20 Years Later: The Agony And The Ecstasy Of St Theresa
, February 17th, 2014 03:09
The fall of Communism, John Peel and absinthe: some of the ingredients behind Ecstasy Of St Theresa's Free-D (Original Soundtrack), the first album made by a Czech act for a Western label after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Wyndham Wallace sets the story free
Photographs courtesy of David Pajer
Before digital culture provided almost unlimited access to anything you could ever want to hear, music was a relatively precious commodity. The pursuit of new, exciting and groundbreaking sounds often involved patience, persistence and risk: the identification of an appealing artist, the tracking down of their record and the investment of cash in their product. To Jan Muchow, however, even that freedom must have seemed like a dream.
Born in 1971, in Rathenow in the former GDR, Muchow moved to Czechoslovakia at the age of three, the child of an East German father, a Czech mother, and a repressive Communist regime. For Muchow to hear anything other than government sanctioned releases involved the illicit tuning of his radio to distant, static-laden West German stations. The perusal of books by now globally recognised, but back then dissident Czech authors like Milan Kundera involved texts being smuggled over the border, after which photocopies would be illegally circulated. Travel, meanwhile, was almost exclusively restricted to Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and Hungary. Even expressing a non-conformist opinion in public was a potentially dangerous act.
"As a kid," Muchow recalls from the Normandy countryside, where he's currently producing a fellow Czech band, "you don't get that you live under a dictatorship. But once you start thinking about it, it really isn't much fun. You can't see the movies you'd like, or listen to bands you'd like, since they'd be banned. To own a copy of a record by some Western band: that was a really big thing."
Muchow, however, would go on to become one of the country's most reputable musicians and the founder of Ecstasy Of St Theresa, the first Czech band to sign a deal with a Western record label following the country's 1989 Velvet Revolution. As labelmates with Portishead, Paul Weller and Norman Cook's Beats International on Go! Discs, he saw his group's debut EP in the West, …Fluidtrance Centauri..., reach number six in the UK indie charts and top the American CMJ charts in 1993 before their unlikely international career came to an end the following year. Twenty years on from the release of Free-D (Original Soundtrack), their first (and only) album for Go! Discs imprint Free – an extraordinary, ahead of its time, electronica-inclined release that took Muchow's early shoegazing influences and headed off towards more peaceful pastures – Ecstasy Of St Theresa still exist. Although only one of their albums since 1994 has been released in the UK, they remain – albeit with a dramatically different line-up and musical style – hugely respected in their homeland, where Muchow has carved out an additional, enviable reputation as soundtrack composer, producer, actor, video director and even occasional Levi's model. Those who heard their Western output, meanwhile, have never forgotten them: Cherry Red released a best of, Thirteen Years In Noises, in 2004, and British Sea Power put out a collaborative single with them, 'A Lovely Day Tomorrow', during the same year.
As a youth, Muchow initially dreamed of becoming a football player, but a love of music developed alongside his more athletic inclinations. Growing up under a Communist regime, however, meant he had to learn the true meaning of patience, persistence and risk in pursuit of his growing obsession: by the time he was in his teens, he was part of a small network of music fans who furtively shared crumpled, out of date copies of Western music media and attended secret markets where illicit vinyl that had made it to the other side of the Iron Curtain was bought and sold. "You knew almost all the people in Prague with a similar taste in music personally," he says, only half-joking.
Though Prague's Polish Culture Centre began to sell officially licensed records by Western acts in the late 1980s – something that allowed Muchow his first taste of Kate Bush, New Order and The Smiths – anything other than domestic releases was normally hard to track down, and local musicians required the blessing of the authorities.
"They checked that your image wasn't too wild and fitted with the idea of happy Communist culture," explains Muchow, who these days still retains the slim build of a football player. "They would tell you which material could be recorded, and if there were problematic parts in your lyrics you'd be in trouble. Without their approval, you just couldn't exist. You couldn't play official gigs, and that's not to mention that there were just a few artists who really recorded. In the whole of Czechoslovakia, there were three labels, all of course run by people who were members of the Communist party: two in Prague, and one in Bratislava [now the capital of Slovakia]. One Czech and the Slovak label released pop stuff, and the third label was mainly into jazz and classical music.
"If you broke the rules," he continues, "you had to stop performing live and find a job. Communism didn't allow you not to have a job, so if you didn't get a job, you'd go to prison. Of course, there was an unofficial, underground scene, but these acts could only perform at private events. Weddings, birthdays, private exhibition openings and so on were often a chance for concerts by these bands, but you'd only know about these acts from privately distributed cassette tapes, or home made Xeroxed magazines."
These days, Muchow almost seems to relish the opportunity to spotlight the absurdities of a system constructed to prevent any of the activities that would normally define youth culture and rock & roll. "Those acts who got through all that shit and really got the chance to make an album," he laughs wryly, "were then paid not by sales, but by how many were printed! That's how the Communist record industry works! So of course every act tried to get as many albums pressed as possible, and there was an office within the label that made plans for how many copies of each album would be printed each year. Whoever worked in this office had the most friends, but, then again, the vinyl printing factory was interested in making as many copies of every record as possible!"
By 1989, Muchow was playing with Jan 'Puding' Gregar and Petr Wegner in a band called Nocturne. Named in honour of Siouxsie And The Banshees, their sound, Muchow says, lay somewhere between The Smiths and Sonic Youth. His country was meanwhile in turmoil around him as Communist governments across the Eastern Bloc began to crumble: from August, Prague's West German embassy was occupied by East Germans demanding relocation to the West, calls for economic reform were becoming increasingly vehement, and on November 9 the Berlin Wall fell.
Gregar was one of the organisers of the November 17 International Students Day demonstration that would accelerate the Czech government's collapse. He and his bandmates distributed fliers in the run-up to the gathering, but as 15,000 people headed towards downtown Prague, Muchow was busy trying to rebuild his relationship rather than bring down Communism.
"My girlfriend and I hade a date in the afternoon," he admits, "and planned to join in with the demonstration later on. But, you know, the best way of solving that argument at the end was to go home together! Later that night, I took a phone call from Puding, who said that they'd all been really badly beaten up by the police. I tuned into Radio Free Europe straightaway, and they said that somebody had been killed by the police. This later proved to be disinformation, but people in Prague felt that this was too much, and started to go out into the streets that same night, and then every other day, and that's how the Velvet Revolution started."
By November 29, 1989, Communist rule in Czechoslovakia was officially over. Muchow's relationship, on the other hand, was happily still intact. ("My love with that girl lasted quite a long time," he chuckles, "and I don't regret missing out on that historic moment!") With previously stifling restrictions swiftly lifted, one of the earliest milieux to benefit was the arts.
"It was a totally exciting time to be in Prague. There were loads of Americans and British people coming to town to spend a few weeks, and loads stayed years. You had café, gallery or club openings almost every day, people started to set up their own small companies, and there was a feeling of absolute freedom in the air, that everything was possible now. "
Muchow, Gregar and Wegner decided to find a singer to join them as they enjoyed their new autonomy. Muchow, however, was adamant that whomever they chose must come without the baggage of a musical history.
"I wanted a unique voice," he elaborates, "a voice only attached to our band. Not, 'Yeah, she sang with XYZ and now she's singing with these blokes.' Also, I didn't want to find somebody via ads. I believed I'd find somebody naturally. But it wasn't that easy. After a few months of useless searching – we had around twenty singers try out in our practice space – it just wasn't right. One evening in a pub, I told one of my friends that I had this 'trouble', and he told me: 'I know one girl that has a beautiful voice.' I went, 'How can I hear her?' He said, 'I have a tape at home. She's my girlfriend. She didn't have enough money to buy me a birthday present, so she recorded a cassette of her singing for me.' Just this cool story made me interested, so I said we had to go to his flat right away. He played me the tape a few minutes later. I knew we'd found our singer."
Irna Libowitz signed on immediately, and Ecstasy Of St Theresa were born. Before long, they'd recorded a two song demo which they sent to Prague's first independent radio station, Radio Stalin (later – unsurprisingly – renamed Radio 1). It began to receive daily airplay and, in January 1991, Ecstasy Of St Theresa's first ever show sold out in Prague. With interest growing, they headed back into the studio. Some weren't ready to handle the musical outcome of the new artistic freedom afforded them, however.
"I had big fights with the sound engineers," Muchow smiles, "as I tried to explain that that noise we were making was also called music, and their job was not to make us sound like Sting but to record the way it sounded."
Studio technicians weren't the only ones who were baffled, either. Ecstasy Of St Theresa had sold out their initial 2,000 copies of their cacophonous, lo-fi debut EP, Pigment, a 12" on their own label (making them the first truly independent Czech act since the revolution) released on white vinyl (another first). But crowds in smaller Czech towns reacted with bewilderment, left quite literally dumbstruck by the sound of a band that, for a number of years, had immersed themselves in the formerly 'corrupt' sound of Western indie groups like Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus And Mary Chain.
"We would play quite a short, noisy set, around fifty minutes of feedback, fast drumming and a few quiet moments where you actually could hear Irna singing," Muchow says. "We left the stage with guitars still feeding back from the amps. All through the gig, people would be staring at us: 'What the fuck is going on?' After the show, there was literally not a single handclap or whistle, just silence and questions on visitors' faces. Outside of Prague it took us almost a year, I guess, until we heard our first reaction from the audience during or after a show."
Nonetheless, things began to move fast. A month after Pigment's release, Ecstasy Of St Theresa signed a deal with a bigger label, Reflex, who soon sold another thousand copies of a reissued EP, this time on black vinyl. By January 1992, they were recording their first album, Sussurate, an eight track collection whose thrill lay as much in its strident sense of liberation as its lo-fi approximation of the bands that had inspired it. If this sudden momentum was surprising to the band, however, it was nothing compared to the shock Muchow was about to get.
"I was listening to the John Peel show on the BBC World Service," he divulges, "and he span one track from our EP! I could hardly breathe. I was sitting in my little room in my parents' flat in this concrete, twelve storey building, and this guru of all the great music I admired played a tune from this unknown band from Prague I happened to be member of! I even didn't know how the hell he got a copy! I later found out one of our friends who liked our stuff thought John Peel might be interested. He bought a copy and simply posted to him, saying 'John Peel, BBC, London' on the package. So after we finished the album, we sent that to him as well. And he played it! To be honest, that was the most important reaction for us. In the Czech music press, they didn't know what to say: we didn't have a saxophone like most of the other Czech underground bands, and we didn't play solos."
Muchow doesn't know how many times Peel played their records, but he remembers very clearly returning home late one summer's evening in 1992 to receive a message from his mother. The band's record label had called earlier that day to say that an Englishman was in their office, and the only words of his that they could understand were 'DJ' and 'Ecstasy Of St Theresa'. His mother had attempted to converse with the gentleman in German, but his language skills were lacking.
"Mum said she kept reading him the line I'd written down for her phonetically in case somebody speaking English called. That line was, 'Pliz kol tumoro morning'. As I was often out late, morning was the chance to reach me on the landline. But there was no phone call in the morning, so I called the label. They told me the same stuff as my Mum. So, as a joke, I said, 'You mean John Peel was looking for us?' And the lady screamed down the phone, 'Yeah, that's the name!' I thought she was now making a joke back, but the same day I went to the label's office and they gave me a business card and a short letter that the man had left there. It really was John Peel. He was in Prague on a trip and wanted to speak with us personally about the possibility of inviting us to do a Peel Session."
It proved a hard task to organise – Czechoslovakia wasn't a member of the European Union, so there was plenty to arrange – but in January 1993 the band arrived in London. They stayed in a small village outside London with parents of their sound engineer Colin Stuart, who they'd met after he moved to Prague. Gregar and Muchow were stationed in a freezing, unheated caravan outside.
"That recording was a pure dream come true for us," Muchow remembers warmly of the Sunday session that was recorded at the BBC's Maida Vale studios the day after they arrived. "We'd never seen such a great recording studio. Oh man, that was what we'd always hoped for from people working in studios, but never experienced. The first thing they told us was, 'Set yourself up and play. We'll listen to it and then we'll think about the best way of recording it.' So we practised a bit, then they set up all the mikes. We recorded three songs and then had a lunch break. We all just sat by the table and were silent. We weren't sure if this was real. After the break, we came back to the studio, and a few hours later we were back in that freezing caravan in sleeping bags, breathing out steam into the darkness and listening on a small cassette player to what we'd recorded. That session really changed everything."
Having used whatever contacts they could muster, the band had also set up a series of shows for the week that followed, including one at The White Horse in Hampstead opening for former Jesus And Mary Chain and Black Box Recorder member John Moore's Revolution 9.
"A lifelong friendship began that day," Moore recalls affectionately of the chilly January evening when he first met Muchow, a man who he likes to remind people "was almost a professional footballer, played for the Slavia Praha youth team, and was voted fourth best looking man in the Czech Republic. We all fell in love with their music and with them as people. It was the beginning of many adventures. They really were pale and beautiful bohemians from behind the Iron Curtain, the land of snow and spies, and, as I soon found out, absinthe. I loved talking to Jan, and hearing about forming a band under Communist rule. You had to go before a committee and show them your lyrics. I have a feeling that Jan took most of the lyrics out to confuse them: 'How can you play a show with these abstract words?' I'm pretty sure he was accused of decadence."
With only a short time to make their mark before they undertook the long bus journey home, Ecstasy Of St Theresa performed at the Bull And Gate. After the show, there was a knock on their dressing room door. The couple standing before them were Andy McDonald, owner of Go! Discs, and Andrea Mulrain, a former International Product Manager at PolyGram's New York offices, who handled MacDonald's American marketing and promotion. She'd moved to London in late 1992 after MacDonald, with whom she was also romantically involved, had invited her to set up a new imprint for the company, one designed to take advantage of the thriving contemporary guitar scene by sidestepping the major label system and employing Rough Trade for distribution.
"It was a cold and dreary winter week night," she says, "so I reluctantly headed up to North London, not really knowing what to expect. But as soon as I heard the intro to 'Fluidum' I was immediately intrigued. We approached the band when the set was over. Jan was particularly gracious: we chatted a bit about the Peel Session, and invited the band to our house for brunch in the following days to continue our discussions about a possible record deal. I was immediately struck by the band's humility. They were all exceptionally polite and respectful, and seemed surprised that a reputable UK label such as Go! would be interested in working with them. It was very endearing."
"It was like a fairytale!" Jan counters, though he hasn't forgotten how nervous they were when the label said they wanted to see them play again at The Camden Falcon that Friday. "Four people in their early twenties, who spent all their short lives behind the wall and had been in the open wide world just for a few months – and played in a band together for an even shorter time – now had an opportunity that felt a bit unreal. We were offered a five album deal, so we felt really happy. It meant that the label really wanted to work with us, and properly believed that we had talent. Andy, Andrea and the rest of the label took us seriously, not like monkeys in cages that you can show other people in a circus, like some rarity from a far Eastern European Communist land."
"All the band were nice," reminisces Simon Dine, the Adventures In Stereo and Noonday Underground man who would go on to revitalise Paul Weller's career on albums like 2008's 22 Dreams and 2010's Wake Up The Nation. He'd been an A&R at Go! Discs on and off since he left school, and was working alongside Mulrain. "They would get a coach from Prague to our office in Hammersmith and arrive looking completely dishevelled. Irna and Petr were really sweet, but I particularly bonded with Jan. He's a really genuine, enthusiastic and modest chap and great fun to sit around talking about music with. Their dedication and ambition was also admirable. Before meeting them I thought they would be My Bloody Valentine obsessives, but they loved all sorts. They would make cassettes of Pete Tong's radio show to play back in Prague!"
Mulrain was so impressed by the band's Peel Session that her imprint, the suitably named Free, decided to license the recordings from the BBC and release them as the …Fluidtrance Centauri... EP. Initial expectations were realistic: to sell a few thousand copies and pick up specialist radio play in the UK and US. To support the release, Muchow and his companions returned to the UK to play more shows, including an opening slot for Slowdive at the New Cross Venue on September 3.
"That was our biggest gig so far," Muchow says. "I came off stage and one man came up to me and said, 'Hey, the stuff you do, you remind me of Syd Barret from Pink Floyd'. I took it as a compliment."
Overall, Mulrain says, the response to their arrival on the international scene was "overwhelmingly positive", and even now the three songs that make up the EP stand as amongst the finest of the shoegazing era. Benefiting from the technology on offer at the BBC, the recordings were a huge leap forward: effervescent and audacious, tumbling effortlessly from implacable stillness to elegant turmoil. No doubt titles like 'Alpha Centauri' and 'Trance (Between The Stars)' underlined their celestial quality, but Ecstasy Of St Theresa sounded like the welcome missing link between Ride's tremendous Nowhere and Slowdive's gorgeous Just For A Day.
"I'm usually a word man," John Moore elaborates of their appeal at that stage. "I like lyrics, and I thought a lot of the shoegazing bands were pretty awful: just Boss pedal, Duracell nine volt battery bands. But Ecstasy Of St Theresa were in another world. Even the memory of Irna's voice makes me shiver. She was one of the strangest, most captivating singers I've ever seen. She had no idea how good she was: she was an absolute natural. Their sound was so powerful, almost brutal at times, but so beautiful, and Jan was so in control. They were exotic, noisy angels from the land of castles, from the Prague spring, and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being."
Mulrain agrees that their origins "lent a certain mystique to the music which seemed to really captivate people," but concedes that, "The language barrier was certainly challenging at times. We had a fair amount of international customs issues with shipping equipment, product and so on, and it was an especially lengthy process with government-issued paperwork – visas, work permits – given the system that was still in place."
In fact, there was more of this to deal with than anyone could ever have anticipated. After their Peel Session trip, the band had returned to Prague to write, but their high spirits had evaporated a few weeks later when they arrived at their practise space to find it empty. Everything they owned was gone: "drums, bass, the kinky old synth drum machine I used on two out of three songs from the Peel Session, all our guitars and pedals," Muchow sighs. "And if we're talking effects pedals, we're talking the heart of our sound by that time. Me and Puding kept collecting really rare and often old guitar pedals. Before the robbery, I used about twenty pedals for gigs, and about five more for the synth. Puding also had around fifteen of them, and his bass sound was unique. We couldn't just go and buy new pedals: most of them weren't produced anymore. But Go! Discs were absolutely great. After we told them what had happened, they asked us to write down everything that we'd lost and what we'd need. They sent us money and also provided us with instruments. For more than a year, I had a guitar from The La's, since they were on some kind of break!"
The apparent setback had further ramifications. As Muchow explains, "I thought this situation might be a chance to experiment with other instruments since I was starting to get a bit bored after spending almost five years trying to take the guitar's sound to its limit. It didn't feel like the guitar was the only instrument that could express what we wanted to play. Also, we'd played noisy music for three years, with feedback and loud drums every day. I was hungry for some silence, or quiet music."
After a week's pre-production in late May, 1993, in Brno – in the south east of what was by now the Czech Republic – the band booked producer Guy Fixsen at South London's Blackwing Studios for the month of August. Initially they'd hoped to work with John Fryar, part of Ivo Watts-Russell's This Mortal Coil and best known as the producer of a number of tracks on Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine, but scheduling and contractual issues ruled this out. Fixsen – who'd just formed Laika with his then partner, Margaret Fielder – was part of the very architecture of the shoegaze scene, having worked with acts including My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse and Moose, as well as The Breeders, Pixies and Throwing Muses. He seemed a natural fit.
"To get Guy Fixsen involved was Andrea's idea," Muchow stresses, "and that was a great choice. We loved almost every record Guy had worked on, and he was willing to try everything. And to have an opportunity to record in such a great studio as Blackwing was just amazing for us."
Indeed, the facilities, and the opportunities they presented, were almost overwhelming. When I met Libowitz for a Lime Lizard interview during the recording sessions, she told me how her childhood bedroom had allowed only "one place where I could hear Radio Luxemburg, but I had to stay in the same place, with my hands in the same place, to listen to it". Consequently, she laughed, the mixing desk was "like a spaceship" to her.
With the quartet still adapting to their new equipment, and not enough songs written, Muchow encouraged the band to improvise. He and Fixsen used the results to construct an entirely new sound for the group, one that leant far more heavily on electronic arrangements and studio technology. The producer notes now that, "it was clear that Jan wanted to move on and make something more personal and radical, something essentially ambient and experimental. It could have gone anywhere: Jan and I just enjoyed playing with the raw ingredients and seeing where it could lead. We radically deconstructed and mangled, and arrived at a very distant point from where we started. We smoked a lot of dope. We ran down a lot of creative rabbit holes and found some gold. We pleased ourselves and paid no attention to what anyone else might think."
That, unfortunately, perhaps included the rest of the band a little more than they intended. As work progressed, arguments developed. Listening to Free-D now, it's perhaps not hard to understand why: gone were the savage bursts of crystalline guitars and the passages of quiet, stoned contemplation, replaced by a series of gentle but lengthy vignettes, both electronic and organic, that seemed to drift, carefree, between the ambience of Eno's Discreet Music, the psychedelic folk of Pink Floyd's 'Cirrus Minor' (from the More OST) and the hypnotic undertones of Seefeel, whose Quique had just been released.
They sounded little like any of these, of course, but Free-D's lithe, unhurried evolution over one hour and seven songs – only one of which was less than nine minutes – made it tough to define. For long stretches, as on the opening track, 'Vacuum', it was so hushed it was scarcely audible. Sometimes it would trip along like The Orb stripped of their strung-out smirks, as 'Surfing On Steam''s opening section, 'Deep Inside The Sun' exhibited, before its second movement, 'Endless Experience', slipped back into a more idyllic mood. 'Trance (Between The Stars)' – an entirely different version to the one recorded at the BBC – meanwhile found them merging field recordings of a dawn chorus with a dubby foundation, while 'Interstellar Overdose' trod a sedate path amid mechanical squeaks and hand-cranked sirens. It was a perplexing but immersive experience.
"It was pretty much a world of its own," Fixsen argues, "and a law unto itself. The band came from being fairly heavily influenced by shoegaze, and of course there were ambient records around at the time, but Jan wanted to make something beautiful and uncompromised. He had a personal vision, and I just wanted to help him achieve it. I think, given the huge palette it draws from, it achieves a lovely smearing of everything we were enjoying at the time."
As well as employing Fixsen, who says he "wrote and performed many of the electronic melodies, bass lines and drum patterns", they also invited friends to drop by the studio, including John Moore, who contributed "some slide guitar and twangy bits," and his bandmates, David Barbenel and Katie Hecker, who added cello and percussion respectively. If they had a goal, Fixsen defines it using a story that also underlines the occasional linguistic hurdles they faced. "Early on I said that one idea was 'cheesy', which Jan found hilarious. I suppose comparing a guitar part to a lump of cheese is a bit odd when you think about it. Anyway, that was the word for the session, along with its opposite: 'fluffy'. When Jan found something to be 'fluffy', then we were doing well."
Fixsen reveals that the recording sessions were often complex: the synching of 90s sequencers with analogue tape machines was tricky, and the cutting and pasting and looping – tasks which these days would take seconds – was a laborious process. But these gave "an organic quality to the more machinelike parts of the record". In fact, Fixsen continues, "The session was very enjoyable. Jan was very easy to work with: a really creative and unassuming guy. We both felt free to throw the strangest ideas out there, and if they were adopted it was always because they worked rather than conformed to an identity or concept. In that atmosphere, where we weren't 'blocking' each other, there was a great flow, and the ideas multiplied as they do when you give them air."
The results, however, were the last thing anyone outside of Blackwing had expected.
"It was a bit surprising when I first heard the basic tracks," Mulrain admits, adding that she'd given Muchow and his colleagues the creative freedom for which bands always hope. "That said, I grew to really appreciate the aesthetics and formlessness of the songs, which created a very compelling soundscape. I was highly impressed: the structures and production were immaculate and had a certain trance-like quality that created a hypnotic listening experience."
"When I went to see them in the studio," Dine confirms, "it was clear things were getting pretty cosmic! It certainly wasn't going to be just a typical 'indie' record. It was hard to follow the progress, as the songs were built in layers and didn't really fully reveal themselves until the mixing, so work in progress tapes didn't tell me much. It took much longer than anticipated, I seem to remember, but we were used to dealing with The La's, so had a different way of judging these things than most labels!"
Inevitably, Go! Discs were apprehensive in the run-up to Free-D's release: …Fluidtrance Centauri… had set the band up as a shoegaze act, and, as Mulrain points out, "that release seemed more in line with what was happening musically at the time. The full length was more ambient and psychedelic, drawing comparisons to Aphex Twin. Most of the label staff appreciated the band's unique sound, yet shared my concerns since it was a fairly big departure from the previous release." All the same, she goes on, "Given the positive press and radio reaction to the EP, we were hopeful that the album would be well received both critically and commercially. Though it was a very different record sonically and structurally, we were confident that critics and fans would embrace their move towards a more ethereal direction."
Free-D was released in February, 1994. Philip Glass contacted the label to announce that he was a fan, and Muchow proudly boasts of "getting letters from all over the planet: Alaska, Thailand and Mexico". Generally, however, reactions to the album were mixed: "Some critics found it a bit too esoteric," Mulrain confesses, "while others felt that it was quite innovative". Predictably, radio proved unreceptive.
Muchow had arranged a dramatic launch party to take place at Prague's Planetarium, and a number of British journalists, including Kris Needs, were flown out to cover the event.
"We arrived at the Planetarium on the day of the concert," Dine recalls, "and all the PA and equipment was delivered to the bottom of the hill upon which the Planetarium was situated. Me, the band and a few others had to carry it all up to the venue, which was backbreaking work. Turkish coffee took the edges off our hangovers. I shot the stop-frame making-shapes-in-the-snow video for 'Surfing On Steam' from the balcony of the Planetarium that day. Kris introduced us to Slippery Nipples and much fun was had by all."
By all apart from the band, that is. As they prepared for their show that night, Libowitz announced that she was quitting. "That," Jan permits, "wasn't the ideal situation for anybody."
In fact, this proved to be the beginning of the end for Ecstasy Of St Theresa, at least in its first incarnation. While the remaining trio initially hoped Libowitz would change her mind, they soon began to audition new singers. But Muchow's own relocation to London, and the trio's recognition that they were moving in different musical directions, led to the line-up's final dissolution. Gregar went on to become a successful graphic designer, and Wegner is now a photographer with a special focus on India and Tibet. Libowitz moved to England (though these days she's back in the Czech Republic) and, apart from contributing vocals to a track on an album by a band called Color Factory - which also featured Muchow - she never sang publicly again.
Ecstasy Of St Theresa became Muchow's solo project. Realising that he needed to continue supporting the album's release as best as he could, he and Simon Dine conceived a remix EP, AstralaVista. Muchow was a fan of Disco Inferno, who stepped up to give 'Sooper Kosmos' a radical reworking, and Bandulu – at that stage signed to Creation's 'dance' imprint, Infonet – offered a percussive makeover of 'Surfing On Steam'. Ecstasy Of St Theresa themselves offered a 'Mirror FX' mix of 'Vacuum Blow', while Dine was additionally involved with the 'Chet Desmond melde dich mix' of 'Surfing On Steam': "I was working with some dance producers from Deptford called Wubble U," he expands. "They had their own studio, and I introduced them to Jan. I think my role was largely editing very long tapes into something which flowed well and had all the good bits in."
Unfortunately for Muchow, these were busy times for Go! Discs: Paul Weller's Wild Wood had become an unexpected monster hit the previous year, as had Gabrielle's Find Your Way, on the back of her number one hit, 'Dreams', and Portishead's Dummy – which would win the 1995 Mercury Music Prize – was released in August of 1994. Despite the company's genuine belief in Ecstasy Of St Theresa, they had little time to focus on a band that essentially no longer existed.
"It was more than this independent label could manage," Muchow says sagely, referring to how Go! Discs extended its relationship with PolyGram in order to cope. "Most of the people I knew in the office left" – including Mulrain, who relocated to Seattle in early 1995 – "and it became a totally new label for me." Though he began working with other musicians, including Terry Bickers [House Of Love, Levitation], whose house he even shared for a few weeks, the label "always wanted me to bring them demos that sounded different to what I kept bringing. So, after this had been going on for more than a year, I asked my lawyer to get me out of the contract."
Muchow returned to Prague. He worked on the soundtrack for a movie in which he'd been asked to make his debut appearance as an actor, but – with no internet or mobile phones – his work with Bickers was left behind. His musical revolution, it seemed, had run its course. It would be five years until Ecstasy Of St Theresa released another album, this time a defiantly electronic collection, featuring new vocalist Kateřina Winterová, that merged trip hop, drum 'n' bass, glitch and pop. His connections to Great Britain's cultural life, however, weren't entirely over.
"Old Mr Muchow," John Moore laughs, "has a lot of blame to take for the hangovers of the United Kingdom, for it was he who told me absinthe was back in the Czech Republic, and available for my consumption. Jan was never a big drinker, but he knew that, with my miserable songs, cheap cigarettes, and threadbare coat, I'd be a fan of the green fairy! I was with him the first time I tried it."
"John came to Prague to celebrate New Year's Eve," Muchow picks up. "I took him on a 'tour de bars', and the plan was to finish at the Old Town Square at midnight. But then, in one café, John found out that they offered absinthe. He couldn't believe it! We had to have it right away. I gave John the whole 'show': spoon, sugar, fire. It was love at first sight. We didn't made it to the square that night, obviously, but it's still one of the best New Year celebrations I ever had, and I think John feels the same."
Perhaps inevitably, given Absinthe's powers of intoxication, both of them struggle to put together the events that followed, but one thing is certain: before long, Moore contacted Muchow to ask if he could set up a meeting between him and the distillers of the absinthe he (barely) remembered enjoying so much. He'd teamed up with Tom Hodgkinson and Gavin Pretor-Pinney, co-founders of The Idler, and they'd begun exploring the idea of distributing the drink in the UK. With Muchow acting as their go-between, the three wannabe Bohemians flew to the bona fide Bohemia to pursue their business proposal.
"I went to Prague airport, picked up John and his absinthe minded friends, and took them to the factory in my old Saab," Jan remembers. "We came to this little town and had a few minutes of serious business talk. It took fifteen minutes for the owner to put the bottle on the table. No more than two months after that, the first green bottles started to pollute London, and absinthe was even a theme in the Houses of Parliament, with John explaining everything on the BBC news."
These days, Muchow still lives in Prague, where Ecstasy Of St Theresa are about to embark upon the recording of their sixth album. He remains philosophical about the events of the early 1990s, aware that things could have worked out very differently, but clearly proud of the role his band played in the early expansion of his country's post-Communist horizons.
"It was a great experience," he insists. "Of course I was a bit disappointed, but we were the only ones to blame. After only two years of existence – with only one EP and one album released in Czechoslovakia – we signed a deal in the UK and had records in the charts. That never happened to any other act where we come from, and it's never happened since. But we didn't understand how it all works. We kept being surprised all the time. If the label said, 'Who's your lawyer?' we'd say, 'What? We're not divorcing!'"
Simon Dine considers it "a psychedelic classic", and John Moore refers to it as "a beautiful piece of work, and one that will last", but sadly Free-D (Original Soundtrack) has been out of print for years. Copies pop up from time to time on websites like eBay and Discogs, but it takes patience and persistence to track them down. Perhaps, however, the effort involved is worthy of a record that represents such a remarkable journey, one whose music mirrors the one that the band's homeland was simultaneously taking from repression to freedom. Just as Muchow thrilled to the sounds of the records he studiously tracked down behind the Iron Curtain, so Free-D might also remind us how precious music once seemed. Some risks, after all, are worth taking.