INTERVIEW: The Impersonators

Finland-based rock-pop duo The Impersonators has set a March 27th worldwide release for their newest single ‘Cloud Nine’. The track is a modern mash-up of MTV-era 90s alt-pop, mixed with a 60s-era aspirational vibe evocative of The Byrds and others. With its retro feel, spot-on harmonies and ace guitar work, ‘Cloud Nine’ delivers a big sound that belies the size of the band, and warmly recalls pop hits of decades past. The Impersonators are lead singer/guitarist Tom Tikka and lyricist Antti Autio. Tikka was interviewed by VENTS, below —

Hi guys, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

We’ve been good. Having said that, as everyone else, we’re concerned about the coronavirus. It really seems like the whole world has gone crazy in a matter of just weeks. The shelves at the grocery stores are empty and people are lining up for gas as if doomsday is coming. Sanity is slowly but surely prevailing over here now that it’s become clear to most folks that we’re not running out of toilet paper and canned foods. However, it’s a serious situation and I’m just hoping that we can contain it as quickly as possible. Whenever you see news clips of soldiers patrolling the streets of any western country, it’s bound to cause concern.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Cloud Nine”?

Well, “Cloud Nine” is one of those songs that sort of existed before it was written. It existed as an idea. I knew I wanted to write a bona fide, radio-friendly pop/rock tune for the simple reason of not having done it in a long while. It’s the type of song that’s reminiscent of the stuff I wrote for Carmen Gray, the band I was previously involved with. It’s got a big chorus and that’s what my brother Lappe and I did for Carmen Gray, we wrote songs with big choruses. We had to do it. When you’re working with a big label like Sony/BMG, they tend to expect a hit single from your pen every now and then.

The thing is, I have been a bit reluctant to write anything in that vein for The Impersonators. I don’t really know why. I suppose when Carmen Gray disbanded, I wanted to create a unique identity for our little duo that was separate from anything I had done before. As a result, I went through an awful lot of trouble trying hard not to sound like the old band. It was actually my sixteen-year-old son, who has now for some reason discovered my old songs on Spotify who came to me and said, “Why don’t you write a song like you used to. I love the new stuff but I’d also like a few more of those ear-grinders.” At first, I was a bit cheesed off but thanks to that comment I went back to the old Carmen Gray albums and gave them all a spin.

It was fun because I hadn’t listened to them in years. It was a great walk down memory lane, the type of walk that brings tears to your eyes. Enough time had passed for me to only remember the good stuff. Whatever negativity I might have once harbored in my heart about the way things ended for the group had now vanished. All I felt was pride. I was also impressed about how naïve and natural the writing sounded and came to the conclusion that if anyone was allowed to write a tune that sounded a bit like Carmen Gray, it was me. So ultimately, I decided to give it a whirl. I pretended that I was writing a tune for Nick Nyman to sing and I thought “Cloud Nine” came out sounding rather authentic. Of course, we gave it an arrangement that fit The Impersonators. However, from the standpoint of writing, that’s how an idea of the new track was born.

We’d like to offer VENTS readers an early listen!

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

A therapy session!

I’m one of those old-school guys who avoided going to therapy until it was pretty much the only option that I hadn’t explored. You know, the same reason why some people turn to God: They’ve tried everything else and haven’t yet been saved! Be that as it may, I’m glad I did go down that road as it actually helped and as time went by, I really got into it. It became this thing I did every week that I found myself looking forward to.

As a matter of fact, I wrote the words for the chorus of “Cloud Nine” while driving home from the shrink’s office. It was after a difficult session, during which I was made to reflect on what my role has been in pretty much each and every one of my relationships. As I was reliving some of the most traumatic events of my life, I came to realize that I’ve always been the so-called “designated driver,” the one who abstains from getting what he wants so those around him can be content. That’s what the chorus is all about, consoling someone after you’ve had a row about who calls the shots in the relationship, “If you’re way down low, I’ll give you sunny skies.” You know, giving in and being a gentleman, even though you should really make a stand and assert yourself.

Can you tell us about the video for your new single?

Well, as the song was inspired by a therapy session, I figured that this is what the music video should be about as well: psychotherapy. Only instead of the focus being on the patient, we decided to make the video about the psychiatrist, someone who is strained by dealing with his patients’ issues, locked inside his mind, struggling with his many troubled and twisted egos, attempting to pull himself together while between sessions.

Once again, the core of the script was mainly the brainchild of my wife Elina Suominen, but this time we turned to Tuomas Palola for help to complete our ideas and also to film and edit the final product. I knew Tuomas from the times of Carmen Gray (he made music videos for “Gates Of Loneliness” and “Fall In Love”) and was very happy that he wanted to jump on board this project. Shooting the music video was a lot of fun. I enjoy hanging out with Tuomas and obviously, the prestigious Falkman Atelier, in which the therapy session-clips were filmed is a spectacular room.

My favorite memory of making the video is when we were shooting the clips where I play and sing. Tuomas wanted me to try to sing and play to this incredibly sped-up version of the song (it had something to do with slowing the clip down for the final edit) but the bloody thing was so fast that there was no way I could lip-sync to it. What happened was that every time I tried to sing lines such as “daytime turns to grayest evening shade” I broke out in laughter. I gave it my best shot but it wasn’t happening.

How was the recording and writing process?

I’ll never forget writing or recording “Cloud Nine” as we worked our buns off on getting everything just right. Well, I suppose the writing process was relatively straightforward; it just took a lot longer than usual.

We kicked off the song as we always do: Antti emailed me one of his new poems. It was all there save the words for the chorus ­– that’s usually my contribution to the lyrics. As a rule, I write fast. However, with this particular track, there was a problem. The poem Antti sent me was a love poem. It was about a couple growing old together. It was beautiful and brilliant but writing love songs is a tad difficult for me these days. Life is funny. There seems to be a season for everything for all of us and for me the season for love songs has more or less passed. It’s not that I don’t believe in love, it’s just that experience has taught me that being in any relationship, romantic or otherwise, is first and foremost hard work and hard work isn’t necessarily the most inspiring thing in the world when you sit down to write a rock song.

I’m sure it’s an age thing also. When you are in your early twenties, you think relationships are all roses. And why wouldn’t you? This is usually before the kids and the mortgage. Nobody’s gotten fired, nobody’s sick and you have all the time in the world to do whatever you want. As a result, love is not a very complex emotion and these sort of mutual-admiration-club lyrics come easily, but once you’ve been through the grinder a few times, you tend to become better at writing about life’s misgivings than you are at writing about life’s amazing, pretty and pink adventures. It’s quite awful really but as I explained above, it all worked out quite nicely in the end for “Cloud Nine”.

However, recording the track took forever! This happened mostly because I kept adding segments to the song as I went along. The opening Byrds-like guitar riff (that’s oddly enough written by my wife Elina!) came along a few weeks before I sent the track to our producer Janne Saksa. It was the last bit I added to the song. But it wasn’t just that, I also wanted to make the arrangement special and really did take my time with all the vocals and the guitar parts. Believe it or not, I recorded 63 lead vocal tracks ­– that’s a lot. The vocal you hear is a composite of eleven different tracks and that alone took a massive amount of time to edit. There were quite a few takes on the lead guitar bits as well. But I’m glad I went through all that trouble as I really do like the outcome – my extremely biased opinion of course.

Obviously, Janne worked his magic on this track too. It’s not all me and Antti. Janne is a brilliant musician and producer. We’re lucky to have him work with us.

What inspires you to borrow some of the aesthetics and sound of the 90s MTV era?

Aside from the fact that it was my era, probably because it was a very exciting era for guitar-driven pop/rock. I love many of the nineties’ artists, such as Oasis, Spin Doctors, Blur, Pixies…and I could go on. It was a good decade for music in my opinion: Gone were the unflattering Casio synths of the eighties, the electric drums and the overuse of echo in record production. I just realized that in a strange way, the nineties probably resembled the sixties a lot. Rock bands were being formed left and right and also, with songwriters such as Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, lyrics were becoming important again, they weren’t just about love, looks and having fun but rather deeper and sometimes more sinister reflections on life. I miss that in rock music.

Another cool thing about the nineties was the fact that some of the more established artists of the sixties and seventies caught their second wave. As the stuff that was making the charts began to resemble what they had been all about to begin with, artists like Tom Petty and Paul McCartney, for instance, really kicked it up a notch and produced some kick-ass rock records. I still listen to Wildflowers and Flaming Pie regularly. I think they’re both incredibly inspired albums.

What role does Finland play in your music?

I’m tempted to say it has absolutely no role in it at all. I’ve lived in the US extensively, to the point that I’m culturally a lot more American than I am Finnish. I think that’s what happens when you are exposed to a culture at a very young age. I do speak Finnish as my other native language but the funny thing is that save a few exceptions, I’ve never really listened to music sung in Finnish. Part of the reason for that is probably the cultural aspect. I can’t identify with what is being said. It’s the same thing with Finnish movies and books. They seem alien to me. I speak English to my kids. I think that really says it all.

There have been a few instances where I’ve incorporated something I’ve considered to be Finnish to our music. The accordion in “Burning Blue” is one of those instances and the schlager-like melody that makes up the chorus of “Sad Café” is another. But I’m afraid that’s about the extent of it. My musical influences come mostly from my parents, especially my dad, who loved all the great bands of the sixties. Every Friday, he’d come home from work, pour himself a stiff drink and then the records would come out. We’d listen to The Beach Boys, The Kinks, CCR, The Beatles, The Zombies, Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones…you get the idea. He’d also tell me about the artists and the albums we were listening to. I loved it. When I was old enough, my dad would sneak a beer for me when my mom wasn’t looking. Oh, the memories. It was so very special. He has passed on but not a day goes by that I don’t miss him.

My dad was pretty multifaceted now that I think about it. He also taught me the very basics of songwriting or the basic idea behind it. He always advised me to write every day and not to wait around for inspiration. According to him, great songs came to those who worked their asses off and not to those who simply waited. And believe it or not, that’s what I do to this day. I write one melody per day. Most of these tunes are not very good I’m afraid, but it’s a way to stay active and a way to stay in the game. Then, every once in a while you write a grain of something special that you know you are going to return to and that always feels very intoxicating. So those Friday and Saturday nights with my dad were really like being at school. That was my introduction to music, that and of course my aunt’s husband Oippa, who taught both my brother and I how to play the guitar. I suppose you could say that music runs in my family.

Does the new single mean we can expect new material – how’s that coming along?

I think the way our little duo works is that you can always expect new material from us. As soon as one tune is released we’re already busy working on the next one. We write a lot and record a lot. Having a studio at home means I can record every day if I want to. It’s really quite handy. It gives you the luxury of going in whenever the inspiration hits you and not having to force your creativity in any way. I love working like this. I hate the pressure of having just a few hours in which to get everything right. I can do it if I have to. It’s just not my preferred method. Having said that, sometimes working under pressure has its benefits. When you are on the clock and the chips are down, the adrenaline shooting through your body occasionally brings along ideas you wouldn’t have come up with otherwise. However, that’s the beauty of making music to begin with. You always start with a blank slate and pretty soon, you have conjured up something that didn’t exist a minute ago. In a way, it’s like magic.

We’re currently having problems deciding what the next release is going to be. We have way too many tracks recorded and having to choose one is sometimes nerve-racking. The problem is these tunes are all our babies and as in real life, it’s hard to choose one that will get all the attention at any given time. I have a pretty good idea which songs are in the choosing but apart from that, I haven’t given it any serious thought yet. We’re aiming at releasing a follow-up to “Cloud Nine” in August. That’s our goal but you know how it goes: Man makes plans and God laughs.

Any tentative release date or title in mind for an EP or CD release?

This is the question. We live in times, where most artists release singles. It seems albums are a thing of the past. Yet obviously, that’s what we are working towards in our own little strange way. We’ve fallen into the habit of releasing two to three songs a year. Even with a studio at home, it’d be way too expensive to do it any other way, for us at least. Also, I’m a bit of a perfectionist in the studio and enjoy the three-to-four month production cycles. That way, I get it all exactly right.

However, to return to the question, the way we did it with our Sad Café EP that came out exactly a year ago was that we combined a few singles we had released, recorded one new track and voilà, we had an EP. This is the mentality we’re planning to use for the forthcoming album. We’re thinking of releasing one more single after “Cloud Nine” and then we’ll either record two tracks or this one epic seven-minute-long tune that’s been in my top drawer for some time now and after that, turn the whole venture into an album.

Although most of these songs have and will come out as singles, we have always aimed at releasing an album. It was very early on that Antti and I wrote a song called “Ghost Town Radio”. I’m not sure if this song will be part of the upcoming album but we have our hearts set on calling our little collection of tracks Ghost Town Radio. I love that title. It’s Antti’s little rebellion against the trendy radio stations that only play the shallow pop tunes of the day. To each our own but that stuff isn’t really our cup of tea. Anyway, we’ve been working on this album since 2017 and we’re hoping to release it in early 2021.

Fill us in on your no touring philosophy…

Well, ours is a studio project. It’s a group of two songwriters rather than a group of four or five musicians, so going out on the road would be a tad difficult. I’d have to assemble a group, who’d copy the songs just as they were recorded. And that wouldn’t make any sense, really. I would still want to arrange and play the future records with Janne. It wouldn’t seem fair to use musicians only as hired hands like that.

However, I want to stress that I do play live every once in a while. I played at a gathering a friend had organized a few months ago for instance and loved every moment of it. It was just me on an acoustic guitar in front of a small crowd, which is exactly the way I like doing it. That’s when you really get to interact with the audience, ask them questions, tell them stories and so on. It becomes very intimate and I love that feel. On top of that, I had a great audience, so I came out of that thinking I should probably do a small tour by myself, just on an acoustic guitar at a pub somewhere. However, after considering it for a few days, I gave it a pass. Mainly because my heart is really in crafting songs in the studio. That’s what I love the most. Mind you, this is not just about me being reluctant to play live, it goes a bit deeper than that. You see the funny thing here is I don’t own any live albums – none. And I have roughly two thousand CDs. I suppose live music just isn’t that much to my liking.

Of course, if The Impersonators truly took off and there’d be a need to play live here and there, that would be a horse of a different color. We’d definitely have to rethink everything. However, until that moment arrives, we’ll remain a studio act.

What else is happening next in The Impersonators’ world?

Well, we’ll be busy enough with the next single and music video in the coming months. I know five months sounds like it’s a lot of time but it really isn’t when you need to produce the song and its accompanying music video, take promo shots, design the single cover and come up with all the little things that are required for the release.

Other than that, we keep living our lives and writing about our experiences…well, perhaps not all of them. A few come to mind that shouldn’t really be turned into rock tunes, like that one time ages ago, when I drank camel milk in Morocco to impress these extremely pretty Swedish chicks, not realizing it’s one of the most powerful laxatives in the universe. In my defense, the girls lied to me. The way they were describing the effects of this rather exotic drink, it sounded like it was the eighth wonder of the world. If memory serves, they said it would give me a buzz. Of course, what they failed to mention was what kind of a buzz I would be getting out of it. I’ll tell you something, camel milk works quickly and without a warning and I will never, ever drink it again. Enough said.

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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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