio.
Who is the character Pihka? What do they mean to you?
Lasse: She’s an imaginary friend of a boy who has grown up and doesn’t need them anymore. Or want maybe? I’m not sure: ‘need’ or ‘want’?
Henna: I think ‘need’… He doesn’t remember her anymore…
Lasse: So she wakes up in a snow covered forest, which sets her off on an adventure of her own. We wanted to look at the world from the outside because that’s how we’ve often felt, both of us, sometimes: outside of society.
She very much mirrors that emotion, like you’re an outsider looking at the world of humans bickering on social media and not doing anything about the climate emergency (that is very obvious). We want to look at all of it through her eyes and that’s what the character and the album are both about.
Musically, PIMN is right up my alley and the general feeling has a lot in common with post-rock music, but when you actually break it down there’s not a hugely present ‘rock’ element in there. I’d put it down more as ‘orchestral electronic’. Where do you get your influences from?
Lasse: Well, we’ve been listening to rock and pop bands a lot and there is a lot of that in there, alongside cinematic composers like Hans Zimmer. We both love him very much. On the other hand, we also love bands like Mew, Sigur Ros from Iceland. We love Olafur Arnalds, also from Iceland, Röyksopp from Norway. We’re also very into big producers, like Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno who are essentially making ambient music themselves.
If everything suddenly opened up and you were given a music festival to curate, can you tell me who would be the top three artists on the bill?
Lasse: I would say Led Zeppelin, which might be surprising! I would like to see Röyksopp and Zepplin perform together. That would be interesting…
Led Zeppelin are quite cinematic themselves really aren’t they?
Lasse: Yes they are! Like, Physical Graffiti, that album is… you can’t just consider them a heavy rock band. It’s pretty cinematic. I should definitely include that in our influences because it’s huge for me.
I would like to see John Fruscanti’s solo set as well. I’m a big fan of his, mainly his solo material and he’s doing great electronic music at the moment; like British jungle type music.
How do all those influences come together in your writing process?
Lasse: A lot of Pihka music starts from sound design. Like… I come up with something using maybe field recordings or something with the modular synth. I try to come up with sounds that we have not heard before. Then I just create some kind of loops. At that point I give it to Henna. She is like the classical musician of us and she will write stuff over the top and give it some more structure.
Then we work on it together some more and record vocals… There are vocals on the songs all the time but they are generally in the background and just contributing to the atmosphere. Then we record some more layers on it together after which I do the mixes. I like mixing, I consider it a huge part of the process because this music is all about the sound design.
And all the string arrangements, you record them yourself, right?
Henna: Yeah, starting with Native Instrument Symphony Series. Then we record any live strings, usually cello because my brother is a really good cello player. So we record him and then, then we just combine it with the computer strings
Lasse: You sort of get the mass of the sound from the computer but you get the human feeling from the cello player.
You can definitely hear the natural edge that the live strings are adding in there.
You can’t recreate that with the computer. Like on the track ‘Binaries’ we recorded it in the summertime and the cello players has these allergies. You can hear this *sniff sniff* all the time and we just left it in because that gives a huge, like, emotional impact *laughs* to the cello playing and that’s fun!
Within your tracks there’s a lot of space and slow building atmospheric moments but then it’s followed up by these four-on-the-floor dance beats. I’m interested, what scenario do you picture people listening to your tracks in…
Lasse: That’s a really good question because we think about that all the time ourselves too. We are much into that four-on-the-floor type beat and we liked the simplicity of it. We liked the minimalism of it. But at the same time, we want to be very … how would you say it in English? Like … atmospheric or thoughtful about it. So at the same time, we would like people to be able to listen to this when they’re riding their bike or …
Henna: ….walking around or sitting on the train maybe.
Lasse: We call it an escapist storybook for adults, this whole project. But at the same time, we want to make people dance along as well. I mean, that’s how I listen to music. I put my headphones on, a lot of volume, go for a walk and dance at the same time and people think I’m crazy, which I sort of am!
You mentioned vocals there. I guess the nature of this music and the project in general is that you’re telling quite vibrant stories, but without the aid of a top-line lyric. Do you ever find that’s a challenge to get your ideas across in that way? Or does it have other benefits?
Lasse: It’s not our problem. If the stories don’t come across, people can just make up their own stories on top of the music. I mean, we have a story that is very clear to us but we also don’t want to give too much of it away in the video or the lyrics.
Pihka actually used to be singing a lot more about two years ago when we were working on these tracks. Both of us sang a lot in English to the songs. But in the end, when we started making the visuals and all then it just didn’t feel right that she should be so expressive. More than that, we want to speak with different sounds and try to touch people through those rather than vocals.
Henna: The vocals are just like one of the instruments. We want to use them but as part of the arrangement, not like a top-line.
In all your material, the character Pihka herself is described as the artist. How do you picture framing that in a live environment? Have you done anything live with the character yet?
Lasse: We have not done a live performance as Pihka Is My Name yet. We have done these YouTube live sessions where we just improvise with pianos and synthesizes, but that’s just the two of us. When we go live with Pihka Is My Name, there’s going to be visuals synced to the music and she’s going to be featured on those.
Henna: Yeah, we’re gonna use the material from the music videos and make some cool effects.
Lasse: You can sync the effects to the music with MIDI. We’re working on the visuals at this very moment and we’ve made some tests already. So I think it’s coming out pretty nicely. We were actually supposed to be having our debut live show yesterday…
Henna: Oh yeah! That’s true!
Lasse: Unfortunately everything got cancelled in Helsinki, so now it’s been postponed until April. But now we’re doing the Camden Live stream and that will be like our debut live thing, so that will be cool.
Henna: We were already planning on doing a studio live stream in January with the visuals and everything so it works out really well.
Lasse: We’re going to have the visuals in this very studio. We’re going to set them up on the wall here.
When you’re putting together live sets I guess there’s quite a large technological aspect there, recreating everything on the record with two people. Do you find that gets in the way of the creativity?
Lasse: Yeah, that’s also a good question because sometimes when you begin to rehearse music or we’re doing these jams so much of it is just like, pulling cables, there’s so much of that technology that sometimes it can get in the way of inspiration.
Henna: Mostly when there’s some, technical problems…
Lasse: yeah, because there are a lot of those … *both laughing*
Henna: …taking a couple hours to solve!
Lasse: But we have people helping us when we perform live. We’ll always have at least one person to deal with the technology when we go out live so we can just concentrate on the musical aspect.
So the album is coming out in March. What are your plans for the release of that?
Lasse: There is going to be another single, or maybe two before that. The next single is going to come out in February.
It’s called ‘Algorithms and Clues’; there’s going to be a video and then possibly another video before the album. We plan to continue these YouTube live jams that we do weekly and we plan to do a live Twitch performance every month.
Henna: The album is going to be released only digitally for the moment but when we get a bigger audience then we definitely want to make a vinyl.
Lasse: Yeah. We are big fans of vinyl. We’re listening to vinyl all the time at home. We’re also going to have t-shirts, refrigerator magnets and, coasters, everything! There’s going to be all kinds of apparel when the album comes out…
For the truly immersive experience, right?
Lasse: Yes, you need to have a t-shirt on and drink from a Pikah a cup!
Finally, who are your top three animated characters?
Henna: Oh, Totoro!
Lasse: You know, the Japanese, Hayao Miyazaki movies? My Neighbour Totoro. That’s like huge.
Henna: I love it.
Lasse: That’s also an imaginary friend. That’s actually one big influence that I didn’t mention, Joe Hisaishi. Yeah. He’s a Japanese composer who writes music for these Japanese anime films. That’s huge. My neighbor Totoro is one of his. Another one would be the sad emotion from, uh, Pixar’s…
Henna: Oh yeah!
Lasse: You know, the Pixar film. What is it called in English?
Henna: Inside Out!
Lasse: The characters portray emotions and there is a character called ‘Sadness. That’s number two.
and the third one would be…
Henna: Well, maybe Pixar again but Wall-E…
Lasse: He’s a big influence on the looks of our character.
Henna: Yeah and he’s a robot too.
Lasse: They could be friends, Wall-E and Pihka. We want to make them friends. Actually, we want Pixar to make a film about Pihka and Wall-E. It would be like Wall-E’s adventures part two, where he meets Pihka in Finland. We’ll write music for that film and we will be millionaires after that!
Henna *laughs* Sure!