Jimi Tenor

It’s been a busy year so far for Finnish techno/jazz polymath Jimi Tenor, releasing a photo biography, ‘Omniverse’, and an album, ‘Multiversum’. Hold on tight for a wild ride through his eclectic existence

If Jimi Tenor grew up a seemingly unusual child with curious interests, then it turned out he was just ahead of his time because, when the 1990s arrived, everything fell into place.

“I think I was lucky,” says the dandy Finnish musician. “For a while, everything sucked big time. In the 1980s, I played the flute, and you couldn’t say that you played flute because people would laugh at you. It was horrible, but then it changed.”

Born Lassi Lehto (he later changed his name to Jimi Tenor after the tenor sax, his favourite instrument), he was a creative and sensitive boy. even carving his own instruments out of wood he found. Though impressive, his skills were lost on his peers, who wondered if he was a bit of a hippy.

“And then came the 90s, and there were hip hop samples and the exotica revival began,” he says. “All of a sudden, the flute was great!”

The availability of more accessible equipment at affordable prices also helped kick-start his career as a musician.

“Mackie mixers came onto the market, and suddenly you could record stuff at home,” he says. “Before that, if you went to a studio and said, ‘I have synths and a drum machine’, they’d say, ‘That’s a problem’. So for me, it all worked out perfectly.”

Tenor’s recent photo biography, ‘Omniverse’, casts some light on a decade filled with adventure that went by in a blur. After moving to New York to be a photographer, he lived in Espoo, Finland in a Communist Party dance hall that was up a hill and you had to row to get to. Having been signed to Warp, he lived in Steve Beckett’s house in Sheffield while he recorded 1997’s ‘Intervision’. Then he took off for Barcelona for a while, and it was in the Catalonian capital where he memorably entered his own show on horseback, dressed in a giant regal cape.

“That was made for Sónar Festival in 1998,” he says. “I rode onstage like a king from the olden days, with the whole back of the horse covered by this humongous cape. The guy who made it worked at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. He knew how to make it nice so it stayed on the shoulders. We got all the blue sequined fabric from the garment district in the 2nd arrondissement and it was just a great, great thing.”

Another spectacular entrance had occurred at Barrowlands in Glasgow on New Year’s Eve, 1995. Tenor was dressed from head to toe in extravagant banana yellow, including huge lemon shades, which were purely for show and didn’t have his lenses fitted.

“I was there to play a solo gig downstairs,” he recalls. “Then they asked me to come upstairs into the big hall and do ‘Take Me Baby’ because people love that track. I couldn’t see anything with these shades on, and on top of that I was a bit intoxicated.” 

Tenor walked out onstage, microphone in hand, to rapturous applause – and just kept on going.

“I fell straight into the photo pit of the stage – it was terrible,” he laments.

Ever the professional, he dusted himself down and returned to the stage to perform the song, with many of the revellers that night assuming the pratfall was part of the act. 

Threads are clearly important to Tenor. If clothes make the man, the man himself set out to make a little bit of money on the side by bringing out his own fashion line. Tenorwear (“everyday clothes with little unique details”) was a label for anyone interested in wild attire. It was never going to compete with Rocawear or Wu Wear, and there were concerns fans might confuse it with TENA-wear (undergarments for incontinence), but hey, he wasn’t going to let the doubters spoil a half-baked plan. 

“In the mid-90s, I thought I could do anything,” says Tenor, laughing. “I had this idea for one pair of pants – flares, which you could adjust according to the whims of fashion. I made them out of this durable, glossy, outdoor material so that they would last for decades, and they had special zippers too. I was out dancing in a club in London and a lot of people were asking, ‘Where can I get these pants?’. So I thought, ‘Maybe I can start making them, and actually produce my own fashion line’.”

As well as the trousers, he made shirts with a Velcro Tenorwear label, which you could move to wherever you wanted, and a dress that came with a three-inch golden CD, featuring “exclusive electronic music”.

The CDs weren’t made of real gold, though perhaps they might be worth something now. Has he tried putting any of them on eBay? 

“I’ve still got about 50 of them,” he admits. “Maybe I’ll give it a go in another 20 years…”

Tenor saw his side hustle as a way to maximise his pleasure, but business had other plans.

“My whole idea was that I would be the face of the fashion line,” he smiles. “Not that I’d actually have to do any of the work. Just like, you know, the cocktail parties, the glamorous life and so forth. But it turned out to be a difficult job.”

There are pictures in the book of Tenor stitching his own wares at the factory in post-Soviet-era Estonia, where Tenorwear was manufactured. Again way ahead of his time, he aspired to be a social media influencer before that was even a thing.

“The kind of stuff Paris Hilton or the Kardashians are doing,” he says. “Where you don’t actually do shit.”

Tenor takes away some interesting experiences from the failed venture, and he’s still got something to show for it, which he intends to pass on.

“I’m gonna give what I have left to my girls,” he says, with an air of pride. “My daughters are exactly the right size now that the stuff will fit them.”

‘Omniverse’ is published by Ventil Verlag, and ‘Multiversum’ is on Bureau B

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