Satellite Stories: Blue Eyed Pop

Satellite StoriesIn the summer of 2013, four young men from Oulu were part of the Arenal Sound festival in the East coast of Spain, right on the beach. It was a Saturday night and the upbeat rhythms drove the audience crazy, making everyone jump and dance as the Finns played the song Sirens. One year later, the band came back to headline the first night of the same festival in front of 20 000 people and provoke a similar reaction. “That was one time when we thought we have achieved something great”, guitarist Marko Heikkinen told me.

They are young. They are bold. They look good. They are four sweet lads from Northern Finland and they know how to do some uplifting indie pop songs. Since the very beginning, Satellite Stories career has gone up, gathering more fans one gig at the time. I first heard of them not long before the band started, back in 2010, when their mission at the time was “to bring you nostalgia from events that you never really experienced, like the 60s, first kiss from your elementary school crush and the time you and your best friend bought that awesome 45-single and listened it from your parents record player”.

“We didn’t know anything at that time”, singer/guitarists Esa Mankinen recently told me. But since then, Satellite Stories have won a good reputation as a thrilling live band, playing cheerful, carefree, good-time music at festivals and venues across Europe. This spring, Satellite Stories are ready for a bigger bang, with a brand new album ready to launch and a long Europe to follow, including a sold out show in London and stops at some memorable venues like Paradiso in Amsterdam before ending with four dates in Spain, a country that has always warmly hosted the band.

One month before Vagabonds is out, I met singer/guitarist Esa and guitarist Marko at a coffee place near Helsinki’s railway station. They carried their luggage, ready to take the evening train back home to Oulu after spending a couple of days in the capital area, doing promo interviews. Obviously, the first item on the agenda was the new album.

For this record, their third, Satellite Stories teamed up with UK producer Barny Barnicott, who has previously worked with Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay and The Editors. Last year in August, the Finns packed their gear and travelled all the way to Barny’s studio in the Kentish countryside . Summer holidays in the countryside, you may think. Far from it, according to Esa’s recollection. “We almost had 24-hour workdays, very often working from 9am to 5am. All the time there was something happening. For example, we did some vocals at 2am and I had to do my best to sing at that time. Some of the best takes were the ones done at that time in the middle of the night.”

Those busy recording sessions would last for six weeks without a break. One late night recording would be followed by an early morning start next day. No days off, not even weekends. If recording an album was not work enough, the group used the weekends to travel and play festivals in Europe. “It took a lot of energy, but it was a very good contrast, to do the album and playing live at the same time”, told Esa. It also required some sleep deprivation to the point that Marko recorded some of his guitar tracks with almost no sleep. “Once we arrived from the tour two hours before the session started, so I slept for an hour and wake up to do the guitars. That day we did Heartbeat and a couple of other songs”.

Watch the video for Heartbeat.

“Over the years, we have learned that we need a lot of discipline”, acknowledge the singer. Acting as the producer of the album, Barnicott kept the sessions at a fast pace. “He was very creative and hard working, and that is a very rare combination. Sometimes creative people are a little bit lazy and just wait for ideas to come. Instead he always searched for new ideas”.

Inspired by that discipline, Satellite Stories gained confidence to explore new ways to create their music, to try out new things. “With this album we’ve learnt to understand when the song is ready and will work”, said Esa. “Barny gave us some advice, some direction, but we had to find our way, trying different options. He did it in a very conversational way, not imposing his ideas.”

What was your main focus during the recording? I asked them.

“In this album we wanted to make good pop songs, because at the end of the road what matters is just the song, if it is good or not”, told Esa. We wanted to focus on the songs and if they’re good or not. Even though there might be many small details, those parts of the song that need to be up front are very clear. We wanted to get the main things out to the listener, very clearly”.

This way Vagabonds turned out to be a very pop album, with catchy melodies and plenty of hooks. When asked about the sound of the album, Marko explained that it sounds much more organic that the previous one (Pine Trails, 2013). “In that album, there were guitar loops and more electronic elements but in Vagabonds the drums and guitars are very natural. We also used some analog synths and acoustic guitars. It is very diverse. We even had to learn some instruments. Esa learned to play some cello!”.

Play live, blow up the speakers

”People were screaming so loud that the PA system went down”

Following the release of the album, Satellite Stories will embark on an extensive tour across Europe. Show after show, the group has built quite a following. “Two yeas ago, when we first played in Switzerland, there were only 20 or 30 people to see us. We even asked ourselves what we were doing there”, recalled Marko. But persistence and word of mouth have paid off, the fanbase keeps growing. “It seems that our early fans are still there but we’ve been adding up more and more all the time”, said Esa.

Spain remains one of the band’s favourite places to play. The appearances at the Arenal Festival were followed by some hot nights at club gigs in Madrid and Barcelona. “I think the Spanish culture and mentality are perfect for our music”, explained Esa. The first night in Madrid, the audience and band connection was intense enough to bring the PA system down. “People were screaming so loud that the PA system went down. Our mix guy could not do anything. I would imagine all you could hear were the drums and the screams. I was shocked about the situation”, the singer recalled.

The band has found the same passion in far places like Japan. “When we were the first time in Tokyo, we had released a 9-song EP there, so during the gig, I was very scared about remembering the lyrics to those songs. But when we played those I saw people already singing the lyrics better than me. I thought at that moment, I am from Oulu, I’m playing in Tokyo and people are singing the lyrics I can hardly remember. These are the kind of moments I’ll carry for the rest of my life”, humbly recalled Esa.

Despite those success stories, the band has not left behind the typical Finnish modesty. The four of them are still based in Oulu, where they spend ordinary lives, close to nature and can focus on the music. “Being in the countryside means that we do not get so many outside views and we can follow our instincts. That’s really good for us because the music is pure this way”, said Esa.

Perhaps this is the only way to understand how four young guys from Oulu can sell out a show in London and get to know about it while doing cross-country skiing.

Vagabonds will be out on 6 March via Soliti. European tour starts on 27 February.