Bez ladu a skladu interview

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The Slovak band Bez ladu a skladu was established in Trenčín, Slovakia in 1985, and became renowned for their rhythmic, cacophonic music and lyrics which were a veiled and playful critique of the communist regime, as well as their iconic look, with the band wearing black suits, thin ties, white socks and sunglasses, inspired by another Trenčín-based underground band, Chór vážskych muzikantov (CHVM). Over their 12 years of activity, the band performed at numerous underground, semi-official and official events across Czechoslovakia (as well as beyond it) alongside underground / alternative bands of the period. Their four studio albums were released after the fall of the regime. The group disbanded in 1997. Here, we talk to Michal Kaščák, Bez ladu a skladu's emblematic frontman - who was 13 when the group started - about their musical journey.

You grew up and began your musical journey in Trenčín, a relatively small town in Western Slovakia near the Czech border. Why do you think such a particular music scene emerged there?

It’s all due to a couple of people – CHVM (Chór vážskych muzikantov, a Slovak underground band) in this case. They started to perform very interesting concerts. These were not your usual gigs, but more like happenings, where they also invited other bands to perform. CHVM played music differently to what people had been used to in Trenčín. Luboš Dzúrik, the leader of CHVM, started to distribute banned and non-official music mainly from the Czech underground and alternative scene within the country. His illegal “catalogue” also included our band, Bez ladu a skladu. There was a military base in Trenčín, and a lot of families from all over the country moved there, parents – usually the father – who had a higher-ranking position in the army. Those kids had a strict upbringing and started to rebel against their parents and authority in general. At the same time, Trenčín was very much a communist city. Later, in the 90s, this translated into Trenčín becoming a bastion of Mečiarism (the rule of the authoritarian PM Vladimír Mečiar), and Smer (the party of the former Slovak PM Robert Fico). The army had already been stationed there during the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. It was a strong stronghold of the Tiso fascist regime during the Slovak State in the 1930s. Several authoritarian systems left their mark on the history of Trenčín. This authoritarian pressure was countered by a certain part of the city's population. This is how CHVM emerged, and they greatly inspired others, including our band. I'm glad this goes on to this day.

CHVM had a distinctive appearance – with black suits, white shirts, ties and sunglasses. It seems their image also had an impact on you.

To an extent. I had only seen CHVM once before we started playing concerts. This was in 1981 at the first edition of Gympel Rock, where my oldest brother took me. It was at this event, after having seen CHVM, that I had an epiphany and decided I wanted to do something similar. They seemed otherworldly. I had never heard music like that until then.

What sort of venues did they play?

There was a cinema called Hviezda (Star), which incorporated a club called Lúč (Ray), where they used to play. They also organized several concerts at cultural houses in the countryside. They were in a similar position to us and all the bands in the communist block – they had to have their music approved by a committee. Lots of their gigs got cancelled, some were approved. They organized these village gigs in order to play more.

So they were allowed by the government?

Yes, more or less so. Sometimes there were events organized by people without having an official stamp of approval. CHVM also had a following in Bratislava.

There were bands which operated in the underground, in stark opposition to state sanctioned musicians, and which never crossed over to the other side, so to speak. How did this fluctuation from the official to the unofficial scene look like back then?

There was something like a “grey zone” with artists that had official permission, but with a lot of issues with authorities like banned songs, prohibited concerts, regional bans, … This included the alternative scene from Trenčín, Brno, or the punk scene from Bratislava. In Slovakia, we didn't have a strong underground movement and scene like the one around the Plastic People of the Universe, DG307, Dvouletá fáma etc in Czechia. There had been a scene around Marcel Strýko (a Slovak artist, philosopher, dissident), but it was musically insular. I only found out about (underground band) Nace from Košice long after 1989, and it wasn't because we weren’t interested, much the contrary, we were searching for any band that didn't fit in. Nace never had the ambition for anything bigger than gigs at their cottage. But there had been no music underground per se in Slovakia. Us, CHVM and to a large extent, punk bands, tried to pass the evaluation of the state-led committee in order to be able to play. We expected that communism would last forever, so we prepared “innocent” songs for those official “state checks”... I must say that it was the worst experience in my artistic life. We felt humiliated, we got through that only thanks to sarcasm and humour. There were a lot of jokes about the communist regime and official representatives in polyester suits... I admire people like Mikoláš Chadima, a Czech musician and underground activist from Prague, who categorically refused this. There is a very interesting story about The Plastic People of the Universe - after their trial in 1977, they completely resigned on any deal with the state. But in the beginning, for a short while, they were a “professional”, permitted band, and this only started to change during the Normalization. In the late 80s some part of the scene around PPU initially tried to get approved by official committees - the hunger to play was simply too strong.

How did your musical path evolve from those early days?

When we started with the band, we hadn't been aware that we needed to get permission from these government juries. We played the first three gigs freely, then CHVM brought us along. In Bratislava, we played with the Czech band E! whose manager Lenka Zogatová saw our concert and subsequently invited us to play at Rockfest in Prague (an official music festival that took place between 1986 and 1989). So our 6th gig was already at Rockfest, which was paradoxically organized by the Union of Socialist Youth. This is quite fascinating, because alternative and punk – not underground - bands like Ještě jsme se nedohodli and Hrdinové nové fronty also played at Rockfest. A few Czech bands refused to play there – incl. Chadima – but they were in the minority. As I said, everyone thought the regime would last forever, and they were also hoping for a certain relaxation of the regime.

Later, we found out we needed to get approved by these government juries in order to be able to play, and we received the lowest category and didn't try it again. Every band had to have their “official founder - representative”, ours was the City Cultural Centre in Trenčín, where there was a person allocated to us. We were lucky it wasn't some factory or impersonal institution, but a young guy who became our so-called manager. His duties involved sending lyrics to the particular Slovak Communist Party committee, which evaluated them, and sending organizers a list of songs which could and which couldn't be played. Recording was illegal and so was the distribution of these recordings, but nevertheless, it did happen. CHVM's Ľuboš Dzúrik played an important part in this, as he sent out recordings across Slovakia. A lot of concerts were cancelled due to so-called technical reasons. We also had quite a lot of cancelled gigs, or songs, for that matter. Sometimes we'd play those, sometimes we didn't. Especially in the Czech Republic, the organizers told us we could play whatever we wanted (and they would take responsibility).

Your tracks such as “Udavač” (Informant), “Píšte všetci modrým perom” (Everyone Write With a Blue Pen) included lots of allusions and allegories that could be interpreted as critical to the regime.

“Udavač” is my own ironic text about informants, whom we considered simply awful. Of course, it referred to the secret police. I was inspired by my older brother who said I should write a song about informants. As a band, we wanted to play as freely as possible. “Píšte všetci modrým perom” was obviously an anti-totalitarian text. We had very open discussions with our father who never liked the regime. There was also my oldest brother (the other one was with me in the band) who had been in touch with CHVM's Dzúrik and the vibrant Trenčín music community. He provided us with – via Dzúrik - samizdat literature, as well as underground music on tapes (the Plastic People of the Universe, Dybbuk, Ještě jsme se nedohodli, etc).

You were around 15, 16 at this time?

When we started, I was 13 years old.

In one interview you mentioned you were protected by your age and the fact that you lived in a relatively small town.

Yes, this is what I think now in retrospect. How else would it be possible that we were able to play gigs and even managed to land on the (Slovak state-run) Opus label to record an album (which was released in 1990, after change of the regime). I think being from a small town had some sort of protective element to it. My father was a doctor who treated a lot of people and being a sought after internal medicine specialist meant a lot. This is what I think, but of course it doesn't have to be the reason. In terms of age, to persecute 13, 15-year-olds is a bit different to doing it to those in their twenties.

Did you encounter any issues as a band?

Some of the basic issues were cancelled gigs. We often found out about these cancellations on the spot, after having travelled across the country to get to these gigs. There were also banned songs. We only had one regional ban, in the East Bohemia Region, when we performed at a festival in Lipnice in 1988 straight after Václav Havel's speech. Most of those who performed at this event ended up being banned in this one region for a certain period of time.

Did you have any issues at school?

Sometimes. The guys would be called to the headmaster's office. But we perceived these issues as something quite ordinary. I remember our headmaster accusing us of being fascist because we had thin black ties, but this was absurd.

In Prague, various bands stemming from the nascent postpunk / new wave scene emerged in the early 80s, including Dybbuk, Máma Bubo, Garáž, etc. Were you influenced by any of them?

We were mostly influenced by CHVM, those recordings were the only ones we had at home. Later we got our hands on Dybbuk, Krásné nové stroje, Garáž, E!, Ještě jsme se nedohodli. We were surely influenced by the Czech alternative scene. In Slovakia, there was a thriving punk scene in Bratislava, though we were much closer to the Czech scene, the one in Brno, in particular.

In 1988, the Čertovo kolo music festival took place in Bratislava. Perhaps a sign of times, and the loosening of the state-controlled power grip, several alternative bands from the whole of Czechoslovakia performed here, including Bez ladu a skladu. How do you recollect this event?

Čertovo kolo was a miracle, especially considering that for instance our band faced the most difficulties in Bratislava. We had been thrown out of clubs, we actually couldn't even stay within the club's premises. The unique connection between Agnes Snopko and Paľo Maruščák was what propelled the whole thing - one of them being a student, the other an archaeologist and organizer who operated in a certain grey zone. He managed to bring us together with Jiří Stivín and Jozef Jankovič, who was more or less a banned author and visual artist. Čertovo kolo was a mixture between a student event – the main organizers were students around Maruščák – and Agnes who had good connections to the Czech scene. I'm not sure how they managed to bring Půlnoc – as descendants of the Plastic People of the Universe - to play. Půlnoc in a sports hall seemed incredible. Interestingly, Joan Baez was invited to play at (Czechoslovak festival of popular music, the largest music festival in Czechoslovakia until 1990) Bratislavská lýra (upon invitation of Agnes Snopko). I'm not sure who stood on the other side, and whether it was ignorance on their part or some sort of effort to loosen up.

These were official events.

Yes, similarly to Rockfest, and both of the Čertovo kolo festivals. At Slovrock, (Czech rock band) Pražský výběr played in 1987 as far as I remember, and this was one of their first larger gigs after their long-term ban. This was organized by the city. I think the international context is also interesting: in Poland, the scene more or less functioned freely, Hungarians had foreign bands and stadium concerts. All of those who lived either in the south or north of Slovakia or Czechia reminisce how they would listen to Polish or Hungarian radios. We sometimes managed to catch the Austrian ORF broadcaster or Radio Free Europe. The situation in the neighbouring countries – even the communist ones – was significantly better than in Czechoslovakia. The Čertovo kolo festivals happened at a time when everywhere else the situation was even more relaxed in this respect. At the time, I felt the regime in Czechoslovakia was the strictest, and for a long time it seemed that we perhaps would remain the only ones where it wasn't going to change either.

You played at the famous Jarocin festival (biggest alternative music festival in the Warsaw Pact countries) in Poland as well as in Minsk in the 80s. What was the connection between the East European scenes? Did you have any connection other than to Czech underground affiliates in the neighbouring countries?

To an extent, we were connected to the Polish scene largely because we were able to get hold of recordings of Polish punk bands. It wasn't as connected as I would expect though. We didn't catch the Polish radio. And only the pop bands were distributed officially here. Our main music source, CHVM's Ľubo Dzúrik, focused on the Czechoslovak scene and a few names from the US new wave (Talking Heads, King Crimson, etc). I didn't have a good overview about the music scenes in other socialist countries. We were aware of some Russian bands like AVIA. When it comes to Jarocin, it was largely thanks to Paľo Maruščák, who organized all of our Polish gigs.

What were your impressions of Jarocin?

It was an incredible experience. It seemed unreal in a communist bloc country. There were some bands from the so-called capitalist West. The vibe was amazing. There were lots of punks there, which was fairly unusual to us. When we played in Poland with (Polish punk band) Dezerter, we hadn't sent our lyrics for approval to anyone. It was much more relaxed. But this was our view, who knows how the Polish bands felt about it, but from what I know, they had a much easier existence than us.

How did the other alternative / underground bands perceive you? You were some of the youngest on the scene at the time.

Much better than we expected. When we went on tour with Dezerter, we were slightly worried as we weren't a punk band. But it worked.

It was one of my most remarkable experiences that the bands and people from the alternative scene never called us “the young boys from Trenčín”; it was always “the band from Trenčín”. We never felt that we had some advantage because of our age. They considered us equal. We felt very close to the Brno scene, mainly thanks to promoter and activist Lenka Zogatová, who was something like a “mother” figure to many alternative bands, including ourselves. We were good friends with Dunaj, Dybbuk, Z kopce, Laura a její tygři, Krasné nové stroje, etc. The scene was very inclusive. We also played at folk and punk events. There was a feeling of togetherness and the scenes supported each other. The only thing that wasn't tolerated was collaboration with the regime.

Since you were protected by age, you weren't affected?

We had a few experiences with the secret police. Some of the band members were interrogated, we had a lot of bans, all our recordings were done illegally, but we never experienced what the Prague bands did. We were not imprisoned like members of The Plastic people of the Universe, Sváťa Karásek, Pavel Zajíček or folk musician Vlasta Třešňák, we were not forced to emigrate from the country like Vráťa Brabenec and many others. Banned lyrics and forbidden shows were something we got used to live with.

How did you view the various musical subcultures in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s? There were two big groups – those who were into Depeche Mode and those into metal.

There were these two main groups you mentioned, followed by those who were into Bros, Duran Duran and mainstream music, basically. We were fortunately completely outside of it… The other subcultures were bound by a sense of togetherness. As I mentioned, we played both folk and punk events without any issues. Our only conflict was with metal fans in Trenčín. We didn't really understand why. But we've made up since.

Did you feel like you belonged to any particular subculture?

Yes. We called it the “alternative scene” and we had a strong sense of belonging to this Czechoslovak scene, primarily the Czech alternative one. There were a few like-minded bands in Slovakia such as Karpatské chrbáty and later Teória odrazu, but we felt best with bands like Dunaj, E!, Ještě jsme se nedohodli, Dybbuk.

This connection worked despite the geographical distance?

Yes, Czechoslovakia wasn't too big. Lenka Zogatová helped us organize gigs in Czechia. Most of our gigs actually took place there.

How did you perceive 1989, the end of the Iron Curtain and the Velvet Revolution?

It was a miracle. I still consider it one of the most compelling public moments ever. We released an album which we had been recording, followed by another one which was completely different – joyous, buoyant, full of excessive euphoria. After the release of this second album, we started to play abroad in Germany, France, the Netherlands.

The New York Times ranked you among bands that contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

I liked this description. It sounds like something from a Hollywood movie, the Americans like to exaggerate… We played at an amazing event in New York – the 20th anniversary of 1989 – and NYT wanted to promote this event to their American readers by mentioning all these bands as those that contributed to the change of the regime. We can say that art played an important role in the anti-totalitarian movement in communist countries, but there were also other important elements and people. If someone had asked us in 1988 if we were involved in the fall of the regime, we would answer that we don't hold ourselves so highly.

You went on to release a studio album in 1994, what happened after?

We finished school. We took the period before and after the release of our third album very seriously. We rehearsed three times a week. We played extensive tours in France, we got quite successful. But all of this required a lot of time. Suddenly, we didn't have enough of it, and we were obsessed with being a real band. We sat down and talked about whether we would really try to make it as a professional band or end it. We couldn't imagine the middle ground. In retrospect, I think this was probably a mistake. We could have done our jobs and played at the same time. We continued playing until 1997 and stopped after.

The 90s themselves were interesting with the post-communist transition and turbulent transformation of society.

It was a very interesting period, and I am thankful for that. The transformation in 1989 was really a miracle - even if people stopped going to concerts for a while because everyone was following politics. What was a very important step for music, an independent club scene emerged in Czechoslovakia - in Slovakia with a big delay in comparison to Czechia. We were very naive and expected that freedom would bring us only positives. But freedom is for anyone, including nationalists and other groups of “strange” people. I am sorry that Czechoslovakia split in 1993. In the second half of the 1990s we went through Mečiarism (Vladimír Mečiar, autocratic prime minister), it was a 'golden era' for the mafia. In 1998, there was a campaign against Vladimír Mečiar and we played a few gigs at those events. Pohoda Festival (the music festival Michal Kaščák founded and still directs) was part of the whole campaign. We - as society - succeeded, we could have become another Belarus if that wouldn't have happened. Later in the 90s, festivals started to pop up, there were new media outlets, labels, new bands. Some people, mainly from the mainstream, call the 80s the golden era of Czechoslovak music. I think that only cynical people can call the regime with imprisoned musicians a golden era. I'm glad we can experience the free music scene with everything that it means. It is a great adventure.