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sample works > writing > Now We Are Home: Feature interview with Miroslav Wanek of Uz Jsme Doma





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First published in Matte Magazine #3, 2002

Uz Jsme Doma formed in the Czech border city of Teplice in 1986. Their music can be loosely categorized as progressive rock, although they have often been labeled with such diverse adjectives as punk, jazz, and even Slavic tone provocation. But unlike punk and jazz, their music is precisely composed with a frequently shifting line-up continuing the musical legacy by learning to play the band's fierce yet intricate compositions by studying sheet music prepared by Miroslav Wanek, who has been the mainstay of Uz Jsme Doma longer than anyone else, having joined very close to its inception. As of June 2008, the latest incarnation of the band is still touring widely, with a new studio album in the works. This interview was conducted via email for the now-defunct Matte Magazine, edited by Anne Elizabeth Moore. Tizzy Ascher provided additional editorial assistance with this interview. -RZ

ROBERT ZVERINA: Please explain the name Uz Jsme Doma.

MIROSLAV WANEK: [The phrase] Uz jsme doma [oosh-smeh-doe-ma] in Czech has two meanings: one is what a family says when they return from a trip. After a whole day walking, they finally get home, they plunk their bags on the floor, and gasp out: Finally we are home--uz jsme doma! At the same time, it can be what someone says when they finally grasp a meaning that someone has been trying to explain-"Now I understand. Now I get it." Uz Jsme Doma, the band name, was founded under the second meaning, but of course, ideas of home and house prove to be a part of our game, our design, and even our philosophy.

ZVERINA: What is the Uz Jsme Doma philosophy?

WANEK: To stay apart from fashion, to respect very simple things, to understand that art is not a way to show your ego, but your soul. Art is not a way to make your life easy or interesting, it's a service. Tradition (home) is not in conflict with progressivity (trips).

ZVERINA: What does home mean to you?

WANEK: Home is a place where you like to return, where you feel safe because you understand it, and because you grew up there. Home could be a new place, if you find safety there and you connect with it. A house could be a symbol for home, but not necessarily a literal house--that "house" could be the heart or the eyes of a lovely person. It could be a countryside, your national history, or just a dream.

A house is a good symbol, because it's built. That's an important detail about a home. There is a saying: birth a child, build a house, and plant a tree--the three most important things to do for human civilization. The roof is a symbol of human emancipation from nature; and the tree shows humility to nature as well.

ZVERINA: In what sense is art a service?

WANEK: It's a service in two ways. One is that if you have some ability, you're supposed to use it, because maybe no one else has your ability. This is your role, whether you like it or not. You have to take responsibility. And that might affect your lifestyle, which will probably be far away from the picture in other people's minds of how artists live. The second meaning is in humility to art and to your own role--not feeling that you are a chosen one, but a messenger . . . someone who is bringing thoughts to the table, someone who is not too shy to say what other people might feel. Jaroslav Hutka, [a Czech] folk singer who influenced me, wrote beautiful verse about [Czech Republic President and leader of the Velvet Revolution Vaclav] Havel. He knew the nice way to say what other people just thought about. I feel this is a role of artists--kind of self-appointed translation from mute thoughts to words, tones, shapes, or colors.

ZVERINA: Who and what has influenced your work?

WANEK: Musically, I was influenced by the Damned, Ebba Grön, the Dead Kennedys, the Residents, Pere Ubu, Chrome, Art Bears, Uriah Heep, Omega, Flamengo [a Czech band from the 1960s], and many others. But I was never a good listener and I didn't own any [music] player until a few years ago. So my knowledge of these bands is very small. My influences from literature are much stronger.

Your question says, "Who and what," and that "what" is much more important in my life: My grandfather, who started to paint when almost seventy and who bought me my first electric organ, even though he didn't like "loud" rock music. My classmates at glass school in Nový Bor [a Northern Czech city known for its art glass museum and training institute], who played the songs of Jaroslav Hutka for me, which was when I started to respect song lyrics. My girlfriends, who taught my heart pain. And of course the system here . . . stupidity lies everywhere. Living in that huge prison was a big influence on my work and my way of thinking.

ZVERINA: The Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1989 and attempted to block all Western influences from filtering into the country . As invasive as it was, do you think the Soviet occupation helped to preserve Czech culture? What changed when the borders opened and information began to flow more freely?

WANEK: First of all, nothing is worse than the way it was before the Revolution--maybe only war or global disease. That period, when we kept our culture so much our specialties, that was part of the fight with the Communists and Soviet propaganda, which tried to infiltrate our way of life. In the 1950s, it was almost successful. Even now, many minds are germy with "collectivism" and horrible common taste. For some interesting reason, that taste matches the commercial taste from the West. This confirms my long-standing feeling that common people's tendency to lean toward an easy and tasteless lifestyle is (and was) the reason why violence so often wins over decency.

In the 1960s, much of the world was touched by the ideas of freedom and love, and even though the system here used those words often, it didn't like them at all. That strong feeling for the "double meanings" of words has been practiced here for our whole history, especially in the second half of the 20th Century. . . . The Czech sense for irony is very strong. It might be because if you say something in an ironic way, when it looks dangerous, you can always say you were serious--it's difficult to catch you.

Basically, most people here are probably very similar to people in the West or anywhere else, so they don't feel these new influences in culture and lifestyle so strongly, the same way they didn't feel it so strongly under Soviet influence. They just do what is "in fashion," and what helps with easy living. What we are talking about concerns fewer people: a minority of artists, intellectuals, journalists, nationalists, et cetera. This motley group of people fear that some typical and significant things about our culture or way of life are in danger, just as the Soviets tried to erase "national character" and substitute it with Russian-style "internationalism." Now especially, the American lifestyle, with all its love of uniformity, is shown as the only good one. Because of money and power, it spreads all over the world with no respect to local traditions. Of course it cannot be spread without local consumers, and here is the problem--Czech consumers understand American consumers very well and, aside from a few pseudo-nationalistic items like beer, smelly cheese, or drowners [sausages pickled in vinegar], they probably want to be like them. Czech intellectuals are good friends to American intellectuals because they hate very similar things in their own country. Fortunately, in democracy, even minorities have some voice that can be heard. That is another of the artist's roles--to guard culture and individuality.

ZVERINA: What is the connection between violence and an "easy and tasteless lifestyle"?

WANEK: Callousness and using any instrument for your own profit. This lifestyle doesn't cause violence necessarily, but it tolerates it. It's very healthy soil for violence. Violence is a secret standard.

ZVERINA: How did the artistic and basic qualities of your life change after November, 1989?

WANEK: Life changed in all basic points of view, except for human nature. Artistically, if you mean organization of art or the state's fingers intruding into art, there was a big change. Artists (and students) were the first people who took a chance on changing the [Soviet] system. It is no accident that Havel is president and that many artists are still in parliament or in local politics. Instead of daily bothering from communist officers and police (who called themselves "Public Safety"), instead of needing permits for each written word, each played note or each dot of paint, instead of closed borders and mail censorship, artists finally got a chance to work how they always wished. They could travel and show their art abroad or talk about it, and they could meet other artists and get information about what is new outside. Of course, besides all that great freedom, many artists are starting to think about moneymaking and compromises, and many others about what is bad even in democracy for living from artwork.

But again--everything is better than it was before. Basically, it's in your hands now, your decision. If I learned anything from the U.S., it was how to take care of yourself without complaining, which is also kind of a "national" Czech characteristic--to complain.

ZVERINA: You say, "Many artists are starting to think about money-making and compromises, and many others about what is bad even in democracy for living from art work." What do you mean by this?

WANEK: I meant that people start to forget very fast, and it's natural. They have their own problems here and now, and it doesn't make sense to constantly remind them how glad they are now compared to before. Of course, those who want a lot of money have to make compromises, and they made them even before. You can't imagine how absurd situations are: Karel Gott [an pop singer often termed "the Czech Sinatra"] talked in the 1970s at a Communist meeting about how bad dissidents are and how great that system was because it protected people by sending dissidents to jail. Then in 1989, he sang the Czech hymn on the balcony next to Havel. Now, after he made millions thanks to capitalism here, he did an interview with a big subtitle: "New Totalitarianism Is Coming?" Where?

Then there are some artists, especially young and in the beginning, who see the bad faces of freedom and the trade system. And some of them (anarchists) even fight with police. But I repeat--nothing is worse, than it was before.

ZVERINA: With pressure to succeed financially and social trends pushing people towards uniformity in lifestyle, how is the independent artist supposed to survive?

WANEK: Like always. It depends to your own power and will. Pressure makes life difficult and less comfortable, but it's not supposed to induce the message. If you are a postman, you have to deliver the letter. Of course it's nice when the weather is nice and when the consignee is living close and on flat countryside, but sometimes he's living in the desert, sometimes on the mountains far away. Sometimes it rains, and sometimes it freezes. Does it change the postman's job? Not if he understands his role. He has to deliver the letter. People are so fascinated by artists' diaries and biographies, always trying to discover how it was possible, where is the secret, and was it so simple? All artists need to deliver the letter to consignees. Could they throw it away? Sure. Could they escape? Sure. Could they ask someone else to do it? Sure. Many of them do it that way. But some of them do not.

ZVERINA: The Czech Republic will soon join the European Union. How do you feel about that?

WANEK: I like it. I vote "yes." I hate borders, I hate customs. Even though many things will probably be changed by that moment, that result--not having borders, not needing work permits, not dealing with ATA carnets [customs documents that deal with tax- and duty-free imports]--is all great for low prices. I have no idealistic image about European officers and politicians--many of them will be worse and more bureaucratic than they are here or maybe even worse than they were in the communist system, but still, they have no power to kill you, to arrest you, and to check your every step.

ZVERINA: Do you see boundaries as necessary for determining local culture?

WANEK: The freedom of one person ends where freedom for the second person begins, so that boundary is useful. Law is a useful boundary, but of course it depends how the law was founded, if it was formed in democracy or by a dictator. Reciprocating respect, that is a useful boundary.

Local culture is very necessary. Basically, it's almost impossible to erase it because local means from the ground. An example: Some neighbors like to dance on one leg. Then, visitors from the next village like it too, so they bring it to their own village and teach it other people. When the whole country likes it, it becomes a part of the national culture, which in terms of an international point of view, is local. But local is also that little village at the beginning, and if their neighbors still like it, they will do it even if state culture or international culture says, "This is out of fashion," or, "This is barbaric." The problem comes when the state forbids it, when the law of majority tries to kill this innocent little minority happiness. And again--this is one of art's roles, to guard minority rights.

ZVERINA: While much of your work seems distinctly Czech, it also has a tendency to cross language barriers. Why does bilingualism appear more and more often in Uz Jsme Doma's work?

WANEK: Unloved World [Uz Jsme Doma's second album, which liberally mixed English and Czech] was an experiment to see if translation was necessary to bring our music abroad. It was recorded in 1992, and we were not as experienced with traveling as we are now. During that time, I found that the best and most polite thing was to bring our songs to foreign audiences in their original forms. But onstage or in recordings, audiences will get the whole song, including the sound of the language exactly the way it was written. It's also teaching respect for other languages, which, especially in the U.S., might be useful.

My experience with this has only been good. I feel a strong appreciation from American audiences and from other countries too. What is kind of racy is that when we sing in Czech in Belorussia or in Croatia, a lot of people appreciate it as an antidote to all that massive English dictatorship or to local genuflectory artists stupidly singing in English for local people with the feeling of being worldwide.

However, using English (or French or Latin) sentences or words as lyrics is another part of our goal. Sometimes I like the sound of the sentence or sometimes it's a parody of a more commonly known sound. Or, it might be a part of a message inside the lyrics, as in the case of "Cowboy Song." I wanted to bring two people to a song, each from a different part of the world, with different experiences, education, history, and lifestyle, but with very similar dreams and unfortunately with very similar means of pursuing these dreams--complaining in a pub. I don't laugh at these guys. I understand them, even though I don't agree with them. Using two languages helped me to bring two cultures into the characters of these two heroes.

ZVERINA: Since 1986, Uz Jsme Doma have played over one thousand concerts all over the world. How does the response differ from place to place?

WANEK: Borders are really just a technical thing and have nothing to do with people. People are good or bad, sensitive or phlegmatic, open or closed, nice or wise, generous or griping. . . . People are individual. Each of our concerts, no matter where, is visited by some amount of individual people and they act somehow, respond somehow, and collaborate somehow. That's why each concert is unique and special.

Of course there are some differences. Some places we have never played before, so people are surprised. Their responses are usually very ecstatic after few songs. Some places have very different dramaturgy. For example, in Riga, capital of Latvia, we played a disco club with mirrors on the floor and a pole for strippers, and people there were waiting for their entertainment and they were a little bit impatient. Only five minutes after our last note, bodyguards took our equipment and removed it to the outside near our car, so the club would have space for strippers onstage. Also, the strippers were angry that we used their backstage room--which was full of condoms, all of them for some reason XXL size.

In some places, people have biases towards Eastern culture. They don't expect Czech punk bands. But being candid, you'd find very similar reactions in Czech clubs if a Mongolian punk band was advertised on the poster. It just sounds exotic and the principle is iron curtain, isolation from both sides. That's another of our goals for touring--to break that tradition and replace it with permanent knowledge.

There is no place that I don't want to play. It always makes sense. Maybe paradoxically, in those wrong places it's even more important that we play. If you want to change something, you need to talk where change is necessary, not only where all the people agree with you.

ZVERINA: When I first saw Uz Jsme Doma play in 1996, you wore costumes and used funny props onstage. I have also seen photos of elaborate set designs by Martin Velisek. Does Uz Jsme Doma have any plans to return to more theatrical presentation?

WANEK: We used costumes or other special visual presentation for special concerts, like our CD release party or the band's anniversary. One time, we used it for almost a whole U.S. tour, but I felt like I was in uniform and I hate uniform. I hate suits and ties, I hate army or police uniforms--actually I hate any uniform. I was someone who wears a yellow suit just because of a concert. Besides that, I felt that we were doing it in kind of calculating way; we wanted to catch the audience's attention with something funny and frothy, and I didn't feel comfortable with that possibility. I wouldn't have a problem with masks, but the Residents did that first, and it's difficult to play music like we do in masks. We will probably stay with a civil presentation, but with excursions toward "theater" during celebrations, special circumstances, or sometimes just for fun.

One idea we have that seems to be much too expensive is a slide or movie projector connected to a laptop. We wanted to project Martin's art during the concert and bring him into our presentation. But as I said, expensive.

ZVERINA: You have said elsewhere that Uz Jsme Doma are three things: music, words, and visuals. How do these three elements work together?

WANEK: These three things are all just the instruments, the ways to talk. But "the heart" is what is said, or what is attempted. Each instrument has its benefits or drawbacks. Visual art shows the form and colors--it evokes your visual experience. In the confrontation between the painter's visual experience and your visual experience is the tension and dialogue. What is a problematic about visual art is that form usually evokes some entity. That's why modern art tended to abstraction; painters wanted to break that causality and add their own imagination and message. Of course, at that time it started to be impenetrable for many people. Martin Velisek uses some combination of both methods. His pictures are both concrete and abstract, and I like that.

Words, lyrics, poetry--those in my opinion are the most difficult art because you have almost no chance to use abstract words. Each one has its concrete and relatively common meaning. The only way to say something from behind those meanings is in combination, in the order of how you create. At the same time, words are agreements between groups of people. This particular word means some particular thing, but of course each person could have different experiences with usage of that word in different situations connected to very specific happenings in their life. I am not even talking about translations. To write poetry is really to make a snowball from fire.

Music is a space, it's coming from different dimension. It's fully abstract, with no connection to any visual or verbal experience. It's spiritual, metaphysical and of course many times again impenetrable.

I like to use a combination of all these three methods as an instrument for my message. What is a mistake from a lot of critics and audiences is to feel Uz Jsme Doma primarily as a music band. I never really intended that combination: I never wanted to be either musician or poet, but I had something to say and these three things seemed to be a good method of saying it to more people.

ZVERINA: Your own work has included theatrical collaboration with the Residents, a pop-up book with Martin Velisek, and scoring for film and animation. What do these various projects have in common? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of collaboration between art forms?

WANEK: Each thing came independently, but we were always open to any of these collaborations and it's true that we are even investigating other collaborations. What those two projects (and I will add cartoon movies with Aurel Klimt or documents with Vaclav Kucera) have in common is that we met good friends with very similar antenna adjustments. We helped each other finish projects that we couldn't finish independently.

The pop-up book was my project for celebrating Uz Jsme Doma's tenth anniversary (it ended up celebrating the eleventh one). I tried to make a book about the band that wasn't full of sottish photos, stories about how the band met, ("I met John at school, we smoked pot in the toilet, and in between peeing and shitting we got the idea to be rockers . . .") and how often they were drunk or how many girls they took. I wrote a script for each page, and I found that the best form for this "historical information" would be a book with a lot of pictures. I had three choices: an art book with Martin's pictures (collections of posters, covers, T-shirts, etcetera) and some short writings about the band; a comic strip; a pop-up book. I chose the last because it matched the friskiness of our music. Even the form holds information about the band's history.

Of course, without Martin, I could never realize this idea. So the advantage of collaboration having the ability to make something that you can't make yourself. Some people collaborate because they like that double (or triple and more) point of view at the same thing. I am not so good at that part of collaboration, which may be why I don't like to improvise. I prefer the collaboration similar to movie-making or theater--one director, one person behind the camera, one on lights, one on sound. These people cannot do the movie themselves, but without them the movie will be mute and dark. The result of that kind of collaboration is a sum of their work, not just a compromise of feelings. Art is not a political agreement.

ZVERINA: Uz Jsme Doma's lineup has changed many times since 1986, most recently with the departure of founding saxophonist Jindra Dolansky. How will this affect Uz Jsme Doma's sound, both in the studio and in concert?

WANEK: Jindra's departure was a major lineup change, but I feel that the Uz Jsme Doma sound was collected from more than just one color, from many colors, and color changes, and many other things like rhythm, power, energy, fast changes, surprising structures, singing, and combinations. U.S. audiences know us only in this version, but years ago, we played with three saxophones or two, we had a vibraphone permanently onstage. When we started using one sax, there were those who said that the sound would be worse or just not like before. That's true--it's not like before, but that doesn't mean it's worse automatically. I believe that for most people the important point about Uz Jsme Doma lies somewhere else--in the strangeness of the music, in good and powerful energy, in beautiful melodies combined with freaky tempos, nervous guitars, and restless drums. If all that stays the same, is the sound of sax really so important? It's not the same, but what's wrong with that? People can still love their friend even though he is getting older and his hair is white instead of black. The soul and the brain are the same.

ZVERINA: What are you working on now?

WANEK: I finished work on music score for a fairytale called FIMFARUM, written by Jan Werich and directed by Aurel Klimt. Martin Velisek did the design. It will be part of a pentalogy of adaptations of Werich's fairytales and will be shown at cinemas like a full-length movie. I am preparing a double CD of Fourth Place Band (FPB) material, and I will produce a CD by a band from Teplice called Radost (Happiness). Right now, I am preparing for a movie festival where we will play a concert with a violinist and choir. And of course I am working hard on finishing material for our new album, Rybi Tuk.

ZVERINA: What are some of the ideas behind Rybi Tuk?

WANEK: In this country, cod-liver oil used to be (and I think it was the same in the U.S.) a symbol for something very ugly that kids had been fed because someone, somewhere, sometime said, "This is healthy." It doesn't matter if this is true, if they want it, or if they like it. What else is education, what else is official history, what else is law, what else is religion, politics, ideology, fashion, commercials, and customs? Many of these things are useful for people, but it is possible to abuse all of them, and it depends to who is the educator, politician, historian, priest, or judge. People tend to trust everything without thinking--that's the result of a thousand years of religious pressure, trust with no doubts. Especially now in the age of information. When every day you get millions of informations, when each newspaper writes about thousands of things, there is almost no chance to verify truth. Even if you make that effort, the next day it's not important because new information is coming and today's doubts are out of interest. What else people can do, other than just trust what they read? My message is, "Don't be sheep."

ZVERINA: With all the bad news in the world today, what gives you hope?

WANEK: Love.

But I don't think there is only bad news or that there is more bad news than twenty, one hundred, or two thousand years ago. It only has a different quality. Thanks to technology, and journalists seeking newer and newer info with the knowledge that the most interesting (and best saleable) news is bad news, you know immediately about war or car crashes on the other side of the world. But the reality is that people are the same, no matter when and where, no matter if in old Rome, in an igloo, or in a present Czech pub, no matter which nationality or race. Bad news is in equal amounts all the time, and good news as well, even though we don't hear it so often.

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