It’s a chilly night in early March, the wind gusting off the East River as I huddle up and walk towards The Bunker, New York’s premiere experimental techno party, in the back room of Brooklyn’s Public Assembly bar. Once inside, winter coats are quickly shed and a sweat breaks across the packed crowd’s faces. With their eyes half-closed in the dark, the mesmeric pulse booms overhead and bids their bodies to sway like seaweed.
Bathed in the luminescent glow of an open laptop, Finnish producer Sasu Ripatti is the source of those oceanic swells of sound. His Jack Frost facial features–high-set cheeks, pointed nose, and sharp chin–catch the blue light, revealing a smirk as he operates. Ripatti leans between his computer and a device that approximates the snare drum. Intermittently, he whacks it with a screwdriver handle. The resonant hit becomes distended and bandied about the club walls, the beat bouncing around like a game of jai alai, the growing bass tones as murky and immersive as the beckoning dark water a block away. Only when an overhead light accidentally flips on for a split second can that metal piece of percussion be seen: two cowbells welded together, with reverb springs as columns on all four corners. It looks like an hourglass laid on its side–an apt metaphor for Ripatti’s expert ability to suspend time.
Burning Down the House
For over a decade now, Ripatti has loosed some of the most polymorphic, body-moving, head-scrambling, and forward-looking electronic music of the modern age. Every release begs descriptors and genre names. There are the grayscale arrhythmic ambient washes that he releases as Vladislav Delay, the mercurial yet pounding music made as Uusitalo (a Finnish word meaning “new house”), and then there’s Luomo. The latter is his most revered nom de plume, yet Ripatti still doesn’t get the popularity of that particular project. “Luomo, in my case, I don’t take it too seriously,” he says. “It can be fun and whatnot, but I did not create Luomo to find a new audience or any of that stuff, nor to get fame.”
But Luomo did find a new audience for Ripatti, and for most listeners, it remains his lasting statement. After an early career within the confines of Chain Reaction’s heroin house and Mille Plateaux’s clicks + cuts cul de sacs, Ripatti re-imagined minimal house music from outside of the scene. This was house music as if erected by Frank Gehry: all reflective, metallic surfaces gloriously towering up at sumptuous angles. What’s made Luomo special is the emotive light it casts, the sensuous heart that remains beating at its core. And yet rather than try to replicate such success, or repeat the formula, Ripatti and his personas have continued to fracture and evolve over time, each entity growing more prolific. (In 2007 alone, Luomo, Vladislav Delay, and Uusitalo all released full-length albums.)
Ripatti has snuck into Gotham to finish up a track for Convivial, his fourth album as Luomo. Right after he closes his laptop and packs up his gear, he makes for the Midtown studio belonging to Scissor Sisters'
Jake Shears to finish up a collaborative track, “If I Can’t,” in the wee hours. Somewhere in the city, Ripatti’s partner (and fellow peerless producer) Antye Greie-Fuchs, who records as AGF, tends to Lumi Charlotte Ripatti, the couple’s two-year-old daughter. The next morning, the family will be flying back to Europe, a whirlwind of a trip.
Reclusive for the first part of his music-making career, Ripatti has only in the past few years begun to step out a bit. If anything, Convivial serves as his coming-out party; with seven guests providing vocals, it’s a downright extroverted and celebratory affair. He worked extensively with each of the vocalists in his home studio, White Room, tucked inside the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood in Berlin. Paper Tigers singer Johanna Iivanainen returns, and legendary U.K. house vocalist Robert Owens makes an appearance; Cassy, Sue Cie, and Sascha Ring (a.k.a. Apparat) also lend their talents. And then there’s “Chubbs,” a singer whose major-label obligations require the mysterious pseudonym.
Whereas most Luomo albums feature finely diced and distended sibilants, where even puffs of breath take on tantric lengths, the vocals are mostly left alone on Convivial. “I wanted to make a more pop-oriented album this time, which goes hand in hand with more clear vocals,” Ripatti explains. “Most of the vocalists I had never worked with before so it would’ve felt a bit strange to fuck up their vocals right away.”
“There was always this organic nature to all of Vladislav Delay’s sounds and beats and I felt like I could listen to it forever,” says Sue C., recalling her first impressions of his Chain Reaction productions. “Ever since then he has been one of my favorite producers. There are so many beautiful and subtle things going on that you can listen over and over again. I had listened to a sketch of our track [“Nothing Goes Away”] many times and the lyrics came together suddenly; I actually wrote it in the shower one morning.”
Long, Strange Trip
While the different elements that make up Convivial came together in Ripatti’s studio in Berlin, this past summer Ripatti and family left their flat in Germany and repatriated to his native Finland. “It feels great to be back home,” he tells me later via email from his new residence, in an island off the coast, surrounded by the Baltic Sea. “It’s the nature, I guess, and the solitude.” After seven years of living at the epicenter of electronic dance music, Ripatti reached a saturation point. “I really prefer the non-exposure to all that stuff,” he says. “[In Berlin] I didn’t feel freedom, but instead some pressure to conform to some things that exist already.”
Ripatti initially left the snowy, flat landscapes of Helsinki for Berlin, not to immerse himself in the club scene but to escape the bad habits he had acquired back home. “I was strongly inspired by and into the whole mind- and reality-altering thing, escaping the ‘now’ and living somewhere else,” he admits. “There were long periods back then when I was really quite out of it–but fortunately, more often than not, spending time sketching out some musical ideas. I’m glad there always was the strong drive to make and be with music–otherwise who knows what might have happened.”
Drugs and music have long been entwined, from the marijuana and heroin that powered jazz improvisation in New York to the Benzedrine that kept Northern Soul parties dancing, not to mention Ecstasy in Madchester and club scenes worldwide. But for Ripatti, the chemicals had very little to do with the music itself. “There was absolutely no clubbing lifestyle [to it], but rather a pure drug lifestyle. I have taken more or less every possible drug there is. It was my passion and hobby for quite a long time, until it became a bad addiction.” He retains fond memories of such debauchery. “Like hearing [Tricky’s] Maxinquaye for the first time,” he recalls. “Smoking pot constantly for like a week, and listening to the record in loop, thinking it was the most amazing music I ever heard.” Nonetheless, the lifestyle had serious repercussions. Canceled tours, jail time, and failed relationships were nothing compared to suffering two heart attacks in his early 20s, which resulted in two serious heart operations that remain a low point in his life.
Book of Changes
While the hardest substance he imbibes today is green tea, the blissed-out, nervy, and disorienting nature of the drug experience remains part of his sound (the name of Ripatti’s imprint, Huume, even refers to dope). And arrhythmia continues to inform his beat-making. Traces of house and minimal techno in his productions remain unsteady, slippery things, ever-changing and challenging listeners’ expectations as to where the next hit will fall. Ambient albums like Anima and The Four Quarters have rhythms to them but they eschew 4/4 entirely, coming across instead as aleatoric and amoebic entities. On Anima, tracks tumble like waves on the shore while The Four Quarters finds sounds endlessly crumbling into earth. “That’s what I like in music, that it lives like a life or movie, that it’s not just a metronome–steady and artificial in that way,” Ripatti explains. “Faltering, collapse, disintegration… That’s what life is sometimes, right? So music should be as well. I don’t want, nor do I try, to separate my music from my life.”
Glistening and propulsive as the poppy beats are on Convivial, there remain moments when corridors and wormholes appear in the mix, taking tracks to strange places. The melancholic intro of “Slow Dying Places” steadily fills every corner with synth curlicues and blossoming pad hits. Dubby space creeps into the otherwise clipped pace of “Nothing Goes Away,” while the already hazy and echoing closer “Lonely Music Co.” nearly tightens up into a tricky two-step rhythm before dissipating entirely.
“Change is the only constant” goes the Heraclitus maxim. But though Vladislav Delay, Uusitalo, and Luomo all explore the nature of change, evolution, and dissolution, the man behind them all is keen to also emphasizes the “constant” part of the equation. “I think I am still chasing the same dream, still acting on the same trigger, as when I made the Kind of Blue EP [his self-released debut from 1997],” he says. “Which is to somehow achieve my personal musical fantasies, to create something musically not yet heard and experienced.”
MP3: "Love You All"
For the Record
Sasu Ripatti reflects on the technology behind three of his key releases.
“The main thing for me is to look for unique and unusual sounds,” says Sasu Ripatti. “And it’s easier to find that in handmade physical objects and by treating them rather than buying analog vintage electronics or new software.” No doubt his roots as a free-jazz drummer inform his bent towards natural sounds: “Before I even knew what a synthesizer was, I was into custom-made freaky percussion stuff, looking for weird sounds from there. That’s always been a strong foundation for me.”
Luomo - Convivial - (2008)
“I felt like giving the guest vocals more space this time. I had taken all that effecting and dubbing the vocals to a certain extreme on Paper Tigers. I have taken a step backwards, technology-wise, [so as to see] the whole thing in a bigger picture. It allows me to see that what is really important… technology is often micro and that is not what music should be about.”
Uusitalo - Karhunainen - (2007)
“This was the closest to nerdy electronics music-making as I have ever got. I decided to keep all sound sources and processing analog. I also took time to play lots of beats by hand via MIDI keyboards or drum pads, and use lots of physical sounds recorded via microphone that I then
played back via sampler.”
Vladislav Delay - Multila - (2000)
“Multila was released when I was just beginning and had a lovely simple analog set-up in my flat. It was partly to do with not having much gear and also being so out of my head with drugs and whatnot that I couldn’t really get the sound anywhere beyond cloudy, dubby sound fields with no highs at all. But all the same that gave the music a somewhat unique edge. I couldn’t make that sound again. It’s incredibly hard to go backwards and be believable and true to yourself simultaneously.”