You can't help but notice Finnish bluesman Ilkka Helander's wild, white hair, like David Lynch crossed with Back to the Future's Doc Brown. It marks him as either a wild musician, a mad scientist, or someone slogging through a pandemic. All of which, as it turns out, are fairly accurate.
Helander is the driving force behind Dr. Helander & Third Ward, authentic Chicago blues with a literal, and charming Nordic accent. But he's also an accomplished scientist with two PhDs, still actively working in his field while also keeping his band together.
He's practicing an American art form as someone born and raised outside of the United States, but the tension makes for strong, authentic music. Not authentic as in exact reproductions of 1960s electric blues, but authentic as in charged with honesty. Helander might not sound like Muddy Waters, but you recognize the blues—Helander's blues—as soon as you hear his music.
Helander came to the blues as a teenager in late '60s Finland. He read a negative review of John Mayall's Diary of a Band, which for some reason made him want to hear the album. "Listening to the album—in the library, as we did not have a record player at that time—initially I had absolutely no idea of what was coming," he says. "[It] proved, however, extraordinarily exciting, and from this very moment I was completely sold." Helander went back to find Mayall's American influences, like Lightnin' Hopkins and Robert Johnson.
He discovered even more blues when he moved to Helsinki for college in the early 1970s, unlocking a world of record stores with an even greater blues selection.
Helander's interest in the blues continued through college, along with his studies, as he eventually earned his PhD in microbiology (the second doctorate would come decades later), and began a career working in labs, and subsequently doing scientific translations, endeavors that left little time for music.
Helander reconnected with the blues after jamming with some friends at a birthday party and his musical career, although largely limited to touring Finland and Scandanavia, continues to progress. The pandemic has slowed things down, but hasn't stopped him. "We just had a great gig in Helsinki recently after a long pause, giving us faith for the future again," he says.
Science and the blues seem very separate until you do a deep dive into Helander. For instance, the administrative aspects of laboratory life didn't thrill him. "I miss science so much sometimes because I loved making experimental work in the laboratory," he says with a fondness that is downright to confusing to someone who say, for example, only escaped CHEM101 due to the kindness/pity of a lab partner. Another way to view Helander is that he likes doing things, and not wading in bureaucracy, like so many artists (and regular people). Even his scientific translation work is an outgrowth of his appreciation for writing. Looking at this arc, and his hair, the blues starts to make sense.
In this interview, Helander discusses his songwriting process, also helpfully comparing it to how he writes scientific papers. Helander also walks us through the Finnish blues scene and discusses how he found the blues in a place so far from where the music originated. The blues is more than the United States and it's fascinating to see how different cultures have taken the form and found ways to make it their own. It shows how the blues continue to grow, even in places where you might not expect it.
WM: One of the things that I love about your music is that you sing with your natural accent. You don't try and sound American. Was that a choice?
Helander: No, I tried to make it sound [American] [laughs].
No, it's not a choice. I think the accent is something that you cannot really get rid of. The last album, that first review we got from the regional newspapers, was that the pronunciation is so bad that it was shameful to listen to.
WM: Did you agree with that?
Helander: No, I don't accept that. I think it's good enough. It's okay if the accent is present. What's wrong with that?
WM: Have you ever thought about putting more Finnish sounds into your music?
Helander: No. I don't think it [would] be very productive, in my case [laughs]. But [I] might be able to do that. Why not? But no, I never thought that. Except probably for this Finnish accent that is mentioned.
Songwriting by the sea
WM: Did you start writing your own songs right away?
Helander: No, I didn't. The whole story goes that I was playing myself, and then we had a band in the '70s, where we played all kinds of music, and some blues as well. But at that time, there was no writing of songs, at least by me. It only took place after we started making albums much later, in the '90s. Because I had stopped most of my musical activities by the time I [was] 40 years old. Then I arranged a larger birthday party where I invited some of my old friends to play. And somehow we thought, 'Oh, this sounds fine' [laughs]. Or feels fine. I don't know if if sounded so fine...
But that's the moment when we started a new band again, which fairly rapidly was becoming more and more professional with some personnel changes. And then we made the first album in '95, or something like that, that contained probably one or two songs that I had written. After that, I have carried that out to a much larger extent, but I don't write songs all the time. I only begin to write songs when I have to [laughs]. And in the '70s, it was impossible to make a record, for instance. So there was not no point really to do anything like this, but it was better to try to learn to play and sing.
WM: When you're doing an album, how do you typically start a song?
Helander: Well, our songwriting system is a very clear-cut thing. I don't know if it is very common to do it like that, but the typical story is that, okay, we have some kind of a deadline; we should have an album next spring, so we start getting together, jamming. We are three in the band now. The band is now a couple of years old and [has] grown very well together, I think. And we have a drummer who has their own studio where we can go most anytime. We don't have to hire it for a certain period of time and so on.
So we get together, we jam. A typical line of work is that I have an idea, a small idea, probably a little riff also, and we start elaborating on that. And within two hours, we typically have [the] structure of a new song—without lyrics. Sometimes these songs initiate from some existing songs. Let's say we now worked the song where I originally thought that we'd make a Magic Sam thing. We started to do it, it turned out completely different. And then we usually record it, the music, the structure, and then we need the lyrics. Sometimes I have have an idea of the lyrics already at that time. But I let it be. I cannot write lyrics in a forced situation.
So typically, I go [for] a long walk on the seaside. And when I come back, I sometimes have two songs in my head. I have to hurry back, so not to forget them [laughs]. I think some of my best songs have come very easily, the lyrics, for instance, during bicycling or jogging. The rhythm of the walking facilitates the lyrics to come out. But these are typical things. Then I have, sooner or later, completed lyrics, and we finish the song, sing it, and we play the solos or whatever. This is typical.
The key is that the guys in the band now, they are so professional, that this is possible. We have a similar goal to begin with and then we have means to structure the song. [If], for instance, you play with your friends, who are not professionals, the song will not develop beyond [a] certain level. I think we should be very happy about that, that we have this kind of collaboration going on.
WM: So do you feel like the band pushes you to make the song better?
Helander: Yeah. And make structural ideas that sort of rises above mere jamming. The blues is a difficult thing because it is basically the same chord structure [laughs], but it's very good if you can make some sort of hooks into it.
WM: How conscious of you about making hooks? Are you thinking analytically like 'Oh, let me do a descending line' or is it what sounds good in the jam?
Helander: I don't think I'm very analytical about it. It's emotional.
WM: When you're writing lyrics do you think in English or in Finnish?
Helander: Absolutely in English. I think in English.
WM: All the time?
Helander: With respect to lyrics? Yes.
Science versus song
WM: What language do you think in if you're working on a scientific paper?
Helander: It's also English. So I have something close to 100 original articles to my credit. I liked writing from the very beginning, in science, something which many people don't like at all and cannot do. Chemistry and microbiology, everything is published in English. There is no other way.
WM: How does your scientific article writing process compare to your songwriting one? Are there any similarities?
Helander: It is extremely interesting. I think they are very similar processes. For instance, you have to know what you're doing. You must have a goal, you must master techniques. You must be open to ideas, you must make mistakes, and learn from them. This is quite [a] similar thing, especially when producing music or making songs, or making albums. An album is then an equivalent to a larger piece of scientific work, which comes out in a major article, I think. They are similar things. Believe me.
WM: What's a songwriting mistake you've made? Have you recorded something that you now think is a mistake?
Helander: I wouldn't say that something like that would be on an album. But in some earlier stage, when devising the lyrics, everyone else's thoughts, everyone else's lines, they have to be corrected.
WM: What were you listening to before the blues?
Helander: Ah, this was in the late '60s. Of course, people listened to all kinds of pop music. But earlier, in the very early '60s, there was a musical trend in Finland, which was very popular, which we called Iron Wire music, based [on] the Shadows, you know, played by Stratocasters and instrumental music, beautiful melodies and so on.
We had several bands, which were very good in Finland and in Scandinavia. This was very popular for a couple of years. And this actually was my first introduction to guitar. I already had an electric guitar at the time, but I never learned to play it. Somehow the blues later on made me immediately go deeper into this thing.
WM: And it was called Iron Wire?
Helander: Iron Wire. That just refers to clear Stratocaster sound with reverb. I don't know if there's a good English translation to it.
WM: Yeah, I think we call it surf.
Helander: Yes. But surf is a bit different. This Iron Wire thing, often they used old melodies from [Finnish] folk songs and so on.
Discovering the blues
WM: Once you you heard the blues, did you know it was something you wanted to do forever? Or was it gradual?
Helander: This was an instant falling in love. I don't know what it was. The Mayall album actually was long jams, and even some free playing. But I found it extremely interesting and enchanting. So it started it all, but then I rapidly began to search for more blues and real blues, I mean American black blues and so on. And before that, I think I already had a Hendrix record, and I liked it, of course; I loved it. But I didn't think it was blues. I don't think I had ever heard about the blues at that time. It was later on that I understood that there is so much blues in Hendrix's music.
WM: So once you heard the blues what sent to your guitar?
Helander: Well I just grabbed the guitar and started to look for chords and melodies in it [laughs]. This was a time when there was absolutely no teaching, that you couldn't get any. I think if I had taken an electric guitar to the school, I probably would have been [suspended]. So it was hard.
I spent thousands of hours, probably, in my room, practicing just by ear, when I started to get records and so on. And then I don't know, it developed over a fairly short time. I think I had a rather good technique already fairly early. I developed it further and later on, for the last 40 years, I've been trying to get rid of it to make it more [straight-forward] [laughs].
WM: You're from a different world than the one in which the blues was made. Why does blues have such an international appeal?
Helander: In my opinion, it's the honesty in it. When I first heard Lightnin' Hopkins, I was amazed by the directness and honestness in it, and it has remained as a major line of feeling it. There's no thought of faking it.
WM: Was Lightnin' Hopkins the first one that hooked you?
Helander: Yes. I first heard [him] on the radio. There was a blues program in the late '60s, [on] the national radio. And that's where I first heard Lightnin' Hopkins' "Sick Feelin' Blues," which was so great. I never forgot that. And then, when I moved to Helsinki, I began to grab records, and then I [learned] Robert Johnson, BB King, and Magic Sam were great. Even influences, in the early times, the early '70s. Robert Johnson. BB King, whom I saw in I think '72 in Helsinki. Buddy Guy. Magic Sam. All these are typical names, that they also influenced me quite much.
WM: Who would you say is your biggest influence?
Helander: I would like to say in guitar, Mick Taylor from the early Mayall era. Certainly. Buddy Guy equally. Otis Rush. Peter Green. Well, you know, I'm an old school guy. I could name all those like, Peter Green and Eric Clapton. Of course, Michael Bloomfield and Johnny Winter.
I really would like to hear somebody, what they hear in my playing, because I just play what I play. It's not so conscious.
WM: Who influenced you vocally?
Helander: Yeah, this must be also from the early Mayall era. Or then I do these Lightnin' Hopkins songs. He has influenced me quite a lot. Junior Wells, I think, is a singer that [has] influenced me. Naturally, I've recorded many of these songs by these people who I've mentioned.
As a background, I sang with the boys' choir during my teenage years, every Sunday in the church singing those religious and patriotic tunes. The other extreme might be something like trying to sing like Charlie Patton. So I am somewhere in between. It's hard to tell actually.
I think the vocal style is mainly dictated by the song. Such as if I have a Lightnin' Hopkins tune, I try to sing it in a laconic way, but in singing my original tunes, I just try to be myself and do my own voice. Influences are so many and somebody could hear them in my vocals.
WM: What's the blues scene like in Finland?
Helander: I think Finland has, for quite a long time, a very vibrant blue scene. There are many bands who actually make a living off of it, doing gigs all over Europe, for instance. Now it's all gone. But there are many, we have lots of, in a normal time, blues festivals. I think there's one every weekend in Finland in the summertime. Even large ones, like this Lakeside Blues Festival, which used to be one of the largest in Europe, with major stars, like you could name any. And then smaller ones, and clubs in Helsinki, carry blues every week, and so on.
I think that whole scene started probably in the '70s. I remember the first bands that I saw. And then there was a, I don't know if it's a totally Finnish phenomenon, this kind of rockabilly boom in the late '70s, and some of these rockabilly people later on turned into the blues, some with very puristic attitudes or approach. There were bands who were playing genuine Little Walter, dressed in suits and wearing ties, and using exactly the same amplifiers; this kind of purism.
But yeah, there are many and many good players, people making albums. I think it's a vibrant scene all the time.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.