Interview with vocalist Immu Ilmarinen
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: August 1, 2017
Back in the early 80s in Finland there were just a handful of groups that wanted to do music like Motörhead, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Twisted Sister, etc. with such names as Zero Nine, Tarot, Oz, Iron Cross, Peer Günt and a few others. From Northern Ostrobothnia in a city called Oulu came a band named Riff Raff that started playing pretty light Hard Rock when they formed in 1979 but moved to a more straightforward, raw-sounding Heavy Metal band before splitting up in 1984 after releasing three full-length albums. The band's last two albums, Robot Stud (1982) and their swan song Give the Dead Man Some Water (1983), received quite a bit of international attention, though without much success for the band, certainly not enough to keep Riff Raff alive for more than just five years. Riff Raff managed to share stages with KISS, Motörhead, Alice Cooper (after reuniting for a short moment), etc. during their brief existence which isn't not bad for such a short-lived Heavy Metal act.
The Metal Crypt is always up digging up old graves of yesteryear's Heavy Metal music and we decided to contact one of Riff Raff's main forces, Immu Ilmarinen, who sang and played bass for Riff Raff. Immu was kind enough to share bits and pieces of Riff Raff's story with us. Keep reading to find out more about these semi-legendary Finnish Heavy Metal heroes...!
Luxi: First off, thanks for accepting my interview invitation.
Immu: Thanks to you!
Luxi: Riff Raff is considered one of the first Finnish Heavy Rock/Metal bands. As it's been a long time since those days and this new generation of people may be unaware of the events that led to the formation of the band, would you kindly shed some light on how Riff Raff actually got started?
Immu: We were playing Rock and Hard Rock stuff with various bands before Riff Raff took off. It was fun to play at the school parties that were pretty common in back then. Those of us that were most eager to play passionate gigs were also the ones that wanted to start writing our own stuff and so we decided to form a new band to live the vision in our minds. We started to write our own music and Riff Raff was born. We were some sort of Metal culture pioneers in Finland, when I look back.
Luxi: The first ever release from Riff Raff was a 2-track 7-inch single containing "Gonna Make It Roll" and "Jealous Woman". What are some of your memories from that release? How did you convince the already defunct Poko Records to release the single?
Immu: There were lot of local and northern Finnish pros that enthusiastically recommended Riff Raff to Epe Helenius of Poko Records, so we got our voices heard.
Luxi: It's said that Riff Raff won some sort of band contest in the early eighties and ended up on a compilation album titled Heavy Metal & Live, with two tracks; "I'll Be Gone" and "Rock'n'Roll Star. Again, Poko Records released it, on both vinyl and cassette. Did this compilation album help Riff Raff to become more recognized in Finland or abroad?
Immu: Riff Raff were attending Rock SM (the Finnish competition for new bands) and won the two local qualifications and was third on the national final. The band got a lot of attention from the national press in Finland and the band's aggressive and focused approach was seen as unusual at that time. Poko Records organized a concert at Tampere Technical School's auditorium and almost all the well-known Finnish Hard Rock bands at that time were there. It was one step to get Riff Raff exposed to the Finnish press and audience.
Luxi: Riff Raff's debut album, No Law 'n Order, saw the light of day in 1982 and Poko Records was behind it once again. What are some of your recollections about this particular album and what can you tell us about the songs on it? Were you still trying to find your musical direction?
Immu: We were hitting the yet unfinished Soundmix studio to record and mix this album. There were some difficulties getting the band's live energy translated to the record because of technical issues and missing equipment and also because there was trouble with production and the time available. But we made a little nice diary of the stories told by the teenage Riff Raff.
Luxi: It was mainly your drummer Esa Palosaari and guitarists Riku Kukkonen and Jouko Salonkari who were responsible for songwriting. Can you remember if each of you had a common idea of how you wanted Riff Raff to sound? Also, on the album credits the name Stenroth is mentioned a lot. I guess that was the alias of Kessler, your bassist? Just to get things straight...
Immu: Actually, we had a greater idea back then, but it translated better on the next album. No, Stenroth is one of our friends who helped us a lot in the beginning. I think he would have been a great Rock 'n' Roll performer, but as he himself expressed, "I can't f***ing sing or play, maybe I can help you guys..." Kessler is also a friend from that time and was doing a great job as a roadie back in the day.
Luxi: Riff Raff's second album, Robot Stud, released later in 1982, was a more advanced, refined and definitely heavier album compared to the debut album. Qhat happened between these two albums as far as the band's musical progression is concerned?
Immu: We were getting things more like we wanted. We had a lot of new songs and we wanted to do it properly this time. Soundmix as a studio was closer to being finished and I was taking the production duties with Antti Porkka who was the manager for the studio and also for the Mirror label at that time. We were paying attention to the details more and had a great recording engineer Hannu Karjalainen, who was patiently doing all the needed tricks to get the album done. The songwriting sounded more like us; heavier, more like Riff Raff's "hard Street Rock way".
Luxi: How well has Robot Stud stood the test of time after 35 years, in your opinion?
Immu: I think we captured all the essential things and this album is still sought out by new generations and the older ones keep listening to it. That is always the real test for any music.
Luxi: When Robot Stud came out in 1982 did it bring about more gig opportunities for Riff Raff? Did you play any shows with Zero Nine, the Finnish Hard Rock/Heavy Rock legends, from the same town? What else happened for Riff Raff in the gig front during 1982? Anything remarkable?
Immu: We started to get gigs at clubs, but we were also playing bigger festivals with acts like Motörhead and Gillan. It was really fun and we got a very good response.
Luxi: Did you get any invitations to play abroad? Riff Raff didn't have a booking agent back in the day, I assume?
Immu: Unfortunately, back then there was no social media so the records were brought to new countries mainly by the people that were excited about something here in Finland and wanted to show this new thing abroad. We got attention but there were no agencies that could get us playing outside Finland even though we had many inquiries.
Luxi: Moving on to 1983, that's when Riff Raff's third and final album, Give the Dead Man Some Water, was released on Amulet Records, which was a Finnish label founded in the mid 80s, concentrating on releasing Finnish Rock music. How did this deal come about and what did the label do for Riff Raff to get Give the Dead Man... promoted?
Immu: The Mirror label wanted to get us to bigger audience and dealt with Amulet's Alpo Kettunen, who was eager to get us higher. They did lot to help us.
We had bigger gigs in Finland including a support slot for KISS, and more national press presence. Polarvox/Amulet had acts like Hanoi Rocks but it did not take care of the international releases or bookings. We were played on a lot of indie radio stations worldwide and got fan mail from all round the world, the result of Amulet's promotion work. Unfortunately, they did not work out any co-releasing deals with international labels.
Luxi: Riff Raff's last album also featured Kaija "Koo" Kokkola on backing vocals, who became a famous Finnish pop singer later on. How did she end up doing backing vocal stuff on Give the Dead Man...? Was it a marketing trick or was there more serious thought behind her participation?
Immu: Yes, Kaija and I made a heavier version of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" (the original song is well known from the C.S.I. series). The producer of this album, TT Oksala, wanted Kaija to sing with us and it was fun. Kaija Koo sang a lot of backing vocals on that album.
Luxi: Do you think things could have gone better so that Riff Raff could have taken a bigger leap to greater things after the third album's release? What were some of the major obstacles preventing things from happening for Riff Raff?
Immu: I think it was mainly the lack of international contacts. If we were more patient and continued to do new albums, maybe we would have been more lucky, who knows.
Luxi: Did Riff Raff ever consider relocating to another country (like Sweden) where the music markets were bigger and more professional and established in the 80s? In the 80s Finland, the music business was still - more or less, kind of amateurish...
Immu: Yes, we did, but that was not possible without dramatic changes, and thus did not happen.
Luxi: Riff Raff disbanded in 1984. What were the major reasons that led to this unfortunate decision?
Immu: The band probably would have gone further with proper management.
Luxi: Were there any special yet inspiring moments after Riff Raff was laid to rest in 1984 when you seriously thought of reuniting your forces again?
Immu: Actually, we made two special appearances. One was to be support for Dio, but that fall Ronnie got sick and later died. We ended up playing as support for Alice Cooper.
The second gig was at Oulu Pophistory; a concert that works for charity. We had a great fun at those gigs.
Luxi: Both Robot Stud and Give the Dead Man... were re-released on your own label, Mastervox, in 2003. How big were the editions for these reissues and are there still some left for interested parties?
Immu: Yes, we made a new run and both are still available and I keep on sending them as people all around the world want them. Crazy...
Luxi: You told me previously that Hellion Records, the Brazilian office in particular, is about to re-release both Robot Stud and Give the Dead Man... for the South American markets due to a fair amount of demand. Will there also be some bonuses on those Hellion re-releases?
Immu: I think they are releasing the CDs soon with both CDs as they are, but as jewel box versions.
Luxi: I am also pretty sure people have been asking for a re-release of Riff Raff's extremely rare debut album, No Law 'n Order. Are you hesitant to re-release it because it represents a whole different era in Riff Raff's repertoire?
Immu: Well, Poko Records that released it in 1982, is not active anymore. But who knows.
Luxi: Lastly, I would like to ask what are some of your best and/or unusual memories with Riff Raff that you will cherish until that day when you have been placed in your wooden box six feet under?
Immu: For the unusual, it was thrilling to stop in the Finnish countryside with our coach that was converted from an old mini-market bus that still had shop ads. Those angry older ladies that came to buy some milk were disappointed when we only had some vodka on board.
For the best, the gigs at those bigger festivals and concerts were awesome...
Luxi: Nowadays you play bass in the Finnish Power/Heavy Metal band Afterworld that you joined in 2015. How are things with Afterworld and have you had any plans to take one of Riff Raff's songs for your set list gigs as a cover song perhaps?
Immu: Yes, we have been making a new album for a while and it's ready to be released later this year. The gig list might have some cover versions, I can't say which ones yet.
Luxi: Thanks so much for your time Immu, all the best with your future endeavors. Any last words to wrap up this conversation properly?
Immu: Thanks go out to you! Thanks to everyone who is reading this. Stay tuned!
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