"It's Old English, and it means, 'a person with a congenitally abnormal mind, bordering on insanity or degeneracy,' " says Ville Kiviniemi of his stage name, The Mattoid.
For the better part of the last decade, that abnormal persona — a poncho-clad, crazy-eyed, comedic ogre from Finland, belting out grunts and obscenities in broken English atop a bizarre brand of cocktail-party-anti-folk — is one that fans of Nashville's art-rock underground have come to know and love; a howling, guitar-slinging Viking they often don't know whether to laugh at, laugh with, or just plain fear.
"The first time I met him I was intimidated by him. ... [He looked like] this gypsy, road-dog, vagabond [who] might try and steal something with some silver on it, or, worst-case-scenario, some sort of traveling S&M videographer," says longtime Mattoid producer and champion Loney Hutchins. "He's not crazy. He's a nut, but he's a nice nut."
Underneath the alias lies a character unlike any the city has ever known, and after he leaves Nashville in April to return to his homeland for the first time in more than 20 years, we're not likely to encounter another like him again.
As a swan song to his tenure in the 'Ville, Kiviniemi is unleashing Let's Do the Classics, a self-proclaimed all-time "weariest lo-fi covers album," featuring his deconstructionist takes on pop-radio staples the likes of "Eleanor Rigby," "Dancing Queen," Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" and Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" — songs he strives to prove say little when stripped of their pop melodrama.
"The main [idea] is to pick out, in my opinion, lyrically the worst songs ever written," he says, intoning in his characteristically thick Finnish cadence. "I see some beauty in them when you actually rape them real nice."
Like many local musicians, occasional Mattoid bassist Matthew Swanson, who is releasing Classics, happened on Kiviniemi in the local indie scene, and became enamored with the Finn's oddly infectious songs (now local classics) like "Party Time" and "Rat Poison," during uproarious performances at avant-haunts like Springwater. But that's not where The Mattoid got started in Nashville. Like aspiring superstars such as Taylor Swift and Kings of Leon, Kiviniemi & Co. — at the time under the Poppy Fields handle — looked to the Bluebird Cafe's open mic nights to make their mark in Music City.
"I can guarantee that we were the first act to ever sing the words 'pussy' and 'crack' at The Bluebird Cafe," Kiviniemi says. "We actually sold a few CDs just playing [their] writers' nights."
As a performer, Kiviniemi is a provocateur: "I want to be seriously bad when I play my music. I really take my time to make it as bad as possible," he says. By design, the music, its delivery, and often the lyrical content, are minimal, fractured, nasty, brutish and short. But he says his conceptually nihilistic approach isn't without consideration, "[There's] no substance, no meaning, nothing. ... I'm trying to explain nothing, using words."
A self-proclaimed "global peasant," the 44-year-old Kiviniemi says, "My dream has always been just to be on the move. ... I want to justify my traveling by singing and dancing." At 20, he left his native Helsinki for India, then Egypt, then Thailand for a year, London for eight years — where he began his career as a musical performance artist — and then Mexico, where he dealt in the silver trade, despite not speaking Spanish.
Kiviniemi first came to the U.S. in the mid-'90s, going from small-town Missouri to a two-year stint "singing and dancing" in the Big Apple at decade's end. Then it was on to Reno, Nev., where he and then-companion Poppy Fields — one of a revolving cast of Juliets who play foil in his act — met up with Brad "Sunflower" Anderson (Monsters on Television) and set out to form "the greatest rock 'n' roll band of all time." Kiviniemi adds, "It didn't happen."
After a short spell in San Francisco, Kiviniemi and Fields boarded a Greyhound bus bound for New York City. When a stopover in Nashville happened to coincide with the Sept. 11 attacks, an instinctual affinity for the city inspired him to stay.
"Whether they knew it or not, I think they got off at the right place," Swanson says. Nashville has managed to ground this cosmic vagabond for roughly a decade, allowing him to amass an impressive discography of offbeat anti-folk that likely wouldn't have existed without the city's culture of, and emphasis on, recording. But Kiviniemi says, "I'd like to speak 'shit' in Swedish, Finnish and broken German again before I die." That, in concert with tough economic times and a home continent that's a better market for outsider folk-comedy, is forcing him back to his native Finland for an indefinite furlough.
"The dude's living like a migrant worker. If you think it's hard being a struggling musician being from Tennessee, try being someone who can't establish residency in the United States," says Hutchins — who hopes to wrap up work on the third Mattoid full-length he's produced before Kiviniemi goes.
With a lineup that includes both Hutchins and Swanson, The Mattoid will play a handful of local gigs before heading to Norway, where the pair will see the singer off with some scattered dates and a performance at Norway's Bergenfest. Swanson says he'll miss his friend's "uncanny ability to cheer people up with minimalist rock 'n' roll and completely mangled language," but for now, "I guess it's party time, good-bye to Ville," he says.
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