Q&A with Finnish bluesman Micke Bjorklof (& Blue Strip) - one of the most popular roots & blues act in Scandinavia

"Blues music connects and brings people together on many levels all around the world. Learning about the history of the music you also learn about the culture. You should never underestimate the power of music."

Micke Björklöf: Dr. Blues Healer

Bandleader and singer Micke Björklöf founded Blue Strip with bass player Seppo Nuolikoski in 1991. After a few changes at the very start the lineup has been the same for over fifteen years. They started as an acoustic blues/rock cover band but before long the roots & blues music and producing original material took over. Today the band is one of the most popular live acts in the roots & blues scene in Finland. They have stirred up audiences around Scandinavia and Europe with their energetic live shows wherever they play, from small clubs to big festival arenas. Opening shows for names like B.B King, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Little Feat, Bill Wyman Rhythm Kings, Solomon Burke, Robert Plant etc.                        (Micke Bjorklof & Blue Strip / Photo by Sam Dawson) 

Ain´t Bad Yet (2015) is the sixth album by the Finnish Blues Award-winning (for “Best Band”) blues-rock group Micke Bjorklof (pronounced Be-York-Loaf) & Blue Strip. The new album was produced by John Porter, legendary for his productions of Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Santana, and no less than 10 Grammy-winning albums. The band traveled to Rockfield Studios in Wales, which has played host to many of the world’s biggest artists from Black Sabbath to Rush and Oasis, and which in 1975 was the primary studio Queen used for the recording of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Twentyfive Live at Blues Baltica” (2018) is the new album (2xCD) release from Finnish Blues Award winning blues-rock group Micke Bjorklof & Blue Strip. This is the follow up to the critically acclaimed 2015 “Ain´t Bad Yet” album, which was produced by Grammy Award winning John Porter. With this live album Micke Bjorklof & Blue Strip celebrate their 25 years career as a touring blues band. This performance was a part of the “Ain´t Bad Yet – 25-Live” anniversary tour. It represents 25-years of hard work and chronicles the band’s most popular material from this period.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I have learned that I really can touch people with the music and make a difference, which also gives me positive energy. Blues is emotionally very powerful art form, Blues is the Healer! The long history of blues teaches us that everyone should be treated equally and respect each other, we´re all the same, no matter where you come from, and what color you are.  You have the right to express yourself. Even though Blues is authentically an American music form it´s probably also one of the most international music forms, a language, musicians around the world speak. I can´t come up with any other form of music that would be so universal. It´s connecting people around the globe, even if you don´t speak the same language you can play together.

Blues music is my passion and it has many different meanings to me on many different levels. But the main thing of course is that blues is the music that I really love in all it´s different shades and colors. Blues is the music I can express myself with, I enjoy playing and listening to. The scale of emotions blues can deliver is enormous, it´s everything from sadness to happiness and joy! I can´t imagine a life without this music. I think it´s exactly like they say that the meaning of the blues is to bring joy and happiness in your life on the moments you feel sad and low. To me it really is that stress releasing, healing music. At then end Blues is also my job and it brings the bread on the table.

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well it certainly has opened my eyes in many ways when learning many new things about different countries and their cultures. Having a chance to spend time with locals talking about almost everything, all from music to political and economic situations in various countries gives you a whole lotta new perspective to see things around you when traveling in different countries. The most beautiful thing is to really learn how the blues is the real international language and connecting people around the world, I love that.

What were the reasons that you star the Blues researches? What characterize your sound and songbook?                             (Photo by Pasi Tuominen)

If I think closer about my blues path, when I was a kid I listened to all kind of music without any genre thoughts. When I look back now, so for some reason my favorite songs were always the bluesy tracks on those albums. For an example when I was 12 my grandmother bought me rockband Nazareth’s “Except No Mercy” album, my favorite track was “Busted”, old Ray Charles blues. In 80´s my musical path started moving more towards blues / blues rockish stuff amongst many other styles. Then came Stevie Ray Vaughan, that totally blew my mind, I was something like 18-19 years then.

In the beginning of 90´s I was driving a tour bus every now and then for a Finnish blues legend Pepe Ahlqvist, like Bobby Bland did for BB King, hahaha! On those tours he introduced Robert Johnson to me. That´s when I finally really got bitten with the blues bug totally and started digging deeper to the roots of blues music and I found these old delta and country blues guys. That´s the road I got stuck on, and now making my living from blues music. Even though my passion is blues, I still listen to lot of other stuff too, that´s very inspiring also musically. It also feeds your creativity when making new music.

What characterizes our sound, well, I think as a band our strength is that we all have pretty different taste in music as well as different musical backgrounds so that combination is one thing that affects when we create new music. Also the instrumentation is pretty different from a basic blues band, there´s not so often a percussion player in a blues band. He also plays mallets with his crazy Malletkat, kinda electronic vibraphone. We obviously use lot of different rhythmic elements in our music, which builds pretty unique sounding stuff combined with National steel guitar or electric slide. Anyway, we try to create interesting sounds and new contemporary blues music with a pretty wide songbook with the blues in the middle.

How do you describe LIVE AT BLUES BALTICA sound? What characterize your live album’s philosophy?

It´s organic, true with no overdubs, re-recordings added and gives a real picture how this band sounds live on stage and what happened that night at Blues Baltic festival in Eutin, Germany. I think we have also captured pretty good the stage energy here too. The real value about this double album is also that this recording is from one single concert only. In my humble opinion album keeps the intensity and good energy through out the show with all 21 songs.

“We came to the conclusion that a live album recorded from one show might be the way to go and makes for a better showcase of what this band is about…which is: entertaining the crowds! So here we are and we are proud and excited to present the first ever concert album by Micke Bjorklof & Blue Strip”.

Are there any memories from "Ain't Bad Yet - 25 - Live" anniversary tour which you’d like to share with us?

Loads of good memories, new friends and also many new places. We played for the first in France, Austria, Germany, Poland and Japan, we just good things to say about these countries. The response from the audience has been superb and we are extremely happy about this. During the tour we visited Svalbard and Japan. I think these two places have been the most exotic places where we have ever played. Just seeing the position of Svalbard on the map gets you excites, not forgetting that there lives more Polar Bears than people, that already gives you a adrenaline rush, haha! Darkseason Blues Festival is the world’s Northenmost blues festival, only one flight hour from north pole!!! There´s a really special atmosphere, especially when the dark season kicks in with four months without daylight. Highly recommended to visit, especially on the festival time.

Then again Japan and Tokyo it is in it´s own league as a metropol. I liked the culture, people are really nice and polite. What an experience for guys from a country with 5,5million people getting to this huge and beautiful city with 36million people, wow! Japanese audience turned out to be really great, even though a bit shy in the beginning but when they´re on , they´re on. Great shows, would definitely like to go back!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

First real band I ever saw playing live was a Danish blues band called Delta Cross Band with guitarist Billy Cross. I must have been around 13 years then. Meeting the band at the backstage after the show was pretty cool, they were really nice guys. I still remember some of the songs and their orange tour van. We played in Sweden couple years ago and I met the bass player Troels Jensen from the band, about 30 years later. I already mentioned Finnish blues legend, guitarist & harmonica player Pepe Ahlqvist, one of the most important experiences has definitely been when Pepe asked me to join him for a jam for the first time in he beginning of nineties. I was a big fan of his band and sharing the stage with them was something that I will always remember. It also gave a huge boost to do my own stuff. Also opening a festival show for Solomon Burke and meeting him at the back stage was something special. Can´t forget the meeting with Delbert McClinton, one of my favorites and just getting better all the time.

Around -95 I heard Johnny Nocturne Band on the radio and I really liked it. Later I visited San Francisco, I knew that band was from that city. One night I went to “The Saloon” and they had a great band on stage. After the show I asked from the guitar does he happen to know this JNB, and he said yes, I actually play in that band, guitarist was was Anthony Paule. He was really nice and next day when we met again he told us to go and check this new young talented guy called Tommy Castro. And so we did, well pretty many have heard about him since that. A Finnish rock, blues legend Eero Raittinen, who started is career in 50´s gave me this advice many years ago, “When working in music business you need to be prepared for disappointments on daily basis but don´t give up, that makes you just stronger. Dare to dream big!”

"The long history of blues teaches us that everyone should be treated equally and respect each other, we´re all the same, no matter where you come from, and what color you are.  You have the right to express yourself." (Photo by Satu Leppänen / Micke at European Blues Challenger)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I´ve been really fortunate to fulfill many of my dreams. One of them certainly is our latest album project when we had an opportunity to work together with producer John Porter at legendary Rockfield Studios in Wales. It felt pretty exciting to jump in this project with a guy with 10 Grammy awards in his pocket and that recording history, wow! Working with John was a really nice experience. He´s really creative, working on the spot, throwing ideas all the time, encouraging and creating a relaxed feel in the studio, not forgetting all the interesting stories in the evenings. We all lived in the same apartment during the sessions. I think he really squeezed the best out of the band, couldn´t be more happy with the result. Once again learned a lot from this project.

Another of the real dream come true projects was our recording session 2012 in New Orleans at legendary Piety Street Studio. This was something we as a band had talked about already for a long time, at least to take a trip to NOLA and experience the vibe of the city.  That has had an enormous impact to our music. Suddenly we are there, working together with producer Mark Bingham in a studio many of my favorite artist had used before. Could not wish for more creative environment. That city really lives and breathes with the music.

We started our “international” recordings in London with producer Neil Brockbank 2007 with Whole Nutha Thang album. We had some great guys playing on the album Geraint Watkins on keys and Matt Holland with Martin Winnings on horns, they all played in Van Morrison’s band at the time. For the first session they came straight from Vans rehearsals. On a day off Nick Lowe came to the studio to record something…I remember thinking. OK, now we´re with the big boys, haha!

Playing at Beale Street, Memphis at IBC was also a great experience; “band from Finland getting to semifinals” we heard those news on the street in the middle of the night, that made us very happy. Opening a festibal show for ZZ-Top with audience of almost 15000 few years back was something…I could get used to it!  One of the coolest and extreme places I have ever played is Svalbard, Darkseason Blues it´s the world’s northernmost bluesfestival and populated city. Darkness, polar bears and 1-hour flight to North Pole!

"The scale of emotions blues can deliver is enormous, it´s everything from sadness to happiness and joy! I can´t imagine a life without this music. I think it´s exactly like they say that the meaning of the blues is to bring joy and happiness in your life on the moments you feel sad and low. To me it really is that stress releasing, healing music." (Photo by Johan Hagström)

What has made you laugh from your opening acts to Fabulous T-birds and Solomon Burke?

We played in Norway at a festival and there was a late-night jam session. Some of the Fabulous T-Birds guys were up and there was a local drummer who was really bad, you could see it on Nick Currans and others face, they were pissed about it. Well, our percussion guy, Timo, who is really good drummer too got also pissed about the situation and disappeared. I thought he went back to hotel but suddenly in the middle of a song the curtain behind drum riser opens and our guy is there and literally kicks the bad drummer out of the stage and starts playing like nothing happened (and he´s left handed so it´s like mirror position for him). Nick Curran realized what happened and he turns to Timo and gives thumbs up and continued playing.

We played at Rauma Blues indoor festival in Finland when opened for Solomon Burke and took our stuff to the backstage at the same time a big limousine drove into the hall. It was Solomon Burke. The band already went on stage and started the show. Solomon is still sitting in the car and opens the door after 10minutes, still no rush to the stage. After a while he opens the car door and a huge guy comes slowly out. Still no rush to the stage, he starts talking to us asking about our music. Then suddenly he wanted photographers to take picture of him and our bass player when they switch hats. The absurd situation just made me laugh because there´s 2000 people waiting for him to come up and sing and he´s just hanging backstage with us with no hurry anywhere. Well, he finally got on stage and totally nailed it, it was amazing!

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

It sure would have been nice to witness all those original great blues masters playing live when they were at their best. I´ve seen some but would have loved to see and hear Howling, Muddy, Willie Dixon, Elmore etc. and all those delta blues legends. It´s great that we have their music recorded and also the younger generation has the chance to hear it and can carry on the heritage in their own way.

I hope the younger generation carries the torch respecting traditions but creating something new. Just like Muddy, Howling Wolf, Little Walter among the others did in their times. We need to find new and younger audience to the music. I think that´s the only way to keep the blues truly alive! I´m not worried about the musical future, there´s so many talented people out there. The biggest fear for me is the digital world, specially the streaming, that really is a bad thing for indie producers. The idea in itself is cool but the income flow is totally wrong. It gets harder to produce new records when there´s no income. Hopefully they find a solution that´s fair to musicians and small independent labels.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Back to already mentioned streaming, I would take that system down until there´s a fair solution for independent artists. Pretty strange business model to make a product that costs pretty much and then give it away for free. Music business has always been unfair but this crosses the line dramatically. If you don´t find Adele´s new album on streaming, that says a lot about this! I would like to hear more blues and other good music in Finnish radios too; format radios with their tight playlists are just killing the music!

"I hope the younger generation carries the torch respecting traditions but creating something new. Just like Muddy, Howling Wolf, Little Walter among the others did in their times. We need to find new and younger audience to the music." (Photo by Zack Smith)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Finland. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

First tastes of blues came to Finland around 40´s but it wasn´t until 60´s we started to our own blues scene, recorded music by Finnish artist etc. Finnish Blues News magazine is one of the oldest (since 1968) continuously published blues magazines in the world. It´s published by Finnish Blues Society. Blues has had it´s ups and downs here but I think blues is doing pretty good here at the moment. I would say that we are living the most interesting period ever within the Finnish blues scene. We have many interesting artists and very talented blues musicians here I would count them as world class. Also more younger people are coming around, which is really good for the genre overall. For the first time we have several artists going towards international careers. Besides us I could mention Erja Lyytinen, Honey B & T.Bones, Tomi Leino, Jo Buddy, Blackriver Blues Man and Wentus Blues Band. Check out also the rising star Ina Forsman, she´s touring with Ruf Blues Caravan next spring!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from States and UK to Scandinavia and especial in Finland?

Even though the term was already known here earlier they say that blues arrived to Finland 1926 when S/S Andania ship visited here and the The Andania Yankees had played St. Louis Blues among jazz standards. Local bands started playing it and the story goes on. But it wasn´t until 60´s things started happening, obviously the British blues invasion had a huge impact and that woke the awareness about the blues as well as Radio Luxemburg.  Also some Finnish radio presenters did their part bringing records from states in early sixties. Blues legend Eddy Boyd lived here from the beginning of 70´s until his death -94. I earlier mentioned Blues News magazine and Finnish Blues Society, they have been an important link with writing about the blues through the years.

"First tastes of blues came to Finland around 40´s but it wasn´t until 60´s we started to our own blues scene, recorded music by Finnish artist etc. Finnish Blues News magazine is one of the oldest (since 1968) continuously published blues magazines in the world." (Photo by Satu Leppänen)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

We just did our last show for this year and really enjoyed it, lot´s of laughs on that trip. We have lot of musical humor involved when playing live. Almost on every gig someone makes the band laugh with some funny playing, well, that´s of course inside musical jokes nobody else can understand but they can see the band enjoying themselves on stage. I just saw an old “More Cowbell” video by Christopher Walker on SNL show, that made me laugh out loud because we have a similar kinda inside joke too. Nothing has touched me this way before when my dear friend, soul mate and colleague passed away earlier this year, hard thing to accept.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Blues music connects and brings people together on many levels all around the world. Learning about the history of the music you also learn about the culture. You should never underestimate the power of music. I think you should only care about people as who they are not where they come from.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would like to be in that room when Little Walter for the first time played amplified harmonica. It would be really interesting to know how he came up to try it out, that crystal mic and guitar amplifier combination. I sure would like to see his reactions on the moment first amplified notes hitting the air, he must have been thinking something like “bloody hell, this shit works” hahaha!  It probably also would have been priceless to see the faces of his band mates when they for the first time hear that sound. Sometimes I miss that attitude those guys had for searching and creating new sounds and stuff. How mind blowing it must have been for the first time hear Muddy going electric!

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Photo by Pasi Tuominen 

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