Heavenly Music: An Interview With T’ien Lai

With the highly prolific Jakub Ziolek, of long-term Quietus favourites Stara Rzeka and Innercity Ensemble, now working on his electronics project, he tells Lucia Udvardyova about music and politics, memory and forgetting

Photograph courtesy of Ela Schulz

Jakub Ziolek is a man of many musical guises. He’s one of the most prolific musicians in Poland: a member of the improvisational collective Innercity Ensemble, drony duo Kapital, experimental rock project Alameda 3 and Stara Rzeka, the latter gaining him acclaim from listeners further afield (their album Cień Chmury Nad Ukrytym Polem made it to number 12 in tQ’s 2013 year-end list). He is a self-proclaimed radical materialist, and espouses a doctrine called "magic brutalism", a syncretism of brutalist architecture and magic realism.

Currently, his attentions are focussed on T’ien Lai, a ritualistic hardware electronics project where the abrasive power of the guitar, his instrument of choice, is sublimated into samplers, radios, synths and percussion, creating something more buoyant and primordial, especially during their live shows – brutalist, perhaps – than the ethereal dreamscapes of Stara Rzeka. T’ien Lai’s debut album, Da’at, was released in 2013, with a second, also on Monotype Records, following last year, simply called Rhthm, the first part of a rhythmic trilogy.

The palette from which the record was built is vast: from krautrock (a constant inspiration for Ziołek), through Polish, Australian and North African pop, scratched hip-hop records and the venerable Unitra radio receiver (presumably the source of the prelude in ‘Gloria’ off Da’at, which starts with a crackling sample of Madonna’s ‘Vogue’). Consequently, the sonic topography is expansive, like rolling plains encircled by frosty mountains on the horizon, wrapped in northern mist and mystery.

Ziołek is based in Bydgoszcz, Poland’s eighth largest city, whose Mózg club is one of the epicentres of his sonic universe, a rehearsal space and testing ground for new tracks. He is one of the members of the Milieu L’Acéphale collective, a "loose aggregation of friends making strange music together", most of which are connected to Ziołek. Earlier this year, Ziołek’s prolific and wide-ranging output was recognised when he was given a Polityka Passport award. Fittingly, when we caught up with him, he was in the middle of work on yet another project, a theatrical piece involving T’ien Lai.

So you’re working on a theatre piece?

Jakub Ziołek: Yes, we’re working on a concert with T’ien Lai that is partly a theatrical performance and partly, well, just a concert. The theme of this project is inspired by Alois Alzheimer and Breslau [the German identity of the Polish city of Wroclaw] and deals with memory and forgetting.

How will it differ from your ‘regular’ T’ien Lai concerts, which also encompass elements of drama and performativity?

JZ: Well, this time we’re working with actors, so basically we’re preparing songs for them to sing. But they’re very unconventional and radical, even for T’ien Lai. For example we’re working on remixing Mahler or doing a bubblegum pop tune along with noise soundscapes and dubstep beats. It’s really crazy and fun and also very liberating because we can do whatever we want with our music and just enjoy ourselves. Nobody interferes with what we create. It’s a very comfortable situation and very unusual for working on music in theatres in Poland.

Last year, there was a scandal when a Polish minister from the newly elected Law and Justice party tried to ban a play by Elfriede Jelinek.

JZ: Yes, there have been a couple of those ‘scandals’ in Polish theatre recently because Polish society is very conservative and ignorant and it’s easy for politicians to do their job, which is filling people’s minds with bullshit.

I was talking to a Polish musician recently who mentioned that Polish artists should speak out about the current political situation there. He’s actually planning to make a protest album. Although I guess the Dylan era is over…

JZ: Of course it’s over because music doesn’t have any political power anymore. I can speak out about the situation in Poland, but as a citizen, not an artist. As an artist I prefer making music to talking.

I’m also asking because T’ien Lai has a description, which runs: "T’ien Lai are urban demons, whose excesses are supposed to disturb established hierarchies and social, economic and political orders."

JZ: Yeah, I wrote that three years ago and since then we haven’t disturbed anything, so I guess that doesn’t matter anymore. However, maybe the situation with this theatre work will change it. I still believe in art as a medium for broadening horizons of individual people and that’s its proper political power. But for me music is not as political as theatre or film and I want it to stay that way.

So the theatre piece you’re working on also includes this aspect? To subvert the status quo?

JZ: The thing is that this particular performance is being created specifically for a very old and traditional Polish festival of actors’ songs, which has always been rather conventional in form and content. So it’s more about undermining the convention of this festival rather than addressing any specific political matters directly.

You also wrote: "The last – spasmodic – gasp of culture in any possible conceivable positive sense was the birth of the counterculture in the ’60s and mid-’70s. Since that time, culture, and actually its very possibility, ceased to exist." Do you think culture as such disappeared?

JZ: I believe that culture with the capital ‘C’ has become a hostage of techno-capitalism just like everything else in our world. It can only grow in enclaves where techno-capitalism doesn’t dominate, but these enclaves are being more and more difficult to encounter. In Poland even underground artists have become increasingly dependent on government or municipal money. It is a very dangerous situation for them and for culture as such. 

Do you think authenticity is still important in arts and culture?

JZ: I don’t really know what authenticity means anymore. If someone is authentic in being inauthentic and produces interesting art, is that good or bad? If someone is authentic in producing shitty art, is he better than an inauthentic artist producing equally shitty art?

I guess the question is also how to establish what’s shitty art and what’s not. Or who has the right to establish that.

JZ: I know shitty art when I see it. Coldplay is fucking shit and it’s indisputable.

This year, you received the Polityka Passport award. What importance does institutional validation have for you as an artist?

JZ: I don’t know really. I didn’t start making music to get awards. It’s nice and flattering. Good money too.

Why did you start making music? Was it out of an impulse? A need?

JZ: My friends in high school wanted to play in a band and I didn’t want to be left out of a gang so I started playing the bass. Before that I tried writing and making movies but it was music that accidentally stayed in my life for a long time. Maybe it’s because music can be a great collective work engaging different energies of different personalities.

Does Milieu L’Acéphale still operate as a collective?

JZ: It’s just a loose aggregation of friends working on music together. Nothing more, nothing less. We still operate because we like each other and we like making music with each other. The idea was to cumulate positive energies of musicians and friends rather than establish a label-like institution or firm.

So all of your projects function simultaneously, or you put something on hold while concentrating on something else more?

JZ: It’s very difficult to concentrate on ten different things at the same time, so all of the bands have moments of higher and lower intensity, but I believe that something very powerful once established should operate forever. Unless we have a fatal argument over girls or money, of course.

Which one do you mostly concentrate on at the moment? T’ien Lai?

JZ: T’ien Lai performs a lot at the moment, so yeah – T’ien Lai is on a high intensity level at the moment. But we’re also going to perform a lot with Innercity Ensemble later this year when our third album will be released.

To take a slight U-turn back to memory and forgetting, does it also play a role in your music?

JZ: I’m obsessed with forgetting music. I love the idea of songs played and recorded once never to be performed again. It’s terribly sad to be locked in the past and at the same time it’s fascinating, because the process of creating a song is unique and differs highly from recreating it at a live performance. It’s obvious in jazz music but not in standard, song-based music. I would love to create an album on which each song is forgotten by me forever, never to be sung again.

On your song ‘Gloria’ you start with a Madonna sample, so in a way are you deconstructing the past as well?

JZ: Maybe that’s it. Back then we just did it for fun.

You also use radios. You mention objects and their importance and, to me, a radio receiver is something nostalgic, a ghost appearing and disappearing. How different is it for you to use these instruments as opposed to the guitar?

JZ: Radio noise is something that is partly non-terrestrial and this fact fitted perfectly with our ‘T’ien Lai’ name, which, loosely translated, means ‘heavenly music’. It’s also abstract and amorphous which enables us to create something ‘from nothing’. That’s what the Big Bang was about, wasn’t it?

There is something meditative and calming in your music.

JZ: Richard Pinhas said that after one of his performances in the US someone gave him the best review of his concerts he ever heard: "Your music has soul." Maybe the calming effect is generated when someone hears soul in your sounds, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re Deathspell Omega or Julia Holter. I also believe music to be a form of therapy for the artist as well as for the listener. I don’t mean soul in the Christian sense. Of course we have at least seven souls. I think we have millions of souls.

Do you still follow the concept of magic brutalism?

JZ: I follow a concept of getting drunk all the time and eating Hindu food in kilos. Magic brutalism was just an experiment to see what addressing a manifesto can still do in our world and the result was very positive. People really got interested in that even if their reaction to the content of this manifesto was ‘negative’. But yeah, I’m still a materialist. And I still believe that energy and matter are the only imaginable forms of sacredness that we can encounter.

And music. It’s also sacred, I guess.

JZ: Although it comes from energy and matter, for me it’s not sacred. It’s fun and healing and exciting, and playing an instrument prevents Alzheimer’s.

T’ien Lai play MUTEK Montreal on June 4, as part of the SHAPE showcase; for full details and tickets, head here. SHAPE is a new platform for emerging sound and audiovisual artists supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union

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