Perfect Sound Forever

Uz Jsme Doma

By J. C. Lockwood
(February 2008)

They stormed the country in typical Uz Jsme Doma fashion. They tore through 28 cities in as many days, and if you focused solely on guitarist-songwriter Miroslav Wanek -- catching that cryptic, almost private smile coming to his face just before a series of piercing screams in the middle of the song "Jassica," or, watching him, eyes closed, rocking his head back and forth with an almost Buddha-like expression during the fierce chord solo in the song "Napul/Halfway" -- you might think that nothing at all has changed since 2001, the last time the difficult-to-classify, impossibly inventive Czech rock band toured the United States.

But, of course, it has. Everything has changed, dramatically, beginning with the departure six years ago of saxophonist Jindra Dolansky, who, you could argue -- persuasively, if not entirely accurately -- was the heart of UJD to Wanek's head. Dolansky, who dominated the stage visually and performed with a savage intensity, called it quits in 2001, sixteen years after founding the band, to open a restaurant in Prague. He was not replaced. It's fair to say he couldn't be replaced without encouraging contentious comparisons and perhaps fights- his sax work being so closely identified with the band. So, the sax was axed.

The band soldiered on as a quartet, releasing Rybi Tuk/Cod Liver Oil, its first and, so far, only post-Dolansky album, in 2003, and continued touring -- mostly in the Czech Republic and Europe because, between the economic shakedown of visa requirements and Homeland Security regulations imposed after the 9/11 attacks, allowing minimum-wage Customs drones to turn away anyone at the border for virtually any reason, performing in the United States had become a no-go.

The band began disintegrating. It wasn't exactly a revolving door, but musicians were coming and going far too frequently, and Wanek spent most of his creative energy rehearsing new players and writing new arrangements rather than new material, keeping the band in a creative holding pattern.

By 2005, the band solidified around Wanek, bassist Josef Cervinka, drummer Tomas Palenta and lead guitarist Petr Zidel. This lineup anchored the 20th-anniversary show at Prague's Divadlo Archa, which resulted in 20 Letu/20 Years, a two-disc Indies Records DVD that showcases the new, younger Uz Jsme Doma, backed by the 20-voice Mikrochor ensemble. The performance reunited, however briefly, a parade of past members, including Dolansky. But by the time the DVD hit the streets six months later, Zidel was gone and the band was in auditions again.

Back in the USSA

Wanek, 45, is sitting on an overstuffed couch in a darkened room at MBN Studios in Philadelphia, one of the more interesting stops on the tour. It's a juice bar, art gallery, production studio and venue. A campy sci-fi flick in French is playing on a high-def screen behind him. One of five opening acts, Make a Rising, an inventive West Philly quintet that is equal parts avant garde, chamber rock and tricked-out circa-1930 Berlin cabaret, has just finished its set. Wanek is pleased: it was a big change from the last U.S. tour, when many of the bands he heard play were "so many carbon copies of Nirvana," playing "music without a soul, without invention." He is also happy to be on tour in the States again. "I never thought I would miss it, but I do," he says. "There are lots of memories for me here. It's not home, but still it's very familiar -- even the smells." The smells? "Typical American smells," he says. "It's not like Europe. I almost forgot." He can't identify the aroma. "It's not a bad smell or a nice smell, just a typical smell." He also seems amused, although he is too polite to mention it, by something else typically American: self-absorption. The idea that if the band does not play in the U.S.A., it does not exist. Like Uz Jsme Doma. "This band never stopped," he says. "I constantly kept it alive, at a decent level." When it ran aground, for whatever reason, Wanek "put it together again, I started the engine again."

He revved up a new Uz Jsme Doma earlier last year -- the first with a full-time horn player since Dolansky left. The brass attack was not part of any grand design, but a happy accident. After Zidel left, citing family obligations, Wanek decided to find a new guitarist -- and experiment with different sounds: Why not, since he was spending so much of his time writing arrangements, anyhow? First, it was violin. "That didn't sound so good," he says. Then he thought about, and auditioned, trombone, accordion and French horns. Another no-go. But when Adam Tomasek walked in and started playing, a light went off. "It just worked," he says. "So I though we don't need a solo guitarist."

The new lineup hit France, Switzerland and Poland, but a tour of the United States (something the band had been doing twice a year through the late '90's) was nowhere in sight for several reasons. A couple of times, he had penciled in potential dates for a North American tour. Besides personnel, there were other issues, mainly that the band's booking agency wanted to see fresh "product" released on an American label before getting behind a tour. Skoda Records, which had released the entire UJD catalog over the years, was essentially kaput. Talks with Alternative Tentacles, Jello Biafra's label and, it would seem, a natural fit, faltered. Then, there was the contentious visa issue. It cost $2,100 US just for the privilege of applying for an entry visa. It's an annoying -- and degrading -- experience. "Sometimes you feel like saying, and I don't like saying it, but ‘fuck you.' You feel that small," he said during an earlier interview, holding his thumb and index fingers an inch apart. "You feel like nothing. It's not a good feeling at all." Wanek, who had penciled in a one-month block of time for an American tour -- as he had in each of the two previous years -- was now looking at the eraser end of the pencil yet again. Then the Philadelphia-based Capillary Action, which recently served as both opening act and backup band for Fugazi bassist Joe Lally, reached out to UJD and invited them to headline their already-booked national tour. Then Skoda came out of the mist and released Rybi Tuk/Cod Liver Oil. A somewhat last-minute tour was on.

On the road again

The tour was a little more momentous than it appears. It represented a three-year-overdue release party for Rybi Tuk, which was brought out finally just days before the band's Oct. 9 launch at the Black Cat in Washington, and ignited some of the same insecurities -- again, on the audience side of the stage. It was a new line-up, a smaller line-up. It was the first time Uz Jsme Doma had played here since Dolansky's departure. It was also the first time since the early '90's that they had played without a two-guitar assault. And, although the new lineup had played over 100 dates together, they were still a relatively new unit. Would bass, guitar, drums and trumpet pack enough punch to carry off UJD's complex, bone-crunching sonic assault? Would the brass just remind American fans of Dolansky's absence? It turns out there was nothing to worry about.

There were problems, especially with sound, early in the tour. That, of course, is typical. There were also some Spinal Tap moments, like in Cedar Rapids. The show was canceled, but a last-minute replacement gig was found-- in a local high school cafeteria. "It was kind of absurd, but sort-of magical," says Wanek. But by Boston, they had hit their stride -- the "engine" Wanek had restarted was firing on all eight cylinders. They were working with about 25 songs in the arsenal, heavily weighted toward Rybi Tuk, the "new" album, but including epic old favorites "Korose/Corrosion," which is punctuated with a chorus of clapping and a hellish sobbing and wailing, and the quirky "Sopot," sung in fake French, fake English and, well, cat voices -- both songs from 1993's Uprosted slov. Also in the set list, which they mixed up from show to show, were crowd favorites like "Kovbojska/Cowboy Song" from 1999's Usi. There was an obvious chemistry between Tomasek and his bandmates -- especially Cervinka, who held down stage right with him. More than that, he connected the band to its roots, making the addition of nuggets like beautiful, moody "Fikus," from the Uprostred slov/In the Middle of Words album possible.

Wanek's assessment?

"It's good," he said in an interview before the Philly show. "It will be better." He laughs. "You didn't see us when we were starting out. We didn't play that well then." That, of course, would be the late 1980's, when UJD, which had been labeled an "anti-social" element by the Communist government, eked out an existence, risking arrest by playing what were essentially illegal shows. There is little in the way of documentation of the early years. The band did not release any music until 1990, shortly after freedom came to the Czech lands in the so-called Velvet Revolution, when they quickly brought out Uprostred Slov/In the Middle of Words and, less than a year later, Nemilovany Svet/Unloved World. However, a taste of a raw, extremely ragged UJD from that period is included as a bonus track on Patnact Kapek Vody/Fifteen Drops of Water, a best-of collection, three songs from each of their first five albums, released to mark the band's 15th anniversary. "Jo nebo nebo/Yeah or or" finds a 1985, pre-Wanek, Uz Jsme Doma singing in fake English -- "Swahili,” it was called.

People, even fans, may still argue about Dolansky, and the merits of continuing without him but, all told, there have been 25 members of Uz Jsme Doma (including Dolansky and the six other original members). Wanek isn't even an original member. He was playing with a punk group called Fourth Price Band -- the name being a reference to bands willing to play divey restaurants, where they would accept the “fourth price,” or the lowest price -- although Dolansky points out in "Puding," a documentary included in the 20 Letu DVD, that UJD would have folded long ago without Wanek. They just did not have the work ethic. Another 18 musicians would perform with, and eventually leave, the band before the DVD was made. One more -- Tomasek -- has been added since then.

And over the course of 1,700 concerts and six proper albums, over the course of two decades, the sound has changed significantly, although the sound has never been easy to explain, being resistant to categorization. Does it sound like "the soundtrack to an epileptic porno," as the announcer says at the beginning of Vancouver, the band's 1997 live album? Which sounds right, but, of course, doesn't mean anything. Or "slavic tone provocation" or "orchestral punk." Or, for that matter, how do the lush, orchestral arrangements of Nemilovany svet/Unloved World relate to the harder-edged efforts on Hollywood or Usi/Ears, which, like Rybi Tuk, has the fingerprints of ex-Idiot Flesh founder Dan Rathburn all over it? The continuity is ethereal. The connection lies in old-school punk roots and not-so-obvious connections to progressive and experimental music performed with ferocious energy by musicians who have the ability to stop on a dime and toss out a beautiful melody before switching gears. Concerts are a mad mix of headbanging and swaggering singalongs. Melody is crucial. "I love songs with melodies," says Wanek. "I call it a piece of heart, the human element. That's what songs are about. I like songs that say ‘let's cry together, or let's smile together.'" This is the glue that allows a band singing lyrics that few outside its native country can understand to survive.

Of course, this is stubbornly avoiding the obvious: that the one single thread tying up the UJD narrative is Dolansky. And there's no denying the fact that his fierce playing was probably the single most recognizable facet of classic UJD and that, without the sax, without Dolansky, the band is in a completely different place. The decision to go on without him was extremely controversial. Many felt he was so much a part of the sound that any lineup without him would pale -- and fail. Or, truth be told, that if longtime fans had their way, he would be back up there. But change, especially over the course of a generation, is not negotiable. It's inevitable. Even if it weren't, it would be necessary -- unless you're looking for some sort of enduring museum piece, hardly an admirable rock and roll thing. And maybe he's making the best of the situation, but Wanek says he was ready to move on. "It was fine," he says. "I like it with the sax, but it was one voice, one tone... Maybe I had enough of that sound in my head and wanted to try something new." So there was a lot on the line in 2003 when UJD brought out Rybi Tuk -- on the audience side of the stage, at least: no one knew quite what to expect. And while, perhaps, it did not break any new ground for them musically, it was a solid effort -- one that, with its lush arrangements and 20 guest musicians, built a bridge between the present and Nemilovany Svet more than a decade before.

Bright lights, Big Apple

After saying "na schledano" to Capillary Action in Los Angeles, UJD took a week off before flying -- another rare treat -- to New York for the final show of the tour, a killing, if sadly under-attended date at the Knitting Factory. The sound was crisp and clean; the production values, something virtually non-existent for most of UJD's American tours, seemed... well, almost over the top. Strobe lights? OK. Fog machine? Um, not so much and a little too rock-starry. Wanek was loose and relaxed, updating folks on "Jassica," the heroine of a wordless song of the same name -- the barroom brawl of a singalong. He's riffed on the song through the years, and through the tours. It's always good for a laugh. It's the story about a grey whale who falls in love with a sailor at a pub. They do what comes, um, naturally. The sailor ships out and Jassica discovers she is pregnant. She gives birth to a giraffe. Now, much older, she's a grandmother, looking at the pictures of the grandkids on an iPod slideshow. The grandkids are birds, of course, and there are hundreds, thousands of them -- "some of them perhaps flying over New York right now," Wanek said. They stuck to the heavily Rybi Tuk set list, but mixed up the 90-minute performance a little, closing the show with the rarely heard-- on this side of the Atlantic -- "Hollywood," which opens with an English-language audience-response demanded singalong: magical, yes, but, frankly, it sounds much more impressive when there are hundreds rather than dozens singing along.

Then, from the stage, Wanek threw a little water on the fire, saying pretty much, that this might be it for a little while. Skoda, their American label, had already bitten it, but rose from the grave to get behind this tour by releasing Rybi Tuk. It was essentially a one-man operation, that man being Patrick O'Donnell. The work "used to be a labor of love," he said after the show. "Now it's just labor." And there are still the continuing problems with immigration. Besides, the tours are expensive and hard and, at the end of the day, money losers. And while one of Uz Jsme Doma's claims to fame back home is that it "made it" in America, the band doesn't really need it. They're playing 100 dates a year. And Wanek has plenty to keep him busy, including a new daughter. She was seven weeks old when the tour began. "That's my happiness now," Wanek says. He also just finished work on a 13-episode series for Czech television show called "Krysaci/Rats," short films about three rats who live in a dump, with the score by UJD and four guest musicians. The instrumentation includes saxophone, banjo, accordion and tuba. "That will be a new sound for us," he says. The series will air in January. Further episodes and a related project called "Lajka" have been scheduled.

Wanek has also recently completed a 60-page poem that has been set to music in a collaboration with drummer Pavel Fajt, founder of the legendary Czech band Dunaj. The poem is supposed to be published sometime next year. That's funny because a quarter century into his career as a songwriter and bandleader, Wanek says he never wanted to be a musician, he wanted to be a poet and that setting his texts to music was "an accident." At the same time, however, he is ambivalent about being a "published poet" because it conjures up the image of a guy with a beard, a pipe and an attitude. The collaboration with Fajt on the musical part of the poem will continue.

He also has "a few ideas" for a new UJD album, which is tentatively called Jeskyne/Caves. There is no timetable for its release. And then there's a nugget for the truly hopeful/obsessed fan: there is the possibility of a collaboration, if not exactly a full-fledged Uz Jsme Doma reunion, in the near future: Dolansky, who says in the "Pudding" documentary that he could not imagine writing music that didn't have Wanek lyrics, has finished something and, in fact, has asked his old bandmate to write lyrics for it. "Right now I don't have the time, but it might happen," Wanek says.

What that tentative collaboration, if it does come off -- which is entirely speculative -- would mean is not entirely clear. Would the saxophonist put together his own band? Would Uz Jsme Doma, with or without Dolansky, record the material? Would he rejoin the band -- as a special guest, or for a limited engagement -- to put the music out there? Would he tour? Nothing is certain. Wanek, who sees his former bandmate "occasionally," says he doesn't know how far Dolansky wants to go with it -- or even how much he's been playing. "It's been seven years," he says. "It's difficult to, as we call it, ‘jump back to the train.' He probably wouldn't be crazy enough to want to tour, to sleep on the floor and run from show to show." Which, of course, is exactly what Wanek is doing. He laughs. "When you do it all the time, it's fine, you get used to it. There's no going back. It's like going back to high school. Nobody wants to do that."

So what's next?

"I have enough to do," he says. "I'm not bored at all. We'll see. It will all work out in the end."

Also see our previous interview with Uz Jsme Doma
and the official UJD website

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER