Himukalt is the artistic banner of Ester Kärkkäinen. I wonder if Himukalt is also the lens through which Ester’s image is refracted: the mechanistic grind and distortion that obfuscates her voice, the blurs and smears that drench her multi-xeroxed self-portraits. I’ve been captivated by Himukalt’s output since I discovered her Conditions Of Acrimony tape last year. With her latest tape Vulgar, the noise feels thicker and closer. Static clings to flesh. Loops rupture the fluidity of living. The tape has already sold out at No Rent at the time of writing, although copies might still be available from Ester directly.
Below, Ester and I discuss claustrophobia, the parallels between her noise and her photography, and her encounter with that girl in the bar.
How did Himukalt begin?
It was an evolutionary process at first. My education into electronic music was by fumbling through four-track and digital recording, mostly on my own but there was a lone class at a community college that introduced me to the basics of digital editing. At the time, I had plunged into the early industrial sounds of SPK, TG, Whitehouse, after teen-angst years of emo-goth stuff. Some of that i still appreciate. The first Christian Death record for sure and Lydia Lunch too. In that electronic music class, I was interested in the things that created noise – grinding, discordant, violent, head-clearing. The ARP 2600 and the Korg MS-20 (both were emulators, then) were the tools I gravitated towards. I was frustrated by the framework of the class that emphasized some rather stuffy ‘avant-garde’ work (though i’ve found that I do like some David Tudor and some Daphne Oram). Compounded by the all the dudes in class who just wanted to use the equipment to make lame beats, I ditched class, but I did make a bunch of recordings in those facilities. Much of which I mine to this day. I’ve taught myself a lot over the years. Photography, electronics, computers, even auto mechanics.
None of this really took shape until about two years ago, when I really began to focus on cutting up the noise, copying the noise, re-producing the noise into chunks and phrases and rhythms. These paralleled some initial sketches I was doing with black & white photography of female body: sometimes my own corporeal flesh, fat and bone; sometimes women who look like me; sometimes not. All of these images are photocopied and re-photocopied, and sometimes photoshopped. Self-reproduction. A false mirror of my own falsehoods about the body, the feminine, etc. Out of all of this came a very potent engine for anger, rage, desire, and misery. It spilled into the electronics and is tempered in the images through the distancing of all of that xerox distortion.
What function does Himukalt hold in your life? On your website, you seem to infer that Himukalt offers you an opportunity to become something else / tap into certain modes of being. Is working with Himukalt a transformative process?
There are times when all I think about is Himukalt, and there are times when i find myself depressed, bored, distracted, etc. and I don’t think about recording. I do struggle with mental health issues. Himukalt helps, but I know better than to become addicted to this facet of my existence as the sole purpose of living. In all of the negative energy I bottle up and seek to purge, Himukalt is a place to exorcise all of that. I know my fate. It ain’t pretty. If there’s a transformative process at work, it’s a temporary release valve, but it’s no solution, no salvation. But there can be some ecstatic experiences that make it all interesting.
Obfuscation seems prevalent in your sound. Most notably, the voices on Vulgar are part-concealed behind noise and delay. Is there a particular reason why you gravitate toward masking the human voice like this?
If all of the emotion can come through the noise, why bother with enunciating bad poetry clearly? When No Rent was about to release Vulgar and I was discussing the artwork with bigbadbossman Jason Crumer, he posed the idea of including some lyrics. I toyed with the idea of trying to re-engineer the words after the fact. With all of the effects applied and edits made, I couldn’t discern what I originally said. That came as a relief that whatever shit lyrics are in there can’t be deciphered. Of course, some words are recognizable and that’s intentional, but I still think it’s better to have those rough edges. I care about the emotion of a sound, a voice. Much of the vocal work is of me yelling through the chatter I write down as stream of consciousness stuff. I don’t want it to be understood, because the content is meaningless once I begin to muck around with flanges, phasers, synth patches and distortion. I want there to be something human living and breathing throughout.
As with Conditions Of Acrimony, the soundscape of Vulgar is very enclosed. I feel like the noise is pressing inward against my body and my head. Is there a deliberate intention to generate a sort of claustrophobic pressure through your music? If so, is this pressure analogous to any forces in other aspects of life?
It is absolutely intentional to produce claustrophobia.
Analogous pressures. That’s an interesting question I hadn’t considered. It was always about my body, my self, my psychic state being threatened internally or otherwise. Dunno what more to say about that.
Your releases tend to be limited runs with little promotion. Is there a certain appeal to restricting your output to the eyes/ears of a limited number of people? Coupled with the obfuscation of the voice, I wonder if there’s a certain conflict in the desire to communicate; putting a message into the world while simultaneously throttling it back.
Shit. I figured the 100 copies of this particular tape or that amounted to a small but welcoming audience of noise freaks. I do this because i’m compelled to, and I’m grateful for anybody giving the work a listen. As far the production and distribution, that’s out of my control. I don’t think that i’m intentionally holding anything back. Though you have picked up on an important aspect of feminine seduction! But that aspect of lust is not what I’m trying to address in Himukalt.
Is there a particular environment (time, place, sensation) that you find most conducive to the generation of your art?
Not really. I like the cold of the snow. I like the dry heat of the summer. I like recording throughout the night with a pack of cigarettes and bottle of bourbon. I like recording in the early morning when the sun rises with a cup of tea. Anytime i can, i suppose.
I see that your blog consists largely of indistinct black and white photographs of the female body. Are these images of you, or taken by you? What role does visual imagery play within your work?
Some of the images are self-portraits. Some are taken by me. Some are appropriated. I guess the images are a much quicker way to get something done. To have a ritual that gets a simple / quick idea out. I like working with film. That can be expensive. Photocopies (especially when i can exploit the xerox machine at work) are a hell of a lot easier. I save some of the spent carbon cartridges and use those to get some of the grain and distortion. I think the role of these is the same as the distance created through the electronic noise on the voice. Or something to the same effect.
Who is “that girl in the bar”?
I wondered if anybody would ask! I wonder if I’ll ever run into her again. It’s an old habit to wander from time to time through Nevada and California when I don’t have anything better to do. It’s easy to drift along highway 50 or highway 395 with nothing to think about. Clears the mind. For me at least. Well, I found myself in Alturas, California back in October of last year, and I was low on cash. This nice lady, I think her name was Beth or Betty or Betsy, something short of Elisabeth, chatted me up at one of the only bars in that small town. We just talked — life, loves, dreams, jobs, art (she was some sort of artist from Portland), she bought me drinks, and didn’t want anything in return. I didn’t have a place to stay, and I was planning on sleeping in the truck. She let me stay in her hotel room, just wanted the company. That’s rare and it was refreshing. I was making that record (Vulgar), and I was thinking that I would probably never see her again. That made me sad. I figured I’d mention her in the liner notes since her positive energy helped me through the rest of 2016.
What other music have you been listening to recently?
I can’t believe i hadn’t heard Mörder Machine until recently. This was a project that Marco Corbelli had in 1998. He’s also known as Atrax Morgue, and these recordings seem even more focused of filthy, death-obsessed industrial electronics. He’s been a big influence on me. Puce Mary and She Spread Sorrow are also contemporary artists I really respect. I probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to do this if I hadn’t grabbed that Fehjed tape. that was Puce Mary and the dude from Hoax. i still return to SPK’s Leichenschrei and CLOCKDVA’s Buried Dreams. Classics. I’ve been crushed out on Emma Ruth Rundle – sad, angry folk tunes. And that Yves Tumor record on PAN is fucking sexy. There’s a Merle Haggard’s greatest hits tape in the truck that reminds me of being a little kid. That still gets a lot of play.
What’s next for you and for Himukalt?
I can’t believe how busy I will be in the coming 12 to 18 months. Malignant Records, Secret Chants, Sinneslöschen and Helen Scarsdale have all asked for recordings. May work with Angst and No Rent again too. I’m really flattered by all of this attention. It’s very unexpected. I did have a bit of ‘writer’s block’ once these requests came in. But that passed. Bourbon & cigarettes – a wonderful solution to a lot of personal shit.