The Sound Of Anxiety: Komora A Interviewed
, November 14th, 2016 11:24
Our man in Warszawa Filip Kalinowski speaks to two members of Komora A about the lengthy genesis of their debut industrial ambient noise album and the recent history of the Polish musical underground
Crystal Dwarf is the first album by Komora A, an industrial-noise-ambient trio hailing from Warsaw. It’s the first album on their over 12 year long, creative journey that has lead them through avant-thinking, niche clubs, small independent labels that released their single tracks and all the tribulations of the local, Polish leftfield scene of the last two decades. It’s also the first one that captures the improv-driven, multi-facetted, visceral energy that appears between Dominik “Wolfram” Kowalczyk, Jakub Mikołajczyk and Karol Koszniec.
"Stylistically Komora A locates itself sonically close to ambient but with none of that smooth muzak designed for background listening. It is full of pulsating anxiety, reaching the black heart of the genre. Profound drones, delicate percussive intrusions, stately whizzes of analogue and modular synths, industrial interventions, multilayered structures – these are only a few of elements used by the group for creation of its very own sound”, states the band itself on their Facebook page.
While these kind of descriptions are all well and good, they often do little to capture the actual sounds on offer, Crystal Dwarf is an authentic incarnation of this curt manifesto. All the experience that the trio gathered during the years of playing together, solo or in different projects like Stwory or Neurobot is being juxtaposed with their self-awareness, perkiness and the understanding of the balance between noise and silence. Being the flywheels of the Polish independent electronic scene – as the founders of the renowned MonotypeRec. label and active promoters of a broad spectrum of experimental sounds – those three gentlemen had “just” recorded an album on which they don’t try to summarise, prove or achieve anything, they just work on ambient. And this ambient is truly “anxious” and “black”.
While the album is already out – through MonotypeRec. of course – we sat together with Dominik Kowalczyk and Jakub Mikołajczyk in the basements of the Tele and Radio Research Institute in Warsaw that serves as their label headquarters to talk about the multiple different contexts that Komora A functions in, about the past and present of their collaborative project and the Polish experimental, electronic scene itself.
There is this old stupid saying that ambient is the easiest music to make but as in every stupid saying there is a grain of truth in it. Taking it into account it seems that it’s the most difficult music to overcome those clichés. What attracts you towards this style?
Dominik "Wolfram” Kowalczyk: Indeed, most of the time it’s really hard to equate these two different attitudes towards ambient music. There are hundreds of records being released that after the first five minutes of listening are either putting you to sleep or starting to annoy you with their predictability - you know exactly what will happen for every second of their duration. Maybe it’s the question of the sham simplicity of this form that causes so many people to work in it… There are so many ambient records being pressed and if you’re not into it, if you’re not interested and you don’t have any orientation within this style, it’s really hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. For an "occasional listener" it may seem that they all fall into this one vast magma and they may be easily discouraged. But with every style or genre you have to be “into it” to get really involved, to be interested and have a remote orientation. And why are we into it? I’ve always been on this side, and Jakub and Karol made a step towards it later; they came to Komora A from a completely different background. Maybe that’s why there are so many intersections with noise in our work, so many moments that can raise your blood pressure. Ambient is just one of the angles of our work.
Jakub, you’re the one who came from a different background. It was already 12 years ago; but do you remember how those steps towards it were made?
Jakub Mikołajczyk: Every one of us has done his own things it the past. During the 90s I used to be a part of a couple of post rock outfits and in about 1995 I already started to play around with some electronic sounds on different Atari and Commodore consoles. I was working intensely on my guitar skills and also at that time I started to help my friends' metal bands as a session musician. Only later, at the turn of the millennium, I met Karol who was introduced to me through our mutual metal friends as the one who listens to the “same strange stuff”. We were both heavily into industrial, noise and experimental electronics and these were the things that connected us. And yet, before Komora A was even thought of, we were working together in two separate projects – one was a noise rock outfit named Stwory and the second one was a dark ambient trio consisting of me, Karol and Darek Trzciński.
DK: Around that moment, we met for the first time through our mutual friend - Henning Küpper who had a psychedelic music label in Germany called The Lollipop Shop. It was during those years when club named Aurora was still operating in Warsaw under the tutelage of Zbigniew Libera and a lot of interesting people were meeting and playing there. And when we were introduced to each other we soon found a common ground - it didn’t take much time before we started playing together. It was around 2004 and we started playing these kind of improvised meetings, not even calling it anything at that time. But as it started to take shape and this shape started to satisfy our needs, we decided to continue as a trio and a name Komora A appeared after Jakub’s visit to the water filtering facilities of Warsaw.
JM: There were so many beautifully named spaces over there – filtrator for example. But Komora A caught my eye on the first glance and we stayed with it.
I just wanted to ask you about the name – because Komora A, especially in this industrial, noise surrounding could be easily associated with the holocaust context.
JM: That’s not the case. It was at the time, that those improvised sessions of ours were becoming more and more fruitful. We started off with really radical noise aesthetics, combining those industrial influences that we were both shared with Karol heavily into ambient, but we were not interested in those clichés accrued around these sounds. We were thinking quite intensely about an appropriate name at that time becuase we already had our first concert booked for the Alt+F4 festival in Warsaw and it was quite a big debut for us sharing stage with Florian Hecker and Ignaz Schick. And the name came to me when I walked under these water filtering machines in Warsaw.
Dominik, you mentioned that you were always on "this side”. Did anything change in your attitude after you started playing with Jakub and Karol?
DK: Every time you meet new people something changes. At that time I really wanted to avoid any connotations of my earlier work. But also I was calm about it because I know that you never sound the same playing with other people especially if no one is conducting. We have never ever had a leader, any of us could take this role for a bit of time and than pass it to the next one. Of course, there are elements of structure in our work and they come from specific band members, but all of those sonic elements drift in an improvised open mindedness. Each time someone wants to lead he is free to do it. We all learn from each other.
You mentioned Aurora, a seminal place on the musical map of Warsaw.
DK: It was one of those few places that made a difference. There are these peculiar places that last for longer or – usually – shorter, that are brought to life by people who are open minded about music. They were not thinking about genres; they didn't think, 'We will just invite blues musicians', or rock musicians; they didn't think, 'Don't approach us with this electronic stuff because we are just into reggae.' Generally speaking there are just a few of those places that people allow experiments to happen, and they also have the backline, because it takes a bit of equipment and the right conditions to work in. Sometimes even if the people are open, they don’t have the money to invest in speakers or they have neighbours who are not fond of the noise. Sometimes there’s a period in the history of the city that there are even five or six of these places but then the number shrinks again and there are only two of them. In principle, since the mid 90s, since I started playing, nothing has changed in this matter. Sometimes there are some kind of gallery, art-house initiatives that give us better financial conditions, or festivals, but usually if you live in a bigger city in Poland there are one, two or – if you’re lucky – three places that you can present this kind of music. And most of the time they can’t handle it financially to invite a trio. We used to play for nothing for many years, for a beer free of charge or a place to sleep on a friend's floor, but as we changed our approach towards it some time ago, there are now even less of those places that we could play in.
From your perspective has anything changed in our local leftfield scene throughout the years that have passed?
JM: Just now, as we speak, I try to recall how the situation looked back than in the early 2000s and most of those places that we played in at that time are already closed. Aurora, Jazzgot, Pruderia, or - more recently - Powiększenie, they are all gone. And on the topic of how the scene changed in its entirety during those 15 years – I may be wrong on this one, because there is a whole new generation of people building it nowadays – but I think it was smaller back then. It wasn’t so common to know about it. It was harder to communicate and we met on completely different grounds. We didn’t have the social media. The year we started in, 2004, was also a really specific date, because after the second part of the 90s, which were quite similar to nowadays – there were dozens of DIY initiatives, CD-R or cassette labels – there was a kind of break up. It was the time that we started MonotypeRec. but most of the labels established in the 90s were closing their imprints – Polycephal finished its activity, OBUH and Ignis were going into hiatus. It was a bit of an “in-between” time; these were the years before this new wave of labels appeared; now in Warsaw alone you got at least a dozen of them. Several months ago, when we were at a indie label market here in Pardon, To Tu, there were more than 20 of them. I wasn’t even aware of them all and I think I follow the scene quite carefully. Nonetheless, at that time, 15 years ago it was completely different, because also the media was completely different. Of course there were those first digital magazines like - for example - the one made by Dominik and Jacek Staniszewski – Neurobot, the internet zine that later gave its name to their musical project. But it was on a completely different scale. You approached the people in a different way, and I think there was a closer link between the musicians, because there were fewer of them – there was EA, there was Bartek Kalinka, the Lado ABC family was slowly gaining their voice.
DK: I think the specifics of that time was that the impenetrability of the scene was ever more… impenetrable. Each single circle would never meet the other, or even know each other. For example – our crew didn’t have any contacts with the people around Marcin Cecko who was working at the same time in music and performance. Around the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art there was a band named RH+ and we never ever talked to each other - even though we played one concert together. It was harder to meet even if you lived in the same city, and that's before you get onto the people from Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, Szczecin or Wrocław, which was very lively at that time. Everyone was standing alone and doing their own things. There was no common ground, no exchange or collaboration on a wider scale.
All those things that were recorded and released – either officially or more often DIY – during the 80s or the 90s, were they inspiring for you? Have you listened to them at all? Talking more generally – is there any continuity on the Polish electronic/ambient/industrial scene?
DK: If we’re talking about the beginnings of our work – the early 00s or mid 90s, it’s not that so much time has passed, but already everything looks and functions very differently today. There was no social media, no cell phones, no access to the information like we have it today. But if we go further back to the 80s, which, as a 47 year old, I recall being radically different. Then if I wanted to get access to the music that I was interested in, I could do it just on a personal, social basis, via tape trading. I even took part in so-called tape conventions where people gathered with all of their tapes and recorders and made copies of what they were looking for or what other people just had at the time. It wasn’t the first circuit, the second one or even the third one because you could call the pirate tapes that you could buy on the stalls on flea markets the third circuit. It was possibly the forth one. Just at the end of the golden era of Polish piracy, just before the new copyright laws were introduced, it happened that the resources of pop music finished and those “labels” that were releasing the bootlegs started to publish the bits of music I was interested in, but it was already few years too late and I already had all of those tapes. It was the albums of Laibach, Einstürzende Neubauten and The Residents that I’m thinking of. Later you could find them just at the spots that you could legally copy CD’s if you had the luck and you knew what you were searching for. It's how I got aware of Coil, Psychic TV, Throbbing Gristle and Current 93 for example. These were the sounds that were circling around our friends. Or sometimes different, already forgotten things, that were interesting for us back then, or simply cool.
So the records from abroad were more of a reference point for you than the local ones?
DK: Definitely. Neither the radio, nor the music stores could offer you anything interesting. And sadly they still can’t.
JM: However there were a couple of music promoters that were interested in Polish leftfield or experimental music in the 80s and 90s. Wojcek Czern, Heniek Palczewski, Irek Socha among others. So we were conscious of the fact that there were people before us or at the same time that us that were making similar sounds. Maybe there were less contacts and this consciousness wasn’t so exact as it can be today in the digital era, but surely we were aware of it.
DK: Paradoxically, it was harder to get in touch with the Polish independent music than with the stuff from abroad.
JM: Exactly. Now, as we speak, I thought of the fact that we, as Komora A, are functioning in three different realities succeeding each other. There was the one in which our tastes were shaped – I recall the moment when I bought my first Coil and Current 93 records through a now-closed record store in Warsaw, where I paid in German Marks and chose the ones that I wanted from a thick paper catalogue and then waited for couple of months for them to arrive. Then, when we started playing, the access we had to music was far better, it was after 2000, we were already in the European Union, there was the Polish equivalent of eBay and you could reach those records. And nowadays in 2016 after our first record has been released, the circumstances are completely different. We are in a completely different scene, lead by an easy access to nearly everything. The people that we started to play with, that were active at that time, they mostly aren’t playing anymore and don’t have much to do with the music. We released this record in a time that the scene has become completely different; the people that came after us don’t have much in common with us and we don’t really know each other. You asked about continuity on the Polish electronic scene, I really can’t see any evidence of it. I see it more as an exchange of the generations. I can easily give an example for this thesis – as we speak about the 80s and the fact that there was a scene that was influenced by the industrial music and the rock in opposition movement, there was a band named Reportaż that was a symbol of this kind of experimental attitude, but they were using only traditional instruments, or the prepared ones. And then when the new generation came they adopted a completely different set of musical sources – they were playing music on computers, and on the Polish scene it was a completely new thing. We’re talking about people like Dominik or his Neurobot outfit. It was a new idea, new drift, a new trend and there was no continuation of what Reportaż – for example – had been doing, except possibly the non compromising, experimental attitude towards the sound matter. And it’s the same with the new generation that is now gaining its voice, the people who are about 20 years old, who don’t have much in common with our generation and of course we meet each other from time to time and we sometimes use a similar equipment but their point of view, their attitude towards the instruments and the music itself is completely different to ours, completely different than the one of Neurobot trio, and completely different than the one that people from Reportaż used to have. They usually don’t even know these past recordings, regardless of the rather easy access to them nowadays.
It’s a really interesting topic for me, from a journalist perspective. Because in Poland when it comes to electronic music we have the academic traditions of Polish Radio Experimental Studio and Warsaw Autumn ranging back to the 50s and 60s, than in the 80s we have the so called el-muzyka of Biliński, Komendarek and also partially of Korzyński and Niemen, the huge success of this music, the editions of thousands of vinyl pieces, people queuing up to get into the record stores, and then… there is this huge gap up to the 2000’s.
DK: Generally it’s the question of releasing a record during that time; it was always an achievement. Nowadays you only need to have 1500-2000 zlotys and you can press and publish your record however you want it. Before 1989 and the change of the system there were many restrictions resulting from the censorship during the communist era. The material that was supposed to be released had to be approved by certain people, you had to have support from some kind of a cultural institution, you had to be a part of some kind of a union or had to be a well-known composer. To have your record pressed was like a huge wow. And than in the 90s it was also quite hard because – of course you could contact one of those major labels who came to Poland after 1989, but if you didn’t match their tastes, and with this kind of music it was almost 100% sure that you wouldn’t, there was not much of an alternative. Maybe if you were making techno you could achieve something, but if it was a more experimental kind of electronic music it was like mission impossible. And then, suddenly, when the personal CD burners appeared and it occurred to people that they could release their own work by themselves and not have to beg anyone for anything, all those CD-R labels began to pop up like the mushrooms after the rain.
So here we come to the creative process…
JM: Predominantly it’s almost always improvised. We rarely discuss it and come to an agreement that it shall sound like this or that. I don’t remember even one single time that we made any assumptions on how we should make our music. Sometimes we agree on a specific time lapse or that we should work on a specific tension or volume, but usually it’s 100% improvised. Even if we use a computer, it is handled as an instrument, not a sequencer or a device on which we construct or program anything. What can be found on our records or what was recorded during our multiple live shows is pure improvised music, played without any assumptions, without any compositions or structures. And the album is based on those improvisations.
DK: But it’s an edit. It should be stated clearly that it wasn’t recorded 100% live.
JM: That’s true. It’s an edit, but the post-production is the only way we interfere in the recordings.
How did you choose these fragments that make up the record? What special features do they need to have in order to be selected?
DK: During those sessions of ours, we usually play together but it often happens that someone is tired and he wants to take a rest, and the remaining two are still playing or someone stands alone. From those moments we often take bits that can be later cut shorter and used as bits of future tracks… Generally speaking we can say that this process of choosing, cutting and editing is based on intensification but at the same time it’s not the only aim, because I think this kind of music needs a bit of air, it can’t be all that intense all the time, it can’t always aim at your throat. This is the place for these ambient fragments that we talked about earlier. But this isn’t this kind of sweet, soft and pleasant ambient. It’s more of a dark, rugged and distressing form.
JM: It’s quite obvious that the parts that we take from those sessions that were recorded on the multitrack are in our opinion the best parts. When we decided to make this record and we agreed on the time that we had to do it in, we reached for what we saw as an essence. That’s the main reason behind the idea to edit it. If we wanted to show the listener the whole process of getting to those points this record would have to last for hours and the effect wouldn’t be so thrilling, I think. We had to throw out the weaker parts.
Just to take it simple – what was the main impulse to record this first album after all those years?
JM: The idea came to us on the 10th anniversary of Komora A, and this idea was so strong that we released the finished record on the… 12th anniversary. At one point I started to think over the reasons why we had never ever released a record. On one hand – there were all of those prosaic, practical reasons – our families and work, the fact that we only recently became comfortable enough that we both can focus just on MonotypeRec., because earlier we all had different day to day jobs. On the other hand, I think that the longer we worked on the album the more we wanted it to be perfect, to be something completely unique. We recorded the material over and over, prepared different versions of the record and none of them were final. There was this little click in one track, so we threw the whole thing into the trash bin and started to work on it all over again. Also I started to think that the… shoemaker’s children are ill-shod. On a daily basis I work on releasing other people's records, we both do. We have this label so it was rather obvious that we would release our own record. But there was no record to release; there was no time to prepare it because we were so caught up in others people's records.
And now that you have recorded it and released it after 12 years of playing together in 2016 it seems quite… on time. This kind of dark, industrial, ambient sound has a new strong audience and it even sometimes manages to surmount the boundaries of the niche that it had been occupying for years. In your opinion – as also the distributor of other label catalogues and label owners – is there any difference between the sounds of the past and their present incarnations?
JM: I see a sharp turn in the music of last couple of years towards the 90s. But I don’t think it results from sentimentality and nostalgia. In my opinion those people who are making this music nowadays weren’t here when the first wave came and they didn’t have a chance to witness it, to be a part of it when it was born. Because of that fact, they think it’s fresh and cool, they somehow “discover” it on their own. It’s why the history goes round in circles – cassettes are coming back and so are the sounds of the 90s – those deep delays, darkness in the music, it is becoming black once again. Even fashion is coming back to the 90s once more. And we also – completely unintentionally, because it’s a natural cycle for us which began and now results in this record – somehow fit into this trend.
As we talk about looking backward also the equipment people use to make music is getting lately more and more “vintage” – companies are reopening their analogue synthesiser lines, the modular scene is bigger than ever, the second hand market is very lively. Are you anyhow attached to the tools that you used years ago?
DK: Yes, in a way. From my very beginning I worked on a computer and in general I use the same programs as way back than, maybe only with some newer patches here and there. In this band of ours Karol used to play percussion, Jakub used to play guitar and I… have never mastered any instrument neither acoustic nor electric. I’m not able to play a melody or anything that sounds in any way reasonable on any instrument that I have ever encountered. So the fact that the personal computer begun to be useful as a tool for making music exactly at the time of my adolescence, was a revelation for me. Suddenly you didn’t have to know how to read notes, you didn’t have to follow this classical academic path; you could just trust your intuition, follow your ears and simply do something. In my case it all began form listening. I used to listen over and over to those re-recorded tapes that I gathered throughout the years. I didn’t have any CDs because there were too expensive at that time, but I had around 500 tapes and I listened to each and every one of them more than a dozen times each, I knew them all really well. Now I have much more music but I don’t know any of it as well. So the first impulse to do something was to imitate what I heard on those cassettes – just to see if I could recreate a particular part - to see if I could obtain a particular kind of sound. Then it became clear that creating your own sounds was far more interesting and I stuck to this idea, and a computer helped me a lot. At the very beginning, in the early 90s, I bought a 386 DX 40, that occupied a big space on my table in my room because I didn’t have money for the new casing. Then I bought an older 286, which was really huge. At that time there was almost no software to make music on a PC. It was far easier to deal with sounds on an Amiga, an Atari or any of those early Macs, but it changed quite rapidly around 1994 or 1995. Then in 1998 I found a program that I still use today, called Audiomulch. Then, several years later when laptops ceased to cost completely unconscionable amounts of money, I bought my first portable computer which I could take anywhere and use it to play music wherever I liked. It was in 2000 or 2001 and cost the biggest amount of money I have spent on a computer at any point. But this feeling of freedom was worth every single zloty.
JM: My attitude towards the gear is quite different because my musical path started with a classical instrument as Dominik has already said. I remember that I always wanted to play a bass guitar. It was in the 80s when my older sister showed me her photos from Jarocin music festival and there was this black and white pic of her friend sitting somewhere with a huge Mohawk shaved onto his head and a bass guitar in his lap. He was the coolest person that I’d ever seen so I decided to be like him and also play the bass guitar. So I started this long process of convincing my parents to buy me one and finally they did – it was the cheapest, most awful, classical guitar. The space between the fretboard and the strings was so big you could easily stick two fingers in there. You couldn’t learn how to play on it, but you could make some sounds with it. And this was the beginning. Later on I managed to buy my first electric guitar for a huge amount of money and it was my instrument of choice until suddenly the first synthesiser appeared in my circle of friends. For me it was a completely new way of generating sounds and a new way of perceiving sounds. So I got into it and to this day I prefer to work on hardware synths. I feel better when I use keys and knobs, than a computer. Most of them are analog synths and modular ones, but I’m also learning how to use a computer as an instrument. I’m learning Ableton Live and I’m really amazed by how easy it is and the capabilities that it provides. But still the beginning of all those sounds that I put into it is analog.
As we come to the end of this little talk I wanted to ask you about another typical association that comes up whenever ambient music is mentioned. Since the very beginning, it has been seen as music of or for actual places; if you could think of a space that Komora A sounds fit in best, what it would be?
JM: We never ideologise our music. It’s not a carrier for any deep truths about the world; it’s a strictly aesthetic experience. If someone associates it with any particular place, it’s perfectly fine, but we don’t suggest to the listeners what they should see under their eyelids when they listen to our music. We hope that the title of the record and the titles of the tracks are abstract enough not to impose anything. Instead of calling this record Crystal Dwarf we could have called it – for example – music for an underground shelter lying deep under a post-nuclear world. It would fit perfectly into popular post-apocalyptic narratives of today, but it would also be too simple and too easy to do. When I’m playing or listening to our music, I think of something completely abstract, I think of a feeling, but I never try to call it anything, nor do I try and visualise it or animate it.
DK: I also wouldn’t try to put it in any specific place, but at the same time I always associate music with concrete, actual places. Each track I listen to or work on has its own space, building or another piece of architecture paired. Yet still when I think about our music I think more about emotional states than the places in space.