Matti Pitsinki has laid down a challenge to rock journalists everywhere: Find the perfect description for his group, Laika & The Cosmonauts.
It’s not entirely easy. You could call them surf revivalists, or a new-wave Ventures, or the godsons of Joe Meek. But none of those do them justice. Just don’t call them what one of their early record companies tagged them: the No. 1 surf band from Finland.
“We’ve carried that label from the early ’90s, given to us by the Upstart record company,” Pitsinki said recently, in flawless English. “It was quite all right for marketing purposes, but I think there’s a problem now because our music isn’t like traditional instrumental surf music. You can’t come up with a compact label for this.
“If you can come up with a new millennial categorization for us, then I’ll buy you a beer.”
Tempting as the free beer sounds, it’s best just to sit, listen and enjoy the irreverent quartet’s “Local Warming” album, released Jan. 13 on Yep Roc. It’s crammed with genre-crossing sounds – freewheeling guitars, energetic keyboards, solid drumming – all in uniquely Laika fashion.
“I was talking to some young people not too long ago,” said Pitsinki, guitarist and keyboardist, “and they asked me about the band and what kind of music we play. I said I like to describe it as instrumental rock, because to me, rock is a very broad concept. But to the youngsters, rock can be a turn-off, like something from the ’70s or ’80s, wearing tights and having long hair. It can be a curse to use the term rock. Of course, I love ’70s music, especially Led Zeppelin.
“What’s great about instrumental music is that it gives you more freedom because it doesn’t have lyrics and doesn’t tie the listener to a certain thing. It has a quality that for any listener with any kind of imagination can see it in a visual way.”
Never is that more apparent than on the album’s catchy opening track, “N.Y. ’79.” Built around Mikko Lankinen’s rollicking guitar, Janne Haavisto’s drums, Tom Nyman’s bass and Pitsinki’s 1960s-era organ, it takes listeners to a familiar time and place. Complete with dubbed-in audience noise, it sounds as if it were recorded 25 years ago at CBGB’s.
“When we write these songs, we don’t have titles,” Pitsinki said. “We start practicing the songs and make demos. Then we need to give them working names, and for some reason, this particular song sounded to us in some ways like post-punk new wave. Maybe it’s the attitude and the organ sound or something that gave us that feel.”
To create such authentic sounds, Pitsinki and Lankinen use nothing but the best.
“On albums, we use a variety of guitars,” Pitsinki said. “When we play live, Mikko uses a ’65 Jazzmaster. What I use live is a ’64 Strat. Mikko likes to change the guitars and amps, and I like to, as well. Also, with the organ, my main one for live and studio since the beginning of Laika & The Cosmonauts has been an early ’60s cream, bright green-colored Farfis. That’s one of the most wonderful pieces of Italian engineering I’ve ever come across. Nowadays, they’re hard to find and you have to pay quite a bit of money for it.”
So, how did four guys from Finland get interested in surf music? It began with Lankinen and Haavisto in the early 1980s as Pluto & The Astronauts, a surf covers band. They became Laika & The Cosmonauts in 1987 when Pitsinki and Nyman joined.
The group’s name is a tribute to the first living creature sent into space. Laika, meaning “barker” in Russian, was launched aboard Sputnik 2 by the Soviet Union on Nov. 3, 1957. The stray dog died days later as the capsule air ran out. Later, the spacecraft fell into the atmosphere and burned on April 14, 1958.
“Poor thing. The program never intended to bring her down,” Pitsinki said. “The Cold War was still going on when we started the band, and living next door to the then-Soviet Union, we always didn’t feel that comfortable. In the early stages when we played live, we were wearing fake Leonid Brezhnev eyebrows. Then we concentrated more on the music.”
Music critics no doubt will lap up “Local Warming.” Whether the public gets a chance to hear it is another thing.
“I hope it does well,” Pitsinki said, “because I think it’s really great, if I do say so myself. I have no problems listening to it over and over again. Since other people like it too, I’ve come to the conclusion it’s frankly a good album.”
One thing’s for certain: Don’t count on vocals for future Laika recordings, Pitsinki says.
“If you heard us sing, you’d understand why,” he said. “It’s an instrumental band, for crying out loud. We don’t sing, rule No. 1.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I remember the first two – ‘Black Sabbath, Vol. 4’ and ‘Led Zeppelin II.’ They were great records. The production on those Led Zeppelin albums were pretty great, especially with the tools of the time.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I saw a legendary Finnish rock band called Remu and The Hurriganes. He’s the only surviving group member now. The original outfit had an exceptionally good guitar player, Albert. It was an all-ages show on a Sunday in the middle of Helsinki. Remu doesn’t speak English, but he sings in English. It’s fun to listen to, great rock ‘n’ roll.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “I don’t know if I’ve had a worst job, but I can answer this in a Laika-connected way. In 1993, there was this huge concert organized in Helsinki, the main act being the Leningrad Cowboys. They had us open up for them, but it was a mission impossible. After we finished our set, there were like 40,000 to 50,000 people, and the MC goes, ‘All right, Laika & The Cosmonauts. Would you like to hear more?’ And those 40,000 people all said, ‘Nooooo!’ We took it like men.”
ON THE WEB: laikaandthecosmonauts.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Laika & The Cosmonauts album discography – “Surfs You Right” (Texicalli, 1990); “Instruments of Terror” (Upstart, 1994); “The Amazing Colossal Band” (1995); “Zero Gravity” (1996); “Absurdistan” (Yep Roc, 2000); “Laika Sex Machine” live (2001); “C’mon Do the Laika!” (Texicalli, 2001); “Local Warming” (Yep Roc, 2004).
Laika & The Cosmonauts are planning to tour North America in May and June. Until then, here are upcoming tour dates – April 15, Helsinki, On the Rocks; April 21, Lahti, Finland, Torvi; April 22, Finland, TBA; April 23, Vaasa, Finland; April 24, Finland, TBA; April 25, Oulu, Finland, 45.
More updates: Celine Dion, Bob Dylan, Field Music, Rex Orange County, Everything But the Girl, etc