Nick Triani came late to the charms of the Estonian music scene and even more so the label Seksound and their flagship band Pia Fraus. In this piece Nick interviews Pia Fraus and Seksound founder Rein Fuks.
I’m not exactly sure when I first heard of Pia Fraus. It must have been the mid-2000s and I did think for a long time the band were American (yes, even with that name). But some clarity came my way a little later when Joose Berglund from Stupido Records gave me a few albums by the band which he’d released in Finland. I really enjoyed the albums and it opened up a feeling that I wanted to know more. I’m not even sure I’d visited Estonia at that time. I was completely blind to the charms not only of the Estonian people that I would later get to know, but of the musical output from Finland’s very close neighbour. Imandra Lake and Pia Fraus are the Seksound touchstones for me, the label bands that get my pulse racing. I recently got a large bulk of the Seksound catalog which I’m slowly acquainting myself with.
Over the last five years I’ve visited Tallinn quite regularly and especially the music conference/live happening Tallinn Music Week. This of course led to a familiarity with Estonian music, which to say the least was an eye opener. Estonian popular music – and it’s various sub genres – revealed itself to be a creatives playground. It’s not easy to put into words other than to tell you much of the music I’ve encountered coming from Estonia these last few years is rich in experimental detail, rather left-field, risk taking and most importantly, alive sounding. I’m no expert, but there seems to be a willingness to celebrate the different, the outsider which naturally leads to a certain amount of originality and diversity. It’s a refreshing, inspiring scene which doesn’t seem to pander so much to the needs or wants of the mainstream. For someone like me, that’s a utopian ideal.
It’s a refreshing, inspiring scene which doesn’t seem to pander so much to the needs or wants of the mainstream.
But I digress. Seksound still managed to be a cloud of mystery and somehow separate from Tallinn Music Week, certainly as an entry point to the label. I’ve got to know Pia Fraus/Imandra Lake/Bad Apples member and Seksound founder Rein Fuks over a mutual like for each other’s indie record labels. We follow each other on social media and we have even talked via messenger about doing something together, some cosmic meeting of dream pop minds between Seksound and Soliti. A happening perhaps? Who knows if this will ever materialize, but at least the realization came to me that I could find out a little bit more about his label, Estonian music and the wonderful bands Rein works with by interviewing him for One Quart.
Nick Triani vs Rein Fuks
Nick Triani: What came first, the label or Pia Fraus?
Rein Fuks: We started Pia Fraus in 1998 when we all studied at art school in Tallinn. Our first album was released in 2001 under our own pop-up label called Pia Records. There were no indie labels in Estonia at that time. After that we signed a contract with the US indie label Clairecords. We released our second album in 2002 (In Solarium) and in 2003 Plastilina EP. Via Clairecords we met Japanese label Vinyl-Junkie Recordings. They released In Solarium in Japan. It was a really great time. It was much more than we hoped for. I was in heaven. But the only problem was that we couldn’t find any label for us in Estonia or Europe. That’s why we created Seksound in 2004, and released Pia Fraus’ Mooie Island EP. It turned out quite well, we were successful, it sold out quickly and a new edition was pressed. After that we started to release our friends music; bands like Shelton San, Ans. Andur, Dreamphish, Bad Apples and so on. We invested all the money from gigs to our new record label and got some support from the USA and Japan as well. Now it’s over 12 years and almost 60 releases. Over 15 bands and artists, covering many styles from lo-fi, electro to synth-pop and shoegaze.
NT: I’ve visited Estonia many times, and Tallinn Music Week. It’s maybe just the Estonian music that is offered at the event, but in general the music that comes out of the country seems very left field (a lot of experimental, folk, indie, electronic, punk). Is there a mainstream? Or does this left leaning sound represent Estonian popular music fairly?
RF: Of course there is some mainstream – but I’m not very into it. Many indie acts are quite popular, for example Vaiko Eplik or Ewert and Two Dragons. And of course some nice artists such as Ines, Lenna, Laura and so on. The pop scene lives its own life. But we don’t have that many worldwide known pop artists yet in Estonia. Some new bands like Cartoon have quite big view counts on Youtube and Spotify, and it makes me really happy.
NT: Pia Fraus have managed to build an international following. How hard has that been and why do you think people have found the band?
RF: I’m always more focused on music, making songs and trying to do stuff that I like.
At the end of the nineties, when we started with Pia Fraus, there weren’t that many shoegaze/dreampop bands and I think that’s why it was a bit easier to “break through”.
We really didn’t do that much to get known or popular and we never have been (laughs).
I’m really happy and thankful that we have had an opportunity to record some songs and release that many albums in the US, Japan and even in the Philippines and also gain some fans. But I don’t feel special for that, I really think that we were in the right place at right time. We just had luck!
I’m always more focused on music, making songs and trying to do stuff that I like.
NT: They say it’s extremely hard to break internationally from Finland (I know it is!) – for Estonian music it seems even harder. Is it a preoccupation for Estonian artists to break internationally and has that been something that Seksound has looked to achieve with its acts; international recognition?
RF: It’s hard and almost impossible! We are really trying to make good records, that makes us happy but it’s not been so important for us to break internationally. Of course we’ll do our best with every new release but Seksound is 100% a hobby label and there is nothing more we can do. I really don’t think that bands have to stand at the music fairs with an Estonian flag flying to breakthrough. That’s something I don’t like to do. There has to be some other opportunity at least for indie bands.
NT: I’m often told – by many seemingly wise people – that nowadays politics and music don’t mix anymore. But Estonian music has a very potent attachment to politics, especially through the punk and indie scenes. Why do you think this is and is it still an ongoing concern? With more access has the political message still stayed relevant?
RF: Music had its special role at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties when Estonia regained its independence. Punk music was one way to protest and express your thoughts but nowadays it’s not so apparent.
I really don’t think that bands have to stand at the music fairs with an Estonian flag flying to breakthrough. That’s something I don’t like to do.
NT: There’s a clear aesthetic to Seksound (the look and style of music you release). Who drives that and how important has that been, that visual identity to the success of the label? Are there Estonian precedents before Seksound that have influenced the identity or philosophy of the label? Or from elsewhere?
RF: I think it’s nice when records are beautiful. It has been always important for us. I’m really thankful that I have so many talented friends, designers and musicians, studio owners and sound engineers that makes things so much easier for us. Before we started Seksound I worked for my friend Hannes Praks‘ label Kohvirecords. It was a really nice label, great designs and great music, mostly electronic stuff like Galaktlan, Pastacas, UNI, Barbariz. Many of them are still good friends of ours. Kohvirecords was a great influence on me in the beginning. But there are always things that can be made better. I think the biggest influence for me has been Geographic from Scotland. Their records are all so beautiful, mostly designed by Annabel Wright (Aggi), ex member of The Pastels. It’s nice when a label has such a strong visual identity. Of course music is important too, even more. But it’s easier to find the way into people’s hearts with beautiful record covers.
NT: Pia Fraus have collaborated with some impressive international musicians and bands (Teenage Fanclub, Hood, His Name Is Alive, Bill Wells, Future Pilot Aka). How did those relationships come about, did they find you?
RF: I really like remixes, I like making remixes and getting remixed.
Many of my favourite artists from around the world for whom I have asked to make remixes for us, have agreed to do it. Even Pia Fraus’ first album included a few remixes by Estonian electronic artists. The first ever UK band I asked to remix Pia Fraus was Hood. Now this “Mooie Island” remix by Hood is on the Mooie Island EP vinyl version. I’m really happy that so many great bands have made their versions of my songs. After Bill Wells remixed Pia Fraus “Chromatic Nights” we became friends and he recommended Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub to produce our whole album. Norman did it very well and I’m proud of it.
There are so many great Pia Fraus remixes, most of them are better than the original versions. Actually we have released quite many remix EPs (Imandra Lake, Bad Apples, Popidiot, Pia Fraus, Lack of Eoins).
NT: The music business has changed radically in the last five years, with streaming predominantly becoming a way for people to engage with music. Has this impacted in Estonia the same way it has in Finland? Has this been something Seksound has followed and how has the label evolved regarding new challenges within the business? Is this important to you – new forms of distribution/revenues?
RF: The situation is quite challenging indeed. But we’re ok with that. We have digital distribution in Scandinavia and the Baltic States and have just signed a new contract for the US and Worldwide with Darla Records. I buy quite many records every month but I’m also a daily Spotify user. I listen to music digitally at least one hour every day. I like that I can easily take music to my car or listen to new records before I order vinyl or CD (or even when I walk to work). I think that it’s important to know who your audience is. Smaller labels or distributors are sometimes better to work with because there is a bigger opportunity to get your music straight to your fans. Of course I hope to sell as many vinyls and CD as we can but at the same time we want to be available on Youtube, Soundcloud and Spotify for our fans who can’t or don’t want to buy physical records. Some of my own friends and Seksound artists don’t even have a CD or vinyl player at home anymore. That’s ok, it’s the 21 century and we have to be open minded about it and move on. The music is most important, not the way you listen to it. I’m happy when we have at least 1000 people in the world who will buy our vinyls and CDs.
Smaller labels or distributors are sometimes better to work with because there is a bigger opportunity to get your music straight to your fans.
NT: What’s next for the label?
RF: There are some nice Estonian shoegaze classic re-issues on the way, great music from the 1990’s – Bizarre Beautica LP. A new long awaited single of Pia Fraus will be released also at the end of this year. And one very interesting split 7” that I can’t say much about yet. Some EP’s and 2017 we’ll release a new Pia Fraus album! So stay tuned!!!
Seksound Top 5 (and a bit)
I then ask Rein if he could pick for One Quart, and for the uninitiated, his five favourite Seksound releases. Of course Rein finds this difficult with so much to recommend “It’s really hard to pick five. There are also many of my own records here which would be a bit weird to pick as a favourite. Still I’ll do my best…”
1) Kago Piimaš / Köngerjönks (2CD)
RF: One of the greatest Estonian lo-fi/folk records! We’ve re-released it as a double CD because the original CDR’s were sold out and I really wanted that more people can hear that fantastic songwriting. We just made two cover versions of Kago songs with Imandra Lake.
2) Honey Power Macrosilly CD
RF: When I first heard the demos of Honey Power, I was amazed. I was ready to release these very lo-fi demo versions. But the band made the songs even better for the record.
3) Picnic The Weather’s Fine CD/LP, (co-release with US label Shelflife Records)
RF: One of the most underrated but still one of the greatest Estonian shoegaze albums ever! Sounds and looks so great!
4) Galaktlan Teletorni Romantika 7” single
RF: This includes a very nice post-rock remix by Pia Fraus drummer’s solo project – Wolfredt. On the A side is the most beautiful and romantic tune you ever heard.
5) Bad Apples The Autumn People CD
RF: I’m really happy and proud that I have a friend like Henrik Esse, such a talented song writer. I played drums and some other instruments on this album. Featuring also members of Picnic (Rivo Järvsoo), Pia Fraus (Tõnis Kenkmaa, Rein Fuks) and Zebra Island (Helina Risti). It’s a very nice and romantic autumn music for indiepop heads 🙂 Mixed by the legendary and best sound engineer in town, Lauri Liivak.
RF: As I thought it’s so hard to pick five records, I may recommend you few more:
Bizarre Café De Flor LP. Fantastic reissue from the band from Tartu. You just can’t miss that album!
RF: Pia Fraus/Ulrich Schnauss Mute The Birds 7” split single! This is the single I’m really happy and proud of. Ulrich made such a great version of my song “Mute The Birds”. If I ever have to pick one song, I’ll pick “Mute The Birds” Ulrich Schnauss version.
Big thanks to Rein for his time.