Ilkka Helander with band. Photo: Pasi Rytkönen
Ilkka Helander is a bluesman of 69 years living in a small south coastal town of Lovisa in Finland, working with scientific translations and playing blues on any possible occasion...
First, as concerns your band name Dr Helander & Third Ward: Are you a doctor? And, Third Ward makes me think about a certain legendary district in Houston, Texas!
Yes, I am a doctor, double doctor as a matter of fact. I did my scientific career in microbiology, investigating bacterial surface molecules. The first Ph.D. was in 1982, and I did the second one in 2003 when I made 50. The latter was in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry. By that time I had already quit working in research and instead set up a private company doing scientific translations.
Third Ward comes from Houston indeed, the quarters in Houston are named wards. Lightnin’ Hopkins used to perform a lot in the Third Ward. We took the name therefrom. I have, however, never visited Houston.
Could you tell me about the current Finnish blues scene? Are you and your band members full time musicians?
Finland has since the 70’s had a vibrant blues scene. There are many festivals of varying size throughout the year, mostly concentrating in the summer months, and lots of clubs carrying blues. Lots of bands, and records are coming out all the time. The artists even include full-time professionals with international recognition. I am not a full-time musician, but my band members Esa Kuloniemi and Leevi Leppänen are professionals.
When and how were you introduced to blues music? What was it that attracted you?
This must have been sometime in 1968. The funny thing is that I happened to read a totally negative review about John Mayall’s “Diary of a Band” album in one of the Finnish pop magazines. Somehow this arouse my interest, especially because the album cover looked great with the long-haired Mayall carrying a four-pickup guitar on his shoulder. I bought the album without any idea about the actual music. The music turned out to be different from anything I had heard before – you know, the album (there are actually two volumes) consists mostly of lengthy jams where Mick Taylor plays long solos, building them beautifully. But from there on I was sold. Later on I heard Lightnin’ Hopkins over the radio – there was a weekly program “Bluesin Maailmasta” (could be translated into Swedish as “Från Bluesens Värld”) – playing a song titled “Sick Feeling Blues” and that one opened up a new world into the original blues. I also acquired by mail order BB King’s “Live and Well”, which was great and still is, and some Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers and Buddy Guy Chess albums. In 1971 I moved to Helsinki to start university studies and had much better access to record shops. During the early seventies I absorbed lots of blues music – Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Magic Sam etc. and also began to play more and more actively. I had had a guitar much earlier, but it was only after discovering the blues that made me grab the guitar and practice seriously.
Could you list your five best live concerts that you have attended?
Otis Rush band in Helsinki in 1980, Tavastia Club.
BB King in Helsinki for the first time, I think 1972
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells in Helsinki Tavastia Club some time during the late eighties.
American Folk Blues Festival, spring 1972. Highlights T-Bone Walker band and Big Joe Williams
Sven Zetterberg Band, Malmitalo Helsinki, probably 2015 or 2016.
Why and how you started to play? Do you play also other instruments, apart from guitar? Did you sing with your playing from the start? Were your parents, siblings also interested in music?
To begin with, my family really had no musical background. I believe that I am a person who was always interested in most everything, especially at a younger age. During the 60’s youngsters were highly interested in and strongly influenced by pop music, so in my case it was a natural thing to start playing something, guitar being a natural and popular choice. There were some neighbor buddies who had started before me, so I followed them and could learn some basics from them. I obviously was not learning very well, but as I said before, discovering the blues changed everything. I probably developed my technique quickly during that phase, but had to do it mostly alone, also when I moved to Helsinki and knew nobody to play with. Hard practicing alone – I don’t know it that is actually a good thing, but doing it in the hard way may leave some good marks on the playing. I still enjoy playing blues songs just me singing and accompanying with guitar. The first band took place in 1975, after meeting Juha Ahvenainen at the microbiology department. He had played in his band in earlier times and even made a single recording. We then started a band that lasted a couple of years before members were leaving for the army, establishing families etc. leaving for normal reasons. The eighties, being intensive working years in science and raising a family, were a period of low activity in my playing, but in 1993 we again started with Juha, and since that I’ve been playing actively and writing and recording music.
During the 70’s I was also deeply interested in jazz, and even bought an alto saxophone that I used to play. Never learned, really. I play harmonica for myself, but there are also some tracks on the albums where I do play harmonica.
You have previously mentioned that your guitar playing has been influenced by Mick Taylor. What was it in Taylor´s playing that inspired you? Other influencers?
Yes, Mick Taylor was the first influence, as noted above. It was his legato style and vibrato, vibrato above all. Also the beautifully logical style of playing and developing a solo. I am sure all blues guitarists that I listened to during the early days have influenced me, but for me it is difficult to tell exactly. I would mention Johnny Winter, Clapton, Green, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam. Mike Bloomfield. All the Kings.
Congratulations to the great reviews that your latest CD:s have received in journals such as Blues Matters and Blues Blast! In addition, several of your albums have won the best domestic blues album nominations in various national polls. I guess that all this must be very inspiring. Could you tell me about your future plans?
Good reviews of course are inspiring, especially when they come from abroad. During the Corona period we have been performing to a very limited extent, but we have been slowly recording the third album by Third Ward. I think it will be completed during the spring. Hopefully gigs will be resumed in larger numbers in the future.
Don’t you get tired of the blues music sometimes? Is the blues music of today better or worse than blues music recorded in, say, the 1940:s-1970:s? How do you think the blues will develop?
I may get tired of blues music occasionally – then I always go back to pre-war country blues and early Chicago blues. They never let me down. Tampa Red, Sonny Boy I and others of the like. I think earlier blues beats everything that is made currently. In the blues of later/recent years I hear a tendency of it being increasingly harder, with packed-up and boosted production, which is tiring for my ears. Development? I think blues is a form of art that is not very susceptible to great developments or forward leaps. It is a pretty restricted form.
Many Swedish blues artists sing in Swedish. But I have never heard you sing in Finnish – why don´t you?
I feel that blues singing in my personal case has to be in English. When I write songs I think in English. There are blues artists who perform in Finnish and do it in a credible way. But I wouldn’t be able to do that in a credible way. Maybe, when performing, I transpose myself into another person and that person sings the blues in English
Have you performed in Sweden?
Yes, a couple of years ago I played some gigs in the Lund/Malmö area with the Alvin Thomas Blues Band, from Lund, which was really nice. We also have played in Haparanda at Kalott Jazz & Blues.
You have made approximately 10 albums now, in your own name. Are you playing also in other artists´s recordings? – BTW I have to ask you how you managed to get Charlie Musselwhite to play on your CD from 2018. How did you get in contact with him?
Actually not, except for the recent single by Juha Ahvenainen (Long John McDonald) where I played lead guitar. These are Juha’s songs – ballads with bluesy/country flavor. I have also written some lyrics for Honey B & T-Bones, which is Esa’s main band. Charlie Musselwhite – when making the Country Boy album, which was based on the idea of acoustic blues a la Muddy Waters’ “Folk Singer” and included mostly covers of blues songs that I had been playing on the sofa over the years – I thought that the album needs some kind of extra kick. I happened to see a video of Charlie playing the Little Walter song “Just a Feeling” with a guitarist and thought immediately that this would suit fine to my album. Then I simply contacted him over e-mail through his webpages and asked if he would be willing to participate. Got a positive answer and he did the overdubs in California. We then continued the collaboration on the first Third Ward album as well.
How has your lyrics developed over the years – is there a common theme? Which comes first when you write your material, the lyrics or the music, and which is most important?
For some reason the lyrics tend to be more cynical towards later age… that seems natural. I usually try to be rather cryptic in the lyrics. Sometimes I have lyrics “coming in” very easily, e.g. when I am jogging, walking or biking. The rhythm of physical movement facilitates the formation of phrases! In that case I will have lyrics first, and probably an idea or a riff for the song. We then develop the song with Esa and Leevi, usually this goes very easily to completion. Sometimes we have developed a full song without lyrics, starting by jamming on the studio. Then the lyrics must be created afterwards, which is more challenging than in the first case.
Which songs do you always play at gigs?
My Home Town, It’s Not for Me but for My Friend from the 2000 album “Fodder” are songs that we play practically on every gig. My Magic Wand, Third Ward Boogie, Back Beat from Third Ward albums are usually played as well. We also like to play some cover instrumentals such as San Jose, Snowy Wood or Steppin’ Out. Gives me a break from singing every now and then.
Any favourite guitar and/or amp?
My trusted Stratocaster of course – having been used as an ashtray on the balcony at some stage. It is a partscaster with a very nice thin neck. I cannot play a guitar if it has a thick neck. This “Balcony-caster” must be the best guitar I’ve ever had. And a Gibson Les Paul Special with P-90 pickups is a must for certain songs. In earlier years I favored Fender Vibroluxes and in particular Fender Super Reverbs, owning four of them at some stage. Later on I have been using lighter tube amps with quality build such as Swart of Wooly Coats. 18 watts are enough for any stage and won’t break your back!
Finally I have to ask you about your name Helander. Any relation to Olle Helander who made the legendary series “I Blueskvarter” for Swedish Radio in the 1960:s?
No relation with Olle Helander! The name is interesting as such – not a very common name in Sweden, but fairly common all around Finland. I have learned that the name was picked up at some stage in history when new names were taken instead of just being somebody’s son. It was a name that was in fashion at that time – other similar names are Silander, Palander etc., i.e. taken without any relationship to Sweden.