Plastic People of the Universe
From right: Olga Zahorbenska, Jason, Milan in Prague, November 1998
I first met bassist/singer/lyricist Milan Hlavsa shortly before a show at the Irving Plaza of Plastic People of the Universe (July 1998). It was the first American show for the legendary Czech rock band that had been harassed by and prosecuted by the Communists in the '70's and '80's.
Milan Hlavsa: 1952-2001
Interview by Jason Gross
I always found Milan to be a very sweet, funny, good-natured person. He didn't speak much English so one of his managers, Olga Zahorbenska, helped to translate. He pulled out a subway map and made a circle with his finger around Central Park. Olga explained that he just jogged around the whole parimeter of the park. I interviewed him briefly about the upcoming show. I was a bit taken back at how (understably) downcast the rest of the band was and how up-tempo he was.
I went to Prague later that year and visited him, meeting up with him and Olga at a restaurant. He said that he had some photos to show me. The first one was of him shaking hands with Bill Clinton. He told me that Havel was supposed to have a White House reception and requested that Lou Reed be the entertainment. The staff objected, saying that Reed with his songs about sex and drugs (this was the Clinton White House remember) was not appropriate for such a ceremony. Havel got indignant and said it would be a great insult to the Czech people if this didn't happen. The staff relented and invited Reed. Reed in turn invited Milan to play with him. Reed and his band with Milan did a few songs for the Clintons, Havels and the rest of the White House party (Milan describes it more below). He was so surprised and amazed at the whole thing.
The last time I saw him was when the Plastics came back in February 1999 for a show at the Knitting Factory. I met up with Milan and he was very warm and happy to see me. He wanted to tell me a joke but he couldn't speak English. He'd puff his cheeks out and mumble something in Czech. He finally cornered a band member to translate. "Milan wants you to say what he's doing," he told me. I didn't know. He explained 'It's Monica Lewinsky, hiding the evidence.' Milan broke out in laughter after that.
A few weeks ago I got a message from Olga. She said that Milan had gone through some (cancer) treatments but wasn't responding well to it. It was especially sad as the Plastics were about to go into the studio to record new material (their first in over a decade). Then on January 6, 2000, I received this e-mail from Prague:
"Though the news may have already reached you, we want to make sure that you know that this afternoon, Milan Hlavsa, founder and leader of the Plastic People of the Universe died of cancer in his home. The world has lost not only a visionary artist, but also one of the kindest people to walk the planet."
As it turned out, the Plastics were about to enter the studio to work on their first album of new music in over a decade. This interview was conducted with Milan on my Prague visit in November 1998 with Olga helping to translate his answers for me. Needless to say, he will be greatly missed by many of us.
PSF: What have you been up to since the (first) New York shows (July 1998)?
Nothing really exciting or exceptional has happened. Since the show in New York, we have been stumbling on our way as far as the band. We are trying to find out what to do. Right now, I have been finishing my solo album, which I actually plan to record with the Plastic People. I prepared it for them but since the guys in the band were not able to decide if they wanted to do it right now, I thought I wanted to do it and record it. They were not able to agree on the music. I decided to go on and I recorded it with young musicians. Now, I'm setting up a completely new band. The album's name is Madness so maybe that's what the project will be called. Joe Karafiat, the guitarist from Plastic People, is going to be part of this new band.
PSF: What kind of problems have you found that are stopping the Plastics from going on?
Basically, Vrata (Vratislav) and Pepa (Josef) heard the material that I preferred for the new album and they said they weren't sure if they wanted to go forward. They felt that they would like to do music more in style from the '70's and '80's that the Plastic People used to do. They wanted to go on with this style, this sort of music. I'm using samplers and this industrial music and they are not open enough for that. They are not ready for that.
PSF: What do you see as the main reason to keep the band going then?
Whatever I said before, any time we meet and play, there is this incredible energy. I really enjoy playing with them and feeling the enthuasiasm that's pouring out of them. This is good and I like to do this. But I'm not able to be involved in two bands, two projects. I've always been a one-band man. Whatever I decide I have to do for one band can't be divided into two.
PSF: Is it a problem that members of the band aren't people who hang around with each other regularly anymore?
Actually, we've never been like that, even in the past. We used to go to different pubs. Maybe that's why we could be together for such a long time. So it hasn't had an effect on us.
PSF: What was your impression of coming to the States and doing shows there?
Of course, it's an exception feeling, coming to play in the U.S. Especially at Irving Plaza- it's a really presitigious club. You can just tell it there inside. For sure, we enjoyed it and there was a kind of satisfaction for us, for the whole band.
PSF: How does it feel to play with the Plastics in a free society after all these years?
That's a completely different feeling. You have to understand that before, we actually never played as the band in the public. We could only play for closed circles of related friends. We never performed for sold-out clubs and venues. This is a completely new experience for us.
PSF: Tours are being planned for the future. What kind of things are you looking forward to?
I hope it's going to happen. It's not 100% sure. I'm looking forward to it. I hope this could be a decent good-bye to our obscure band.
PSF: How do you see Madness as different from your work with the Plastics?
The music is certainly different. It's a new band. I'm not sure where it's going to go now. There's no memories, no past, no relations, either bad or good. No reminiscenes for the past. The relations we had in the Plastic People were really unique and strong because of the past and what we were through. This is like a new feeling now. It's fresh. I don't know where it's going to go.
PSF: When the band was underground, they were seen as folk heros. How are the Plastics seen today in the Czech Republic?
You have to realize that 90% of the audience that came to see us in the past year had no chance to see us before. It was a mixed audience, with three generations. Some had never heard us before- they heard about us from their fathers or grandfathers because it was some really young. I had a good feeling to see young people come to see us. I think that they trusted. They believed in what we are doing, that we mean it. It's an honest feeling. There's nothing artificial about it.
PSF: When the band is touring, how do you think the audiences will see them? A Czech band? An outlawed, underground band?
If the audience has heard about the Plastic People, they look at us as a band that was known as being persecuted by the Communists. We can't escape that- we are connected with that. On the other hand, like in New York, the American audience didn't know us and they just came for rock and roll. They liked the band and were interested in them. We were just a good rock and roll band. That's what I heard when I talked to the audience in New York. They just thought we were a great band and didn't know us as a political band.
PSF: Tell me about playing at the White House.
When Kendra, who is the ambassador to the Czech Republic in Washington, started to talk about an idea after our gig at Irving Plaza. We all expected it to be a joke. When I got a fax from Lou Reed to prepare a few songs, I got that this was the end of the joke. Actually I was considering that for some time. I wasn't sure if I should do it or not because basically, I think the same thing about the American establishment as I think about the establishment here. Probably Lou Reed thinks the same. When I saw the selection of the songs that Lou Reed suggested, I knew I wanted to do that.
PSF: How did it feel to be playing a show with your hero for the leader of your country and the president of the United States?
Of course, it was a great feeling. Of course Bill (Clinton), we are with you! (laughs) The whole unique situation was a kind of Orwell, Kafka, Havel style because of the Monica (Lewinsky) scandal. On any TV channel you'd switch on, you'd always see this one boring story with oral sex. At the same time, we were singing to Clinton and the White House (Reed's) "Dirty Boulevard." I can tell you that it was an unbelievable and bizarre experience. I doubt if the whole thing would have happened under a different constellation than Bill Clinton being your president, Havel being our president and Sasha's idea who went for it to get everyone to it. I'm sure it was good it happened. I believe that in this world, anything is possible.
ED NOTE: Also see our piece on the history of the Plastics/Pulnoc, our 2007 interview with Vratislav Brabenec of the Plastics and an excerpt from a book about the Plastic People
And see some of Milan's favorite music
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