Estonian prog scene is one of the most interesting and vibrant and Phlox is certainly among the most interesting groups. We have talked about these issues and also about other with Pearu Helenurm, keyboard player and leader of the band, with whom we had a pleasant chat.
Hi Pearu, congratulations for your last album “Vali”, I think it's the best of Phlox discography, it's a perfect mix between the aggressive avant jazz of “Rebimine + Voltimine” and the smooth and refined atmosphere of “Talu”. Do you think the band has found his own balance or it will keep on surprising us changing direction every new album?
Thank you! We have no idea what will happen. There might be an album with various vocalists. Or not? Currently we already have a guest vocalist on stage, Dr. Roomet Jakapi of Kreatiivmootor, a philosophy teacher sometimes giving a couple of nonsensical and nonverbal lectures at the end of the gig, with us making a lot of noise around him. You can find examples of this mayhem on the internet. We’ve also talked about it with various other singers with different backgrounds, from jazz to folk and metal. If indeed we’ll gather enough material for a whole album with vocals, and whether it will be with lyrics or not, will it be composed or mostly free, time will tell.
Why in “Vali” you included two tracks from “Rebimine + Voltimine” and nothing from “Talu”?
At concerts we usually tend to add something from the earlier albums. Those two probably happened to be on our basic set list at that period, and as they had changed over five years, for example, at some point we added the silly little doom metal bit at the end of “Kurehirm”. We never release albums in huge quantities or flood the market anyway, there was really no reason to leave them out.
But why not anything from Talu? Pure coincidence. We really don’t have any grand master plan.
The choice of a live concert for a radio has a retro and vintage taste for me. Why this choice?
“Areaal Live” was essentially a series of concerts by a fairly wide range of artists, from jazz to folk to metal etc., performed at the Classical Radio studio and broadcast live. We were asked to be a part of that project and when we later got the recording of mostly unreleased material, it sure started to smell like an album. We just had to mix it again, but the “hard part” was already done. In 55 minutes, to be precise.
I think the live dimension is perfect for your music and the two songs from “Rebimine + Voltimine” are much better live than in studio. Do you think the live context is the "natural home" for your music?
Live context is probably the natural home for any music that is performed with actual instruments. We’re also quite happy with the result.
Estonia is a small country but always had a very good tradition in progressive rock, jazz and avant-garde. Why?
According to our sax player Kalle Klein, Estonians have a fairly progressive and avant garde attitude towards almost anything, be it music, drinking or sex. I usually don’t like to make generalizations myself, but he might have a point there.
Can you explain us what MKDK exactly is? Just a label or something more?
MKDK is registered as a no-profit organization, the acronym officially meaning “The Union of Musicians and Artists”. In reality it is a bunch of creative people - artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc, who have known each other for an eternity and sporadically used this label since mid 90s. And the original meaning, conjured up in the dark recesses of the Academy of Arts, is “the Most Idiotic Guys in the World”. We used to be more active about a decade ago or more, organizing annual free music festivals in the ruins of ancient strongholds and what not, but even now we’re not totally hibernating either.
There have been a lot of exchanges of musicians among the MKDK bands (you, Beggar’s Farm, Lippajad, etc…). What is your relationship with the other bands and with the labels?
We still often meet on and off stage, at free jazz or noise studio sessions just among ourselves or with visiting musicians from elsewhere; at weird mass productions with choirs, chaotic orchestras, cowboys and cactuses, and so on. And, of course, Heikki Tikas of Beggar’s Farm, the king of the most superb MKDK “almost-analogue” studio, has worked with us as the sound engineer in the studio since 2004… that makes four albums by now.
Can you explain better what you mean with mass production, cowboys and cactuses?
There is an annual performance festival, Maikellukese Päevad, at the Kanuti Gild contemporary dance theatre. MKDK studio is in the basement of this building and some years ago we were asked to also prepare "something" for the festival, whatever we could come up with.
So, we filled the stage with fifty people. The idea was to put together members of five or more bands, a choir, a conductor and a "big band" of horn players, about 10% of whom could actually play their instrument, the rest were there to make noise and create chaos. There is a very professional orchestra called the Estonian Dream Big Band, providing background for jazz singers etc., so we called our cacophonic nonsense the Estonian Bad Dream Big Band.
Surprisingly indeed the Kanuti theatre has asked for a similar production every year. Since we don’t want to repeat ourselves, we've tried to figure out something new every time. We have used writers, poets, 2010 we had a free improvisation with the lighting technician acting as the conductor, a year later we did a cowboy musical. Stetsons, human cactuses, a mink-boy, puppets, cabaret dancers, president Lincoln and even a vaguely coherent plot.
Nowadays it is impossible to find your first two albums ("Fusion" and "Piima"). Can you describe them to us? Will they be ever reissued?
”Fusion” was the first attempt to record “something”. By a band that had played together for half a year. All things considered, it is actually surprisingly coherent and so on, but maybe just a bit… raw? “Piima” was also hastily recorded, in one day, as far as I can remember. We just wanted to have some current material in the form of a CD, for ourselves and possibly to hand to somebody who happens to be interested. Minimal effort. In retrospect, we certainly could have done it better. It’s true, people keep asking about them, so we’ll probably salvage a couple of tracks and upload them in the near future, to at least give a taste of what we sounded like back then. But to re-release them as physical albums? No, it just wouldn’t make sense at the moment. We’ll record and release new stuff instead. Besides, “Piima”, in some sense, got us our first tour in France, our main tour destination ever since, so it served its purpose in 2005, and can go to rest as an honorable veteran.
What’s the response to this kind of music in Estonia?
There’s a fairly noticeable revival of all kinds of instrumental music. No idea, how it happened, but it’s not unusual for young guys and girls, and I mean people who are between 16 and 23, to form a successful prog-ish band. Probably the best know young composers and performers on the instrumental rock scene are Jakob Juhkam and Argo Vals, both of whom recently released an album and also recorded their gigs on “Areaal Live” sessions. There seems to be more audience for this sort of music than ever before. For us, this is most certainly good news.
At end just one curiosity, what does “Phlox” mean? Why did you choose this name?
“Phlox (drummondii)”, our original name, is the scientific Latin term for a garden flower. It doesn’t make any sense. I prefer the Greek version of “phlox”. Something’s definitely burning in the kitchen.