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 fervently 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.”
The first time I came across Pan Sonic (or Panasonic, as they were then known) was on a cold evening in 1994, in an empty outdoor car park in East London. On that occasion, they (at least one had to assume it was them, since they were never actually seen) had stationed themselves inside an armoured car belonging to Jimmy Cauty of the KLF, which had supposedly been customized to make it into a sonic weapon. This vehicle was driven repeatedly around the car park in circles, with sounds (supposedly generated by Panasonic) emanating from it. The whole thing was tiresome in the extreme, since these sounds were nowhere near as loud as they should have been, while there was nothing at all to see. A failure, then, in both its acoustic and visual aspects. But then one has come to expect failure and empty gestures from Paul Smith, the smug and irritating drudge responsible for the Disobey Club (of which that Panasonic event was part, and a number of other evenings of which I attended in the mid-90s), Blast First Records and sundry other cooler-than-thou ventures.
A couple of years later I found myself on tour, no less, with Panasonic. On the same tour bus, to be exact, since they were the support group on Swans’ final tour of Europe in 1997, on which I was the merchandise seller (see here for a brief reminiscence). An unlikely pairing, you might think, but in fact their pummelling and uncompromising electronic noise was a highly effective curtain-raiser to the main event – even after listening to it twenty-odd times as I did. With their spare and lugubrious humour, Mika and Ilpo were also excellent travelling companions on the long drives from show to show. During a lengthy tour-bus debate on the merits and demerits of tenpin bowling, Mika responded to a criticism that the scoring system was perhaps unnecessarily complex with the doleful comment “It does not matter what is the score.”
Another twelve years, and Pan Sonic (having lost an ‘a’) wound up in Vienna for what was apparently their penultimate live concert ever (the last one being next week in Athens). The venue was also notable, being a tiny club in the basement of the Secession building. After a long wait outside to get in and an interminable support slot, the duo came on and proceeded to shake the Secession to its foundations. Augmented by unnerving rhythmic patterns, the heavy drones and sine waves were wildly diverse and crushingly loud. Mika and Ilpo sat at their dial-strewn consoles, seemingly generating all their sounds from analogue equipment (there didn’t seem to be any computers in use). The only visual accompaniment was a flickering back-projection of a single thick vertical line, which mutated in response to the music (they had used the exact same visual on the Swans tour). This stuff was disorientating yet vastly entertaining, its endless arcs and twists the product of fierce and highly musical intelligence.
As I was lucky enough to be a member of the road crew on the final Swans tour in 1997, I can vouch for the accuracy of Michael Gira’s description of the “stinky old Heavy Metal tour bus” that carted us around Europe (Invisible Jukebox, The Wire 286). Gira is also spot on regarding the lugubrious humour of Pan Sonic (or Panasonic, as they were then known). During a lengthy debate on the merits of ten-pin bowling, Mika Vainio responded to a criticism that the scoring system was unnecessarily complex with the doleful comment “It does not matter what is the score”.