Based in the state of North Carolina, Ari Lehtela originally is from Finland, truly one of the best countries in Europe when it comes to outstanding guitarists and composers. Both a guitarist and composer as well as a master guitar builder, Ari released his West Eats Meat CD way back in 2007 and lo and behold he’s back in 2021 with the self-explanatorily titled album The Year The Earth Stood Still. Speaking about the concept behind The Year The Earth Stood Still, Ari explains, “This album was to be conceptual as opposed to a bunch of random cuts. As 2020 rolled in, and I was still cutting tracks, I made a decision to change the direction of the album to reflect what was going on in the world in that strange year. So basically the tracks, which were nearly 100% improvised, focused on my reflections and ponderings on the narrative and reporting from both the mainstream and alternative media. The Year The Earth Stood Still contains 12 tracks with each track reflecting the "flow" of the pandemic from month to month, and even day to day for that matter, in chronological order. Mind you that the improvisations were not cut in the order that they appear but rather arranged in a later stage to best reflect each month.” The kicker here is that The Year The Earth Stood Still was recorded with a range of string instruments built by Ari himself. Assisting Ari on the 12-track, 56 minute CD are Tom Harling (saxophones) and Dave Bullard (drums). Recorded, mixed and mastered by Tom Harling, The Year The Earth Stood Still is a veritable avant-garde masterpiece and the overall effect creates quite a beguiling mix of experimental instrumental music in the realm of the late great American instrument builder Harry Partch and in more recent years, U.K. born avant-garde rock guitarist Fred Frith. Yet make no mistake about it, on The Year The Earth Stood Still Ari Lehtela renews his own musical sense of direction. On The Year The Earth Stood Still, Ari plays a number of ultra-strange sounding instruments, that he actually built by hand himself, with even stranger sounding instrument names such as Search Engine 1x/2x, Hybrid Tango, Long Neck Tela, shabas, sarod (an instrument from India with this model built by Ari), a setar (featured on the track "Interlude" but built in Turkey), along with more easy to identify instruments like bass, synth, piano, harp, percussion and more. Music fans seeking out-of-this-world sounding experimental music in 2020 will delight in The Year The Earth Stood Still featuring the wildly curious sounds of master guitar craftsman and sonic designer Ari Lehtela.
mwe3.com presents a new interview with
mwe3: It’s been way too long since mwe3.com featured your album West Eats Meat way back in 2007. And we met way back when 20th Century Guitar magazine was still alive and well. I’m glad we were able to feature West Eats Meat in both the magazine and mwe3.com as well. I can’t believe it’s been almost 15 years already. What took you so long to release The Year The Earth Stood Still in this ungodly year of 2021? Also tell us something about how the pandemic of 2020 which, I believe, is still ongoing, influenced the new album. This is the absolute craziest time in modern American history.
Ari Lehtela: So much of what started in 2020, and perhaps eons before that, is driven by things like the ‘Left Vs. Right’ paradigm which only creates more division and also diverts attention away from actual truths and facts. That said, the album is basically a personal interpretation of what happened in that year by means of improvisation based music making. Secondly, it also showcases some of my latest string instrument creations and what I’m hearing lately musically speaking.
mwe3: You pointed out the difference between The Year The Earth Stood Still and the movie of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Did you want to underscore a correlation between the movie and your 2021 CD? Maybe one day we’ll get an alien invasion to scare some sense into the Earthlings. Is The Year The Earth Stood Still a kind of soundtrack for the 2020 pandemic? Also tell us something about the George Orwell / 1984 analogy.
Ari Lehtela: Yes, there is an obvious correlation between that classic movie and my album, not only in name but also in that both present a scenario of a situation/ problem that earthlings must come to terms with. The reference to George Orwell actually came from one of my clients and I then extended it for my use, on occasion. And, yes, I suppose I like to think of my album as a possible “2020 Pandemic” soundtrack. I’m anxiously waiting for that call from a movie company, producer or director…
mwe3: You said you started recording The Year The Earth Stood Still in late 2019 but as the 2020 pandemic started to unfurl and then explode, you changed directions? Tell us about the album’s 12 tracks and how each track relates to a month, for example track 3, “March Madness”, I presume relates to the events in March of 2020 and track 5 “Pandemonium” related to the craziness of May 2020?
Ari Lehtela: That is correct, each track is meant to relate to a given month of 2020. The tracks are sequenced in the chronological order of the months that took place. It would be too long winded to describe each month but I will relate a few examples in addition to the two tracks that you referenced in your question, which by the way are correct: One example is track titled “Foot Divide” - that is actually not the full title. The number 6 precedes it, hence “6 Foot Divide” And we all know what that is referring to. In this composition, one of only two that were actually compositional on the album, I tried to capture the sense of alienation brought about by that “mandate”. Another example is “Blursdays”, which appears in latter half of the program. By that time of the year most of us had been so beaten up and tired of it all that the days were just turning into ‘blursdays’. The hazy, vague tone of the track captures that mood.
mwe3: Regarding the above tell us about the cover art on The Year The Earth Stood Still. Everybody (presumably human beings) is sort of alone, isolated on their own little island. You have the tracks listed in a very unique style. Who designed the cover? The back cover looks like an eye chart with the prophetic word 2020 at the top… in hindsight?
Ari Lehtela: Yes, those are peeps, isolated and wondering just what the hell is going on. In a kind of a zombie state if you will. And yes, the back cover is a 2020 eye chart… those with perfect vision might be able to tell what exactly happened. I designed and did the actual illustration for front and back which was converted to digital version of the original by-hand-illustration. I actually have extensive background in graphic design and illustration but nowadays it’s just a hobby.
mwe3: How did you arrive at your musical style? I know I liken the listening experience to legendary artists like Fred Frith and even Harry Partch is in there too. Did you know Fred used to come visit me when I managed the Chambers Deli on 6th Ave in NYC? When we spoke in 2007 you told me that you were into John McLaughlin and Hermeto Pascoal. But you also said your influences are so extensive. Do you think you have your own style? I haven’t seen or heard another artist and that builds the most unusual looking and sounding devices and is able to create amazing music with them. Do you have a sense of being iconic?
Ari Lehtela: That’s interesting about Fred Frith and I’m familiar with some of Fred’s work although I’ve never met him. I do listen to a number of players but try not to be influenced by them, best I can. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Turkish music and also surrounding countries. I’m really fond of the music that comes out of the North African countries as well. Also, 20th, and 21st, century music. Very little guitar but if I do it’ll be players coming from the avant garde/free jazz realm like Tisziji Munoz, James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Greenwich. Although grouping Sonny under the avant-garde banner might not actually best describe his style accurately.
mwe3: What was your background in Finland and when did you come to the US? I visited Finland first time in 1979. Did you derive some of your musical sensibilities from Finnish music? Do you have any favorite Finnish composers? As you know I released the first CDs by Pekka Pohjola, and he actually died at the end of 2008. Where in Finland were you born and what were your earliest musical memories as a child? Were you trained on guitar or other instruments first and can you recall your first guitar or amp?
Ari Lehtela: I landed in the US in 1982. Lived in Canada from 1970 till '82 and it was there that I got interested in the guitar. As far as I can remember I had a definite interest in music but it took some time to go from listening to music to playing it. My hometown is Valkeakoski, which is located a hop skip and a jump from Tampere and about 100 miles from the big one, Helsinki. In regards to Finnish music and composers, I appreciate that you brought the music of Pekka Pohjola to North American ears. Players like Pekka, both as a solo artist and with the iconic group named Wigwam, has been on my turntable for years. I really dig the album Urban Tango the most by him. It still holds water really well to this day. I never met Pekka but did meet one of his cohorts, Jukka Gustavson. I got a chance to attend several private practice sessions through my cousin Harri Vainikka who was the bassist in the band named Sahti which was led by Jukka. That’s my only connection to those players. And pretty much to the music of Finland.
mwe3: Tell us how you worked with Tom Harling and Dave Bulllard on The Year The Earth Stood Still. Are they residents of North Carolina?Tom also did the production and post-production work on it. Tell us about working with Tom and Dave on The Year The Earth Stood Still. There isn’t that much drumming on The Year The Earth Stood Still. How many tracks feature Dave’s drums? Was it all recorded live or did you overdub on tracks? For instance on “March Madness” there’s some great group interplay with Dave’s drums.
Ari Lehtela: Yes, Tom and Dave reside in North Carolina. Tom did double duty with his alto and tenor sax contribution and Dave was on drums on three trio tracks – “Blursdays”, “Conflicting Reports” and the last section of “March Madness”, as you correctly pointed out. Tom is also heard on “Pandemonium” and “Foot Divide”. We’ve played together numerous times before this session so it felt very relaxed playing with these dudes. It was just like a conversation but with instruments and just like in an informal conversation none of us had come to that with a prepared speech. And because it’s basically free form you don’t even have to have a rehearsal. I mean how can you rehearse free form?
mwe3: What guitars are primarily played on The Year The Earth Stood Still? Can you tell us something about the 1x/2x Longneck Tela and the other guitars featured on the album. Was there one guitar that is featured more than others?
Ari Lehtela: Five different guitars were featured on the album. And they are Search Engine 1x and 2x, Long Neck Tela, Hybrid Tango and Golden Ratio. The first four were built and designed by me, the Golden Ratio by Tom Harling. He also plays guitar, but not on this album. The Search 1x is a single neck fretless solid-body electric guitar and in the case of the one heard on the album made from a single slab of Imbuia, which is a hardwood of medium hard density from Brazil. The 2x is a double neck version with one neck fretted and the second neck fretless, also solid-body electric. The 1x was the most featured instrument on the album as it appears on the opening cut, as well as “Pandemonium”, “Foot Divide”, “Blursdays” and “Epilogue”. The Hybrid Tango is featured on “Sight Distance” and “Guise”. It’s basically a steel-string acoustic that can be strung up as a standard 6 string acoustic or each string doubled in courses up to 12 strings. On the recording, the 1st five strings were singles, tuned like a guitar but either a half or whole step down, or even a minor third down from regular E. The last string which normally be a low E, or 6th was strung up as a course consisting of a root and a 5th above that, tuned to the key of the composition/improv. Tom’s first build Golden Ratio gets featured on “Conflicting Reports”.
I also played several other string instruments on the recording and they were the Sarod and Saz and Harp on “March Madness” as well a Setar on the track titled “Interlude”. The Sarod and Saz were built by me and are patterned after instruments of the same name from India and Turkey respectively. The Setar that I used on “Interlude” was actually built in Turkey, not by me, and that cut is actually one of my favorite tracks. In addition, I added some cymbal work on some cuts as well as some percussion. And “Spiral”, yep, that’s me on the piano, or pianos due to the overdub.
mwe3: Tell us about Tela Guitar shop and how and when and how you started your luthier school. What is/was your vision for your guitar shop and how many instruments can you make in a year?
Ari Lehtela: I made a change to the name Tela Guitar a couple years back. So now there is Tela Guitar, Tela Guitar shop and Tela Guitar Luthiery School. I market my custom builds under the name Tela Guitar. Anyone who either knows me or has seen my work on the internet or otherwise is probably aware that I build more than just guitars. Such as the Sarod, Saz, and what I call hybrid instruments in which elements from several different instruments are combined in a form of a single or double neck instrument.
The Luthiery School began in 1998 so by now it has a long history with many students going thru the program. It is a two year program which can shortened to 6 to 8 month program if the student enrolls in the more intensive format, meaning that they are in for classes every week or even several days per week. I enjoy teaching and I guide the student thru a hands-on format of how to repair and build guitars. The student receives a certificate of completion after each class completion. In addition to guiding a handful of students each year to the guitar completion I manage to build a handful of instruments both for me and the shop as well ones ordered by a customer. The number varies from year to year. In some years I’ve built more than ten custom builds.
mwe3: Will you be moving forward with your “Tela Guitar Listening Room Concerts” on Facebook this year?
Ari Lehtela: I stopped the Listening Room Concerts when the lockdown hit back in March 2020. I do plan to return to the live shows when my clientele feel ready to come back. I’ve had some conversations about it already. Mind you my shows were always very limited in size - it’s basically the band, usually a trio, and anywhere from 10 to 15 patrons. The most dangerous element present was inhaling some wood dust from the band saw next to your seat...
mwe3: Tell us about the title track “The Year The Earth Stood Still”. It’s probably the most iconic song on the album. It’s a solo track and quite haunting. What guitar are you playing through what effects and amp? It has a kind of Finnish sounding chord structure to it. What is the chording or your melodic approach on that track? Is this one of the more structured songs on The Year The Earth Stood Still as you did mention to me way back in 2007 that you also wanted to go further into composed music.
Ari Lehtela: Yes, it is a composed piece, very simple in structure. I think the word motif might actually be more appropriate. I played the “motif” on the Search Engine 2x, using several amps in stereo plus a Boss ME-50 multi effects unit, a dinosaur but rugged with good, usable sounds. In addition there are many effects including an H2O liquid chorus from Visual Sound, version 1, and an array of EHX effects including 3 Pitch Forks. My set up grew towards the latter part of the recording sessions and at that point I was basically using a double stereo format, with 4 amps! Not to play louder but to get a bigger sound even at lower volumes. With this format I can, for example, send a different pitch to each of the 4 amplifiers using the 3 EHX Pitch Forks plus one more from the Boss ME-50. A good example of the orchestral sound that this set up yields can be heard on the track title “Pandemonium”. Everything you hear on that track was created by me on one guitar, a fretless in this case, and Tom on sax. There are no overdubs. And as a matter of fact there is very little overdubbing on the album in regards to the string instruments. The overdubbing was usually me adding some cymbals for extra color. There is a video on You Tube that shows my set up under the title “Pandemonium” Rig.
mwe3: Do you still keep in touch with friends and family in Finland? When were you last in Finland? Do you think there’s some Finnish music influence in your own music and have you had airplay or article written about your music in Finland? How would you compare Finland to the Scandinavian countries and also to life in North Carolina?
Ari Lehtela: I do stay in touch with a few people from Finland, mainly on Facebook. And I have family here and in Canada. Regarding music influence from Finland, currently none to be honest. There have been some mention of my name in the media on Finland on occasion and I only know about when someone told me of such. You know, I really don’t keep up with that kind of stuff. It’s hard for me to make any comparisons between countries about this, mainly because I don’t travel much. And I believe you have to go there in person to make intelligent assessments of such. I mean, last time I was in Finland was in 1979! The Finland I remember does not exist.
mwe3: Are you still listening to music these days or are you mostly concentrating on writing and recording and on guitar building? Because your own music is so iconic, is mainstream music of interest to you these days?
Ari Lehtela: As I said earlier I do listen to music quite a bit, some of it for nostalgia and some for educational purposes and sometimes just for fun. The current mainstream music holds no interest for me however, just being honest. I go through bouts where no music interests me and also playing as well. I almost have to build a new instrument with some unique features, whatever they might be, in order for me to get back in the saddle. Then I’m good for a while. I’m builder and player, the order of which seems to switch almost daily. But I guess builder first and foremost. Because I feel like I have to build in order to play. Actually what interests me more than music is to gain a better understanding of what this thing known as earth really is, how it was formed and where it’s going to. But that’s a whole another discussion.
mwe3: So with all this knowledge and information now in 2020 hindsight now and without any clear cut indication of how the future will look in 2022, what is your own forecast regarding the future of the US and the world as we move deeper into 2021 and the ‘20s overall? What are you planning regarding writing / recording your own music as well as plans for you guitar building?
Ari Lehtela: I would love to be able to read the tea leaves, crystal ball and get better at remote viewing and all that stuff but have no clear answer as to what 2022 will look like. As you know there are hundreds if not thousands of places to dig for those answers and it’s quite difficult to know who and what to trust. I personally don’t trust the media, especially the mainstream media and especially when there is some corporate / big pharma / multi-national corporations underwriting the narrative. Best thing I can say is to always remember who you are and keep searching for the truth.