It has been an amazing year for VILLA NAH. Friends since childhood, Juho Paalosmaa (vocals, synths) and Tomi Hyyppä (synths, programming) discovered the joys of electronic instrumentation when they started playing around with a Korg MS10 that belonged to Tomi’s father.
Releasing their impressive debut album ‘Origin’ in May which became a Top 10 album in their home country of Finland, they have since been steadily gaining a legion of admirers including BBC 6Music’s Mark Jones who invited them to play the Back To The Phuture curated opening night at Bestival 2010 alongside HEAVEN 17 and HOWARD JONES. However, the biggest accolade came with the invitation from OMD to be special guests on the UK leg of their ‘History Of Modern’ tour.
“We heard from our manager that Andy McCluskey had heard our album and really liked it” recalls Juho, the duo’s singer and main songwriter; “And then we got information that OMD wanted us to do a remix. We made the remix, they liked it and then we heard they would like us to support them as well which was amazing. So happy about that”
Support slots can be the making or breaking of an act. On the one hand, they can provide wider exposure and an opportunity to increase the fanbase. Sales of CDs and T-shirts afterwards can help sustain a band financially and enhance their profile as they work their way through a tour, usually at their own expense. On the other hand though, many concert goers, particularly those in the UK, see the support act as an excuse to spend more time in the bar. Such short sighted behaviour can lead to missing out on what could be the next potentially great thing happening in the adjacent room!
Indeed, people should look towards the headline act and remember their own humble origins. What if OMD had been ignored when they supported GARY NUMAN in 1979?
It is possible OMD would have made it anyway but their well-received opening slot enabled them to play their songs to a bigger audience who would later come to their own headlining shows.
It’s the often the prospect of discovering something new and seeing it through to its possible success that motivates many a true music enthusiast to arrive early.
It is highly unnerving to play to a new audience but OMD’s fans have been primed. Juho and Tomi contributed the best remix of the ‘History Of Modern’ launch single while many have hailed VILLA NAH as one of the brightest prospects in intelligent synthesized pop for many years. At least VILLA NAH are within the same genre of music as OMD, unlike some of the bizarre acoustic choices for support that have been made by other heritage electronic acts over the last few years.
VILLA NAH are no strangers to being the support act. In their home city of Helsinki, they recently opened for R’n’B starlet KELIS where one would have assumed the audience might be less receptive to their style of electropop: “With that” recalls Juho, “the organisers were gathering a wide kind of audience. They had different types of DJs as well. KELIS and R’n’B are not necessarily that well known in Finland. And it turns out KELIS is not really R’n’B anymore, she’s more into dance music now! It was good and we knew it was a surreal setting for us to support her but we took it as just a show for ourselves. In Finland, it’s quite easy as we have our own crowd to see us.”
Although on paper, an incongruous pairing, VILLA NAH’s popularity in Finland has enabled them to snare a high profile gig. In the rest of Europe though, it’s a slightly different matter. Although they weren’t headlining, they closed Back To The Phuture night at this year’s Bestival: “Bestival was quite intimidating because it’s a huge festival and we played after HEAVEN 17 on a really big stage. As we’re relatively unknown here, you don’t know how the crowd’s going to be. It wasn’t terrible, it was quite good. At that level, you can see from the crowd attendance if people start leaving, they hate you! But they didn’t, they all stayed so that was good.”
For the OMD tour, VILLA NAH’s day starts with some promotional duties and then soundcheck.
Preparations for the setlist were completed a while back with the inclusion of a new number: “It’s called ‘Lights Out'” confirmed Juho, “it may be on the new album but we are definitely working on new material and we have other new songs that we might play so it’s a nice chance to try different things”.
But there’s little time for sightseeing: “We’ll see because it’s hectic” laughed Juho, “I think we’ll have a bit of time, maybe a couple of hours but mostly it’s work! Every city is something I look forward to. I’ve been to the UK several times but I’ve always been in London so now it’s my chance to see every city.” And the places that he’s looking forward to visiting? “Liverpool for one because it is OMD’s home arena”.
VILLA NAH’s manager is Piers Martin. How does he see VILLA NAH’s potential? “This tour is opening them up to an audience who love their synthpop and want to invest in it. VILLA NAH are not a million miles away from OMD and Andy McCluskey is a fan. It stands them in good stead and takes them out of the NME / hipster market, into a market where people actually love their music and it just comes naturally.”
As a paradox to the well-known horror stories of how some established artists have treated their support acts, VILLA NAH are warmly welcomed by their hosts: “Paul Humphreys showed us round, that was really lovely and Andy McCluskey was really nice when he said ‘have a good show guys’ just before we stepped on stage” remembers Juho, “I’m hoping to meet them for a longer chat at some point”.
And it is without doubt that their wistful, subtle electronic dynamics that allow OMD’s audience to empathise with them. For the first gig at Brighton Dome Pavillion which happens to be a standing venue, VILLA NAH triumph. The response is ecstatic with cheers of recognition for intros of ‘Remains Of Love’ and ‘Ways To Be’.
“That was amazing.” Juho modestly remarked, “As far as I’m concerned, they don’t really know who we are, yet they know the songs! It’s just remarkable”. ‘Envelope’ goes down particularly well as it possesses the melancholic soundscapes that are most reminiscent of classic OMD. Tomi, the technical genius and quieter of the pair grins with his thumbs aloft and can’t hide his obvious delight with the audience’s response.
Among the crowd was Alexa who’d come all the way to see OMD from Minneapolis: “I thought they were great, they were just naturals”. Lori Tarchala echoed Alexa’s sentiments, adding: “They were really good, very light hearted, and energetic. They had fun, awesome!”.
They weren’t the only ones who had been won over by VILLA NAH’s Nordic charm. Those who know their electronic music history were very complimentary: “Excellent, very OMD, very KRAFTWERK, a little bit CHINA CRISIS” affirmed Darren; “a little bit of all the old electronic stuff in there but a modern twist, I loved that! I’ll be straight on Amazon after the gig”! His pal John was also impressed: “It was the first time I’ve heard of them, brilliant! Nothing more I can say… going to get the album!”.
Asked if VILLA NAH had approached these dates differently compared their own shows, Juho replied: “In practice not but maybe mentally. It’s different because we’re in the UK and obviously as a support act, the crowd are here to see OMD. The crowd here was amazing. Far better than I would have imagined”.
With a nervous chuckle, he added “I don’t know if I’m a pessimist, but maybe I had expectations that people would be in the bar! But people were here and everyone was lovely, really receptive”.
There appears to be a whole international following just waiting to embrace VILLA NAH. South African Jenny McGregor was more than happy with what she saw: “I loved it, they were really brilliant. I loved his voice, it was really powerful. It was emotional as well and I Ioved the sound, it was really great. I’m going to buy the CD”.
Jenny’s best friend Alison was all smiles too: “The music was amazing. It was like a step back in time but also quite modern at the same time. It was just fabulous”.
She also appeared to have developed a crush on Tomi: “I was watching and the guy playing the keyboards, you just want to go up to him and hug him!! He just looked divine!”
During the interval, quite a few copies of ‘Origin’ are being sold and one of those purchasing the CD was long standing OMD fan Gary Constable, accompanied by his son Ryan: “Very original, good dance music. Very creative” he said, “it was very good indeed, I had to buy the CD”.
Young Ryan, aged 12 has obviously been brought up to the sound of the synthesizer and youngsters like him are the key to electropop developing into its next generation: “I thought they were really good. New dance songs, really good band. I’m looking forward to listening to the songs on their CD”. Who knows, this evening may even inspire Ryan to start making music and become a pop star of the future, just like Andy McCluskey did after seeing KRAFTWERK in 1975.
The merchandise area is a sight to see as a polite queue develops at the end of the evening for autographs and photos. Juho and Tomi are shyly acknowledging the chat from their new fans… it’s something they’re going to have to get used to. “I think it’s lovely, the fact that people come up and say they listen to our record and give us everyday life examples of how they listen to it in the car, it’s great” said Juho; “I know it s a cliche but when fans come up to you, that really makes it worth it. Even if you’ve had a bad day otherwise, that can really save your day when a fan comes up to you and says the music means something to them. And you remember there are people that get something out of it.”
With the positive reaction in Brighton, Juho was able to express some cautious optimism for the remainder of the tour: “I hope it goes like tonight, if people everywhere are this receptive, it’s going to be fantastic really”.
He allowed himself another grin but there was one nagging concern: “We have a little less gear with us… I always fear something breaks down. We’re in the UK and we don’t have anything to replace”.
As the tour progresses, even in seated venues like Bristol Colston Hall and Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, the crowd offer their appreciation. Peter McCafferty who accompanied his OMD loving wife Corrie to the Nottingham concert said: “I thought they were quite interesting and enjoyable. I thought the songs were interesting enough without the need for the rather thudding beat. Considering I went in completely cold to them, I quite enjoyed it and they held my attention”.
In Glasgow, Pansentient League’s Jer White observed that “the audience were transfixed by the electro bleeps, listening carefully and clapping enthusiastically at the end of song. I even spotted a few randoms jumping up from their seats during the set to have a little dance”! Commenting on the all-seater Concert Hall venue, he felt it “suited VILLA NAH very well; it forced the crowd to pay attention and listen to the songs. I thought they sounded better live than on record. It certainly deepened my appreciation when I saw the passion and emotion vocalist Juho puts into his performance”.
On a day-off from the tour, rather than take a break, VILLA NAH play a headline show at the Soup Kitchen club in Manchester before heading for the cavernous Liverpool Arena.
This turns out to be Tomi’s favourite gig of the tour: “People say big arenas are scary but I didn’t find it at all, it was quite cosy being on stage because the sound was good and there was room to breathe”.
The most anticipated date of the tour is the prestigious Hammersmith Apollo in London. There is just something about the art deco interior and magnetism of this one-time cinema formally known as Odeon.
Even with the heavy corporate sponsorship that is now apparent, it is still one of the best concert venues in London. This was the one place Juho was really looking forward to playing: “It’s legendary and the fact that we are playing there is just mind blowing! For me, I’m a big fan of DAVID BOWIE and I think it was Hammersmith that he ‘killed Ziggy Stardust’… it’s remarkable!”.
However, while headline acts often flourish, it’s not always so straightforward for the opening act. The London crowd are perhaps a little less excitable than the other audiences on the tour. “I think it went alright” said Juho, “A London crowd can be a bit more harsh maybe. But they warmed up quite well and because we’re supporting, I’m not really expecting people to know the music that well so I thought it was alright”.
Despite the comparatively cool reception, VILLA NAH give the capital a couple of musical treats. First of all, there’s another new song ‘Love Chance’ which was premiered in Glasgow and has a more optimistic feel that hints at the wistful overtones of early CHINA CRISIS. Juho explained this was a reaction to his home surroundings: “Because we come from Finland… it’s a cold dark country, I’m particularly fond of anything that’s sort of warm and sunny. We had a really record breaking warm summer and I think that affected it. It is a little bit warmer in sound. Also, I was on holiday in Singapore so maybe it originated from there, that kind of oriental feeling in it”.
But to finish the set, there’s a trip from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station in the form of a superb Suomen translation of PET SHOP BOYS’ ‘West End Girls’. Juho told the story of how this came about: “The Finnish version is actually a cult classic where we come from in a small circle of people. We didn’t really invent the cover version but thought that would be appropriate because we love the cover and the original. It’s about this town called Turku. We first played it there and it was like a special moment. Tonight we thought for just half humouristic reasons, it would be appropriate to do it for London people. I don’t know how it went down really.”
Their crystalline cover of a cover actually goes down very well. Polite applause from the many rather than enthusiastic approval from just a few always sounds better and there are people who have been impressed by the way the boys from Helsinki have projected themselves tonight. Paul Tarr said of their set: “I thought they were excellent tonight. I’ve seen them once before on the tour in Brighton. They’re very, very entertaining for two guys that are supposed to be rather static. Once you get into the rhythms of what they do, they are a very entertaining act.”
The tour is almost over and for VILLA NAH, this has been the pinnacle of their international career so far.
“It’s been amazing, I really mean it” Juho said “When we got onto this tour, we didn’t really know what to expect. And every town, all the crowds have just been so warm and acceptive. I think it’s the OMD crowd as well, they just have fantastic fans”.
Tomi nods in approval and gave his thoughts: “It has been quite easy. All the arrangements have been a surprise for us so we are really enjoying ourselves.”
And with greater recognition comes more opportunities and a busier timetable but even a promising new act can’t be in two places at once. VILLA NAH have had to decline the offer of a support slot with another classic Synth Britannia band due to scheduling conflicts: “We were asked to support THE HUMAN LEAGUE on their UK tour but we can’t do it… I would have loved to have done it.” said Juho.
But despite this disappointment, things are looking rosy for VILLA NAH’s Way Of The Future: “We have some quite big shows in Finland, we’re going to play in a legendary rock club. But then we are slowing down to get into the studio to record. We’re just aching to do that.”
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to VILLA NAH and Piers Martin
Additional thanks to Sandra Croft at Freeman PR
‘Origin’ is released by Keys Of Life
Text and Interviews by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Richard Price
10th November 2010