Amnesia Scanner: Reprocessing Realities

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“I’m such a stylist!” Ville Haimala laughs as he carts a bright orange office chair into the small corner studio he and his musical partner Martti Kalliala share with their label PAN. He’s arranging the room for their Crack Magazine photoshoot, the little metal tag on the back pocket of his Prada jeans flapping with every stride. The two form experimental electronic duo Amnesia Scanner, which rose from an aesthetically cryptic project that caught the eyes of blogs and internet trawlers in 2014 to one of the most hyped electronic acts in recent years.

When I tell you their studio is small, I’m not kidding. But with merch samples strewn across surfaces and shelves lined with colourful silicone skins to sheath the animatronic singing mouth they had commissioned back in the autumn, it’s certainly not dull. “We were living in Helsinki, Finland, where we’re from, and ended up working in the same architecture office,” Kalliala says of the group’s origin. Their bond was solidified when they designed a nightclub together, and soon after, their first project was born: a techno outfit called Renaissance Man. “With the Renaissance Man stuff, we just got extremely bored. You know with techno-house, blah blah blah, there’s a certain kind of format, there were certain kinds of spaces we had to be in, and [the music] had all these functional requirements,” he explains.

The switch to Amnesia Scanner, an anagram of Renaissance Man, came naturally. They turned the formats and culture they’d grown bored of inside out, taking glee in poking holes and amplifying the garish parts. In those early AS days, they advertised themselves as “xperienz designers,” keeping their identities hidden behind a wall of helter-skelter sounds and foreboding YouTube videos. “[The anonymity] was just to let this world develop on its own rather than us somehow being the voices or the face or imposing some kind of narrative,” explains Kalliala. The two laugh about how they didn’t want to do the “corniest thing ever” and become masked DJs like Claptone or Deadmau5. So around the time their 2018 album Another Life came out, they broke the spell with an interview published in The Fader. While anonymity comes with its perks if your practice is beloved in deep corners of the internet, it can also lead to some dangerous assumptions. “Because we hadn’t given out any information, people started writing all these ‘facts’ about Amnesia Scanner that weren’t true,” Haimala says. “When the project started, there were a lot of alternative internet spaces which were present in the aesthetic, back when those were much more innocent places. When stuff like the alt-right and that sort of imagery appeared in those spaces, we wanted to make sure people knew this is not an alt-right troll.”

In a way, Amnesia Scanner is a time capsule. Where Another Life was a rampageous bomb of anger and panic, expressed through dense maximalist sound collages and processed bionic vocals, their next album TEARLESS captures the more sobering zeitgeist of 2020. “We want to make art that’s an expression of, or exaggeration of, the contemporary experience we’re living through,” Kalliala says. Haimala adds that, in response to the world’s impending doom, Amnesia Scanner has become more of an emo project. “When we write music we want to capture that real emotion. [TEARLESS] is a continuum of [Another Life], more into this sort of weird realisation that things are deeply not good right now,” says Haimala before Kalliala cuts him off insisting, “But in a fun way!”

I see what he means; tracks like Tearless and Labyrinth still maintain that tongue-in-cheek mimicking of today’s trends while poking at the sinister like a petulant child. But for every dance-until-the-world-ends moment, there’s another where the duo reveal themselves to be less ironic than ever before. The album’s closer U Will Be Fine is an excellent example of this. Haimala sings with comparatively little vocal manipulation, somberly howling “You will be fine/ You will be fine/ If we can help you lose your mind.” It feels like an exercise in self-soothing, as midi string plucks wash over you with the compressed dread of a thousand Sunday hangovers.

Walking around the PAN office, which shares a building with a local medical debt collector, is a funny clashing of worlds. On the one hand, there are designer coats strewn on the leather couch, grey carpets, fluorescent lights and a Keurig coffee machine. On the other, boxes of Amnesia Scanner-branded coveralls, Beatrice Dillon records on display and two Finnish architects making nu-metal guitar arrangements in the corner office.

“We’re stressing this point always: we’re pretty unashamed of the fact that it’s a very aesthetically-driven project,” says Kalliala, who works as a design consultant by day. Playing with format and aesthetics is how the duo put this project on the map, though they both wince when I mention world-building. Amnesia Scanner certainly strikes me as an alternate universe. Shortly after Another Life came out, every music event I attended was lit up with fluorescent orange AS long sleeves, bringing the whisper of this alternate universe to the physical space. In their ample use of features over the past two releases, they work with artists like Pan Daijing, LYZZA and Lalita to populate this ominous sphere with new characters, filtering their voices through their signature wash of chaotic evil.

“In the beginning it was very unclear what [Amnesia Scanner] was, it wasn’t this fully formed world,” explains Kalliala. “It started from this place of liberation, a blank state.” Haimala goes on to note that their approach was an idealistic one: “We really didn’t want to have a structure of releases. We just wanted to upload stuff. We had this online forum, and we would get individual fans’ email addresses and decide OK, let’s send that person a song. It was an experiment in how you could run an art or music project black like that.” He’s referring to the German concept of schwarz, i.e. running a business outside of bureaucracy.

They’ve since come to terms with the fact that sustaining themselves as musicians often involves packaging things more traditionally. To keep themselves and their early fans interested, however, they still drop the occasional easter egg, like a free Wi-Fi network in London people could connect to and download a release from. “There’s a group of really hardcore fans that find that stuff, and I really like that,” Haimala says. “But there’s no way you can expect that to go wide. Because I think how people search for their music is extremely lazy these days because of centralised platforms.” Despite their minimal impact, acts like these demonstrate the genuine glee Kalliala and Haimala derive from building modern, technology-clever formats to carry their ideas.

When I ask for one thing they wish people would stop describing them as, both grin and say “Conceptronica!” in unison. It’s a common mistake, people assuming their use of symbology and doomer-esque sounds relates to some manifesto or high falootin’ conceptual framework. “If it’s conceptual music, then what’s the concept?” Kalliala jokes. In reality, I think the duo is more experimental, in the literal sense of the word. Haimala explains: “I like to be surprised myself when I make a song, and I can feel within me that this is Amnesia Scanner.”

Design and video: PWR

TEARLESS is released 5 June via PAN

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