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"Let me play" - An interview with Zsolt Prieger

From Unearthing The Music

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Zsolt Prieger in his home. Photo by Bálint Szabó.

We met with Zsolt Prieger, one of the leading figures of Hungarian electronic and experimental pop music at his home in Martonvásár and asked him to share his impressions about how it felt like to grow up in Szombathely, experience the regime change and overcome his unanticipated pop success.

His agility and child-like curiosity reveal a bottomless motivation, leading him to never give up on keeping up with an ever-accelerating world. One would need to grow wings in order to follow his endlessly winding associations.

Interview and photos by Bálint Szabó.

"Let me play" - An interview with Zsolt Prieger

Could you tell us about your first, base influences as a child? What kind of kid were you and how did you experience the ‘70s and ‘80s in Szombathely?

First of all, I would like to emphasise my father’s influence. In my youth, I always had the desire to demonstrate my qualities or a kind of positive compulsion to conform that was basically caused by the clash of my father’s rigour and the exquisitely tender artistic context he provided. He had tremendous expectations and at the same time, he had a kind of tenderness and these two mixed up. The aforementioned desire to show my qualities have always been with me, after my father’s death as well.

What was your father’s profession?

He was a doctor, but a kind of a doctor who would cure my toothache with “The Magic Flute” and in my case it worked like a charm. As a child, I already listened to Bartók and to jazz. I remember my father showing me, on a Bergendy record, the differences between a vocal and an instrumental piece and telling me about instrumentation. The latter, which I would call the “dress of the music”, has always fascinated me.

Getting back to your original question I dare to say that I was a really voracious and curious type of person. I always needed to know everything, I got excited about everything - both pop culture and experimenting, philosophy and dance. I also presented dance performances to my family, ballet with classical music. Or I wanted to be an archaeologist and I dug up my grandmother’s whole garden. I’m like my dog Luna, who gets excited when food is around - as I get excited about everything that includes art and spectacle, or spectacle in spectacle - a phenomenon that has no real substance or message.

How was life in Szombathely1 then? Was it different? Was there any sort of cultural life and open-mindedness there?

If I go back in time I have memories of a megapolis, and since then it has shrunken intellectually. In the first grade of high school, I used to go to the jazz club, or to the conferences of the Parisian Hungarian Workshop with my friend and then bench mate Gábor Pados, now the head of ACB Gallery2. I also attended a Katalin Ladik performance and a concert by István Grencsó’s Masina band at the local cultural centre. In that band played a saxophone player whose son was the co-founder of Anima, besides me and my younger brother. I tend to link these paths and characters not only because I clearly see the beautifully crossing paths of these destinies, but because this feeling of inevitability has always been weaved through my life.

So my life as a child was a real hustle and bustle, bathed in incessant influences. My father used to read aloud the cultural section of the Népszabadság3 newspaper, all the poems by poets from Ferenc Juhász to László Nagy, then on a Sunday afternoon after lunch, we would get into the car and go to the nearby village of Iszkáz, to the pear tree that László Nagy had planted. And we would sit there right under the tree waiting for hours for a ripened pear to fall into our laps.

So my father’s influence, the jazz club, the exhibition room, the conferences of the Parisian Hungarian Workshop and our book and fine arts lover and supporter president of the council, György Gonda. It was not at all usual to have a politician who had built up an art gallery or supported the start of the Bartók Festival, while in other counties like Veszprém the leader wanted to lay dry the Balaton lake. To me, the Bartók Festival was the musical Mecca. There I saw John Cage, Penderecki or Lutoslawski at close quarters - I also have a picture in my head in which András Wilheim, Péter Eötvös and John Cage are sitting in front of a sports house and I’m walking by them eating ice cream. It was absolutely natural that I would be eating ice cream while John Cage was writing a poem to the symphonic orchestra of my hometown. This is what my childhood looked like. I could add it was very special but I guess I would have experienced the same if I lived in Pécs or Debrecen.

You seem to imply that life was better then...

Sometimes I self-flagellate myself for saying such things after the year 2000, but I have to confess that we lived in an amazingly free, network-like and almost modern-postmodern community in the country, while there was a dictatorship indeed. Of course, there were some restrictions - for example, we went to a Beatrice4 concert by train with Gábor Pados and there were some policemen keeping an eye on us. But there was also a mysteriousness, a kind of winking-at-each-other that was a nice thing to live with. I went to Pécs to the Csontváry museum or to music festivals. I hitchhiked to Debrecen on a truck carrying tons of apples to see a concert by Anthony Braxton, György Szabados and Joe Zawinul. This was the first time I saw somebody playing multiple synthesizers at the same time. And it also felt like a prison - from outside it was actually a prison, but inside it felt like cultural embalming where I got influences that still last up until now.

And when did you decide to become a musician?

In the beginning, I didn’t want to be one at all. I wanted to work with theatre and film, but I considered both unaffordable because they needed so much money. And I also realised that someone so impatient as me shouldn’t be a theatrical or film person, because it takes a couple of years to get one piece ready, and that is already too late for me. Anyways, I consider all branches of art as one thing. Like I begged my mother to buy twelve cinema tickets for a Miklós Jancsó series at the Mini cinema of Szombathely. There was actually nobody in the screening room except me and we needed to buy twelve tickets so that they would start the screening. And there was also a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in the film: Tamás Cseh sang and played music and the direction was quite experimental. During the Kádár Era, these kinds of things went together and were not yet separated. I give you an example: at high school, we were all taken to watch the film Csontváry made by Zoltán Huszárik. It’s not a classic film at all, its story is nonlinear, presenting the Kádár Era and the time of Csontváry at the same time. Half of the students were laughing at it but we were watching a film by Huszárik. This was the Zeitgeist, and I don’t think at all that everything was much better, I’d rather say it was completely different. Growing up as a creative person was completely different. All in all, my father, the Zeitgeist, the local events, a tyrant counsellor with good taste, the proximity of Austria - these all contributed to my upbringing and character.

Were there any other musical influences, perhaps from abroad?

For example, there was a radio show entitled Music Box on Austrian FM4 where one could catch acid music from Manchester or a brand new Nick Cave record. Interestingly, I wasn't inspired by these at the end of the ’80s. No matter if there was alternative, punk or new wave culture, I was basically inspired by the influences I mentioned earlier and I made my first materials quite instinctively. We founded our first band ÉV and our record, entitled "Palomar", is thirty years old now. It contained a Jewish cantor’s singing, distorted bass, a recitation to a distant piano playing. By then I hadn’t known the music of Psychic TV or Throbbing Gristle in its depth, but our music had quite a similar vibe.

By the way, getting back to instinctiveness, I think it’s better not to think about creativity, art, creation. The best and the most realistic representation of everything is when we play like little children with whatever is at hand. I never wanted to have more in the Kádár Era, nor today: let me play, that’s all.

What was exactly that kind of condensation that came to life and gave birth to Anima before it exploded? Did you have a higher heat of inner combustion or did it happen due to external changes? Or perhaps a series of lucky coincidences contributed to it?

It was also around the time of the regime change that my social sensitivity was being formed and it did change a lot of things: the holocaust priest on our record “Shalom” or the cassette tape from ‘93, drug liberalization, so many issues of liberalism and its inner problems which wouldn’t have excited me so much if there hadn’t been regime change.

To me the greatest influence at that time was the book “The Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord which later heavily influenced punk and modern arts. This book made a huge impact on me, I could say that to me it was a greater cataclysm than the regime change itself.

From the effects I absorbed I might have tried to put together something new. Surely I did have former inspirations, for example, the spirituality of dub reggae or that kind of mixing technique when ten singers are waiting in Lee Perry’s garden. He makes a basic theme, and each time they get a new version. And I think it was the birthplace of the whole remix culture. It influenced me a lot when we stood around the mixing desk together and the tunes were created out of whatever came out of us. This kind of spontaneity originated from folk music, but I never had to look for folk musicians because I was always surrounded by them. For example, Szilvia Bognár studied singing in the same building where my co-producer Gergely Németh’s mother had her folk lessons, and we rehearsed next to their room. So it happened completely naturally, no matter if professionals used to say how many components Anima had and how meticulously its music was built up. No, this was not the case at all. It was an exemplary case of what I did later.

Zsolt Prieger. Photo by Bálint Szabó.

Was this situation a concrete moment or rather a systematic workshop work?

The latter. In a small village near Szombathely called Gencsapáti, there was a culture house and next to the folk music assembly room of the Vas county there was where we started. It was an unheated toilet room without a lavatory or a toilet, tubes were hanging out from the wall and we rehearsed there for a year. We didn’t quite have any goals, and then came Szilvia Bognár. Anima had already existed, the Prieger brothers used to make music at home so this type of collective seance was completely new. There were a few folk musicians, a half folk-musician half double-bass-player jazz musician who loved Kraftwerk, my younger brother who was a great songwriter, me and an Austrian reggae percussionist. Thanks to him our first concert was in Vienna, where there were shows like Kruder and Dorfmeister or Cypress Hill. It could have been a nice ending but after the regime change, some guys in Tilos Radio fell in love with this multicultural, folkish, melting-pot-like music. Of course, they imagined that this was all consciously invented and well made. Anima was a poignant success, radios and TV shows were playing our music a lot and we were nicely made to fit in some kind of box.

By the way, our band ÉV had a poster in which a man takes off his skin and throws it away, and he stands there with his muscles and veins - it was actually a cutaway image from the Middle Age. And Anima needed to do exactly the same thing to survive. We had the greatest success when I thought as a creator that it was the most boring stuff we ever made. Anima had originally been a music workshop work thing but later became popular as a pop band. David Bowie took off his coat and joined a band named Tin Machine. That’s why I’m always telling people that the name doesn’t need to be changed, what has to be changed is the inner content, you have to throw out the old stuff and start from scratch. It’s a lot more pain, but a lot more excitement.

Can we say that you didn’t look for pop music but pop music finally found you?

Yes, it happened exactly like that. Our hits like Tekerd or Csinálj gyereket were meant to be jokes, but nobody believed me. After so many experimentations it’s normal that you play tunes, and when they become hits - as it turned out in our case -, I tried to escape by starting a new project called Dubcity Fanatikz. I put aside Anima until new members would join and we could start to make something completely new and different.

Looking back to those years, what do you think the aforementioned condensation manifested at its best?

One of my favorite productions is Dubcity Fanatikz, and from that album, Volga is my favorite song, or Bradaz and Sistaz. Or I even think of an even nicer experimental huntechno project, Sword and Scythe.

What have you been listening to, reading and watching recently?

Many many things… I’ve been reading a lot of books by János Térey - due to the piece “Kaddish for János Térey” we made with Franciska Török - for example Boldogh-ház, Kétmalom utca. I’ve been listening to a lot of music, like László Borbély’s coming record this Autumn on which he plays Messiaen’s Catalogue of Birds, or the Goldberg Variations. I listened to six David Bowie records completely unknown to me, like Blackstar, I really loved it. And to tell you the truth I’m not a Netflix fan but “The Devil All The Time” is a magnificent film almost evoking Dostoevsky.

Notes

  1. Szombathely is the 10th biggest city in Hungary, located 220 km from Budapest close to the Austrian border.
  2. ACB is a commercial gallery representing contemporary and Hungarian neo-avantgarde art alike. https://acbgaleria.hu
  3. Népszabadság was founded during the Hungarian Revolution as the successor of the Szabad Nép which was established as the central organ of the Hungarian Working People's Party. Népszabadság was also the main organ of the party.
  4. Beatrice (1969) is one of the most important rock bands of the ’70s-’80s, who played in many genres from disco to punk music.