Mira Wanek says that after Tuesday’s concert — the band’s 2000th — a songwriting repose is in order
A mainstay of the Czech independent music scene over the last two and a half decades, the band Už jsme doma (Now We’re Home) will perform their 2,000th concert at Prague’s Lucerna Music Bar this Tuesday night. Remarkably, around a thousand of those gigs have taken place beyond the Czech Republic’s borders.
Už jsme doma (UJD) — whose avant-garde sound combines punk energy, progressive rock’s abrupt changes of time signature, ska elements, shouty vocals, and poetic lyrics — were formed in Teplice, North Bohemia, in 1985, four years before the fall of communism.
Pavel Klusák, a leading Czech music critic, says UJD’s leader Miroslav “Mira” Wanek was inspired by two things: “animal energy” driven by anger at the regime and a wish to disprove the prejudices of the authorities. “In my personal opinion, it was a desire to show the Bolsheviks and the censors that even punk music could have artistic parameters,” Klusák told Czech Position. He suggests the group’s early releases were their strongest.
For his part, Wanek, the only constant member since he took control of a nascent UJD a few months after its foundation, says the Velvet Revolution opened up numerous opportunities for the group. They could appear on stage without having to finagle a permit. They could enter a recording studio (such was their backlog of material that UJD recorded two albums in 1990). And — crucially — the opening of the borders meant they were free to play abroad. To date, they have performed their complex music in 37 countries around the world. UJD have toured the US 18 times, playing around 700 shows, an achievement no other Czech group has come near matching.
“We immediately started to travel,” Wanek told Czech Position. “We played in Germany, France, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland. And very early, in 1992, we traveled for the first time to the US.” Since then, UJD have toured the US 18 times, playing around 700 shows, an achievement no other Czech group has come near matching.
Klusák says UJD were under no illusions they could achieve mainstream success in the U.S. Instead, they targeted relatively small venues and through hard work built up a profile on the alternative circuit. “With patience and a systematic approach they managed to play a great many concerts, and they played regularly,” the rock critic says, adding that collaborating with the American art collective the Residents (who appear in public in giant eyeball masks) also boosted UJD’s reputation.
Perhaps the Czech art punks were always bound to find acceptance in the West, considering their antecedents. Indeed, Wanek’s previous outfit FPB (Fourth Price Band) — which he says was the “biggest influence” on UJD — had songs by such left-field British and US performers as Henry Cow, Art Bears, Killing Joke, the Residents, and Pere Ubu in their repertoire. Other sources of inspiration have been Frank Zappa, saxophonist John Zorn, and Swedish band Ebba Gron.
Wanek says UJD were by no means the only Czech independent musicians of their generation capable of making a go of it internationally, offering names such as Dunaj, Jablkoň, Psí vojaci and Zuby nehty. “There was a lot of interesting music, but maybe not so many people had the energy to go abroad, to risk losing money, to put their comfort at risk,” he said. “It was an option for everybody to go abroad and try their luck.”
… and on the brushes, Mr. Martin Velíšek
One thing that has helped UJD stand out is their distinctive record sleeve designed by painter Martin Velíšek, whose immediately recognizable art also graces one of Prague’s most famous old-school pubs, U vystřelenýho oka (At the Shot-Out Eye) in Prague’s working class Žižkov district.
Running into Velíšek — an old friend from glassmaking school in Teplice — Wanek asked the artist, whose paintings he was then unfamiliar with, to design the sleeve of UJD’s 1990 debut LP “Uprostřed slov” (In the Middle of Words). It was a fateful commission: the cover’s yellow wooden house with a chimney resembling a tank gun was adopted as the group’s logo, Velíšek’s art has become a key element of the band’s identity and the painter is now even an official member — the UJD website lists “brushes” as his instrument.
Two dozen or so more conventional members have passed through the band in the quarter-century of its existence, with the current line-up coalescing in the mid 2000s. Wanek, who turns 50 next year, says that while his love of making music has never flagged, he does find it “tiring” trying to keep the group afloat as the cost of touring increases.
Though UJD are planning US tour number 19 in September, Tuesday’s 2000th concert, which is accompanied by the launch of a DVD, will offer an opportunity for taking stock; Wanek says afterwards he will have a “clear table” and will take a break from producing fresh songs for at least a year.
That said, UJD’s main man already has some plans to return to the studio. After picking up a nomination in 2002 for a Czech Lion film award for best music for the successful animated movie “Fimfárum” (designed by painter Martin Velíšek), Wanek is set to compose the soundtrack for director Aurel Klimt’s next project, “Laika.”
Meanwhile, support at Tuesday night’s concert will come from French one-man band Monsieur Le Directeur and the Czech “Dada a cappella” group Ženy (previously produced by Wanek, they are reforming especially for the occasion).