Like everyone else who was aware of him and his work, I was deeply saddened by the death earlier this month of Mika Vainio. I didn’t know Mika personally, but I was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1997, when Panasonic opened for Swans on their “final” European tour, for which I was the merchandise seller. This position meant long hours travelling in a big tour bus, time variously spent watching videos, chatting and sleeping (mostly the latter). Mika was a less frequent participant in these conversations than his Panasonic colleague Ilpo, but when he did join in, his contributions were always worth hearing. On one occasion, the conversation turned (how, I have no idea) to the topic of tenpin bowling. I expressed the opinion, which I still hold, that one’s enjoyment of this game was hampered by its unnecessarily complex scoring system. Mika thought for a moment and then replied lugubriously: “It does not matter what is the score.”
Fast forward twenty years, and Mika played a solo concert at Cave 12 in Geneva. It may even have been his last concert, I don’t know. (Back in 2009, I saw one of the last ever Pan Sonic concerts in Vienna.) He began the evening with some quietly spoken, oddly touching words to the audience: “I’ve played many concerts, so I hope we can make some music tonight.” Those were the only words he spoke all evening, otherwise choosing to communicate through his extensive setup of electronic equipment.
I’m no techie, but even I could tell that Vainio had not brought any computers with him, preferring instead a modular synth setup festooned with dials and cables. It was an excellent performance, with monstrously heavy passages punctuated by moments of deeply felt silence. Mika seemed to be using some kind of theremin-like device to trigger certain sounds with movements of his hand, bringing forth glitchy ambient passages amid waves of juddering noise. The fine PA at Cave 12 was more than capable of dealing with everything Vainio put through it, delivering a crystalline sound that did full justice to the remorseless intensity of the music.
Sitting at a table bathed in white light, a flat cap perched incongruously on his head, Vainio was an amiable yet unassuming onstage presence. He gave little away until the very end of the performance, when he punched the air in evident satisfaction at the livid maelstrom of sound he had created. It was a gesture typical of the man, his apparent diffidence belied by the sheer enjoyment of music-making. He will be greatly missed.