Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Finnish grass from Self Rising Flour
Granted, Finland isn’t a place that one would normally associate with bluegrass. On the other hand, there is a certain similarity in terrain, given that its mountains and far flung environs boast a certain similarity to upper realms of Appalachia. At least that’s a claim that might be made by the Finnish band that calls itself Self Rising Flour. Made up of Kalle Tuovinen (banjo and vocals), Johannes Oksanen (mandolin and vocals), Benjamin Oksanen (guitar and vocals), and Hannu Vanhatalo (bass), they make a sound that Tuovinen describes as ‘straightforward and crisp.’
“All our songs are traditional sounding with simple chord progressions and melodies,” he says. “We focus on the groove. Vocal harmonies are a big part of the sound, so we use every effort to get all the parts right. Banjo is often at the forefront, but we do have variation, and on a couple of songs we use two guitars with no banjo.”
On the other hand, their influences are obvious. Tuovinen mentions Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers among those who have helped shape their sound, as well as J.D. Crowe, Larry Sparks, and Jim & Jesse. He also names a Finnish group, Jussi Syren and The Groundbreakers, as having a great impact on the band.
Tuovinen and Johannes Oksanen met while participating in a bluegrass workshop, and began jamming together extensively starting during the summer of 2018. “Then we decided to start as a proper band, so we invited Johannes’s brother Benjamin to join with guitar,” Tuovinen recalls. “In 2019, we did a few gigs and had two bass players for short stints. In spring 2020, we needed a permanent bass player, so I called Hannu Vanhatalo to join. I had played with him before in other groups.”
In fact, Self Rising Flour carries their desire for authenticity several steps further.
“Johannes came up with the idea to use costumes like we were from the ’70s, so that became our visual style,” Tuovinen notes. “And our music just happens to be somewhat similar like many bluegrass bands played in the ’70s.”
To date, the band has played some small festivals, bars, and music halls in the region of southern Finland. This past October, they played a live set on a local radio station. They’ve also performed at the main Finnish bluegrass festival, Rootsinpyhtää, which has found them in front of a few hundred people.
They’ve also shared the stage a few times with the aforementioned Jussi Syren And The Groundbreakers. On various occasions, Tuovinen and Vanhatalo have even sat in with that band. “It’s given us a lot of experience in the professional side of the music business,” Tuovinen says.
So far, Self Rising Flour can claim two releases. Their debut album, All Original, was released last summer, and a Christmas single, Santa Gave Me A Banjo, appeared more recently.
“I started writing songs in 2020, and when I had four or five of them ready, we decided it would be a good idea to use only our original songs in the debut,” Tuovinen recalls. “Then I had the proper motivation to write the rest of the needed songs, so that the album had enough variation in it. The album was recorded and mixed by Johannes in his own studio, and we recorded it all live in one day.”
During their gigs, the group tends to mix their original material with their covers. They list some of the latter as I Hear a Choo Choo Coming by The Stanley Brothers, We Were Made for Each Other by Buck Owens, Bill Monroe’s Letter From My Darling, Jim & Jesses version of Ol’ Slewfoot, and Mr. Engineer courtesy of Jimmy Martin.
“We have received so much good feedback,” Tuovinen notes. “It seems that audiences everywhere appreciate music with a solid groove, vocals, and simple enough songs. Most of the audience don’t know what bluegrass music is, but the bluegrass awareness in Finland is a lot better nowadays than it was ten or fifteen years ago, thanks to the internet and all the hard work by the touring bands.”
In that regard, Tuovinen is quick to point out why he believes bluegrass enjoys such international popularity.
“The music’s drive and rhythmic feel has to be a big part of it,” he suggests. “It’s easy to listen to and follow because it has clear vocals and simple melodies and chord structures. Fast tempos make it exciting and slower songs still have drive. The element of blues makes it resonate with people even if you don’t understand the lyrics. And since it’s all acoustic music, it’s easy to jam with other musicians.”