Spreading Misery (and Music) with Mikko Levón

I’m a thirtysomething learning curve.
Lived for the past 11 years in Turku.
I grew up and was educated in Kuusamo, 
though been born in the darkest Ostrobothnia
I have a seven year old daughter, lots of books
and a new bicycle. 
Huge fan of Cocteau Twins, Bob Dylan, Carl Sagan and 
The Larry Sanders Show.
I’m scared of neckties, face tattoos and 
any insect that casts as a shadow.” Mikko Levón


currently engaged with uploading articles previously published elsewhere, or in languages other than english, I bring you part 1 of a two-part series called:

Two Perspectives on Curatorial Practice and the Organization of Music Festivals

(PART 1: Mikko Levón)
   Festival organizers, presenters, and curators hold paradoxically difficult positions, both creatively and within the social milieu surrounding their activities, the particular “scene” whose existence that they are partly responsible for. On the one hand, it is their often independent initiatives, their own energy and creativity that program, and in some cases even create the music festivals that exist. These are the people who frame for us the opportunity to enjoy what is often a smorgasbord of largely unfamiliar musical delights. For emerging artists, a set with a real sense of presence in a crowded festival can allow a much larger and more diverse audience to encounter one’s music than a normal club gig or gallery concert. Nowhere is this truer than in smaller musical communities, such as the “Experimental” music community, where the “scene” -both locally and internationally- is notoriously small. Tightly-knit relationships of both positive and negative variety abound, and if the Experimental music community can seem familial, the familial sense can be at times compared to that of a cannibalistic school of piranhas. As such, the role of curators is a precarious one. The organizer/curator, if joined in one role, must mediate their own creative decision making with the material needs presented by a particular festival situation in a particular time and place. Additionally, a often critical social dynamic exists. What is spoken to a curator’s face – normally extremely flattering commentary, naturally- can reflect the absolute inverse of what is spoken elsewhere, where a sea of black bile questions and critiques the motivations for nearly every decision made.

“When mankind moves to Mars, there is the first group of people, like doctors and carpenters and scientists, and there not a cultural manager or curator…” (Mikko Levón)

While preparing some of my own work this past summer at Titanik Gallery in Turku, Finland, I found myself performing several times with the jubilant collection of alien protozoa known as Kemialliset Ystävät . This was something of a re-emergence for this group, and accompanied the release of the new record, Alas Rattoisaa Virtaa. Somewhat in support of this record, we performed on two large summer festivals, the H2Ö Festival in Turku, and later, in Helsinki on the Other Sound stage of the Flow Festival. Having been impressed by the diversity and quality of programing in these festivals, and well as amount of work evidently required to produce these events, I contacted the curators of these festivals to try to shed some light on the confusing artistic and social issues inherent in such large-scale organizing. In the end, however, it turned out that Mikko Levón and Sami Sänpäkkilä, my two interviewees, are both as diverse as the events they organize, and yet, as is true of their festivals, certain important attributes are shared. Rather than finding a reduction in the complexity of the curatorial role, I found two delightfully complex artistically rigorous personalities. Rather than speculate on any of this any further, I will present both interviews below, in full, and leave the discussion for next time we are together at a festival.
The first interviewee was Mikko Levón, the thirtysomething founder of the H2Ö festival in Turku, Finland. Levón has lived in Turku, Finland for the past 11 years, but was born in the darkest Ostrobothnia, and grew up and was educated in Kuusamo. He is the curator of a new, very large scale festival in Finland called H2Ö, but prior to this was co-organizer and curator of another festival, Ilmiö that had existed for many years in a location not far away.



“…that’s my main goal, I want to spread misery”

Jorge Boehringer: I am curious about your relationship to the Festival, did you start it?

Mikko Levón: Are you talking about H2Ö or what?

J: Well it is sort of evolved from another festival…right?

M: Yeah, basically we have the same little bunch of people. Tuomas Sara and I are the main guys, at least it keeps us busy most of the time. Years ago, 2009 was the first Ilmiö. At first, it was more like everybody was doing everything, now for the last maybe four years, I have just made the program and the related artistic things and stuff like that, but in the beginning everybody was doing everything, and it was all over the place.

M: So, you are the main curator?

J: Yeah…I am the curator, I guess…my dream is to be like what Sami Sänpäkkilä does for Flow, Festival he’s like..having a holiday during the festival. We are not there yet.

J: Well, he only has to cover one stage…

M: Yeah that’s true, but I am a bit, I am like…my ego won’t easily let other people book any bands on the festival, but I hope its possible that one day things are going so smoothly that there is enough like, like, aid and people helping, that I can that I can sit at the back office with my feet up during the festival.

J: Good luck with that

M: Well, I think its because if I am busy during the festival, it’s because I have done something wrong, that I have failed, I’ve missed some email or something…that someone is missing a drum stool or a towel somewhere.

J: So you would prefer to curate the artistic side and let someone else manage the business stuff?

M: I hate the business stuff, its the…I love…its fun to just book bands , and try to visualize the whole event before hand…its in my head, the next summer is already in my head, and its going to go down, from this moment on its going to go downhill.

J: You have to chop off something…there’s too much…

M: In my head is now the perfect festival, and everything is going down from there.

J: Your curating seems to be really diverse and eclectic. Do you have a specific sort curatorial philosophy? Are you interesting in a specific kind of bands?

M: I don’t believe in patrolling musical borders and all that, I don’t have any, you know, genres that I automatically like. I don’t want any, its like I…when I go see bands, in…for example, here in Kuka bar, or in some other place, I am more after the vibes than the …I don’t like have my notebook with me and make pros and cons —- about the technical stuff- how well they are playing and stuff- I just try to sense the vibes, “do they bring any heart with them?”. I know the risk that it’s really really like subjective but that it can’t be…its unfair I know that if I am in a bad mood some band is not going to end up doing a show at the festival.

J: Somebody has to make the decisions.

M: But everyone gets second chances and all that. Its not that so serious. The media here, and the locals are saying “finally we got our own Flow Festival for Turku” and I am afraid that things are going to escalate, that we are going to have to maintain some kind of image…I have really weird dreams about Ilmiö…Ilmiö was more like, it could be done there…that we could sell all the tickets before we publish the lineup, that would be such an ideal situation, that would be the dream. Ilmiö was quite near at some point, if the tickets were sold out, you know, we could build the freakiest show ever.

J: Is that what you would like to do?

M: I would like to keep the audience on their toes.

J: Surprised.

M: Yeah, I don’t like that they feel comfortable, that they know what to expect.

J: You are not just trying to book a bunch of big names, you are trying to make a conversation.

M: Obviously there is stuff like, this year we did have, for example, Yona starting the Saturday, she is like quite mainstream-ish name.

J: Yona…

M: She is like a…shes not…the usual names to use…her music is really great and beautiful, otherwise she wouldn’t be there, but she is a big name and a draw and it is our cunning plan to get people to show up earlier, we need of course recognizable names there, its part of the game but …I don’t know…

J: Is it difficult to balance that? Like what about on the different stages? They seem to have themes kind of …

M: Really? I hate that.

J: Well, a bit. Some stages seem more rock, and some might be, more electronic, or more drunk.

M: Well, when I make the schedule, or book a band I need to visualize what stage they are most suitable for.

J: Like you visualize what the concert will look like.

M: Right, and it was the first year so..well, …the first year so…well, the truth is that we didn’t know what we were doing, we just gathered a truckloads of people and artists together and then kind of unloaded them into the arena, for the lions, to wait and see what is going to happen.

J: Is the reason for that that this year’s festival is the first time for H20 and in a new place, compared with the Ilmiö festival?

M: Yes, and its already easier for the next year because I now know how the stages work and how they look like when there is an audience involved and stuff, and I know I feel much more certain whats going to happen. I hate like the, if there are like “team colours” on every stage, if the bands are all the same style or have the same audience…I would like that the audience moves around. I make the schedule, I talk about, I was speaking with Jari Suominen (Jarse) about it: when the festival day starts I have routes for different kinds of stereotypes in my head…avant-garde guy, student girl, adult rocker, then there are, like, hippies and technoheads…and I make a way for every one of them…there are unwritten rules when I make the schedule…they will be at one stage at one time and they are going to move.

J: You want people to catch something they might not normally go see, by accident?

M: Also I have to be sure there are not the same kinds of bands playing at the same time…the routes are for that, maybe more for me after all, I don’t want to…I would like all the bands to have an audience, because we are talking about really really marginal stuff, that it gets pretty…well its only polite to try and get everybody playing there an audience, but to get lost, that’s fine too.

I don’t know if…most of the people don’t care about this sort of stuff, I was just at Kirjakahvila and there were some bands making soundchecks, and I was thinking that…well, some older couple was there, and they were like “ok, that sounds fun, nice music” and then they left. It gets in my head and its the life inside the bubble..most of the people don’t care about music or arts that much, they don’t have that passion.

Luckily everybody cares more when they are at the festival. I have to learn to like, understand that most of the people don’t care about the same stuff outside.

J: So you are trying to balance the needs of the music with the social movements and social vibes, the social interaction…when you said “vibe” a a concert before, did you mean the general feeling of the music, or did you mean the overall social climate in the venue?

M: I have learned …well, its a really difficult question because if I like someone’s music, I know there are a few artists out there that I like their music, but they act really assholy when I meet them, until they find out who I am. If I get bad vibes from people I start to scratch my head, like I don’t need to have them play at my festival. The other side is that I have learned to be really cautious, there are lots of people that are much nicer to me than they need to be.

J: In order to get a gig.

M: Yeah.

(drums start sound checking in the background)

J: This is going to be interesting

M: Sound checks

J: Best moment of the concert.

M: We can change the location also.

J: Well, lets wait and see. So you were talking about how you curate the local situation, but what about when you are dealing with the foreign bands, like do you still, you are pretty free with your curatorial choice…lets say you want to invite a band, and you don’t have an interpersonal relationship with them, and maybe you haven’t been at their show, you just have the records…

M: Well, usually I have seen all the bands live. This year we had like 100 bands and there were maybe three I hadn’t seen live, but I have to take the risk of course, and if I love somebodies music and its just not possible to see them live, I will count on…well, usually, if you make good music you have some kind of goodness in you.

J: One hopes.

M: There are exceptions, but you can count them on one hand, where I really liked their album but they are just arrogant or too serious, but it happens really not that often, and of course its impossible to know or meet everybody personally, I have to trust my guts, that’s where the magic happens.

J: And what about, do also feel pretty free in terms of with the larger social things, like the municpal things – like the police and the city -do you feel supported by them?

M: That is not my problem, its Tuomas’ area…he has to battle those wars.

J: Has the festival been supported ok?

M: Yeah, actually, the city loves us. I mentioned it earlier . “Turku has the new Flow Festival, Turku FINALLY has the Flow Festival” that is what I meant, not to kneel ideologically in front of

anyone, that we have to make a Flow Festival or a bigger festival that will bring like money to the town, taxes and tourism or something like that. I want to hold my soul with both hands.

J: The city does give money to a lot of big festivals, I see the logo around a lot.

M: Well, yeah, they have been great, we get support too and half of the venue is owned by the city.

J: Do you also apply for grants in Europe and so forth, or are you mostly funded by tickets?

M: We are mostly funded by tickets, definitely still tickets.

J: That’s and interesting line, because you are dependent on ticket sales, but have an audience who are seeking a relatively open programming.

M: Yeah, but we never make any money, and its the seventh year that’s going to come up and I sense the other guys are starting to get tired and they want to get some kind of like salary sooner or later and I understand that. Its really difficult for me to be in that position, if I ask my friends to play, they do it for free or for little, low compensation, and then if I roll out of a new Mercedes, well, that doesn’t look too good and that’s not going to happen.

J: Isn’t that your Mercedes parked across the street?

M: This interview is over!

J: Do you think that if it were a larger city the situation would be worse or better? Do you think you would have to make more compromises, for example, in Helsinki? Is it because Turku is small that you can book such diverse bands and things you would be interested in?

M: I don’t understand that, why you would book a band you are not personally interested in.

J: To bring people? Or just with one eye on the idea that its a big name, and will bring people…but the headliner on your festival is Hawkwind, and they are, well they are great but not a mainstream sensation at this moment.

M: Hawkwind was there because Gong was booked and we had been talking with them for like three years, and we finally booked them, and then Daevid Allen unfortunately got really really sick and they were forced to cancel their world tour, and they helped us get in touch with Hawkwind, and it was insane because …an insane dream-sequence.

And, well, it was really expensive, my budget was really fucked after that.

But it was a really cool thing to do because usually when some band headlines, or when some headliner cancels, their replacement is some shitty thing no one cares about, but Hawkwind was a bigger band actually than Gong.

J: I think its really cool too, but aren’t these bands kind of old…I mean Flow has Outkast headlining, you know..that’s what they are looking at over there.

M: Surely I am interested in seeing those, seeing and meeting those guys from Hawkwind. I don’t care about their “relevance” or anything like that, I was just curious to see how our little festival would handle…what would happen if those guys where here its like, maybe I should care more about ….No.

I’d rather have the audience be after the festival not the artist, I would like that H2Ö would be such an attractive thing that everybody wants to go there.

J: As a total place, an event

M: I don’t like the headline group, the whole idea, of headline bands…it wasn’t even my idea to put Hawkwind on top of the bill, but you have to make compromises. Hawkwind didn’t actually even sell that many tickets, but they were so expensive, and well, they weren’t actually so expensive, but we had to book the flights in June, and if you are dealing with a band with a dozen members you should book the flights NOW, for next year…they flights were more expensive than the fee..they were flying from France, and Manchester, and London, and this was no, like, half priced Ryan air – you have to book last minute British Airways, shitty expensive things…

J: Of course it necessary to make compromises but…

M: I always have regrets, but in hindsight its like I don’t know if I will ever learn from my mistakes, and maybe …its quite interesting how you are very careful about where you make your compromises…the whole thing is that its really personal for me, and for Tuomas also I am sure. Its our lifestyle, the festival, everything is really personal, everything we do, and like that’s I don’t know..its a really lonely job also, I never talk with my colleagues at other festivals, about what they are feeling after the thing, as I said before its a really tough time, post-festival depression is really horrible. Pea rattles loud, you know, in empty head.

J: And then winter starts.

M: But by October or November I am already full speed with next summer, but usually August or September is the darkest place of the year. It’s my New Years Eve.

J: Maybe you can just a little bit about Ilmiö…

Where the idea came from, how it got started in general and how it is different or the same as H2O?

M: We had been organizing some little club events with basically the same people since the early 2000’s in Turku and in 2009, I think in May 2009 was when the first Ilmiö got started. It was built up from the scratch in two months. Tuomas found the place, it was in an dance pavilion by the seaside, its a really cool place. The first year we had Jimi Tenor, and there were only like 12 bands the first year, and it was successful, there were surprisingly many attendees.

J: This in turku somewhere?

M: For five years we organized Ilmiö in Uittamo…it’s nearby a famous public beach. Its a really really cool place, and it was a nice run

J: But the location was just too small to continue there?

M: No no, I would like to think its like we started another band or something like that. I think its really cool to have different kind of things that people appreciate. I don’t want to be that Ilmiö guy for the rest of my life.

J: Was Ilmiö more obscure bands?

M: Its the same thing, except it was a one day thing. The last year there were 60 bands in one day, so it was more actually than H2Ö per day.

J: 60 in one day, so multiple stages…

M:Yeah, there were really cool stages, and the atmosphere was always something you can only miss afterward. It feels like …one thing in this profession is that self-esteem isn’t really that high, you have to question what you are doing, I always think…well, when mankind moves to Mars, there is like the first group of people, like doctor and carpenter and scientist, and there is, well, not like a cultural manager or curator, not in the first…you find yourself thinking often, “is this really important?” and its sad, because you need to be a bit heartbroken and lonely in your life,to be able to fully concentrate on madness, its true.

We got an award from the first lady of Finland like two years ago, and I just didn’t feel that good afterwords.

J: This didn’t increase your confidence

M: No, it doesn’t matter because its such a weird thing, and its just so meaningless, its just like, you just throw a party for people, its not deep or very grown up. I don’t know, that’s been, every year, I go through the same thought process, I have to psych myself to make it yet another year.

J: You would like the experience to be deeper somehow?

M: I don’t know how it could be.

J: For the audience? Maybe it is deep for the audience?

M: For me I have never gotten anything like that out of it…people are always complimenting, buying drinks and flirting and stuff like that, but I don’t know.

J: At other concerts, like at concerts here for example, do you sometimes leave with a deep experience of it?

M: Well, it happens really rarely nowadays, maybe we have seen it all.

J: Have you had any ideas about getting the upcoming generation involved?

M: I don’t care, I don’t care about it. I have said this before that, one philosophy that I have is to make the event for those that are like skipping it. Those who are not attending. I want to make their day miserable. I want that they feel shivers that they are missing something special. I like to…that’s my main goal, I want to spread misery. I am like…I would like that people would regret “”oh man, why didn’t I go there?” From that kind of comment I get more than somebody saying “”it was really nice”.

J: I just have the last question, the obvious one, that if you could have anything, how would you spread more misery? Can you imagine where would this go or if you could have anything you wanted for this festival?

M: That’s a really deep question….I think, as I said before, if they tickets would be gone before the lineup is out, that means that the festivals reputation is as high as it could be and that’s the thing, that’s where we should be going…this H2Ö thing is so much bigger…its not going to happen any time soon I don’t think but you never know.

J: You really want to make the festival itself a total experience, not one single band.

M: Yeah totally, well, it would be great to have the Flaming Lips there, but generally I don’t care.

J: They wouldn’t help you spread misery enough?

M: Maybe they would.



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