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Three Songs No Flash

Poles Apart: Notes From Łódź And The Polish Underground
John Doran , July 21st, 2014 04:08

John Doran travelled to Łódź recently to try and find out why the Polish music underground has gone through a revolution in production over the last three years and to determine what lessons can be learned

RSS Boys portraits by N0:B0DY

Anyone wanting to understand the roots of the current Polish underground could do much worse than reading Agata Pyzik's book on the country's post punk scene, Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes In Europe East And West. But over and above the proud tradition that Polish underground music has, clearly something special has been going on in this country over the last three years and certainly barely a week goes by without another excellent album by the likes of Stara Rzeka, Wilhelm Bras, RSS Boys, Inner City Ensemble, Derek Piotr, Echoes Of Yul, Merkabah, Gaap Kvlt, kIRk, Robert Piotrowicz, Alameda 3, Rafal Kolacki, Bionular or Kapital released by such amazing labels as Zoharum, Instant Classic, Monotype or Mik Musik landing on the welcome mat at Quietus Towers.

So when I was invited to go and review the LDZ Music Festival in Łódź recently I decided to use it as a chance to speak to record label bosses, artists, DJs and curators, to see if I could get a handle on why there has been such a creative efflorescence in Poland recently.  

Łódź (there's no direct English pronunciation but it's something like wudzh or woodze), a large industrial city 85 miles to the South West of Warsaw, is the Polish word for boat and its coat of arms features reference to shipbuilding. Łódź is landlocked and does not have, nor ever has had, a shipbuilding industry. Instead the city was famed as a centre of textile industry in the 19th Century which attracted immigrant workers from all over central and eastern Europe, something that gave rise to its nickname 'the Polish Manchester'. In fact at one time Łódź had the highest population density of any city in Europe, however that cannot be said now. The large factories of the textile industry pretty much fell away to nothing after the transition to free market capitalism in 1990/91 although plenty of small privately owned textile businesses still dot the region. One of the largest former factories has been converted to a kind of tourist/hipster hangout called Manufaktura, which is full of great restaurants, bars and clothes shops. Perhaps it is the first sign of gentrification, says Maćku Mcq (aka electronic artist Gaap Kvlt) or a sign that all the young people who left for Warsaw as soon as they were old enough are now getting tired of the rising rents and are returning here where it is perhaps easier to be in a band, to be an artist or simply just to live reasonably. Financially at least.

This tiny spot is nice enough but it's more pleasant wandering up and down the main drag Piotrkowska Street - unusually for a large Polish city, it wasn't reduced to rubble during World War 2 and it is reminiscent of a smart Northern English town, pre-encroachment by large brand name shops, chains and franchises. A local pop band are performing on a makeshift stage, rapping over some acid-y beats. ("I've got stars in my pocket! I've got the solar system in my pocket!" translates Maćku.) Not too far away some women are demonstrating fearsome acrobatic dancing abilities on a giant metal pole they've brought with them and erected on the pavement. The reason for this lunch time display of aerial entertainment isn't explained. And I forget to ask what pole dancing in Poland is actually called.

There is a walk of stars celebrating the region's film school celebrating such talents as Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieślowski. As the sun disappears behind the rooftops the city bustles with a lot of dressed up and dolled up men and women out for a proper drink. It's lively but never quite feels like the last night in Saigon as it can do in, say, Liverpool or Hull on a Saturday night.

On the first night of the festival, we're at Bajkonur, a warehouse space on the edge of town, built under the shadow of a giant, former brick making factory. Next to the entrance there is a hulking wood and steel water tower the size of a gasometer and the kind of towering brick furnace chimney that would have got Fred Dibnah's pulse a-racing. Bajkonur, is named after the Kazakh home of the Russian space race but according to my host Ola, the word is also homophonous with the Polish phrase, "falling into a fairy story".  

Inside the building looking at the steel cage of the industrial elevator, the echoing concrete stairwell and the huge warren of partially lit factory rooms we enter, it might be wise to presume we're falling into a bleak post industrial remaking of one of Hans Christian Anderson's darker tales, such as 'The Snow Queen'. This isn't entirely wishful thinking by the way. One visitor to Łódź in recent years who fell in love with the city was David Lynch. The director shot many scenes from his masterpiece Inland Empire in the dark, decaying industrial ruins of the city, and made great use of the remarkable EC1 building - a former thermal power station. He has returned there several times since 2000 and his photographs of its industrial architecture can be seen in the book David Lynch: The Factory Photographs which was published this year. Along with architect Andrzej Walczak and a local film festival director Marek Żydowicz he proposed a cultural centre to be built on the huge site that houses EC1. It is impossible to see how the project, including cinemas, galleries, studios, film production suites etc could be anything but good for the region but it has inevitably met a lot of bureaucratic red tape. Filip Kalinowski, my other host, member of kIRk and tQ writer, sighs and says: "Łódź is a city of lost opportunities. But the culture of this place is the one way for the people to get out of the crisis it is in." Optimistic reports claim that the centre will be finished in 2016.

The city has actually been a place of seized opportunities for Filip and Wojciech Krasowski who run LDZ, with the former booking most of the electronic acts and the latter booking most of the avant garde and experimental music. They aim to reflect some of the cultural opportunities that the city offers to a slightly wider audience. Krasowski who helps run the avant and experimental label Latarnia Records says: "We were asked to put on a festival in Łódź and that was great because the rawness and the atmosphere of the city is perfect for the aesthetics of this kind of music."

Speaking about the idea that the Polish underground has undergone a creative renaissance over the last three years, Kalinowski says: "The scene is not based on genre. There are no distinctions between them. People operate using the same ethics and the same approach to produce music. As you can tell people love to be involved. They have day jobs and this is what they do outside of work. All of these people support each other. They collaborate and buy each others' releases.

"In the late 80s and 90s there was great music coming out but if you didn't live in that particular city you might not be able to get hold of the release or even hear about it. But now because of bandcamp you can get to hear everything. Also now you get metal musicians collaborating with hip hop musicians. Jazz musicians collaborating with electronic musicians. The indie rock and post rock consensus wasn't as big here as it was perhaps in Britain and the States.

"If you take Stara Rzeka's album from last year (Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem) it's just got so much going on in it… people don't have this complex that Western music can have. They realise that you don't have to sound like someone else [famous] in order to get through. They just do their own stuff because they're released by themselves or their friends. They don't have that pressure to be commercial. They are simply pushing things forward and not minding what is written or talked about."

The first act of Friday night is the renowned Sebastian Buczek who is as much an inventor and performance artist as he is an experimental musician. One of his live strategies is to cut very non-standard records and to play them live as a sound source. Past performances have included him using a 42" vinyl record and a homemade record deck big enough to play it and also dubplates cut from beeswax. Today he has a smartly dressed and disconcerting mannequin on stage with him attached to several pulleys and levers. Buczek is hunched over a single record deck housing a disc of locked grooves and a table of FX. At first the mannequin - who has dreadlocks and a moustache - swipes ineffectually at the African drum it has between its knees. But then without warning he stands up and hammers the drum hard. Everyone watching flinches involuntarily with fear. Bit by bit both the mannequin and Buczek slump to lie face down on the floor as the humming locked groove continues. People aren't sure whether the performance is over or not until Buczek gets up, switches the deck off and shrugs.

He is followed by a last minute addition to the bill, JHS1379 who perform in front of the stations of the cross/crucifixion portion of a film called The Life And Times Of Jesus Christ. This is a semi-improvised electronic drone and noise set, with the power of the noise ratcheting up a few more notches with each station passed. Bassy drones are overlaid with a scree of harsh white noise as St. Veronica holds up her veil with Christ's face upon it. The noise becomes close to physically unbearable as the party climb Golgotha and erect the cross. This isn't, presumably, mere posturing by the duo - who self-identify as Christians - but an attempt to revitalise the over-related idea of Christ's unendurable pain and then transcendence upon death. JHS1379, is short hand for 'I have suffered' and the psalm 137:9, "Happy shall he be who taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones." As the film reaches the resurrection the noise gives way to a loop sampled from Billie Holiday's 'Gloomy Sunday'.

On the Saturday, the day's programme is being held at the club Lokal, just off the main drag. I speak to the electronic producer Wojciech Kucharczyk, who runs Mik Musik, one of the oldest independent labels in the country which is this year celebrating its 20th birthday. He has put out techno by shadowy figures the RSS Boys as well as Sebastian Buczek's one and only album.

He explains the ethos of his label: "It doesn't have to be electronic music for Mik Musik to release it but it is important that I feel a connection to it because the main thing for me is to build a collective of people. Firstly to work with them and spend time with them, then if it goes well, we can go on to the next stage to release an album together."

Certainly this communal vibe is something that informs the Łódź festival. It is a small but dedicated affair; a lot of the people attending seem to be in bands or involved with the creative arts in other ways, I meet a lot of illustrators, film makers and DJs. People have come from all over Poland to be here. It certainly feels like there is a network for musicians to both exploit and aid.

When I tell him that it is my theory that Polish underground music has gone through a revolution in the last three years he agrees and says that he has several theories as to why this is: "First of all we have a harsh system for culture. Under communism it was hard, in capitalist times it was hard, under labour it is hard, and so on. The most active labels are absolutely DIY and their approaches are 100% idealistic. There is no talk about money and profit, just about creation. And this I would say is the one thing in common between every Polish micro-label. It is about wanting to build something that is important and not just important for 'this season' like a fashion label but something that will go the distance.

"When you look at this festival from the outside it can seem really small right? It's just a little club. But the thinking behind this is quite big. How do we deal with the super small resources that we have to build something that is strong? What can emanate from this? What can radiate to people from other countries, who will stop and say, 'You are doing something interesting. This is valuable.'"

Odaibe kicks the second day line-up off at Lokal with a set of four four, dubby, improvised techno. About halfway through his set he starts introducing much harder sound elements, stentorian synth blasts and rolling percussive effects. Rubber band bass and the glossolalia of alien babies balance out the sheer repetitive rhythmical nature of the set which ends on notes which sound midway between power chords and tolling church bells, which eventually dissolve into marimba strikes and what sounds like milk bottles being clinked together at the bottom of the lift shaft.

In sheer experiential terms, Patryk Cannon is easily one of the most enjoyable acts of the weekend and he shoots out of the traps like a greyhound strapped to a scud missile. He employs clattering funky rhythms that seem to switch between dabke, funky house and Afrobeat and his maximal approach sees him referencing cosmic disco, balearic, electro and cold wave. He sings and processes his own voice live as another melodic line to manipulate, swapping between a blue eyed soul falsetto and a drag-speed basso profundo slur. As he dances wildly and bangs his head, slamming his fist onto a Maschine pad to create dissonant bursts of noise, it's completely clear his background is not in the dance scene but playing with punk bands. His magpie approach doesn't hamper his flow or irritate dancers. Balearic, cosmic disco arpeggios are replaced by techno and breaks; everything with an infectious amount of energy. It's a glorious mishmash of OMD and Kid 606 as performed by Andrew WK using shonky equipment to do ramshackle covers of Prince and 808 State.

Polish techno fans are still buzzing from the recent launch of Boiler Room in their home country and tonight's line-up represents two key figures who appeared on the inaugural show. First up is Chino, a 20-something producer, DJ and sound engineer, who delivers a functional and enjoyable set that properly kicks off the dancing. He is followed by the godfather of Polish techno Jacek Sienkiewicz who has recently collaborated with Atom ™ on a Wagner inspired project. There is no sturm und drang tonight though, just smooth clean lines which are reminiscent of Robert Hood's night time urban car journey techno. Apparently he has two dedications pinned to the wall of his studio; one by Atom ™ and one by Mad Mike Barnes of UR and this makes sense as they are all of a mindset if not similar geographical location.

RSS Boys are the highlight of the weekend and come onstage wearing bizarre homemade costumes like niqabs to be worn on an as yet unfilmed version of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. They stand behind Cthulu-like knots of cables going in and out of numerous mixers, pedals, synths, Kaos pads… They look like pilots of some improbable future spacecraft and initially the wild bursts of electronic noise they create sound like an incomprehensible alien distress signal made on a short wave frequency. Their agitated manipulation of the equipment looks like a last ditch attempt to prevent their craft from crash-landing into some inhospitable terrain. They put in a damn fine set. RSS boys were the first band released on the Mik Musik Secret Series, which specialises in music by anonymous acts. Label boss Wojciech, said he noticed that some artists were afraid to show their "other face" and he started the series of releases with the idea that the artists could hide their faces but reveal their hidden identities via music instead.     

Outside the bar I talk to Daniel Muzyczuk, who is a curator of Polish sound art from the 1950s - 1970s and contemporary sound art from all over the world. He says that despite the cross genre collaborations of the Polish underground that the old boundaries between high, low and middle brow art still exist: "Things aren't so mixed up yet. The idea of a scene for people coming together and collaborating is down mainly to the proliferation of record labels interested in new music and a feeling that there is a community of people who have a lot of things in common. These people share ideas as well as working together. There are plenty of record labels for improvised music but they also support music that doesn't fit this scenario and that is one of the reasons why the scene is vibrant.

"Some of this perceived boom in Polish music is more to do with the increase in publishing that has happened recently. So a lot of these record labels are relatively new and people are only just getting to release music now, that they have been working on for a long time."

Rounding off the festival is Gaap Kvlt. Before taking to the stage Maćku tells me that he thinks technology has played a large role in the events of the last three years: "The internet is now everywhere and everyone, no matter how small, can upload a track onto the internet for people to find. Also gear is now cheaper to buy. You know the history… twenty years ago we couldn't get anything but now we are moving faster than ever. There are groups of people working together and ten people can work on 15 different projects and everything goes around. Perhaps the high level of quality at the moment is down to the fact that people do not have much money and still can't afford to release things unless they are sure that they are good."

He adds: "There is a specific Polish melancholy that we all share because of the grey that we had in common for a long period of time."

He has a tough job following the punishing industrial throb of Zwichnięci Dandysi who persuade a few people that it's time to leave but those who stay are treated to rich and dark ambiance created from a mix of spectral noise, synth washes and samples of the Arabic call to prayer all of which calls to mind both Coil and Muslimgauze. There are organic sounding drum samples reminiscent of Haxan Cloak creating minimal gothic unease, traffic noise, a brief burst of Angelo Baadlamenti-style jazz and then silence.

Coming soon on tQ, a guide to Polish underground record labels