RISE… AND SHINE The Latebirds

They may hail from Finland, but the music’s all about
Americana. Album and tour both hit these shores next week, Aug. 30.

 

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

The songs ring with the authority of Americana anthems.
Hints of Springsteen, Petty and Mellencamp reverberate throughout. Taken in
tandem, it provides the rallying cry of heartland homeboys. Except… they’re
not. The Latebirds hail from Finland, which, by any measure, seems an unlikely
breeding ground for a sound so entrenched in roots rock sensibilities.

 

The Latebirds’ third and latest LP, Last of the Good Ol’ Days has found a Stateside release courtesy of
Second Motion Records and while it marks the band’s American debut, the
individual members aren’t exactly strangers to our shores. Drummer Janne
Haavisto and future Latebirds organist Matti Pitsinki were performing with
Finnish instrumental outfit Laika and the Cosmonauts at South By Southwest in
1999 when they met singer/songwriter Markus Nordenstreng and guitarist Jussi
Jaakonaho, with whom they subsequently joined forces.  Bassist Mikko Mäkelä
was recruited for some New York gigs a year later, and when Pitsinki was
officially added to the line-up in 2005, the group finally coalesced. Various
members have spent Stateside time studying and gigging, but the American and
Anglo influences left an indelible impression on them all. Further proof
resides in the fact that the new album bears a bonus disc called The Woodstock Sessions, featuring
stirring covers of “City of New Orleans” Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly”
and Kris Kristofferson’s “In the News,” which features the author himself
contributing vocals. The five song set — which also features two compatible
originals from Nordenstreng — was recorded at Levon Helm’s Woodstock studios
and, in addition to Kristofferson, boasts contributions from Benmont Tench,
David Rawlings, and naturally, Helm himself.

 

Blurt had
opportunity recently to speak with Markus Nordenstreng and ask about the
Latebirds’ origins, influences and everything else that inspires them to take
flight.

 

***

 

BLURT: Can you give us a brief synopsis of how the band came together? Did you
guys always have similar instincts and influences?

 

MARKUS NORDENSTRENG: I made my first solo
album (Moody) back in ‘98. Latebirds
guitarist Jussi Jaakonaho played on that record but the rest of the guys joined
later. When I was invited to play at South By Southwest in ’99, we didn’t have
money to bring my backing band at the time. After hearing that Finnish
instrumental legends Laika & The Cosmonauts (featuring current Latebirds
drummer Janne Haavisto and organ player Matti Pitsinki) were playing in Austin
that year as well, we decided to ask if we could join forces. About a year
later my old pal Mikko Mäkelä joined us for a couple of gigs in New York and
this essentially is how we became the band we are. The Latebirds was officially
born in January 2001 so it’s our tenth anniversary, which is kinda hard to
believe. Time flies…

 

 

Based on the Woodstock Sessions bonus disc alone, it’s easy to assume you’re strictly Americana, but in fact,
the full album suggests that Americana is only one additive in your sound.
There are also traces of Springsteen, Mellencamp, Posies… So question is –
how did you soak up all these divergent sounds and styles living in Finland?
What is the musical vibe over there?

 

Finns are generally known to be quiet, moody,
melancholy, even brooding at times and most definitely hard-drinking just about
all of the time. I guess this is very understandable – after all, the winters
up here are cold and dark. In December we only get 4-5 hours of daylight, and
if you go up to Lapland there’s hardly any daylight to speak of. And in the
summers the sun literally never sets. So if we’re a little unbalanced, Finnish
weather is to blame! Finnish cult film director Aki Kaurismaki has captured
some of these basic Finnish characteristics in his films. Our culture is
definitely very different from the rest of Scandinavian countries; we tend to
use a lot more minor keys in our folk music and our artists are way more
introverted than the Swedes are, for instance. And there’s BIG demand for black
metal (music that is)! And then there’s the famous Finnish tango that CNN once
covered…

 

 

That certainly seems like an eclectic mix.

 

The Latebirds are not your typical Finnish
tango nor metal band for sure. Then again, we have been told that our music has
a melancholy, dark vibe.  As individuals we are definitely quite different
from your average Finns. Our organ player Matti was an exchange student in
Virginia when he was a kid, so that’s how he got hooked to American sounds and
perhaps that’s also where he got some of that very witty sense of humor of his.
Janne, our drummer, spent a lot of time in Austin in the early ‘90s playing and
recording with many local artists and even considered moving there full time at
one point. Jussi, our guitarist, is one of the funniest guys in the world and
he’s also one of the most successful Finnish record producers in the past 15
years or so. And Mikko was the guy who first played me Tony Joe White and Arlo
Guthrie records back when we started playing together in garage bands around
‘94.

        Your
observations are right though. It’s not only American music we love and I think
that comes clear when you listen to our records. We all love ‘60s and ‘70s
English rock and I would say The Who has influenced our new album just as much
as The Band has. And it’s hard to escape the

Beatles or the Stones influence, even if you
happen to come from Helsinki. We also listen to a lot of world music these days
– from Fela Kuti to Vishnu Bhatt…

 

 

You seem to have made a ton of musical connections – Levon Helm, Kris
Kristofferson, Ken Stringfellow, the Wilco guys, Minnie Driver, Benmont Tench
all sing your praises. How did you make these connections and recruit them to
play on your album?

 

These are all happy accidents like most great
things in life. Levon Helm loves Finland (The Band played in Helsinki in the
‘90s), so when we recorded our previous album near his house in Upstate NY, he
invited us over and told us we should come back and record some day…so that’s
that.

        Stringfellow
I first met in ‘96 when Posies played in Helsinki and I keep bumping into Ken
all the time. The Wilco dudes I met around the same time – ‘96 or ‘97 when
Wilco played in Dublin while I was studying there. I got to know Ken Coomer and
John Stirratt then, and later I became friends with the rest of them, including
Nels who plays on our new album. Their current drummer Glenn’s wife Miiri is actually
half-Finnish, so there you go! We’ve toured with them a bunch over the years.
Minnie Driver hung out at Jim Scott’s studio while we were there recording the
album and insisted on singing one harmony part and it sounded beautiful. In
return, we introduced her to Finnish vodka! Benmont was a fan of Laika &
the Cosmonauts so that’s how Janne & Matti got to know him and later he
became a Latebirds supporter. It was thanks to Benmont that Jim Scott heard our
music and wanted to produce us in the first place, so we are extremely
thankful… and it was amazing recording with him live in the studio, which is
how we cut Last Of The Good Ol’ Days,
live in the studio, including lead vocals for the most part.

 

 

Is it a challenge for a band from Finland to break through? Finland
isn’t exactly in the heart of the music biz. Have you encountered any
resistance or prejudice from mainstream music fans who don’t get what you’re
trying to do?

 

It’s a challenge for sure, but then again
isn’t it just as much of a challenge to be in a rock band in, say, Iowa
City…? At least it’s more exotic to say we’re from Finland! Besides, compared
to Iowa City, Helsinki has a lot of music biz to offer. All major labels have
offices in Helsinki…

 

 

When you sing, there’s no hint of an accent. It sounds like you were
born in the American heartland. How do you achieve that? Do you sing
phonetically. One gets the feeling that English is your second language.

 

I grew up in Tanzania where my mom taught
journalism in the ‘80s. I started international school in Dar Es Salaam when I
was six years old, which is why I speak fluent English today. This has had a
huge impact on my life. When I first heard Springsteen at eleven years old, I
actually understood what he was singing about. Most of my friends were more
keen on getting their ears soaked in WASP and Iron Maiden records, and I think
partly this had to do with the fact that they had no clue what these dudes in
tights were singing about. Then again, I could be wrong…

        I
also spent one semester in Austin Texas in the early ‘90s when my dad had a
teaching post in the university over there. And Austin is a big Americana town
with lots of roots music everywhere so you couldn’t help hearing folks like
Willie Nelson and great TX songwriters like Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt.
In the mid ‘90s I went to study communication in Dublin, Ireland, but hardly
went to any classes, and studied songwriting instead. What an inspiring
environment Dublin is for a songwriter!

 

 

Yet, Americana really informs much of the sound.

 

My first introduction to rock music came from
Bruce Springsteen when I was eleven years old and that’s when I got plugged
into the great amp of life, as they say. I became a big fan of American popular
culture, from Jack Kerouac to John Coltrane, from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan,
from Paul Auster to Patti Smith, from Peckinpah to Scorsese, from the MC5 to
Snoop Dogg, from Mother Maybelle to Marlon Brando. I think there is a common
thread all along.

        In
the past ten years I’ve spent lots of time in the U.S. – not only touring or
recording with the Latebirds, but on my own as well. I prefer spending my
winters in Southern California instead of Southern Finland for sure…

 

 

You guys played the Grand Ol’ Opry. That’s quite an accomplishment. How
did that gig come about? What was the reaction? And what was it like?

 

We opened for Wilco at the Ryman and what an
honor indeed. It was one of the greatest nights of my life. People really
seemed to love us there. We got a standing ovation in the end, which apparently
is rare for any unknown opening act, much less a Finnish one. Believe it or
not, that very same day, while flying from Austin to Nashville on Southwest
Airlines, we bumped into Kris Kristofferson for the first time. Then three
years later, we ended up recording with him. Life is strange sometimes…

 

 

Is this your first American album? How did you get the deal with Second
Motion Records?

 

Yeah, we’ve had a good bit of bad luck in the
past. We’ve toured and recorded in the U.S. pretty much throughout our
existence and we’ve come very close to signing deals with some fairly big
labels but then something has always gone wrong.

        Our
deal with Second Motion was yet another great accident. My friend Ken
Stringfellow [of the Posies] mentioned we should get in contact with [Second
Motion President, and Blurt publisher] Stephen Judge, and then it turned out that we know a lot of
the same people and have similar goals. We’re also friends with the Glenn
Dicker and Tor Hansen from Yep Roc/Redeye, which is distributing our album.
Laika & Cosmonauts were on Yep Roc – Janne and Matti from our band have
known Glenn for over 15 years.

 

 

What’s next?

 

We plan to take over all major American
markets and rock you relentlessly! [We are doing a U.S. tour] once the album
comes out. And there’s talk of touring North America again in the fall. Let’s
see how it all maps out. We’re very optimistic and excited. We just got back
from playing a festival in Holland last week and the band is sounding tighter
and more dynamic than ever.

 

 

Blurt caught the band earlier this year at SXSW in Austin. Go here and
here to check out the staff comments and photos.

 

Latebirds U.S. tour dates:

 

Aug 30 – PHILADELPHIA PA, World Cafe Live
Sept 1 – SOMERVILLE MA, Johnny D’s
Sept 2 – BROOKLYN NY, Knitting Factory
Sept 5 – CHICAGO IL, Martyr’s
Sept 7 – LOS ANGELES CA, Bootleg Theatre
Sept 9 – HOLLYWOOD CA, Amoeba Music Instore
Sept 10 – SAN FRANCISCO CA, Great American Music Hall

 

 

[Photo credit: Markku Lahdesmaki]

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