” All art is political, whether it’s intentional or not” – Svarta Havet interview

There is something intriguing in a bands, that manage to keep DIY core, but at the same time show much expression when it comes to the music itself. Finnish Svarta Havet is one of those bands. Four lovely people from Turku can both deliver an excellent blend of post-hardcore, punk and black metal, as well as some though-provoking ideas. How’s the life in Finland, what’s the role of art, is DIY still strong up there in the North? Let’s see what Joakim, Lotta, Anders and Jara told us.

What’s the role of art? To have a message, to express the artist, to create something nice for the recipient? 

Joakim: Clearly many political ideas can be conveyed and also given emotional weight through music and other forms of art. But I also think there is a real value to just getting to enjoy throwing yourself around in the pit or enjoying beautiful art with your friends. That can be a very valuable thing especially if you need a break from the general bleakness of the world and can actually give your political struggle more resilience in the long run. On a personal note making music has always been one of my main ways of communication so I hope some of what our band is trying to convey comes across, but if not hopefully you can just enjoy giving in to the noise.

Lotta: It depends on the artist and what you want to do, but I think it can be all of the above. Personally I’ve always wanted to include some form of political action in the art, because without political commentary, art is just aesthetic. It’s always a sort of privilege to be able to bring out your art to the public, so if you have the opportunity to do so, I think you should take the opportunity and express what is on your mind and what you want to change in the world.

Anders: It can be all of those, but only one is non-negotiable – to express the artist. Art does not have to be explicitly political, but it has to be an expression of something, otherwise it’s not art.

Jara: And of course, all art is political, whether it’s intentional or not. Politics are interwoven in the ways artists (or whatever you’d prefer to call them) lead their lives – in the ways they can lead their lives trying to survive in today’s capitalist economy that increasingly values profit, efficiency and continuous growth. The entire production structure of art and its reception is a political system, starting from the definition of what counts as art and what does not. Like the shirt by the noise artist Eros Livieratos says, “The difference between sound art and noise is institutional funding.” And this doesn’t even take into account the separation of art and entertainment, which tends to be a pretty classist and racist process.

But since we are punks, I guess we can talk about art as creative activity in general, and especially without gatekeeping creativity because, you know, DIY & DIT ethics, empowerment through anyone-can, anti-hierarchical stuff like that. Joakim mentioned resilience, music has traditionally played an important role in social movements and change; it has helped people cope and keep going, built community, even fostered and advanced theory and practice. For me personally, being an “artist” is about doing stuff that I like, in ways and with people that I like and in ways that I think and hope makes my living environment more interesting, for example when designing event posters and wheatpasting them to counter the grayness of the city. But it’s also about addressing social and political topics from a grassroots level, having our say as people who may not have that many other channels available and open to us. For me personally, a big part of all this is taking part in queer community building and maintaining some sort of anarchist infrastructure.

So yeah, the role of art is all those three and more. I don’t really like the idea of “pure” art. Art is always social activity, relations, definitions.

Svarta Havet is an unique blend of black metal and post-hardcore with DIY punk attitude and values. What kind of music do you listen daily? Would you rather define yourselves as “punks” or “metalheads”?

Joakim: Having grown up in the hardcore scene I still consider myself a punk. I actually think the gradual inclusion of more metal elements into our bands aesthetic has come as a bit of a surprise to all of us. The only one in the band with any background in metal is Jara and she only joined after we finished the previous record. However as I’ve been listening a lot to bands like Totalt Jävla Mörker, Portrayal of guilt & Oathbreaker that are all blurring the lines between hardcore and metal it is maybe a bit of an arbitrary distinction.

Lotta. I’ve always struggled to define myself as one or the other, but mentalitywise I’ve always been more of a punk :). What concerns the music, I am a fancy-ass that enjoys unexpected turns and chords with a tonality that music-wise maybe leans itself more towards metal, but to answer your question – I really don’t know how to define Svarta Havet as a band. I like music that sounds sort of recorded in your living room and that doesn’t have the radio-friendly production vibes to it. Këkht Aräkh is an artist that I have enjoyed lately.

Anders: Growing up, I listened to a lot of metal, much more than punk. It was not until I got in contact with the scenes that I realized the punk and hardcore community was much more enjoyable. The people, politics and energy at punk gigs were different from the often stiff, thematically cheesy, macho and misogynistic metal concerts. Not to mention the often blurred lines (or not so blurred) regarding right wing sympathies in the Finnish metal scene. Also, in strictly technical terms, the virtuoso and perfectionist aspects of metal were also less appealing than the punk approach to playing – in other words, it was easier to play punk, haha.

Jara: Pretty much what Anders said. I listened to heavy metal, mainly NWOBHM, when I was a smalltown kid in the 1980s, but I never really appreciated or got into the so-called extreme metal styles. I started listening to old-school doom metal in my teens in the early 90s, and that was when I picked up the drum sticks for the first time as well, but I didn’t really know how to play so it was basically just noisecore at first. Then I moved to a bigger town and found myself in the punk scene, got politicised while in high school and picked up the bass and the guitar and started to play hardcore punk with friends. I especially loved (and still do) 80s UK anarcho-punk, 90s Polish crust, and some metallic hardcore bands such as Catharsis (CrimethInc.). At the same time I really liked dark folk and ambient, and some black metal as well, even though it was often a bit, uh, difficult because of all the racism and sexism and homophobia in the scene. In the late 2000s I started dj’ing at (usually) queer dance parties, so I do love house and other electronic music styles as well. So I think my preferred daily dose of music would be a blend of political hardcore punk, old-school doom metal, queer electronic… something like that. Definitions do often violence to lived realities, but I guess queer edge anarcho-punk might pretty much sum it up.

It’s been already three years since you’ve released your debut album. Do you have any plans for a new material?

Joakim: We actually just finished writing the songs for our second album and recorded most of them now in January. So once that is mixed you should be getting a batch of new songs. Hopefully people will enjoy the new stuff!

Lotta: Yes, we’re constantly working on new songs so there will definitely be more.

After seeing you twice I was impressed by how energetic and natural are your shows and I really like that it looks a bit like each member of the band was in trance. With that being said, what in your opinion makes playing concerts different from just playing the songs note by note?

Joakim: Yeah I really feel like the songs come alive in a live setting. You get that instant connection with the audience and at least for myself I get to express the emotions of the music physically. So yeah being in a trance is a good way of describing it. I also personally like seeing bands that give you a sense of commitment to really being in that moment, so I really try to live up to that and throw myself into the performance as fully as I can. Plus it’s just great fun, this is what we rehearse for and travel for so I really just want to enjoy it.

Lotta: As the great drag queen RuPaul once said, there is nothing more important than enjoying yourself on stage, so that is something that I always try to bring into action when playing concerts. Playing live is also always kind of a reality check – you see where you are and which songs work and which not so much. Main thing is not to take yourself so seriously. If you are having a great time on stage, someone watching will likely get something out of it too.

Jara: I love and hate playing live. I love the community aspect, hate the anxiety and fear and attention when I get on stage. Sometimes it’s ok, but usually I just feel like shit afterwards. It’s a shame, because everything else is so great about the live setting, especially when visiting and getting to know DIY venues, sharing the stage and the whole space with nice people, getting to see the world a bit, etc.

Your lyrics and band name are in Swedish. I know about swedish-speaking population in Finland, but I was curious if there are any tensions due to the fact that there are two languages used in one country? 

Joakim: There are some tensions because of the mandatory teaching of Swedish in all schools that the nationalist factions would like to get rid of. As if it was a bad thing to learn an extra language. Other than that it is mostly a matter of class tensions as the Swedish-speaking group has historically been seen as more upper class. But in reality it is like every other group of people; a very mixed bag. 

So even if I have been beaten up for speaking Swedish on a couple of occasions that is mainly just a superficial excuse used by right wing assholes to beat down on anyone they see as an out-group. In my opinion it is not really a large societal question.

Lotta: As a band, we have luckily not been confronted with these kinds of tensions, maybe because the scene is generally very accepting and welcoming of all kinds. Growing up, I didn’t speak much Finnish at all which caused me a lot of problems, but as I’ve come to learn better Finnish over the years, I actually often feel more at home among Finnish speakers than among my own Swedish speaking minority. I’ve always wanted to be generally open to anything in any language, I just happen to be born a native Swedish speaker, so therefore it’s natural for me to write the lyrics in Swedish.

Jara: I’m the only non-bilingual member of the band, but growing up in a close-minded smalltown, I too used to get bullied at school for having Swedish middle names (I have Swedish Finn background from my father’s side, even though he and that entire family branch have never really been part of my life). I don’t think it was about social class that much, just basic Finnish-speaker prejudice and xenophobia and historical hatred of Swedes. Among others. No wonder a study conducted last year found Finland to be one of the most racist countries in Europe!

And sticking to the name – as far as I know Svarta Havet translates to “Black Sea” – why did you decide to go with this name, what’s the story behind it?

Lotta: At some point I read that there are among 60 pieces of 2400 year old shipwrecks lying at the bottom of the Black Sea. I thought the whole idea of undiscovered stories and secrets at the bottom of a deep sea – which also has the name “black” – just captured everything I wanted to express both musically and lyrically. Personally I am also fascinated with large ocean masses and what lies beneath it, animals and algae and all that. When I don’t know what lyrics to write, there’s always inspiration to draw from the bottom of the ocean, where all life comes from, haha. Now, the Black Sea might be associated with the ongoing war, but that wasn’t what I had in mind back then.

Some time ago we had a bit of a chat about squats in Finland. Could you please tell our readers how it looks like nowadays?

Joakim: I was part of the movement in our hometown Turku in the early 2000s that attempted to establish a permanent squat as a center for culture and art as most spaces for underground or independent artists were being pushed every further out from the city or completely demolished. But unfortunately the city and the police came down hard on the organizers and spaces by handing out massive fines and carrying out forceful evictions until the movement became untenable. This has pretty much been the strategy of the authorities all over the country.

Unfortunately this means there are no squats that I know of outside of Helsinki and the one in Helsinki (Makamik) had their previous location destroyed by a fire, probably started by members of a far right group. So the situation is pretty dire.

That does not mean there are not a lot of semi-autonomous spaces that rent property from the city or private owners. Spaces like Tukikohta in Oulu, Hoi Sie in Lappeenranta, Oranssi in Helsinki, Kenneli D.I.Y. in Tampere, Kirjakahvila in Turku and others make up an important part of DIY underground culture in the country.

And in general – could you tell us more about various DIY/Antifacist initiatives going on in Finland? Do you think that they have a real impact?

Joakim: As I mentioned previously there are several very important DIY initiatives that are vital to the scene and provide non-commercial spaces for people. Many of these also serve as low threshold places for new artists to book shows or get rehearsal space as well as centers for planning protests and other political activities.

As for the antifascist initiatives there are several important organizations like Varis-verkosto that distribute information and help organize protests and other actions. I really feel like a good example of effective anti-fascist action are the large scale “ilman natseja” (“without nazis”) protests that center around reclaiming public spaces from fascists and that started as counter protests against different right wing marches.

Protests like these have a very important role in showing the general public who might not engage on these issues that there is large scale opposition to these right wing movements. I don’t think we are changing the minds of any fascists, nor do I think that is the point, but rather to show the people that might otherwise let these people have their way for convenience sake that there is large scale opposition to these movements. 

There are a lot of historical examples where even relatively local or small scale resistance has significantly delayed or even stopped the progress of fascist movements as these depend on the tacit consent of a large part of the population. It doesn’t hurt that it also reminds individual fascists that there are people ready to inflict consequences for their actions and that they will be held to account for their violent rhetoric and deeds. 

Make fascists afraid again!

I know that after recent elections there were a lot of tensions about right-winged politicians in Finland. Do you think that the country is going into wrong direction? Do you think that Finland slowly is joining the european trend of right-winged populists rising into power?

Joakim: There are certainly worrying signs when a pretty openly ethno-fascist candidate can run for president and most people don’t seem to think it is anything strange. I think that is really where the right wing has been very successful is that they have normalized ways of speaking and acting that were previously unacceptable in mainstream society. Talking points from the right are adopted by conservative parties and many completely unfounded unscientific views and conspiracies are treated as if they were on equal footing with science and well researched and argued political points. 

If you are looking for a glimmer of hope however there are large scale strikes and political actions organized by the unions in solidarity with the unemployed population that are attempting to counteract and repeal the new right wing governments policies that aim to weaken the social supports and structures that are central to our societal wellbeing. We will see how it all plays out but on a personal note I would be happy to see unionized workers becoming a force for a more compassionate society.

Lotta: The trend is indeed concerning, also on a worldwide scale. When neoliberalist ideals are introduced in a somewhat functioning society and individual values and expression become more important than the community, there is always a place for right-wing populists to spread lies and try to turn people against each other.

On the other hand, many people in Finland are highly affected by the government’s decisions that have led to rising food and living costs, so there is also a growing resistance that is more visible day by day.

You are close with Kirjakahvila in Turku, anarchist book cafe and DIY centre, that’s been around for a very long time ! Could you please tell us more about this place?

Joakim: I think Jara is really the expert on this as she has been active there for a very long time. It is a very important space that is central for planning and organizing protests and other forms of resistance as well as a low threshold DIY gigspace and pretty cozy café. It is always wonderful to see people who start coming there regularly or volunteering find a place where they can truly be themselves, sometimes for the very first time in their lives.

Jara: Kirjakahvila (which just translates to Book Café in English) is an anti-capitalist, volunteer and worker-run co-operative café and DIY community space opened in 1981, currently located in the old center of the city. I was part of a group who started running a vegan people’s kitchen there in the early 2000s, but I didn’t get more involved with the space until 2009, after the café had just gone vegan and started attracting more anarchists and other activists again (there have been times when the radical history and legacy of the space hasn’t been that apparent). We do a lot of solidarity and fundraising events, documentary screenings, discussions, reading circles, film nights, etc., and in the summertime we organize festivals and other stuff in our yard, such as Punx for Seitan Fest, a feminist punk festival which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and Love Metal Hate Fascism, a metal event organized annually on the week of a big anti-fascist demo in town. Like Joakim said, spaces like this are very important to movements, to us all. Sadly, we don’t have many left in Finland anymore.

Thanks for finding a time ! Last word goes to you – is there anything you’d like to tell readers in Poland?

Joakim: Having grown up going to shows of Polish crust punk bands over here I am very much looking forward to coming to play over there and seeing what the scene is like. “Policja – faszystowskie świnie!!!”

Lotta: Poland is one of the countries that’s a little of a mystery to me – it somehow keeps a low profile even though it’s very large. Somehow my picture of the country is that Poland has always held its position towards the giant political world forces. I am very much looking forward to get to know and see the country and its people a little more!