‘It’s about carving out your own path’
Listen Local Interview
How did you come up with the name for your band?
Mari: It’s the Estonian version of the Latin word opus, as “a piece of work”.
Johannes: It happened at the end of one rehearsal, as Mari was just having fun, singing, and said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, now Johannes is going to present his oopus number 1!’. Then I really thought that whatever I play now, I really have to deliver. So instead of being tired at the end of our rehearsal, we actually got really excited. It felt like I’m not just practicing anymore, but we are actually playing and that boosted me. And when thought about the band name,
OOPUS was a great candidate, because our approach was that every time we create something, it’s the best that we can do.
How did you get into the genre of folktronica?
Johannes: Every artist or creative person that starts their creative journey has to answer the question of where they fit in. You don’t want to be generic and fit within one particular genre, but there’s also comfort in being able to pinpoint it with precision. As we found out, we were not able to define a very precise genre, so we just started to say out different things to feel if it fits. We considered that Mari plays Estonian traditional music, and we combine it with electronic music, so we called it folktronica. But when we looked into Wikipedia, we found out that folktronica has been out there for quite a while. But we couldn’t really find a better definition because it’s a quite simple concept. You can combine electronic music in any sense with folk, root music, or world music, so we paid attention to the combination of the two and started calling it folktronica.
Mari: And our paths took us to where we are now because I have a background in Estonian traditional music. I studied Estonian bagpipes and runo songs, the Estonian culture. During that time, I was also actively playing folk instruments with DJs and before going to study traditional Estonian music, I had a band with a guy who was playing synthesizers where I was singing and playing the flute. So, when I went to study, I already had a background in electronic dance music and organising parties. It was really close to my heart, so I realised that those two worlds, the traditional music and EDM, had so many similarities. For example, in order to keep the person on the dance floor, there are basic math rules that you have to take into consideration. When I met Johannes, he was studying sound engineering at the same school where I was studying traditional music. He already had some experience with traditional music and talharpa and he was also into electronic music. When we started jamming together, we thought that this is exactly what we wanted to do, and it seemed so logical.
Which instruments are you using?
Mari: I play the Estonian bagpipe, the mouth harp, Estonian zither, and also flutes and different whistles besides runo songs, which are dominant in the music that we do.
Johannes: Johannes: I play live, both analogue and digital synthesizers. Because I play live, I don’t use any samples from the computer and only use it to sum the sounds and mix them together. So, the computer is more of a live-sound and effect instrument, rather than playing something straight from it. My goal is to perform completely without the computer.
We also have Aleksander Sprohgis in our band, who is a lights and visual artists. He creates live visuals during our concerts. Now for over 2 years Raho also joined us. Raho Aadla is our dancer. Now we’re using Mari and Raho as live video imputs. For example, if you look at the video for the single Käi kiike korge’elle, you can see what kind of visuals we are using as live effects on screen.
Mari: We film real-time video inputs on stage of me singing or of Raho dancing, and then Aleksander twists and turns and manipulates the visuals on the spot. We started using this on our live streams first, and now we’ve taken it on stage.
Are the stories you base your songs on original, or are you creating the lyrics yourselves?
Johannes: There’s one specific song that is one of the most famous in Estonia. There’s a very good Estonian singer Lauri Õunapuu from a metal band called “Metsatöll”. He was researching what’s popular at the moment in the genre and found out that there’s one specific song that has been covered multiple times and it’s called “The Horse Game”, “Hobusemäng”.
Mari: It’s a traditional game song and a lot of people learn it when they’re in kindergarten.
Johannes: When we started the band, we thought that we definitely need to do a cover version of this song. It was an unbelievably high number of times that this song was covered and of course we decided to do our own version of it, because it’s cool to hear different variations. We have also done our own lyrics. For example, we participated in the national selection for the Eurovision, and we needed to present an original song following really strict rules, where you can’t use any traditional lyrics. So, we are now also making original songs and tunes.
Mari: Sometimes we use traditional lyrics and add lines of our own.
Johannes: For example, the single Käi kiike korge’elle from the last album is an original based on traditional lyrics, but of course the music and melodies are all coming from us.
Considering this influence of Estonian folk tradition, where do you feel most at home?
Johannes: Well, the answer is quite simple. Mari is a long time ‘burner’, she has been to Burning Man four times, and she invited me to see what’s it like in 2017. We took our instruments with us, we looked for opportunities to perform. It was a total disaster in terms of weather and technical equipment. But what we found out was that we are really connected with our root music from Estonia. In the Nevada desert, very far from home. There we performed and asked people if they were ready to go to space, of course they said “Yeeeees!”. To elaborate this a bit, Estonian traditional stories note that our world was created from an egg. Finno-Ugric worldview believes that the world was created from an egg and the shells of the egg make up the moon, the stars, the sun and the Earth. Space is an ancestral home for us. When a person dies, their spirit goes behind the Milky Way. In a way, space travel was always there for us, so we just use it in our stories.
Mari: We went really far away to find out that we don’t need to create anything new and just share our roots, something that has already been there for thousands of years. This is where it started, and we were really well received and we got hyped. But I would also say that Lithuania has been really awesome. It’s really strange for us. We also had very nice shows in Finland, Latvia, Poland, Germany, but we really felt a strong connection in Lithuania.
How would you describe your fanbase then, are they mostly based in Estonia?
Johannes: This is also a hard question, because now we are turning 5 years old, but when you exclude the pandemic years, we are only 3 years old. This is a very short time to be a band and to gain your fanbase. For us it has been almost impossible to say who’s our typical fan. We have now reached younger generations, previously it was more about our own age group of 25-45, with 28-36 being the core audience age. But now the spectrum is super wide.
Mari: It’s funny, during our concerts this summer we saw a bunch of highschoolers who really appreciated our music. But also, parents, who would come to us after the concert and say “You’re the favourite band of my three-year-old kids. Whenever we go on a drive, I have to play your music”. We also had senior citizens come to our concerts and dance and enjoy themselves. So, it’s really wide and hard to pinpoint a typical listener.
And do you use digital tools to help you find an audience?
Johannes: I would say that to reach audiences you have to have live shows. And then the result is unknown. I haven’t seen the impact of our digital content yet. But it definitely has some impact, we can share our videos on YouTube, we streamed a lot during the pandemic. Once we violated the rules of Instagram, so our 1000+ account was deactivated, which means that now we are starting again from ground zero, only reaching hundreds. But I don’t really feel like it impacted us that much. I don’t really know what digital content would be the most engaging for fans, but I truly believe that good live videos are the best for describing and showcasing you. From the organising perspective this is a must.
Mari: And photos of smiling people!
Where would you look for an audience if you could expand it?
Johannes: Well, it’s very connected to budget. We will soon go to the Netherlands and the electronic music there is very strong, but we have never been there. It’s really about the budget, because I would like to go and perform in many places, but I don’t have the money to go to festivals, to reach out. I think the Baltic states and the whole region, including Finland, Sweden, Poland, Ukraine – they are all developing in the genre very strongly, but at the same time, it hasn’t yet established itself. In that sense the base is there, but the general movement’s focus isn’t yet. I think that festivals that host people are important to us, because then we can reach strangers that never heard or seen us, and they are always impressed.
Mari: Before the pandemic, we were considering USA, Canada, Japan, that whole region. But now, after the pandemic we really focused on our neighbouring countries, because we realised that we didn’t have strong connections in Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, etc.. Now we are slowly building those. We’ve been performing in Palanga for two years now, and last time we had a performance on a Tuesday evening, at the time when there was still a ban on playing music past a certain hour. It really wasn’t the time of a party, but people danced and received us very warmly. It really resonated to the idea that Lithuanians are open to our sort of music.
Johannes: The numbers on social media say that 57.3% of our listeners are women. Thanks to me and Aleksander, and maybe a little bit of Roho, our dancer. And the countries: first is Estonia, second is Lithuania, third is United Kingdom. Then it’s Germany and Finland. But we only have a small number of followers, so it’s not a big sample. Same goes for Spotify, Lithuania is number two there as well.
You mentioned that sometimes you have to compromise on where you perform due to a lack of funding. How do you choose your routes and destinations for performances nowadays?
Johannes: We are super thankful to Virgo Sillamaa, who started Music Estonia. From the first day we took an active part in the community, and they have created many different programs for upcoming music industry professionals. We felt like we had the will, the need, the passion…
Mari: But not the network or knowledge of the specific parts of the industry.
Johannes: We participated in almost everything that we could through those programs, including showcase festivals, and through those we found opportunities. For example, in 2017 we applied for NOVUS, and even though we weren’t selected, they still forwarded our application, which was then picked up by organisers in Palanga.
Mari: From there on, we have developed our relationships in Lithuania. In the beginning we were emailing a lot, to festivals, bookers, event organisers, but when you don’t have much material online and only describe your band as cool in an email without proof, it’s really difficult to get an answer. But now we have two studio albums, singles, remixes, live album, collaborations, videos, now we finally have something to back it up with.
In your case being part of the Music Estonia community helped you to get your foot in the door. What do you think is the role of recommendations for artists?
Mari: I’ve seen that word to mouth recommendations has worked very well for us. Usually when you’re a music industry professional, not an artist, but an agent or manager, you usually turn to specific people when you’re looking for specific Estonian artists, or for a specific genre. When you have a relationship with those people, you have a bigger chance to get invited to perform.
Johannes: At the same time, when we started our motto was that we are going fast, but it’s still too slow. But you can’t skip time. There’s no right answer to when things are supposed to start happening. For example, we had a conversation with an organiser who liked us, but could only get us a concert in 2025, because plans have already been made until then. And word-to-mouth recommendations… When they see us, they love it, but it’s all about timing. It might take 2 years, easily, because life is a rollercoaster. This is the part where you have to have faith as a young artist.
Mari: For us, it was difficult to communicate ourselves, so we couldn’t just wait for something to happen. We had to start organising ourselves in order to be seen and get the material out there. We started organising events, curating stages for different festivals in Estonia, and then we could also present ourselves there. This is where our proposition for Tallinn Music Week came, that we would love to organise folktronica showcase stage there.
Johannes: Now, the showcase will already have its 4th edition and it’s such an honour to be able to do this, because the genre is rising, and the last years have been very awesome. All the artists were beyond amazing. We think that is a very exciting future that is already around, but it’s just not acknowledged on a bigger scale yet.
Mari: It’s about carving out your own path, and not only relying on different recommendations but going for it. It’s been a really big thing for us.
You can listen and purchace OOPUS’ latest album Folk on Acid here:
We had conversations with other European artists on similar topics: Kurws | Bookie Baker | Jeremy Dunne | Katarzia | Twentees | Youniverse | Robin Kester | Marie de la Montagne | Damir Bašić aka Duka & with small companies and startups Tiny Rooms | LaPee | Flower of Sound | Hajde | From Rec to Play