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In Extremis

'Let The Evil Blood Spill Out': An Interview With kIRk
Pavel Godfrey , July 10th, 2013 04:29

Polish trio kIRk create a post-industrial, improvisation-based "soundtrack for sleepwalking, hypnotism, undeath, and all liminal states of consciousness". They meet Pavel Godfrey to discuss last album Zła Krew, losing all their equipment and the evolution of the Polish music scene

kIRk's most recent album, Zła Krew (Evil Blood), begins with a deep voice tersely speaking the words "I am." It's a sample, and it's answered by another sampled "I am," this time called out by a hip hop crew. The two versions of the phrase bounce off one another in a call-and-response pattern. It's like a pissing match between two ventriloquist's dummies, each insisting on its self-sufficient identity. The exchange dissolves into a chaos of competing vocal samples. When it returns, it's no longer a dialogue. "I am" has been repeated so many times, in such emphatic terms, that it has lost its meaning. It's sunk down into the viscous groove, just another element played against the lurching beat.

This track, 'Do Rozpuku' (Crack Up), symbolically enacts what kIRk's music achieves – the destabilisation of the "I am." 'Dżuma' (Plague) is the most aggressive song on Zła Krew, and probably kIRk's single finest work. Here the beat and bass are almost a single apparatus, squelching and smacking ahead like a clay automaton gone berserk. You'll feel it, almost as a physical assault, but if you try to really listen to it, to pull it apart or figure it out, it will slip your grasp. At your moment of highest concentration it will pass into your peripheral consciousness. But you may find yourself headbanging, in slow, zombified convulsions. And then the trumpet enters, tearing down a minor-key folk melody and jarring you back to yourself, until, before you know it, a scything bass riff takes control again…

kIRk challenge your sense of self by relentlessly undermining the modes of attentiveness your bring to the music, and they're able to do this through their process – rigorous collective improvisation. Process, though, means more than simply method or strategy; it's whatever happens when three people work freely and collectively on an emotion, and it requires a ritual sacrifice of the "I am." The barriers between the individual band members break down. And, in a sense, they become absorbed within the process, just as the listener is absorbed in their music.

kIRk are based in Warsaw, Poland. The band are a trio comprising Paweł Bartnik on electronics, occasional Quietus contributor Filip Kalinowski on turntables, and Olgierd Dokalski on trumpet. Over the last half-decade kIRk have helped pave the way for the growth of experimental music in Poland. Today, the scene is thriving, all the more so because there is no single identifiable 'Polish sound' - the individual projects are unified by their intensity and rigor rather than by any one aesthetic.

kIRk's style is inimitable, as resistant to genre as it is to conventional listening. Loosely speaking, this is post-industrial music, but its roots are in avant-garde jazz, hip hop, and techno. In a sense, this is electronic music, but it sounds as if the boundaries between devices and organisms, dead objects and living things, are slipping away. kIRk provides a soundtrack for sleepwalking, hypnotism, undeath, and all liminal states of consciousness. You could almost call it 'trance'.


Listen to the whole of Zła Krew here

Since this is the first time you've talked to the Quietus, perhaps you could give me some background on the band. Who was in kIRk when it started? I've listened to your 2005 set at Tresor, and it sounds like you didn't have a trumpet yet.

Filip Kalinowski: It's a bit complicated to talk about the beginning because Paweł, who isn't with us today, is the only original member of the band. He started it with two other guys in Płock, a city about 120 km from Warsaw, which is a bit like the capital of Polish techno, with a long history of electronic music going back to trackers and other early digital stuff. They were fascinated by wonky techno like Cristian Vogel and the early Tresor stuff. Then it evolved, and I met Paweł and we started to play together. I'm from a hip hop background, I was a hip hop DJ/turntablist making cuts to hip hop records. And then we met Olgierd, who plays the trumpet.

Olgierd Dokalski: The beginning of the band as a trio with turntables, trumpet and electronics dates from 2009. Each one of us brings something from a totally distinct background, and that's how we develop the sound.

So, Olgierd, is your background in free jazz and improvised music?

OD: I feel deeply attached to the European improvised scene, American free jazz from the '60s and '70s, and also Eastern and Central European folk music.

How did you start incorporating dubstep into kIRk's sound? Did that happen when you joined the band, Filip?

FK: That's funny, because we've never been influenced by dubstep. I do like the beginnings of dubstep, with producers like Kevin Martin, Benga, and Digital Mystikz, who all sounded completely different. We're really influenced by early dub - King Tubby, Prince Jammy and all this experimental Jamaican stuff. Maybe low frequencies and heavy bass came to us in that manner. We started hearing more of those records and hearing ourselves called dubstep, but we were never a dubstep band.

OD: Our songs are born through improvisation, so we would never start with the idea "let's make it in the dubstep style." At our rehearsals and concerts, we just play.

So walk us through it a little. When you were recording your first album, Msza Święta W Brąswałdzie ['Holy Mass In The City of Braswald, 2011], were those tracks fully improvised takes? Or did you go in with a rough outline, some idea of the elements you want to use?

FK: Most of the time Paweł has a little loop, or maybe Olgierd has a trumpet pattern, or I have a vinyl sample. Then we build on it. We take these loops to the rehearsals, and we play them over, and over, doing different takes. With Holy Mass… it took two years, this process of playing them over and over and over, and the structures appeared in the process. There are parts that have structures, or seem to have structures, but they weren't pre-conceived.

OD: There are two versions of the first album, because one was cut to 40 minutes for vinyl. Each version was prepared as a live recording, essentially. A third of the music in the CD of Holy Mass… was recorded as a live broadcast on a radio station near Gdansk, while other takes were played live in Płock in Paweł's studio. After recording live we never make corrections or additions, we leave it just the way it was played.

FK: Our attitude is a little bit different from most of the electronic bands that I know, because nowadays the mistake is completely taken out of the process. In glitch music, for instance, the glitch is exactly at the place that the producer wanted the glitch to happen. It's a preconceived mistake. We approach it differently – we value real mistakes and the spontaneity of things going wrong, if you can call anything "wrong…"

That's one thing I like a lot about what you guys are doing. There are very repetitive bases for the songs, but within that you'll hear hesitations or pauses, moments of uncertainty and spontaneity where it isn't all just chugging ahead as planned… Like when you're playing the trumpet, Olgierd, you sculpt a phrase, and then pause, and then play a new version of the phrase, and the rest of the band opens up time for that to happen, which I think is really cool.

FK: That also comes from the thing that happens between Olgierd and Paweł, when Paweł samples and loops him and then Olgierd builds upon his earlier trumpet.

OD: It also has to do with how long we've done this band. Each of us has a unique style, but these styles developed through our playing together. So by playing with the guys in kIRk and encountering these totally different genres of music, I started to pay more attention to the breaks, to the pauses… to stopping my phrases at an unpredictable moment. We get repetitive, and then, all of a sudden, I cut it. I wanted to make a counter-action to what Paweł does, and somehow it affected my way of playing in general.

kIRk - Dżuma from Kirk Band on Vimeo.

So Filip, please give me a better idea of how the turntable fits into this, because I don't have a background in hip hop. I can tell that certain things are samples or scratching, but other than that I have a hard time telling where your sounds stop and Paweł's begin.

FK: It's a good starting point that you don't have a hip hop background. I have a really hip hop background. I used to be an orthodox hip hop fanatic or something, and when I met Paweł I was just doing this classic stuff like scratching and cuts to the choruses of hip hop tracks. If you listen to the first EP we recorded together, About Simple Things, there's hip hop scratching and cuts. When we started playing as a trio I came into improvised music, and learned that the only limits are in my mind. I thought I had to do that simple scratching stuff, but sometimes it's more interesting to take a record and bounce the needle on it, or do some strange musique concrete stuff.

Many people say they don't know where I start and Paweł ends, but I don't know how I can explain it. It's a constant dialogue, the improvisations talking together. Most of the time the written structure comes from Paweł, and I do this noise/glitch thing on top of it…

The textural stuff…

FK: Yes, sometimes I also use something more like hip hop cuts. Every word you can hear on the records is from me.

Usually the bass riffs come from Paweł, right?

FK: Yeah.

But it often sounds like they're getting stretched or compressed, sped up or slowed down like a spinning record. Is that something you're controlling, maybe with a digital turntable?

FK: No, I can't control anything, but sometimes we try to find something that fits together. Going back to hip hop, I remember something DJ Premier said, that sometimes he hears the sample in his head and searches for it in the records. Sometimes I try to do something like that. Paweł starts some pattern and then I take the pattern from him, replacing it with something similar from vinyl, repeating it on the turntable, then changing and shifting it. And then Paweł makes a track from his part and my part, so that it lasts.

So let's talk a bit about your second album Zła Krew. On your Soundcloud it's accompanied by some text about how you try to impose different conditions on each project, new parameters or constraints that allow you to do something new. What were the conditions on this album?

OD: There weren't any concrete musical aims we wanted to achieve. It was more like a shared state of mind. The recording session for Zła Krew was just one meeting in a moment that was very special for the three of us. For my own part, I was getting through some hard times in my personal life, and that affected the music I played. And as far as I know it was the same for Paweł - this music was supposed to be a catharsis for him. I had a feeling that this session was like playing with the devil. We didn't know what we were doing, but we signed the contract.

FK: The whole album was recorded in about 3 days, in Płock, Paweł's city. I don't know if the construction is the same in English, but in Polish you can say that you "let the bad/evil blood spill out." It's a ritual to get over bad circumstances or negative feelings - you spill the bad blood and then it's better.

So it's basically the same principle as leeching, from the Middle Ages?

FK: Yeah.

Ok, sure, that makes sense in English too.

FK: So, like Olgierd said, we don't talk much about music and we don't make assumptions. We don't have precise goals or fixed aims. It's more like emotional improvisation, and this particular improvisation was performed in hard times. It's not only that the title fit, it had to be like this. It fit perfectly.

A lot of that malevolence resides in the drum sound. The bass drum is unlike anything else I've heard. It kicks, but also punches… or stabs. It's sharp. Is that something Paweł did?

FK: Yeah, Paweł was doing it, so he's the person that should really answer you, but it's also a question of the mastering and mix of this record. We wanted it to be really aggressive and tense, and we didn't follow the rules of mastering and mixing. The valves went red and it sounded the way we liked. I sent it to one of the most well-known and respected Polish producers, who is also a studio engineer, and he said, "I turned it off on the second track because I couldn't listen to it." For me that's a compliment. It's not about the rules, it's about the feeling and - it sounds shamanistic or something, but the power of the music.

Zła Krew has this really dark sound, and it's more minimal and direct than Msza Święta W Brąswałdzie. To me, it's a lot like industrial music. Are you interested in that at all?

Both: Yes!

FK: As I said before, I was a hip hop kid, but then I opened my eyes. We like the European industrial roots - Einstürzende Neubauten and all that stuff.

OD: The British scene, too… I think industrial is the music that joins us together. We all like it. Though it's not like we are trying to sound like something. The influence is more spiritual, for us.

FK: I really like early 23 Skidoo stuff, Psychic TV, Carter Tutti… But it's hard to say they're any more influential on us than Wu-Tang Clan, or Archie Shepp. We have different heroes and different influences… Speaking of this industrial stuff, I don't use Serato. I travel with a bag full of records because I like the element of the unknown. When I use the needle I don't always put it in the same place. And in my bag there is also a Psychic TV record, so I can use one second from it, or manipulate one sound from it, a strange guitar or something.

Nice, there's that openness to chance that was so important for Throbbing Gristle and the like. Speaking of chance, catastrophic chance, you recently had all your gear stolen.  How did that happen, exactly?

FK: We've had these little successes - coverage in the Polish press, Mary Anne Hobbs playing one of our tracks on BBC Radio 1 - but we don't play abroad frequently. So when we were invited to play the Electron festival in Switzerland, it was very important for us. We were on the bill before Erol Alkan and Tiga and Ms Dynamite, so we didn't fit in there at all, but we were going to play for a huge, probably confused, audience. The day before we were supposed to play we went to the LFO performance, and when we came back to the hotel our room was robbed. They stole our laptops and our cigarettes. They didn't take the trumpet, they didn't take the controllers, they took what could easily be sold on the next street corner. So at this festival, we were just "this band from Poland that got robbed".

And it's our fault we didn't have any backup. Any at all. A musician friend said that if you play with the devil, like we did [on Zła Krew], you have to take the consequences… That the record had so much bad energy we should be thankful we only played from it a few times, because it could have had worse consequences.

So what did you lose, exactly? You lost the old songs, and presumably also the programmed sounds and samples?

FK: The presets, the tracks for playing live, and all our recordings – released and unreleased. The good thing is that Zła Krew was already released. It was only one month after the premiere of the album. So it's a new beginning for us. We are starting from scratch, now.

That's a graceful way of handling it. I read something on the Quietus about a British band who got all their shit stolen, spent months doing nothing, and then half-assed their album. It seems like kIRk reacted in exactly the opposite way. As demoralising as it must have been, you've taken it as an opportunity to rework your sound.

FK: Our improvisation is our way out of this situation. If we played only with fixed structures, we would be nowhere right now. Now, after the robbery, we think about not getting so deep into bad energy, vomiting aggression and hate, being anti-social. Now we think about playing under the same conditions and while… not taking it easier, really, but being less… aggressive.

So what kind of people are coming out to your shows? Are your listeners avant-garde jazz fans, or industrial people, or what?

OD: Well, for a long time nobody gave a shit about our concerts. They were empty. It would be our girlfriends and close friends, and even our close friends started to have enough of the music. Nobody understood what we were doing, and it was a hard time for us.

FK: I remember one early show when the lights went out, we started to play - and for us it's kind of a ritual, we get into it, zoning out - and after the lights came back on I looked at the audience and there was one person, my wife, standing there clapping. That's how it used to be, as Olgierd said.

OD: But after two or three years, just before we released Msza Święta W Brąswałdzie, it started to change.

FK: Then there were overwhelmingly positive reviews of our two records. Those reviews went to the daily press in Poland, which was great, but quite a surprise. A few years ago it would have been impossible for a band like us to get mentioned in a daily newspaper or a big weekly magazine. It shows the times are changing.

OD: It's important to add that in Poland, and especially in Warsaw, five years ago, no one was into experimental electronic music. There was no scene, it was totally empty. Now the scene is like four or five times bigger than it was.

FK: At our shows now there are many people from the jazz scene, many people from the techno scene. Of course, sometimes there are people who know the old kIRk techno stuff and are a little confused by what they hear. Other people are confused that we don't really play the songs from our records - we play from those structures and take them to different places. I think there are also people who listen because of the hype, who will come and go with the trend.

OD: Sometimes I see some goths!

I was going to say...

OD: And some music nerds. It's a mixture. You can meet freaks from different places. Our music isn't easy listening, but somehow the crowds are getting younger and younger. There are even some people who are like 18, 19, 20. I don't know how they heard about the band…

FK: But it's also a question of the times. There are so many people doing music blogging, and there's this anhedonistic, strange techno like Silent Servant that's quite popular right now. So I think many of the young people come from this background, like, 'Oh, I heard Sandwell District, and this is also quite dark and a bit techno…' I'm proud that kIRk is associated with the techno scene. 'Techno' is an important word in my thinking about music. Many people – even those who listen to experimental and avant-garde music – think that techno is white gloves and Berlin Love Parade, but it's changing now, with this 'black wave'. And it's quite funny, because I think we are the only Polish electronic band that's respected by at least part of the metal community, which mostly has limited horizons and doesn't respect anything except metal music.

So the atmospheres in your music sound very urban, to me. All the albums come off as city music, and they have this close relationship to self-consciously 'urban' genres like hip hop, dubstep, etc. How do these urban-electronic sounds, this music from London and New York, fit into your urban experience? Does it make sense in Poland as well?

OD: We make the music, so it's hard for us to say…

Well, what about the stuff you've listened to from those traditions…

FK: It's interesting you're talking about urban music, because when our first album, Msza Święta W Brąswałdzie, came out - I think mostly because of the cover, which is a little girl going to her first communion, and it's very old - many people wrote about Slavic roots and the forest atmosphere, with forgotten pagan gods running around the fires. It wasn't considered urban music. It was considered music from the woods and little villages at the north of Poland.

OD: People were trying to put a story to it, but there was no story. Just titles of tracks and a cover.

FK: Well, we gave them context, because we gave them the cover and titles of tracks which said something more than "lemon" or something.

OD: So there was like a narrative aspect to the titles of the tracks, it could have worked like context for the audience. I remember there was one review of Zła Krew that said our music, and especially that album, works as an urban music in post-Soviet cities, big cities like Bucharest, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw, especially the ones that were destroyed, where ruins are mixed with some socialistic architecture.

FK: We don't listen to those tracks walking around cities, so it's hard…

OD: My urban music is Urban Bushman by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It works quite well while walking the city during the nighttime.

FK: We listen to different people's music walking around Warsaw. It's really interesting because you don't have this context of Polish reviews… You point to the urban music when so many journalists point to the, I don't know, countryside.

Well, I see what they mean too. The music has this very earthy, pagan power, but for me it's maybe more like the persistence of an ancient world within the modern city. And that's kind of where I wanted to go at the end. There does seem to be a mystical aspect to the band - it's called 'church', you have 'holy masses', and you've spoken about your performance as a ritual. Is there a spiritual dimension to your music, or are you trying to do certain things with music that other people get from spirituality?

FK: That's the aspect that is hardest to talk about.

OD: That stuff has a lot to do with the context we set up on our first album—the Polish forests and old rituals. For me it's a very personal thing. There are some things I always want to achieve when I pick up my instrument. It doesn't matter whether it's a rehearsal, or practicing on my own, or playing a gig. Whether I achieve the things I want to achieve or not, that's another thing. But you play a concert and you want to make people feel something after listening to your music. Or you want to make people do something. Maybe you want to make them go and bang their heads against the wall. When that happens, it's your mysticism.

FK: It's what I learned, somehow, playing in kIRk. I'm more into the rational side of living, and not believing in stuff I can't see, but improvisation shows you that there is somehow something happening between people that you can't describe easily. And that's another reflection of the same aspect of mysticism.

As ever, kIRk moves forwards. They have already written the loops for a new EP, which they're hoping to finance using crowdfunding. Preview them here.

Zła Krew was co-released by two one-man DIY labels – on tape by Oficyna Biedota, and on CD and FLAC by the now-defunct Innergun

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