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In Extremis

Pure Undisturbed Reality: An Interview With Stara Rzeka
Joseph Burnett , August 14th, 2013 06:34

Stara Rzeka's debut album, a thrilling blend of black metal, krautrock and drone, has made it one of the Quietus' favourites of 2013 so far. In advance of his debut UK performance at Unsound London, Joseph Burnett catches up with him to discuss humanity and its connection to nature

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Despite being comparatively unknown within the wider world, Poland's alternative music scene is in diverse, forward-thinking and exciting health at the moment. From ferocious metal to tonal explorations and avant-garde jazz, via aggressive alt-rock and novel takes on techno and dubstep, there's a huge swathe of Polish artists that merit far more interest than they're currently receiving.

Among the myriad innovative individuals currently making the country feel like such fertile musical territory, Jakub 'Kuba' Ziołek stands as a key figure, having made his name as a member of some of the most intriguing and exploratory groups in the country. They include Innercity Ensemble, an improvisation-based collective whose wide-ranging pieces draw from members' backgrounds in jazz, post-industrial and electronic musics, Ed Wood, and Alameda 3, who are due to release a new album in the near future.

However, 2013 has shed fresh light on Ziołek's singular approach to rock, metal and folk-leaning traditions with the release of his first full album as Stara Rzeka, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. The album is both astonishing and beguiling, composed on an acoustic guitar but broadening to draw from a wide mix of styles - folk, krautrock, black metal - with a radical and open-minded attitude that makes the resultant music impossible to pigeonhole. It's already reached the upper echelons of the Quietus' albums of 2013 so far list, with Quietus editor John Doran describing it thus: "it shifts through sparse BM moves that remind one of Norwegian second wavers Thorns, and through the arboreal drones of early Growing, before ending on a celestial cover of Nico's 'My Only Child' with speaker destroying drone metal."

If there is any justice in the world, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem should be the vehicle to propel Ziołek to attention in the alternative music community well outside his home country. Fascinated by the oblique and beautiful world of Stara Rzeka, the Quietus caught up with him via e-mail to discuss the album, the tensions and connections between humans and nature, and his own remarkable perspective on music.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself and Stara Rzeka? I know you've performed and recorded in a number of outfits, such as Ed Wood and Innercity Ensemble, but when did you start working as Stara Rzeka?

Jakub Ziołek: My background is in metal and hardcore music, and it still plays an important role in bands like Ed Wood or Alameda 3, or even in Stara Rzeka. I like radical, material sounds… Even in ambient or acoustic music, I like sounds to be massive and extreme. I participate in numerous different bands. Innercity Ensemble is a free-form improvisational collective of seven musicians, a band blending jazz, post-industrial, psychedelic and ambient music. Hokei is a RIO and post-rock-influenced sci-fi phantasmagoria with two drum kits. Alameda 3 is, in a sense, a continuation of Stara Rzeka, but a little more rock-influenced. T'ien Lai is, in a way, a tribute to so-called 'krautrock' and bands like Cluster or Popol Vuh. Kapital is a mix of electro-acoustic experiments and extreme space-psychedelic music. Stara Rzeka is three years old, but I only started playing live last year.

How do you feel Stara Rzeka differs from your other projects? I believe it's a completely solo project?

JZ: The whole idea of Stara Rzeka, and also Alameda 3, T'ien Lai and Kapital, is for them to be completely DIY bands, and I think that those bands should be responsible for recording and mixing their material. I have no money to pay for a real studio, so everything is done DIY style. I know nothing about mixing, but I work very hard listening to the music and doing the best I can for it to sound satisfying enough. Stara Rzeka doesn't really differ from my other bands. They're all a part of the same story.

Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is remarkable in the way it takes in a wide variety of genres and styles, including heavy rock similar to black metal, folk, electronic music and drone. Are these genres that you have been versed in a long time? What - if any - were your influences when making the album?

JZ: It may sound trivial but the only true influence is the German music of the 70s. For me, it's the most important legacy in post-World War II European music - Kraftwerk, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Faust, Neu, Amon Düül II, Guru Guru and many, many others. [They had] diverse, original, inspiring concepts that never concealed the pure experience of sound. There are also many other artists that I admire: Robert Fripp, Keiji Haino, Richard Pinhas, Loren Connors, Robbie Basho, My Cat Is An Alien, Sun City Girls, Charalambides, David Hurley… and there's philosophy. I don't listen to music a lot, but I read a lot. Very little fiction, mostly just scientific and philosophical books. I'm more inspired by books than by records, although I don't consider music to be purely intellectual. Quite the opposite.

I believe the songs were initially composed on acoustic guitar. What made you want to flesh them out with other instruments and musical styles? Do you play all instruments on the album?

JZ: Yes, I play all the instruments on the album. 90% of the time I compose on the acoustic guitar because I live in a flat and I cannot play loud music at home. I practise a lot on the acoustic guitar, and hope that in the future it will be my only field of expression.

Was it a challenge to juxtapose these varied styles whilst still maintaining the album's coherence? It's something of a triumph that, for all its frequent evolutions, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is so focused and cohesive.

JZ: I never hoped for it to be musically cohesive. If it is, it's just pure coincidence. It's conceptually coherent. It's focused on the concept that mankind should consider the loss of the connection with its humanistic tradition of Renaissance and Enlightenment as a gain, not a loss… and that objective reality (not only nature) is not something that mankind is supposed to conquer and defeat. It's connected to us but keeps its own autonomy. We must learn how to communicate with it, not conquer it. I realise that this is not a new or original concept...

I believe metal music, notably black metal, is quite popular in Poland. Are you a big fan of black metal? What is it that draws you to it?

JZ: Metal music is popular in Poland, but I don't think black metal is popular. Of course there's Behemoth, but it's not really black metal, and Nergal is a celebrity in Poland like Paris Hilton is in the U.S. There are great black metal bands in Poland nowadays: more old-school like Mgła and more avant-garde like Furia and Thaw (just to name a few). To me black metal, along with doom metal, is the only metal music that's devoid of the testosterone aspect of sound, which makes metal music just a continuation of a penis-oriented rock & roll music. Black metal is a negation of humanism and hence [a negation of] the oppression of men over women… the sex factor disappears in black metal. It's subject is asexual, like a ghost. This is one of the reasons why I think of black metal as very closely connected to the truth of nature and its pure, undisturbed reality. I don't support any right-wing connotations in black metal, or nationalistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Varg Vikernes-style bullshit.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I speak no Polish, but note that some of the lyrics are in English. What was the thought process behind singing in English? Are most of the lyrics in Polish?

JZ: Actually, only 'My Only Child' is in English and it's a cover. The rest of the album is sung in Polish. To me, the voice is just another instrument. I listen to music from around the world and I love to hear songs sung in other languages than English. It makes them more mysterious to me. I try to interpret in my own way the meanings of words in those songs… even if they may be originally just shitty love songs. To me they sound magical.

Stara Rzeka means Old River in English, and in your biography I read that you have a keen interest in nature and its preservation. Has that always been the case? Do you garner particular inspiration from landscapes that surround you?

JZ: I don't feel comfortable living in the city and I seize every opportunity to go out to some rural areas. Nature and the way it connects within itself and with people is very important to me. Sounds of nature are beautiful and purifying. But I don't mythologise or idealise the countryside or nature in general. Also, I don't think of nature as some kind of unity (contrasted to another unity – culture). Actually, to me, there's no nature, just various forces and material objects that need to be considered in their autonomy.

The combination of electric and acoustic sounds on the album suggests a desire to explore a sense of conflict in humankind's interaction with nature. Is this a fair assessment? Do you see Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem as having something of a political or social commentary at play?

JZ: Yes, there is some political background behind this music. People must stop thinking of nature as a beautiful, innocent virgin that should be conquered. But, to me, this thinking deals with the whole objective, material reality (natural or artificial). Material objects are not the neutral background of our lives, they constitute our world and our thinking of ourselves. We must learn how they are and how they act in their own autonomy. Again, I realise that these ideas are not my original concepts. I'm just deeply devoted to them, so I like to talk about them.

I was struck by the potency of the folk aspect of your music on hearing the album the first time. Little is known here in the UK about traditional Polish music. Do you see yourself as part of that sort of tradition?

JZ: I don't consider Stara Rzeka to be a folk band. I don't know much about traditional Polish music as well and there are no traditional Polish folk tunes on Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. Folk music has great power and I sense truth in this music. But, I don't see a reason I should consider Polish folk music to be more important than, say, Thai folk music.

I'm reminded of many English folk bands of the 60s and 70s who shied away from modernity in order to explore ancient, sometimes pre-Christian traditions, as well as more modern Scandinavian acts who do the same thing, such as Tenhi and Wardruna. Do you feel an affinity with any of those bands, both past and present?

JZ: In Poland, there was this great band Księżyc – sort of medieval, pagan folk music. Their music had some amazing primordial aura – a deep journey into unconsciousness of the senses. I admire Księżyc, but Stara Rzeka is something different. I don't care much about past and tradition, I'm more future-oriented.

When I went to OFF Festival in Katowice last year, I was impressed by the quality and diversity of the local bands, but also thought it was a shame that they were often on very early in comparison to the big American and British bands. What is your view on the Polish music scene? Do you think it's harder for Polish acts to gain the recognition they deserve?

JZ: It's great that you've noticed the fact that Polish bands are not treated with respect they deserve. It's an effect of a servile mentality and inferiority complex. British and American bands are seen as the great lords that honour Poland just by their presence in our little country. Just take a look at numbers: My Bloody Valentine gets 150,000 Euro for their concert at OFF Festival this year, my band Hokei gets 500 Euro (and it's mostly public money!) Stara Rzeka plays at 16.00… Just imagine black metal-drone ritual, in the beautiful August sun with fifteen people attending, at this early hour. This is a real problem with big festivals, because club concerts and small festival organisers also suffer from the thoughtlessness of the big festival policy.

And the Polish musical scene is amazing! It's absurd to compare Polish music to American or British. Different worlds, different traditions, different financial and political environments. But very often I find Polish artists more interesting than British or American ones (and I'm not a patriot)… Just check the work of Wacław Zimpel (Hera), Mikrokolektyw, The Kurws, Piotr Kurek, Napszykłat, Macio Moretti (LXMP, Shofar, Baaba, Mitch&Mitch). And those are just few artists whose names came into my head at the moment.

I can imagine that it might be a challenge to bring this music, which is so diverse and multi-faceted and subtle, into a live setting. Have you performed many concerts? If so, did this throw up any specific challenges?

JZ: The first few concerts were very difficult for me technically (using acoustic and electric guitar in one song is not easy). I decided to make it more simple but more condensed and intense. I think it's good when live performance differs from what can be heard on an album. Those are two different things. I hate it when bands play their albums live note by note.

What are your future plans? I believe the album is set to get a new pressing, which is great news.

JZ: Yeah, the first pressing sold out very quickly. Both CD and cassette. Currently I'm working on split cassette with two artists from Poland. Stara Rzeka's new album will be released next year.

Stara Rzeka's Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is out now via Instant Classic.

Stara Rzeka will be playing live at Unsound Festival London, at Cafe Oto on 29th September. For more information and tickets, click here.

Aug 14, 2013 11:15am

"there's a huge swathe of Polish artists that merit far more interest than they're currently receiving"

Couldn't agree more! Poland is home to some really astounding artists who get little to no recognition over here.

I saw Stara Rzeka at Off Festival last weekend - pretty impressive stuff.

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Aug 15, 2013 2:39am

And don't forget Belzebong :)

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