Just before the premiere of the film Bayoneta- Viimeinen isku (The Last Strike), Topias Tiheäsalo casually dropped into our conversation that he made the music for this Mexican-Finnish film production. I knew that Topias has been involved with the Himera events and I had seen him perform (he certainly can play the guitar!), so this sounded like something different and interesting. I wanted to know more. And here is the story, as told first hand by Topias himself:
Recently I went to the world premiere of a film, here in Turku. It was a very personal event for me, as you’ll soon understand. What I’m about to tell you is the story of how I became a film composer. It’s a long and detailed story, but I hope quite a nice one.
Two years ago I got a message from my old friend Eric Namour. His friend from México City, Kyzza Terrazzas, was about to come to Finland to shoot a film. The film would tell the story of a retired Mexican boxer who ends up living in the Turku suburb of Varissuo, coaching a Finnish boxer. Kyzza needed a heavy metal band for a bar scene towards the end of the film, and had asked Eric if he knew any musicians from Finland. Eric told the director that, yes, actually he happened to know a nice metal band from Turku: Pymathon.
Kyzza came to Finland with some other members of the Mexican crew. We met and instantly got on very well: over a couple of beers we talked about films, Kaurismäki, karaoke bars in Turku, about a 70s boxing film by John Huston, and what films and film music should be and should not be like. I was thinking, ‘Very nice guy, this Mexican director.’
He told me they had already found good shooting locations for the majority of the scenes, but they would need one for the metal scene in a bar. I recommended TVO, a local punk / metal venue. We went there and- needless to say- they liked it instantly: the venue looked perfect, as did the surroundings. We decided to shoot the scene at TVO in February 2017.
The week before the filming, I was in my girlfriend’s home town in Pohjanmaa, some few hundred kilometres north from Turku. A couple of days before the filming, I decided to go ice skating for the first time in 25 years. The skates I was using were really old, rusty and too big- I needed to put on three pairs of woolly socks to make them fit. After all the trouble just to get the skates on I managed to fall over after only five minutes, and something unfortunate (but not wholly surprising) happened: I hit my elbow on the ice. It didn’t take long before I was in real pain.
My whole left arm- from the elbow to the tips of my fingers- was hurting like hell, and after a while no movement was possible with my fingers. This happened on Saturday, and the filming was supposed to be on Tuesday. On Sunday I could move the fingers a little bit, but if I even touched the guitar, a sudden burst of pain shot through my arm. On Monday morning I was able to move my fingers a bit more, and by the end of the day I was strumming a few chords- although still in a very handicapped way, and with a considerable amount of pain.
On Tuesday morning when I left for Turku I just wrapped my wrist with a really nice looking black elastic band. For some reason, the biggest problem was now in the wrist, not the elbow or the fingers. Basically I couldn’t turn my wrist, no movement was possible with it. It had to be held in a stiff and straight position. So, how could I play the guitar then? Fortunately our band plays improvised thrash-noise-death metal, so no subtle nuance and technical finesse was needed or even noticed. I decided to deploy a technique where I used a dropped tuning, so I could riff out with just one finger and a very stiff wrist. And the filming wouldn’t take too long anyway, right?
Actually, it took something like 3-4 hours. And obviously, the technique failed me here and there, and the pain reached quite high levels. Trve metal. We needed to do quite a few takes, which for us as a band was really bizarre: normally we start to play this early Entombed demo-inspired metal, and improvise our way to the end of the gig. Now we started to play more or less the same but different stuff every take until someone was waving for us to stop. Then another take, another, and another, and so on. Besides that Jaakko had the flu, Atte did some great pantomime-like things during the preparation, and I was tying up my wrist band as tight as I could. The end result? A really beautiful scene, aurally and aesthetically, with Pymathon playing for a minute or two. A great moment for Finnish improvised thrash metal.
After filming our scene, Kyzza and rest of the crew were still shooting in Turku for the next 10 days or so. He asked me whether I might have some guitar music that would be suitable for the film. I said I would see what I could do.
I had an idea of this old waltz called Aamu airistolla, which would roughly translate as ‘the morning at the sea’. It was actually written here in Turku, by Pentti Viherluoto, in the 40s I think. I took a couple of notes from the melody and then turned it into this kind of Mexican-sounding slow ballad, played on a nylon string guitar. I recorded it on my phone and sent it to Kyzza. Although it never ended up in the film, it was the start of our collaboration on a different level. I became a film composer, which I think was the most interesting thing I could imagine at that point.
I warned Kyzza: I was not a “real” film composer- or not even a “composer” in the first place. I told him that what I do is play improvised music on a guitar- different kinds of improvised music. So I could not, nor would not, create any typical film music stuff such as grandiose, super-emotional walls of strings or those modern sound-tricks (you know, like the one they always use in the trailers that sounds like a deep underwater bomb). I could play different kinds of guitars and then create some noisy textures on a tabletop guitar. But no underwater bombs. No strings. No midi-synth.
Kyzza was perfectly cool with all of this. He didn’t want them either, and he was interested in the different guitar sounds I could produce. So, we started to work. From the Spring to the Autumn of 2017 I recorded some new music inspired by our conversations and my knowledge of the film, and sent him some old bits and pieces I already had, as a reference of what I am capable of. Some of the pieces I did for certain scenes stuck there instantly. For some scenes Kyzza used music I had recorded before but worked perfectly fine for him. For other scenes we had to try out different things, then changed the plan, then went back to the original idea and so forth. It was quite a nice process!
Working with Kyzza (even though we did this eventually through email and Whatsapp video calls) was really, really great. He gave me some instructions, proposed something, wished for a certain feel, but basically gave me free rein to play what I wanted. For some scenes he had a stronger opinion, for others I had a stronger opinion, so we worked this all out together. So, if you ever hear stories about dictator-like, abusive directors, Kyzza is definitely from the other end of the spectrum: a really amiable guy, who listens and who is genuinely interested in the work of the people he is collaborating with.
The film itself uses music quite sparsely, which I like a lot- both in this film and in films in general. Of course, sometimes just a little diegetic sound is enough. Then when you have the music coming in, it has more meaning- more impact. In the final version of the film, in case you might be interested, there is music played on an open-stringed acoustic guitar, an open-stringed electric guitar, a baroque guitar, and a tabletop guitar with some knitting needles attached to the strings. There’s also some flashlight, vibrator and radio sounds played through the mics. Some of it is music in a “conventional sense”, while other parts are more like “sound design”.I think I might be the only person in the world to have used such compositional methods for scoring a Mexican film about a Mexican boxer who lives in Varissuo, Finland.
On 17th of October the film finally had its world premiere, and I saw and heard the final result for the first time. I really couldn’t be happier.
I met my old friend Eric, who is- in a lot of ways- responsible for this new and unexpected career of mine, years ago when he was living in London. Then he moved to Mexico. I think he was the only person I knew living in México City. Now I know two guys living there, and both are very, very nice- truly great guys! I’m really grateful that our paths crossed in these unlikeliest of circumstances.
As for the film itself… I won’t be saying anything more about that. Except that there is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, coaching Luís Gerardo Méndez in snowy Ruissalo while I’m playing in the background! You might recognise Turo, from the 80s comedy series Aki and Turo, who is in the film as well. I’m also very happy that the music I recommended for the scenes in the bar Runostuoppi has been used. They’re a couple of the best rock tunes from this decade, from Finland or anywhere else. In a couple of scenes you also hear Pekko Käppi’s music (there are some strings, actually!), and there is a lovely scene with a great Mexican singer Chalino Sanchez. And then some Pymathon.
Most fantastically, the opening music is played while the boxer (played by Méndez) is standing on the Föri- my beloved little ferry crossing the beautiful river Aura of my beloved home city!