Plastic People of the Universe
Old School (right): Vratislav Brabenec—reeds, vocals, philosophizing, humour(s)
New Style (left): Eva Turnová—electric bass, vocals, smoldering presence
Interview by G.E. LightPSF last interviewed a member of The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), Milan Hlavsa, almost a decade ago (November 1998) and Joseph Yanosik profiled the band's (in)famous history in March 1996. More of their story can be found in PSF contributor Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll. Rather than retelling the same story, I'm going to look forward to what the PPU are doing now and what they plan to do in the future; however, the historical imperative being a strong presence in their work, we will glance backwards occasionally.
Since PSF's 1998 interview with Milan (who died in 2001), PPU have carried on, touring and playing widely, including a 1999 North American tour hitting Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Washington, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. They have participated in myriad special events, most famously backing Lou Reed on his 1998 visit to Prague and participating in Tom Stoppard's 2007 Czech debut of Rock 'N' Roll. PPU has also produced several CDs and videos including a 2001 Milan Hlavsa Restrospective, Než je dnes člověku 50 – poslední dekáda, 2001's Lazy Love, and 2004's Passion Play, a collaboration with the Agon Orchestra.
In September 2007, the Plastic People of the Universe embarked on a 9 day, 8 city US tour. I caught up with two members of the band in the back sculpture "garden" of the Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga, TN after a show co-sponsored by the Shaking Ray Levi Society. Seated around a fire pit on a cool-for-Tennessee-in-late-summer evening, I was joined by the Plastic's longtime saxophonist/clarinetist and current frontman Vratislav Brabenec and the band's newest member Eva Turnová who plays electric bass, sings, and composes as well.
Like their music, this interview was equal parts serious philosophizing and playful querying, a Blakean mélange of innocence, experience, wisely persisting in folly, and eternity in an hour, all the while featuring multiple leads and intersecting harmonics.
PSF: Why are you touring the Southeast?
Vratislav: Our friend the artist who painted the tank pink... what's his name?
Eva: David Černý
[Currently a pink T-34 tank exists in its 3rd incarnation on display on Mandela Way in Bermondsey, London, painted by cubit artists lead by American Aleksandra Mir. The self-same tank in more militaristic drab olive featured in the dramatic opening of Ian McKellen's modern dress film version of Richard III. According to Jonathan Gibbs of The Independent on Sunday]:This symbol of aesthetic-political subversion dates back to 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into the Czech capital to crush the Prague Spring. They mounted one of their T-34s on a pedestal in the city's central square—supposedly as a memorial to the Russian soldiers who had liberated the population from the Nazis back in 1945, but in practice to remind the locals that Moscow didn't take kindly to anyone 'reforming' Communism. Local artists were less impressed, however, and painted it pink.V: Anyway, he was unveiling a new sculpture in Charlotte and invited us to attend and perform. So we decided to set up a short tour, primarily of the South.
Most people know the monument from its second incarnation, created by artist David Cerny to celebrate the Velvet Revolution. He tried the trick again in 2001, with a new tank. Wary now of souring relations with Russia in the brave new post-Soviet Europe, the authorities resisted. The pink tank lives on in Prague only as a souvenir t-shirt (November 2, 2003).
[Tour stops included Atlanta, GA, Chattanooga, TN, Charlotte, NC, Norcross, GA, Nashville, TN, Washington, DC, Providence, RI, and NYC, NY.]
PSF: Are you recording new material?
V: We would like to. We have six new songs. Most of them were written by Eva. She's a very talented composer.
E: In (the) winter, we plan to record again. In the last two years, we have released two albums: Passion Play (with the Agon Orchestra) and Do lesíčka na čekanou.
V: They [the Agon Orchestra] are professional and we are idiots. We are playing like clowns.
E: In October, we are putting on a train opera.
V: I am author of the libretto. It is my idea. We put on the whole opera on a train ride. It features PPU, a chamber orchestra and singers marching.
PSF: Do you feel like you fit into the new Czech music scene post-Velvet Revolution or not?
Eva: I'm not very fond [of what's happening currently in Prague]. It's not that I don't like samples, technology, and beatboxing [Eva was in Milan Hlavsa's side project Madness which featured just such ideas and was also in DG 307], but I really don't like techno, jungle, or trip hop. There are, however, some young kids in Prague doing interesting things with old style instruments—kind of psychedelic.
V: It's really important to find some kind of balance in between style and music. Stupidity is all around [waves his hand, smiles, and his eyes twinkle].
PSF: What's it like touring now? Considering that for so long you couldn't tour or had to do "secret" shows at friend's remote villas in the Plzeň hinterlands?
V: [leans back arms akimbo with hands clasped behind his head] It is (faux fake accent here) werry kom-fort-able. I love to travel; we have gotten to play everywhere. We have also gotten to play with and for our heroes, especially Lou (Reed), Václav (Havel), and Tom Stoppard. You know he is a Cezch. PPU is very important in his new play Rock'N'Roll.
PSF: With the passing of frontman/founder/vocalist Milan Hlavsa, how has the band changed? Are their new dimensions to your music?
V : It's different. We have a young, original female bassist now [points to E]. We did not want a fake Milan as a replacement; we wanted--no, we needed--something new, different.
E: Hlavsa wanted to introduce new technologies and electronics to the music. Even some kind of sampling. I have known Milan for 10 years and was with him before in Madness and DG 307 where he first worked on these ideas about modern techniques. But Vrati and Jiri did not want to do this. They wanted to stay true to the idea of PPU.
V: After thirty years, I knew what I wanted to do; it was not what Milan wanted. Now, we are more free after his death. He was a very powerful guy, very intimidating. I guess now is maybe a better time, more free and more independent. We had to work together as a group once he was gone if we were going to continue. We are stronger as group now with more input from individual voices. He was a Rock'N'Roll dogmatist!
[Then we veered away from discussing Hlavsa]
V: You are good interviewer. I like this interview. It is short and relaxed. You know what to ask and are prepared. We had a very nice interview on the radio this afternoon [WUTC, the scenic city's NPR station].
E: Yes, yes. I told perhaps too much of myself today. Really opened up.
V: Too often, especially in Europe, the press they are lazy and uninterested. They always ask the same boring questions. Sometimes, I have to interview the interviewer or I lose interest.
E: Yes, like in Poland [in Krakow earlier month] with those two students. You started asking them questions.
V: Yes, I said "So what do you think about how your president Kaczyňski stole the recent election." They shut up; the interview was over.
[But Vratislav wanted to eventually return to the topic of his former band mate, and so apparently did Eva, perhaps not wanting to leave an entirely negative view of their Hlavsa's stewardship]
V: Milan was dogmatic but he was a visionary.
E: He WAS very strict. He did a large composition, A Passion Play; it was modern, very progressive.
V: He became old and tired. Towards the end the music was not interesting any more. Maybe he was just tired... [after a long, dramatic drag on a fag, he shrugs and asks/states almost wistfully] it's possible?
Also see Joe Yanosik's earlier article on the Plastic People and Pulnoc & a 1998 interview with Milan Hlavsa and an excerpt from Joe Yanosik's book on the Plastic People
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