CHANGING THE MENU: Jimi Tenor (interview!)

Jimi Tenor has always been a huge inspiration, changing the perceptions of music and art, constantly developing, trying to change the menu on offer. 

For those of you new to the gospel of Jimi (!) he's best known as a musician, often seen behind a synth or with a saxophone (hence his artist name) or flute. His career spans over 20 years, loosely within the genres electronic, jazz and african inspired music. Jimi's often featured on self-proclaimed "absolute number 1 fan" Gilles Peterson's BBC Radio 1 show and he's done collaborations with artists such as Afrobeat drummer and Fela Kuti musician Tony Allen. Hudson Mohawke even made a version of Jimi's track "Paint the Stars"

Jimi kindly agreed to answer some questions from us in Changing the Menu, as well as scanning a newly taken amazing photo to go with it, captured by his daughter Astrid. 

Where are you now and what can you see? 

I´m in Helsinki in a suburb called Kontula. I can see a tennis court that  is covered with a thin layer of snow. If it gets cold enough they will make it into a ice-skating place.

Describe the place/space you usually work.

The last six years I've been working in a co-op studio. Normally around 8 people share the space. There are two control rooms and a live room. I have my own electronic music cubicle there. What I mean with work is songwriting, practicing my instruments, mixing my own projects. The live room is nice and we´ve recorded many albums there. For me it´s important to have a nice live room, since I use a lot of acoustic instruments.

Jimi at home in Helsinki, Finland, with his dog Louis! Pic by Jimi's daughter Astrid Lehto. 

Do you have a daily routine? 

Sure. I go to the studio every morning around 8.30 AM. In the mornings I try to write new material for about three hours. Then I do some scales and stuff with saxophone. I'll have an early lunch and I normally take care of some business stuff for a while. During the day I might do some mixing or whatever I can do at home. Play flute in the afternoon.

We love your collaboration with Kabu Kabu. How did this project come about? 

I wanted to have a latin or african beat to one of my songs. That time I had a recording deal with Kitty-Yo and they found the Kabukabu guys via this guy Armin who worked at a jazz radio in Berlin.. I wanted originally to hire Tony Allen but he was too busy or something. They were still playing under the name Rhythm Taxi. We made two songs for my album "Beyond the Stars".  We had fun together so we decided to do a full album the following year for Sähkö.

How much would you plan ahead of a collaboration? For instance the work you did with drummer Tony Allen. 

With Tony we didn´t do that much planning. Although having said that I had made demos and they turned out to be very important in the sessions. We would all listen to the demo and immediately start playing something like that. Tony would wait a little bit and come to play after,say, 5-10 minutes and that was every time the take. Then we would work on overdubs quite a bit. Horns and vocals. Tony wanted a bass so we put it there.

When we did the kabukabu-albums I was very much prepared. Maybe more prepared than ever in my life. I had all the horns written down and my demos were similar to the final album material. With Kabukabu we would also come up with improvised songs on top of the ones that I had written in advance. 

You did a photo project on road kill a couple of years ago. How did this project come about and what was the idea behind it? 

On my way to studio I would quite often see dead badgers. That was sad because I´ve never seen one alive. I started to think how little we care about the dead animals at the highways. Nobody is concerned about them it seems. It's just a fact of life a bit like global warming. We think it's terrible but well....what can we do. I thought that my pictures of the roadkills were a symbol of how little we care about the nature. It's only a small statement that art can do but it is my statement. Of course people are shocked to see the photos and question me why I have done this. why I am so cruel and strange. But the only thing I did was got out of the car and take some photos. Anybody could have done it. I have stopped the project now because I was afraid to become a roadkill myself. It was dangerous.

This seagull will never fly again. Pic by Jimi Tenor, from the Autobahn series. 

This seagull will never fly again. Pic by Jimi Tenor, from the Autobahn series

Is there any medium or art you have not worked with and would perhaps be interested to explore? 

Ha-ha. I have become a right jack of all trades. I have an idea for a sculpture but I don't know how to weld. I need to ask someone to do the piece for me.

The times when I’m really broke I think that I should have stuck with electronic music strictly.
— Jimi Tenor

I always felt you are amazing at surprising your audience with a new project and a new direction. Are you never tempted to repeat a winning or known formula/style? 

Oh yeah. The times when I'm really broke I think that I should have stuck with electronic music strictly. In a way it would have been a much better career and money-wise I would have been OK. But no, I went ahead and started doing projects with symphony orchestras and big bands. Afrobeat. All these projects that require a lot of people on stage. You can guess that I have been struggling. 

What happened was that I got seriously lonely traveling around the world doing electronic music. I am a loner by default but not a hermit! The life of a touring musician is really a bit like a life of a monk. Sure you get to party as well, but in the end of the night you are in your cubicle in a hotel room. One of the reasons to the loneliness on the road is that you are always moving. Even when you meet people the most of the time you are busy.

Jack of all trades: Jimi working on his fashion range Tenor Wear in 1996. (Pic:

Jack of all trades: Jimi working on his fashion range Tenor Wear in 1996. (Pic:

You always seem to have many projects on the go. What are the main projects you are working on now?

We haven't been playing with Kabukabu for some years now. Ekow Alabi Savage started to play with Ebo Taylor and it became impossible to organize the schedules. I started a band with Kalle Kalima called Tenors of Kalma. We´ve been playing mostly at jazz venues with that band. Also I had a project with Nicole Willis called "Cola & Jimmu" which is a house and electronic duo.

Two weeks ago we played a gig with Kabukabu and we´re going to start playing again. We´re going to introduce a bit more electronic sounds into the show and make it more percussive. A smaller lineup, so we can play in dance clubs as well.

In January I will do a Moog-project with Tony Allen at Cafe Oto in London. I will have a crazy modular Moog system on stage and I will be triggering them with Tony's drums. That should be a mind altering experience. We're still building the equipment for the trigger system. I think it will be quite industrial!

Jimi and Fela Kuti's drummer Tony Allen in the studio. 

Jimi and Fela Kuti's drummer Tony Allen in the studio. 

We feel you are someone challenging perceptions and going your own way, Who is someone that you think is changing the menu? 

I like to think myself as a musical chef. In fact I want to buy one of those chef hats for future gigs. You change the menu everyday sure, but the ingredients must be good. And you need to know how to cook!

I wish someone would give me advice! I’m totally lost myself.
— Jimi Tenor

Do you have any advice for younger artists? 

I wish someone would give me advice! I'm totally lost myself. I would say it´s better to concentrate on something. Listen to me I know about not concentrating in anything. 

Recently Ive been doing more experiments with field recordings and sound meditation. Is this something you have ever meddled with and what is your favourite "natural sound"? 

Not really. I have recorded nature sounds and factory machinery but normally I had a song in mind. I would record birds into an intro that I already had or I would go to a factory to get mechanical rhythms for a song. I do recordings mostly for specific purpose. I'm vary bad in archiving so I don't collect anything. It would be pointless to have all kinds of sounds stored somewhere if you can't ever find them.

What is your spirit animal? 


(we'll just drop this video here >>>)

What is your favourite food? 

Mushrooms. This requires a comment: I like collecting mushrooms and the eating them. The combined experience is the key.

Choose a favourite youtube video. 

Choose a favourite book. 

Oh, this is a tough one. I read more than I listen. I should have been a writer instead, but I can't write anything longer than an email. Let's say Bukowski´s "Post Office". What I like about Bukowski is that he can be bold and write simple but intelligent text.  

Jimi's pick: Bukowski. 

Jimi's pick: Bukowski. 

Thanks so much for participating in our Changing the Menu feature, Jimi! 

In a Jimi kind of mood? Why not listen to our top 10: Jimi Tenor playlist!?