The Omnibus Band (Interview)
From Unearthing The Music
Prague-based label Endless Illusion (through their Jupiter08 project) has recently released a compilation of material by 80's Czechoslovak experimental group The Omnibus Band, featuring two of their releases "Israels" and "Rhythmus". Read on below to find out more about the band.
Interview with Jaroslav Zajpt, founding member of the Omnibus Band
The guitarist and singer Jaroslav Zajpt was the central figure of the Omnibus Band which went through various music genres during their career, from bigbeat to reggae and electronic music. The changes also touched the band members and music instruments – the classical guitar and audio tapes were replaced with keyboard instruments, programming, and automatic percussions. Omnibus Band was composed of Zajpt, Palát, and Zvolenský and used electronics to layer the individual improvised themes and supplemented them with other sounds which were produced by the legendary (and today very sought-after) instruments such as Roland TR-808 and others. Ladislav met with Jaroslav Zajpt to discuss the concerts in the 1970s and the 1980s to remember how they later tried to incorporate musical instruments.
Many musicians, e.g. the Orm Brothers (editor’s note: two musicians of the 1970s and 1980s who became famous for the title song of the Czechoslovak television series Sanitka/Ambulance or for music composed for the Kamélie Band), made their instruments themselves. Was it also your case?
We started it when I was eighteen, which is forty years ago. We produced generators of some sounds and we usually recorded in someone’s house. I listened to Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Talking Heads, and King Crimson. I was inspired by the themes in their music. We took a tape and recorded a loop and then layered the sounds. At that time, we had no clue what would happen, so we recorded many things and experimented. When we performed as a warm-up band with it, people said it was like music from Mars. And it was very cheap; I played what I was familiar with – violin, guitar… I was not satisfied at all but at that time the violin was classical; there were no electronic sensors. With the technical boom, we visited all kinds of exhibitions. Poly 800 was our first instrument which cost about sixteen thousand. It had ninety-nine sounds, which you could save, and later on we used a tape for the finishing touch. It was not unusual that we had to exchange batteries in the middle of a concert.
Are we talking about the 1970s?
I think so. I was taking notes where we had a concert, what instruments we played, and how many people were there, but I have it somewhere in the cellar.
Where did your concerts take place?
Mainly U Zábranskejch which was a pub near Křižíkova Street.
And was it tolerated? Or was it done secretly?
It was officially permitted. But sometimes we got stopped in the underground and asked ‘what is that in your suitcase?’, etc. Music and freedom was all we were interested in. Back then, we did not invite many guests, perhaps just Vilém Čok and Jirka Křivka. Jirka and I experimented a lot after these tapes became popular. Today he plays in about four bands and he still continues. We formed a duo, which was called Zakkurit, not Zikkurat. Over time, we turned music electronic, and finally we did something that some called a television cheat. There were more instruments, but in fact, there were only three of us playing.
Did you play something from a tape? Or what did it look like?
It was an automatic machine. We had a version which was played by the three of us. Pavel played the drums, and the automatic machine behind him was playing all the time. It might have been cheating, but in the sense that we had it perfectly prepared upfront. Radek Podroužek took care of things such as an intro, during a break, or at the end. He was an outstanding studio musician. Later, in 1991, I played at the Rock Café opening.
Were your concerts sophisticated? With lights and all?
We had lights which I made. Previously, I worked at ČKD which I chose instead of going to the military. And before that, I studied at vocational school so I knew how to do that. They produced tubes in ČKD for us, and they stole foils and bulbs from Czechoslovak Television. (laughs) We also made the rotators from small engines to drive windscreen wipers and other things. And we used ammonium chloride which was used for soldering instead of smoke.
That must have been an awful smell! (laughs)
Well, it was. It was in the form of a powder which we sprinkled over a cooker heated to a hundred volts. We turned it on, it heated up within half a minute, and we threw the powder on it. There were not many concerts like that, but they were rather scenic.
Do you have some recordings? I have not managed to find any, not even on YouTube.
Petr Korál has recently sent me a pop version of that music. He is a living contemporary who is interested in rock music. He has a Monday reading show on Radio 1.
I see, Uncle Míša? Has he sent you any of your recordings recently?
Exactly. I do not know where he found it. Later, some agency addressed me which produces industrial music, it was OIO, Omnibus Industrial Orchestra. There was Pavel Zvolenský, Jarda Palát…
I am very much interested in that period.
We performed twice this way, and a critic wrote that it was our best period. Palát is no longer alive; he used to do experimental industrial stuff. And Zvolenský operated TR-808; of course he did not play it.
Did you really have it? Today, it is the most valuable drum machine on the market. Various companies did five various clones, but none of them achieved such a good sound. They also made 909, 707, 505, 606,… But 808 is definitely the best.
I have a great story about me and Pavel Zvolenský buying this machine.
Well, I would like to hear it. (laughs)
It cost twenty thousand crowns. We went somewhere to Slovakia where we met Laco Lučenič. He still plays great music. We arrived, he unpacked it and said: “it’s amazingly simple”. We agreed that we would pick it up in two weeks at the International Hotel in Prague where his manager would be. We came, gave him the money, and received TR-808 from him. He went through the money and said: “but this is nineteen, look”. I still think that he swindled us out, but we were just boys. I lived nearby so I borrowed the extra thousand from someone. We brought the machine home and we thought it was “amazingly simple”. Diddly-squat. We could not start it though we kept pressing all of the buttons…
Now I am interested even more when I know that you were using Roland TR-808.
This is exactly what I have on CD. We also used it to record some things with Robert Kodym. Then the machine started to go haywire, and we found out that when we took it for a walk it worked. I am not lying. It stopped working and when we took it somewhere it started to play again. And this situation repeated one more time. And I still have this one thing here which is called Israels. I have it on a tape but I no longer have a working tape recorder.
Today, cassettes are in fashion again.
And I have thrown out about a thousand cassettes… In Rock Café I recorded many things to play in a car, but those were the bands that are easy to get today. In Rock Café I later published about six bands in an edition, but that was not electronic music.
And you decided to publish it as a label?
Yes, we decided to publish bands in Rock Café. The first one was Olda Říha from the Katapult Band, some 200 thousand pieces; the others were Jean Marais, Jolly Joker. It has been a long time, Rock Café opened in 1991…The celebration of the 25th anniversary is currently being prepared. I left afterwards; electronic music was played there only a little because it was mainly a rock club.
When you did not stay with that music, what was the impulse? A lack of ambition?
This is what it is like, all of a sudden it happens. I have been playing the violin and guitar from my early childhood. Later I did bigbeat, but the kind when people did not know what they would hear. With Omnibus Industrial Orchestra we played at Na Chmelnici when other bands would play before us. The people then came after half a year and we played reggae, then they came to hear reggae again, and we played rock and pop, and then some electronic music. Someone wrote about us that it was a kind of destruction. I was not annoyed by anything; it was just a move forward in the sense of “I think that I am not moving forward any more, I can’t do it better so I am going to do something else.” I photographed for some time, and then I stopped and started to record videos. Later, I did sports videos and after that something else again. I was also successful in sports, both as a coach and as a player. I was employed only for a short time. In 1985, I started to work for the Prague Cultural Centre but as an entrepreneur. I did tours with the singers Vondráček, Lucie Bílá… It was a nice period when we did not have to do anything but what we wanted to.
This period of yours was compared to techno-pop.
They were several concerts with different band members. Radek Podroužek was in the band. I had a small box for my guitar which we smuggled from Germany. It was Yamaha which included a bank with about a hundred sounds. It was connected to a sequencer which differentiated it. It would happen to me that I played, and at one moment it turned me off totally in order not to disturb the others. It bothered me because I heard the rhythm very well, and also the impeccable accuracy was kind of cold. There was first guitar, second guitar, and a bass in our crew. Láďa, who has been working in the Rock Café bar for twenty years, played the keyboard. We used a synthesiser, also of the Roland brand.
It is also 808. They later produced a smaller version, SH-101.
We used it to do concerts before the Precedens Band; we played just rock and pop back then. Radek Podroužek and I programmed during the nights. It was killing me. He played something I did not hear, and he wanted to put there something I did not hear. I told him to blow it off but he would not stop. You won’t stop until you do it.
Well, this is probably more about feelings; it has to be there. Did you know the essential industrial bands like Front 242 at that time?
I have been influenced only by King Crimson. It was a time that one closes up once. For example, there was a time when I played the Mexican guitar.
It also depends on personal development. When one keeps doing the same thing all the time, it brings about stagnation. Is my understanding correct that you were more of a concert band than a studio band?
We were not a studio band. We played at home to see how it sounded, and then we did the same at our concerts.
How many people were at your concerts?
From fifty to three hundred. There was also one more band to play with us. Mama Bubo and other bands played with us at Na Chmelnici. Naturally, many of the concerts took place in the presence of the police; U Zábranských Pub was later banned for good.
When looking up these bands, I often find out that sometimes only one of the members is inclined to electronic music. Recently, I discovered that Václav Neckář’s brother used drum machines, pedals, effects, delays…Today, we have all this here as well. Did you use some computers? For example Atars?
I received my first computer from Charter 77 in 1991. At that time, many bands played on the Old Town Square where Václav Havel also performed. It was a wonderful time. I knew about some music tools such as Atars etc., but we started with Intel Pentium 386, 486…
And back to the recordings. Do you really have nothing left? Previously, there were reel-to-reel tape recorders on which the individual instruments could be recorded separately.
I would probably find cassettes somewhere, four-track types, but I cannot play them on anything. One company addressed me and they sent me e-mails every half a year asking: “Found anything?”
Who are they? Was it for the exhibition in the Pop Museum?
No, these guys wanted to publish it.
Oh, I see. Someone now restored the Czech industrial label and began to publish the original recordings in a digital form. Have you ever published anything digitally?
Yes, we have. About two things which the Wanastovi Vjecy Band released on the Hračky (Toys) Album. It was material that we recorded and they adjusted it.