Written by: Dave Cantrell
Some artists fashion their own world that the rest of us live in to one degree or another. It’s not necessarily a world made out of whole cloth – in fact it quite seldom is – but rather one created from a process of manipulating what’s available in the chosen culture, in the prevailing winds, in what can be gleaned from circumstances immediately at hand. They are, in a word, innovators (if of various levels and stripes) and, in a phrase, fairly fearless explorers of the zeitgeist. And while their skills are pretty much never less than prodigious, it’s the seemingly uncanny ways they integrate them into the Great Flow of Things that sets them slyly but surely apart. It’s an inherent, open secret kind of talent that makes them appear as if they’re simultaneously of, and ahead-of, the culture at large. Call it the conjurers touch, making the simple look complex and, yes, the other way around and sometimes, somehow, both at the same time. Most importantly, their ambition nearly always seems to be one more purely born out of a restless curiosity than material gain (even as the latter is, of course, a nice bonus). Playful yet serious as fuck, they seem to glide through that splendid nether space where the restrictions are nearly nil and the potential pretty much immeasurable. As might be assumed, they are a rare breed, and few hit more rarefied heights than Jimi Tenor.
Like a Finnish-born Quincy Jones of techno/trip-hop/electro-jazz and numerous other hyphenates that has followed his own joy wherever it’s taken him, Tenor has, over the last thirty-four years, traversed more territory than your most astute musical mapmaker might knew existed. Rather than even try to give a cogent overview of the guy’s creative wingspan (one that includes collabs with the likes of Tony Allen, Kabu Kabu, Abdissa Assefa), we’re simply going to point you toward his discography and link your ears to the profoundly well-named compilation Deep Sound Learning: 1993-2000 released by the wonderful Tapete label last year then move on to the subject at hand, Omiverse, an almost omniscient take on Tenor’s evolution through a life dedicated to – and immersed in – music and art that’s meant as a twin compendium of sorts to his new album Multiversum (released in tandem with the book’s arrival on May 20th, the entire project a joint venture from Tapete and Mainz-based publisher Ventil). Replete with gorgeous, candid, behind-the-shades photographs and told in his own words, it presents in a manner that might be called ‘intimate Cinemascope,’ the candor and offhand flair resulting in an account that’s charming and soul-baring in equal measure. Add to all that Tenor’s similarly relentless drive regarding visual media – his intense love of photography (so much so it almost became his primary muse) is evident in the text offered in this excerpt – and we end up with an adventurous aesthetic spirit for whom the adjective ‘Warholian’ would not be too wide of the mark. It’s little wonder, then, he followed his girlfriend Tiina to New York City in 1992, which is where we begin our tale and what a quintessentially modern-day New York tale it is…
Jimi By Thron Ullberg, New York City, 1992
I moved to New York in 1992. My girlfriend Tiina Huckowski had moved there so
I followed suit. I had just been staying in Berlin for 6 months, where I made one
album for the Finnish label Bad Vugum.
I was 27, but still didn’t know what to do with my life. I thought my music
career had failed or at least there was no way to make a living out of it; making
industrial music using scrap metal was fun, but a financial challenge. So I tried
to become a photographer — after all I’d been doing photography all my life, why
couldn’t it work out as a career. I enrolled in this art school in uptown Manhattan
where I took some lighting courses, a fi lm developing course and a nude model
photography course. At the school I met Thron Ullberg (who ended up taking the
cover photo for Intervision) and we went for a little photo safari at the waterfront
in Williamsburg. In those days that area was in ruins. Someone said the mafia
owned it and had big plans for property development. There were some abandoned
buildings there and we took some photos inside. I’d bought a really cool ice cream
cone suit from a legendary second hand warehouse called Domsey’s and I wanted
to pose in that outfit.
For a long time I had been obsessed with the idea of 3-D photography and
especially the green-red aspect about it. I had many pairs of the green-red glasses,
including a special pair I’d fashioned from welder’s safety-goggles, which I used to
wear when I went dancing at the techno clubs in Finland.
For this picture I had a special idea. What if we put a red filter in front of the
camera lens and then we put a green filter in front of a powerful flash. Hopefully
in the foreground the flash filter and the camera filter would sort of cancel each
other out so that the lighting would be fairly neutral in colour. But everything
in the background would be red, since the power of the flash wouldn’t reach so far.
I think it turned out quite well! The glasses are racquetball glasses I had bought in
a dime store.
Washington Heights Rooftop Portrait, New York City, 1992
When I first arrived in New York we stayed
at our friend Lada Ferrari’s house on 176th
Street, near Broadway. I’ve always liked to
explore the areas where I live for photo-shoots
and in Washington Heights there were a lot
of interesting places. I like wastelands,
overgrown parks and abandoned buildings.
Bridges are beautiful and normally there are
no other people there, just cars passing by,
but since they can’t stop everyone remains
totally anonymous. One day Tiina and I went
on a photo safari to Washington Bridge and
found loads of small hubcaps on the way.
I made necklaces out of them — the Jaguar
one was especially pretty. New York is
a great place for good junk. It also has a great
rooftop culture and I loved to go up there for
photos. This photo was taken on the roof of
the building on 176th Street and you can see
Washington Bridge in the background.
I fell in love with New York. It was
a fun place to be. I loved all the Latin music
and culture, the bars and food. A couple of
times I walked up to Washington Heights
from downtown in the evening. It’s a long
walk. I loved the area between 110th street
and 165th street, strolling past people playing
dominos or drinking beer. In New York you
can experience the city in myriad of different
ways, and if you get into trouble you’re in at
the deep end. I got mugged a couple of times
and it’s not fun! And then there are the super
rich people … well I didn’t have any contact
with them really. At least knowingly that is.
Perhaps I brushed shoulders with them at the
art openings, which I did go to quite a bit.
Free drinks you know!
Opening At Orensanz Foundation, New York City, 1993
The first couple of years in New York we moved around every few months, heading
from Washington Heights to Red Hook and then Williamsburg. I’ve always been
a suburb guy and have practically never lived in the centre of any city. Life’s much
more interesting in the outskirts of town. The people there are more real in a way,
there are no tourists and it’s way cheaper to live.
The first place we settled properly was in an apartment in Williamsburg.
At the time it was a fairly rough place. We lived on the corner of South 2nd Street
and Bedford Ave. South 2nd was a party street for people from DR and Puerto Rico
and the noise from the cars and different PA systems was overwhelming. On top of
that we lived next to the fi re department and without exception there were sirens
going off every night. Needless to say that in NY the sirens are loud! The good
thing about this was that we could make as much noise as we wanted in our home
recording studio, which was especially handy as my friend Can (Khan of Finland)
had moved in with us.
But at that point I thought my future would be in photography. I had been
doing Jimi Tenor and his Shamans for years and although we had a lot of fun it
seemed like a dead end. I felt that for my personality industrial noise in the long
term was a bit much. Also I wanted to experience the world and keeping a group
together at the same time seemed like an impossible task.
I tried to get assistant work in professional photo studios. Scandinavian
assistants have a good reputation in New York. Again, with my personality it
wasn’t easy to get any of those jobs. I’m too quiet and I think social skills are the
most important ones when you’re an assistant.
I kept taking art photos though and started to print huge images on car
bonnets and any scrap metal I could find. I discovered a special liquid emulsion
that you could spread on any surface. I could paint the emulsion on car hoods
and then sponge on the developer and fixer. Naturally all this would have to be
done in darkness or in red light so I used to transform our bedroom into a dark-
room. After a while our apartment was full of my car hoods and all kinds of large
pictures. I had crazy energy back then, I just wanted to do stuff and New York is
a perfect place for that. My only problem was the lack of money, and that was
a major problem.
Our landlord was the brother of Angel Orensanz, the famous Spanish
sculptor. I think he was happy to have us as lodgers because we were artsy types,
but we were behind on the rent for most of the year we lived there. Mr. Orensanz
would often call round for a coffee and even showed us the best Caribbean snack bar
in Brooklyn at the M-train stop. It sold alcapurrias and crispy pork skin. I love that
kind of food! He was a good landlord and wanted to help with our money troubles.
He suggested that we could clean this old synagogue they had bought at Norfolk
St. in East Village in exchange for one month’s rent. When Mr. Orensanz came to
collect the next month’s rent he noticed my photos in the living room and offered
to host an exhibition at their synagogue as they had plans to convert it into an
So on May 28th 1993 I had an opening there.
I managed to get Finlandia vodka from the
Finnish consulate and it ended up being quite
a happening! Tiina and I performed at the dais
of the temple. I was playing a modified vacuum
cleaner, which I turned into a sort of strange
trombone. Instead of sucking I converted the
cleaner to blow instead. I connected a rubber
glove finger in the airflow to act like the »lips« of
the trombone and I placed an aluminium light
reflector as the bell for a loud sound. Tiina had
been doing dance performances at the El Senso-
rium underground club events and her style was
a modified Butoh. The performance went down
very well, perhaps better than the photos! I guess
deep down I knew I was more of a performer
than a photographer, but at that point I had
nothing going on in music and it looked like
a permanent state of affairs. I didn’t even have
a saxophone mouthpiece any more.
Empire State Building Reflexion, New York City, 1993
Though Mr. Orensanz was a pleasant and patient landlord, the apartment
on South 2nd did have its drawbacks. It was a top floor apartment with
broken heating and a leaking roof and it was getting a bit too wild because
of crack, violence and noise. So for multiple reasons we wanted to find
a better apartment, and luckily I managed to find a job to pay for it.
My friend Hitoshi Toyoda was working at the photo booth on the 86th
floor of the Empire State Building and told me about a job vacancy. One
of the staff called Amy had quit and they were desperate to find someone
new. I went up there to the observation level and gave a very unconvincing
performance in the job interview. It required good selling skills, and that’s
never been my forte. The photography in the booth was high quality but the
settings were always the same so it didn’t really require any photographic
skills. I only got the job because I was ready to start the same day.
The job was taking photos of tourists in front of three different
backdrops: The Statue of Liberty, King Kong and the Empire State Building.
People would sit in front of the backdrop and we would take a photo with
this huge 8 × 10″ camera — the same size that Avedon used in his famous
shots. The photo quality was exceptional, but the tourists didn’t care, for
them it was just a silly picture with King Kong.
We had to sell the idea of the picture to the tourists. Sometimes we
would ask the first customers to pose for free so that others would notice
how much fun it actually was. Then most of the time after the first shots
people would queue non-stop to have their picture taken. It was a bit of fun
and a good photo to show the folks back home. There’s a picture by Hitoshi
Toyoda in which I try to “hypnotise” a customer to take the photo. I think
I’m waving a pendulum in front of her.
This job was very good for me. I could pay my rent easily, save the
deposit to move apartments and also buy some music equipment. This
equipment was crucial in making Sähkömies. I bought an Oberheim DX drum
machine, which at that time was almost the cheapest drum machine you
could get. I loved it! A Japanese guy in a Soho music store used to work for
Roland and he burned me a couple of extra chips for the DX. They were kick,
snare and hi-hat sounds from a Roland 909. They sounded great, a funny
combination of 909 and DX. I used those drum sounds on »Take Me Baby« for
example. I still use the DX now and it’s always on my studio desk hooked up
and ready to go. But if you’re doing anything that is dreamy or romantic …
that is not your drum machine!
The job at the Empire State Building was nice in many other ways too.
I was normally on the night shift and in the evenings it was beautiful up
there. When we had breaks it was fun to go and look at the views. I worked
there on New Year’s Eve and I was looking forward to the fireworks. I thought
I would be immersed in multi-coloured light but it turned out that the fi re-
works were 300 meters below us and I barely saw them at all! But at midnight
the city looked like it was bathing in a blue haze. At first I was wondering
what it was, and then I realised it was people taking flash photos. From that
sort of distance the flash looks blue and at midnight everybody was taking a picture!
The blue haze only lasted for about one or two minutes.
I was taking photography lessons in a photo school uptown around that time
as well. They suggested buying a couple of photo stands, a good tripod, a light meter
and some flashes. I still have every one of these pieces of equipment and I use them
weekly. Whenever I need extra microphone stands I use these photo stands. They
have the same thread as microphones so it’s very convenient. This is my advice to
anybody who wants to be in music and is also interested in video and photography:
get a photo stand! You won’t regret it.
Tiina Medusa, New York City, 1993
Tiina had a crazy amount of special clothes and it
was very convenient for me to use them in PR photos.
She was kind of my stylist at the time and I knew
we were doing good stuff . Tiina wasn’t that familiar
with cameras, but we would set up the camera
together and she actually took really good pictures.
I have a similar attitude to photo shoots as recording
sessions. Studio surroundings don’t excite me that
much. I prefer to record music at home and also to
take pictures where I live. I like to work fast and enjoy
I used to go to Coney Island a lot in the early
90s. I like beaches during winter and I love aban-
doned amusement parks. Another reason to go to
Coney Island was the flea markets. You could get
some really cool stuff . I bought a BMX there once and
rode it all the way back to Williamsburg.
One day at the flea market I saw a beautiful
Land Polaroid camera. It wasn’t automatic like
the new cameras but had manual exposure and
a flash shoe so you could use it with studio flash.
You couldn’t get film for that camera anymore so
I converted it into a 9 × 12 cm sheet film camera.
I had dreamed about a 9 × 12 cm camera and this was
it! It was very professional and had a great lens and
a distance meter.
This photo of Tiina as Medusa was taken with
that Polaroid. Tiina had a lot of hair, so it looked
nice. These are the customised welding glasses I wore
to the raves in Finland. I’d put Lee filters on the
lenses — one eye was red and the other was green.
I used the glasses to read 3-D comics as well, but in
the clubs it was totally amazing. The green and red
made everything look a bit more 3-D than real life.
It was uncanny, and when you took them off after
the party your left eye would see everything in green
and your right eye in red for quite some time — the
opposite colours to the goggles.
Unfortunately I am terrible with nice things
and have a habit of losing stuff . So in 1994 when we
moved to Finland I lost the Land Polaroid camera.
I also lost the Ricoh camera that I used for most of the
Z Factor shots.
Wrestlers Grand St. Gym, Williamsburg, New York City, 1993
There was a group of Argentinian artists who ran an underground club in Williamsburg called El Sensorium
and after a while I became a regular performer at their events. Can Oral and I played an electronic music
set in an inflatable balloon. These balloons were a regular piece by one of the artists at El Sensorium. Once
I organised a photo shoot there with the “fat lady” I had made friends with at the Coney Island sideshow.
These events were great happenings. Gradually the group became more and more well known and expanded
their events to clubs in Manhattan as well. I guess I fell out with the main guy Mariano at this point, which
was too bad because these events were fantastic.
Outside of El Sensorium there were no club events in Williamsburg because everybody said it was too
dangerous. Crack cocaine had become really popular in ’93 and our corner was a distribution point. The side-
walks were covered with the tiny plastic tubes with different coloured tops. The last flight of stairs from our
fl at to the roof was full of kids taking crack in the evenings. It wasn’t too pleasant but we left them alone and
they did the same. Still, this was one of the reasons we eventually moved out of the South 2nd apartment.
Once we were invited to a one off club night in Williamsburg. I was on the guest list and was on my way
there when I heard the event was stopped because there was a shoot out. I think some people died there and
feel very fortunate that I didn’t arrive sooner. It must sound strange that Williamsburg was like this in the
early 90s but it was very rough in those days. Then quite soon after I left it became seriously gentrified. I get
it because it’s just one stop from Manhattan on the L train. I met a fi lm cameraman called Alejandro Serrano
at the El Sensorium events and became good friends with him. He would later shoot my documentary film
“Sähkö-The Movie”. He told me about this catch wrestling gym at Grand St. in Williamsburg. Catch wrestling
is not a big thing in NYC. I think at that point there were only two gyms in the whole city that had a scene.
So we went to see the show at Grand St. and took our cameras along. I think we had a Polaroid or something.
The evening was great! I loved
everything about it, I’m a circus fan
and this reminded me a lot of the circus.
In Mexican wrestling all the
performers have their own special
character. They dress up like some sort
of super heroes with a lot of masks
and make up. El Expectro had a quite
classic luchador outfit with his mask,
cape and high wrestling boots. His
speciality was to throw his opponent
out into the audience and then jump
over the ropes swan style and land on
them. But none of the wrestlers were
professional; it was a community
event really. We went backstage after
the show and suggested taking some
photos of them in my studio.