Opium delight – An interview with CATS OF TRANSNISTRIA

Interview   Cats Of Transnistria

Helsinki-based duo of Tuomas Alatalo and Henna Emilia Hietamäki, along with the recent addition of the violinist Sanna Komi, called Cats of Transnistria have beautifully crafted in the space of just a few years and a couple of albums, their own distinctive ‘deep and slow’ bewitching universe made of minimal hypnotic, and immersive soundscapes laced with haunting melancholy and darkly ethereal beauty that delve down into the hidden part of the soul by filling it with timeless emotions.
The band’s sophomore album “Opium” is out now on the Soliti label. I had a nice chat with Henna and Tuomas, check it out!
  • Thanks so much for the interview, Your project started after the demise of The Caravaners at the end of 2014 I guess, can you can you go back to that period to better understand why and how your project came about and progressed pretty soon with the link-up with the Soliti label…

Henna : We had been doing music together with our garage rock group Caravaners for a few years and when the other guys started to be too busy, we made a decision with Tuomas to start composing new songs together. We had become very close friends and making music together felt super comfortable, we understood each other and appreciated the same gloomy aethetics. At first we weren’t sure what we wanted to do: would it just be us two or should we form a new group? Very quickly we understood we have to keep the arrangements minimal to protect the magic. It was a great moment when we felt we have found something special.

It was lovely to have Soliti interested in us right from the start. We released one single called ‘San Fransisco’ on our own, after that Soliti has released our EP ‘Away’ and our albums ‘Divine’ and ‘Opium’.

  • Do you recall when and where you started to get passionate about music or other form of arts? What type of music and art influences were you exposed to as children and later as teenagers?

Tuomas : My family isn’t very musical and I don’t remember hearing much music at home. It’s been mostly from TV, theme song from children’s animation Nils Holgersson, old western movies and German crime series. My big brother had the Top Gun soundtrack which I liked and some Kiss tapes. I don’t remember listening to them, just looking at the cover art.

As a teenager I really got into music relatively late, at the age of 14 or 15, before that it was just some mainstream radio junk. At 15, when I got my first guitar I was really into and inspired by Nirvana, it was the first big thing for me. I was listening to a lot of skate punk garbage too. I got into Smashing Pumpkins about a year later. When I found Sonic Youth and Joy Division I knew it was something special.

It’s interesting to look at your early influences and how they’ve shaped your playing. Even though the old Smashing Pumpkins records sound mostly way too awkward to listen to, I often find that tendency for megalomaniac pompousness in my guitar playing. I can hear Nirvana and Sonic Youth as well. I can hear that later punk and garage weirdness. I love the offbeat outsider stuff. But the very early influences are interesting to look at because you’re a candid teenager and haven’t “heard it all” yet, you’re at the very beginning. It’s not what you think about when you write and record new songs, but it’s all there, want it or not.

Henna : I’m from a religious family and I was mostly surrounded by hymns and gospel. Fortunately that changed for me when my big brother found Metallica and Nirvana. He gave me a great education!

  • What do you most admire about each other?

Henna : I absolutely adore Tuomas’s guitar playing. It’s so emotional and out-of-this-world beautiful it relaxes me automatically. He always has a way of sounding totally unique, even if the song is very simple. At live shows it feels almost dangerous how boundless he is. He just lets it all come out. I love to watch him on stage with his punk band ‘Nykyaika’ too. Tuomas is also a sound designer and I think he is super talented in making beautiful, immersive soundscapes. This one theatre project he did music for was just genius. I hope to hear more of that too. As a person he is the gentlest, most loyal and loving guy there is and I feel so lucky to have him as a friend. He has been there for me at many dark days.

Tuomas : Henna is a really talented singer with beautiful and strong personal voice. and I often feel very proud to play with her when I hear that sound. She is also a very dear friend of mine. We have a special connection between us. We started doing this as a duo and we’ve shared a lot things emotionally through our music. It’s hard to explain, because it’s not about words. I guess I’m very lucky. She also writes songs, sings and plays guitar with her other band Henna Emilia & Houreet and they sound great!

  • How much important and influential is and has been your background, Helsinki, for your artistic development? Is there a sort of scene or a community?

Tuomas : There’s a small and tight knit scene in Helsinki, a bunch of great bands and great people. It’s a good bubble to be in. Even though I don’t think we fit any scene here musically, I feel home with all these great guitar bands.

Henna : I’d like to think we could have done this kind of music some place else also, as our influences are not from Finland. I love Helsinki though. There is a cute little circle of “indie” bands here. If you like certain kind of music you can’t help seeing a lot of the same people.

  • How is important your relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, visual art, literature and cinema ? When you recorded the new album, did you isolate yourselves from all external influences or were there specific pieces of art, music and literature that you turned to for inspiration or focus?

Henna : For this album there are no clear influences from any specific art pieces I can think of. Well, the title of a song ‘Candy Man’ is from a horror movie that really terrified me as a kid. Now the song is about a person that terrified and intrigued me in real life. The albums cover is photograph art by my dear friend Sofia Okkonen who’s work and thoughts inspire me a lot.
There has been times I’ve tied my own experiences to fiction, for example at our ‘Away’ EP I was thinking about Michael Cunningham’s book ‘The Hours’ and countelss cinematic presentation of wasting away in a motel room far away from home, alone and unknown. I was very depressed at the time.

  • Do you feel isolated as Cats Of Transnistria in the today’s musical climate or do you feel a particular affinity with any current artists / bands? Are there some of them would you like to collaborate?

Tuomas: We’re at least geographically isolated for sure. I guess it takes a bit more time to get into our music, it moves ahead so slowly. Also, we don’t sing about partying and getting drunk in Finnish, so that’s about it. We often get lumped together with indie rock bands, which is kind strange since we don’t play indie rock. But we’re not that special, just a little weird.

Henna : I really look forward at doing show’s with Lau Nau this spring, she is one of the artists in Finland I feel Cats of Transnistria fits great with. Internationally I feel some closeness to Grouper, Julianna Barwick and Julia Holter for example. We are not alone but the things we do are not that trendy or mainstream.

  • How is born the collaboration with violinist Sanna Komi, still fresh from releasing her solo debut album as KO:MI ?

Henna : Sanna was a friend of a friend and she came up after one of ous shows to say that if we ever need a violinist, she’s up for it. It sounded like a good idea and it turned out great. Her violin adds a lot of beauty layers to the ‘Opium’ album. Besides her solo project KO:MI she plays in a few other bands also but she has found the time to do live shows with us too. So now we are more of a trio than a duo.

Let’s talk about the new album, starting with its title “Opium”, what were the origins, the influences and the development of the new LP. Did you, thematically, have an all-encompassing vibe or tread you wanted to portray with this release?

Tuomas : We recorded ‘Love’ at our practice space last spring and it turned out to be really good way for us to work, doing everything ourselves without tight schedules or pressure. So we decided to record the whole album the same way.

Our “studio” is in a basement and it gets really hot and musty in there, it kind of slows you down. Also I think we were both feeling pretty numb in a way due to our personal issues while recording the basic tracks.

We wanted the album sound and feel like sinking endlessly and comfortably through the carpet and the floor. It’s dark out there but I don’t think it’s depressive. There’s beauty in that numbness and detachment.

  • Ivo Watts-Russell, the 4AD founder and This Mortal Coil mainman, said that ‘his aim was to make music that was timeless and free of any trend, movement or era’. He eventually did it with Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. Do you think that your sound could be on the right track to follow that heritage? Which songs would you pick out as your most representative of your artistic development and why?

Hana : That’s a great attitude towards music which I agree on 100%. Nobody can be totally free from influnces nor should they be, but the most important thing is to focus on what’s inside, not what’s going on around you. Making music for me is a way of staying alive. It brings me comfort in times of desperation and it connects me to other people in a way I feel is sacred and mystic. This is where our debut album’s name ‘Divine’ comes from.

It’s hard to pick one song and usually I tend to always like the newest ones the most. At the moment I think I like ‘Feeding’ from the new album the most. It is a song about becoming one with nature: feeding yourself to wolves, plants growing around your heart and so on. Is it a suicide wish or just the death of ones ego: enlightment and finding the lost connection to the ecosphere? All of these things are present when singing the song.

  • What’s your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it? Personally if in the pre-internet I had a deep knowledge of each album I bought, while now it’s rare that I listen to any of them more than twice…

Tuomas : My ways of listening to music have changed a lot. I stream most of my music. It’s a lot easier to find and get your hands on to new music but it’s also so much easier to forget. That happens a lot. Having chills is very rare nowadays. It stills happens sometimes, maybe like twice in a year. Don’t remember the last time though. It’s not just the internet and streaming, for me it’s mostly about getting older. I remember what it was like going to a record store on the release day of an album you’ve been waiting for and excitement of going home and pressing play. Also finding a kinds of older stuff. I would know who’s playing the bass, when and it was recorded, all that. I discovered a lot of music from libraries too. I don’t do that anymore which is kind of sad, but for me those days are gone and I still get to enjoy music.

In general I don’t listen as much music I used to. I don’t need background music, I want it to be special. In January I spent two weeks without any music and I highly recommend it, it felt so good after that!

  • What do you enjoy most about perfoming live? Can you remember your 1st gig as a band and your highlights so far?

Henna : Our first gig as Cats of Transnistria was at a small pizza place! I was so nervous but people gave us lovely feedback right from the start. Our biggest and best show was probably at Flow Festival 2015. It felt great to play in front of such a big crowd an make big waves of sound. This spring we have great things coming: I really look forward on playing in London and we also have good shows in Helsinki coming up.

  • What current bands/artists are you excited by and what are your most treasured all-time albums?

Tuomas :  Total Control, Richard Skelton, Jozef van Wissem, Dirty Three, Yves Tumor, Exploded View, OCS (formerly known as Thee Oh Sees). Olimpia Splendid and Prospero from Helsinki. New Black Lizard album sounds great! I’m really looking forward to see The Breeders play in Helsinki in June. I love The Breeders! Having these kind of people walking on this planet gives me hope. I’m sure I’m going to love the new album too!

Some all time treasures, not in particular order:

Wire – ‘Pink Flag’ & ‘Chairs Missing’

The Raincoats – S/T

The Breeders – ‘Pod & ‘Last Splash’

Sonic Youth – ‘Sister’

Old Haunts – ‘Poisonous Times’

& those Stooges & Velvets albums.

Henna : At the moment I’m crazy for Big Thief. I’ve also listened way too much of Kevin Morby, Mac Demarco and Cass McCombs as I’ve needed some soft music to listen to at home. When going out I like to hear more aggressive stuff and go to a lot of punk gigs. I’d love to see Holograms from Sweden live soon.

If I think back on the most influencial all time favourites I have to mention Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Low, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Radiohead.

  • Many thanks for being our welcome guest, just the last question about your next plans and if is there anything in particular you want to accomplish in the near future.

Hana : I’m already thinking of new stuff we could do: there are a few different directions I’d love to explore as Cats. Right now we’re focusing on doing show’s and playing the songs from ‘Opium’ live. Hopefully we can do a lot of shows!

Keep up with Cats of Transnistria :