Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Jason Gross (May 1997)

Maybe it's not so surprising to see a Czech band dressed like Pere Ubu- not the band with David Thomas mind you but the monsterous character from the Alfred Jarry play. At first, it looked like they were decked out in yellow night gowns with cartoon houses. Once they start playing, it's anything but music for sleeping- they are LOUD. They don't make a complete racket though as their music is well-thought out and structered. They just happen to be an noisy art band that jumps around styles in the space of a song like a grasshopper. They purposely avoid being pigeonholed into a style of music as their CD's and their live shows bear this out. After just finishing their fourth American tour, Uz Jsme Doma (pronounced ooje-smay-doma, 'Now We're at Home' in Czech) is finally making a serious dent in the world outside of their native Czech home. The music that they originally made years ago is now being released and distributed here in the States thanks to Skoda Records. The shows that they did here in New York were put together by a local collective called Tamizdat, which also sports Slavic heros Skulpey.

This interview was done with guitarist/singer/songwriter/leader Miroslav Wanek (pictured above, far left) in the back of the group's tour van as the place they doing a show at was too noisy thanks to a sound check.

PSF: What kind of things were you listening to that got you really interested in music?

I'm not such a good listener. (laughs) I didn't have a tape recorder or CD player until now. Of course, I heard a couple of bands. My influences were more soul influences than music influences. Of course, punk music- I think we have roots in punk originally. For me, it's the first wave of punk like Sex Pistols and Clash, not the Exploited, like in the second wave. I really don't like that. This is real agressiveness. To me, the first wave means more activity. It's being aggressive and active. So it's one influence that came to our band- this activity or just trying to be active. For me, it's the opposite of the '60s with the hippies. They just liked to take it easy. Punks didn't.

Second stream for me are what I'd call avant-garde bands. Like the Residents. Also, the Residents play computer music, which is very different from what we do and what I like. I don't so much computer music but I like their music really because of the humor in there and nice melodies, simple architectures for childrens' games. Also, their albums have really deep ideas, which I really like also. From Europe, all these bands around Rock In Opposition in the late '70s. From here (America), I could mention Pere Ubu or Chrome or other bands.

Basically, I have to tell you that for example with Pere Ubu, I knew two songs that I had on a tape- I didn't know it was Pere Ubu (then). So it's not so direct an influence then. It's more like an aesthetic influence that I found that kind of music that exists. It was a good experience for me. I tried to follow these experiences. It's why people have such a problem trying to categorize our music. We found our own style. I don't want to say that we're completely different from all the others because it's not true. But with our style, it's impossible to recognize what the influence is because it's more of an influence from our lives and experiences and some literature, just trying to find out some ideas or follow some meaning.

PSF: Where the Plastic People of the Universe an influence?

Of course I knew about them and we met with those people. We did shows together. I respect them very much. There are a really important band. Also, they had a really hard life in the '70s. So, I really respect them. The other side is if I like that music or if they were my influence. I would say no to that. (laughs) Because, about their music, they follow some kind of Velvet Underground sound. I know that they like it. For me, it's some kind of cover band or something like that. Of course, in lyrics, what they did, it's much different. It's much more political and, especially for that time, very powerful and dangerous. They did something that was really dangerous and hopeful for all the people. My human meaning is very good but my aesthetic meaning is not so good. (laughs) The human meaning is much more important when we are talking about Plastic People.

PSF: Their lyrics deal with existenial depair and I've seen the same thing with your lyrics. Is this something you notice as something you see in the Czech mentality in general?

I don't think it's so general. I can agree that it should be a little bit simliar in the way that you are talking about. It's different in that they were really a political band. They really followed some existential way like Vacel Havel does in his plays. Franz Kafka years ago too. Like with other writers or poets or musicians in our country, it's not SO common but it is QUITE common. (laughs) It's some kind of Czech humor- liking absurdity and feeling absurdity in life. It has simliar roots in our culture. In some deep stream of Czech culture, you can find these similar meanings and ideas.

For me, the difference is that when I write my lyrics, it's really about some human things. It's also following Kafka's feeling. But a thousand people can read him and take something different. What I found on him that's nice is humor, black humor and this absurdity. It's bad but it's also something strangely interesting on life that goes through this absurbity. From one side, it's negative and depressive but the other side is funny. My ideology, if you can call it that, is more following Alfred Jarry. Pere Ubu again. Pataphysic- pseudo philosophy about nonsense. They find something nice in this absurdity, something fun in life. This is something that I miss with the Plastic People. To me, they are so depressive, like imprisoned of their feelings, for apparent reasons. I understand that and I can respect that. They can have these feelings but I felt in their lyrics, this same imprisoned feelings. It's like they couldn't go out. They sing 'it's bad here' and 'it's depressive' and 'no future' like that. So maybe they're more punk than me! (laughs)

I try to call, to give name to negative things but I also try to find something nice in these things. I don't see things black and white. I was thinking, 'I don't want to talk for long about communism' because I'm not a Communist, I don't follow these ideas at all. It's really an un-human system. Also, I cannot say that all of life during that time was all bad. It had really nice things then. It was a Communist system but people really loved each other. It know that it's very simple but still some nice things were among the bad things. When somebody sings 'everything is bad,' I don't trust him so much because it's not true. The truth is that a lot of things are nice also and when you try to understand your life, your period in history, you have to open to all these feeling, not only following one stream of these feelings. I like to see things from both sides.

PSF: So the Communist government in your country had NO effect on your music or your outlook then?

In that time, it was also absurb. The system was an influence as I was more active than when I had freedom. Because there's some kind of pressure. So there's some absurdity but there's also some kind of positive thing to it. A lot of people paid more attention to art and lyrics and feelings between people. Of course, the negative thing is that I really felt imprisoned. I was not in prison. I felt like I was in a large prison. I'm really glad it passed.

With our music, we play a lot of songs from our new album but we also play a couple of songs from 1987. I don't think you'll find a big difference between these songs. Not in the lyrics too. A common question is 'how do you feel about the reaction of American audiences?' I don't feel I'm with Americans. I don't feel their nationality from a stage. I just feel that they're some good people or some bad people or some drunk people. I don't know what 'American audience' means. My feeling is that with that Communist system is that I didn't feel so much some problems with ideology because I don't know about ideologies. Ideologies is something in books.

Concrete people such as officers or policemen were different. You can find some very good officers and you can find some very bad officers. The system was so bad because it gave these officers (power) so that the bad officers can kill you. So that was bad. But if you had a good officer or a bad officer, it doesn't make a system. Also, here in the United States, you can also find some really bad officers and some really good, kind ones. It isn't a big difference for me. Of course in a system when more people can have control about these officers, it's better. It's much better than a Communist system because there's some controls with that. I never said 'Communists are fucking people' because I don't know that. I never meet ALL communists. I met maybe 500 of them and maybe 100 were good and 400 were bad. It's still not my right for the sentence 'all Communists are bad.'

For me, it was always a question about humanity, personality, and these things. These problems are still open and will be still open. This is why our themes in our music and lyrics don't have such a big change after the revolution happened. The change is that we can go to the United States, for example. We can play music and be professional. I can write about whatever I want. The only control now is me. It's really good, a very good feeling. Maybe it's an unimagined feeling for a lot of people here- they can't imagine what it means for me. Nobody controls me- it's really great!

PSF: Except you.

Yeah, but then you have to be much more responsible if you are the controller. Maybe it's much stranger than before. (laughs) Then it's only my job- I'm responsible for all these things. I'm glad about that. It's a much better feeling.

PSF: Have you noticed a strong music scene in your country now?

I'm really a bad listener like I said. I spend a lot of time on tour and I don't have a lot of opportunities to listen to something. What I've heard from festivals and other ways is that it's going to be very similar to any country in the West. Some massive labels come to the country. MTV and the others were there. They follow it in the newspaper. You can read about these 'mainstream' stars. Also in grunge and rock, it's more and more about these big bands. These young bands in our country try to follow these streams. They would be like Kurt Cobain or Bjork. They follow these streams. I couldn't find anyone 'next generation,' like some avant-garde band or something that have their own style, meaning, their own ideas and feelings. I couldn't find them. They talk in the newspaper and say 'oh, we have completely new music now.' When you hear them, it's a copy of Red Hot Chili Peppers or something. They only change D major to D minor and that's the only difference.

It's bad. I don't like that. We play there and talk about these things to try to change it. It's a very common situation though. We play all around Europe and here in the United States and my experience is that this is the same everything. We used to play, for example, in CBGB's. A very known name. We would play with seven bands in one night. I left the club for three hours and when I came back, 'they play so long' I thought. Then I watched the stage and saw that it was a different band but there were playing the same music (as the other bands). 'Oh,' I thought. 'This is a stream- a stream of nothing.' Also, I can tell you that here in the United States, we played a hundred concerts from last March to now, there were two or three bands that I really liked. Idiot Flash from Oakland is a really great band- really original, very good. From Los Angeles, there's Noncredo. From San Antonio, there's Entuba. Maybe a couple of others. But hundreds of bands play nothing. We call it 'nothing bands.' It's like a copy of something. Maybe they thought 'Oh Cobain was rich so maybe I'd like to do the same.' They don't understand that you have to be first. Only the first will get paid! (laughs)

PSF: Tell me about how you were working with the Residents.

We used to play together here around the end of '95. We were collective actors in their 'Freak Show Live.' They did this on CD-ROM and an audio version too. On the live version, they used a circus band in their show, which we would play. It was a really strong, unbelievable experience. Years ago, I couldn't even dream about that. They made a choice to use me as music director for the whole show. I had to rewrite all the stuff from computer music for a live band. It's very difficult because they use a saxophone with scales very deep and high that isn't on a real saxophone. So I had to change these things for the live version. They wrote me and said that they were very satisfied with what I did. I enjoyed it. I was really glad that we could be really close to this secret group.

PSF: Did you actually get to see them?

I don't know. Nobody knows because when they're on stage, they have eyeballs they wear. If later, somebody would come over and say 'I'm ....' maybe I can think he's the one with the eyeball or maybe not. I don't know. I think that maybe I met some of them but I cannot say. It's good. I like this anonimity, I like this idea. They cannot lose it. When one of them comes to a newspaper man and says 'hi, I'm a Resident,' you can trust him? It could be another lie. How could you know that? Maybe you would be lucky and see someone take off an eyeball from their head but maybe it's an actor. Somebody else. So you never know. They cannot lose this because no one knows. It's actually a very interesting thing about personality and what it is and what it means.

PSF: After you finish conquering America, what are your next plans?

We would like to make a new CD, hopefully this year. We would like to come again to the United States which we need a lot of money to afford. We will travel around Europe again to visit a lot of festivals this summer. We started to talk in Minneapolis about computers and they offered to colloborate with us to make some sort of animation movie. This works out because our band has a painter, Martin Velisek. He doesn't play but he's a member of the band. His work is very important to us. It's like three parts- music, pictures and lyrics. He painted the cover of HOLLYWOOD. We did a pop-up book also. He is a very close colloborator with us. My dream is to make an animated movie using his pictures. Of course, we would like to visit more countries. We never played in England so it's our next stop. Scandanavia too. We would like to plan in Japan. So we're trying now to make these contacts.

I just wanted to say one more thing. A lot of people try to categorize our music. We would like if people would say it's good or bad music. If they just say it's good music then I will really be satisfied. They talk about Frank Zappa or John Zorn. Of course I know those people but they're different. I respect Zappa and Zorn but I don't think we have influences from them. Maybe it's just that we have a saxophone. On the surface, it's not deep thinking about our music. If you think deeper, you can find punk, the Residents and ideas. It's kind of music but it's kind of literature more. (laughs)

Also see our 2007 article/interview with Uz Jsme Doma

Check out the rest of Perfect Sound Forever