Interview at The Quietus
On the launch of their third LP, the ironically titled Jolly New Songs, Brendan Telford speaks to Polish avant-punks Trupa Trupa’s Grzegorz Kwiatkowski about forsaking democracy for collective creativity, dark histories and the disconcertion of happenstance.
It’s been something of a long slog for me this week – a new job, packing up and moving out of the one-bed rising-damp-and-arsehole-neighbours flat I lived in in South London for four years and moving into a new place in the dark heart of Nottinghamshire, all with a mewling three month old girl in tow. This isn’t me complaining – it’s all context. Because when I finally get hold of Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, member of Polish post-punk-no-wave-psych-rock malcontents Trupa Trupa, I am heavily laid down with mucus and medication, rundown and broken. We have been trying to get our planets to align for a couple weeks. I expect frustration, anger, disdain, contempt. Instead, I get gracious civility. “This is the most important year of your life, no? So you need to take your time to make sure your baby grows up to be the best she can be.”
A tenuous analogy here (and one I’m sure my daughter won’t especially enjoy when she gets older) but Kwiatkowski and the other members of Trupa Trupa – Tomek Pawluczuk (drums), Wojtek Juchniewicz (voc, guitar) and Rafał Wojczal (keys, guitar) – must feel the same. The four-piece have spent five years crafting an aesthetic that spans genres and eras, from Sonic Nurse-era Sonic Youth to an electrified and frothing Pere Ubu, an esoteric Slint or a Lynchian take on Siouxsie & The Banshees, which culminated in the critically acclaimed second album Headache in 2015.
That album, pushed out into the world by the normally avant garde/ electronic/ noise/ ambient trail-blazers Blue Tapes, was an immediate slice of melted influence and frayed synapses, traipsing manically from 60s rock deconstructions to post-punk pealings and no-wave wrecking balls, all tied together with intelligence and brio. It was a truly breathtaking album as notable for its breaths as for its blusters, and the world (well, the chosen few) held its collective breath to see what would be borne forth next.
Yet as any creative tends to look at their work as something of a birth and Jolly New Songs (also through Blue Tapes) has been gestating for quite some time, almost two years, the excitement and anxiety and relief that comes with such labours of love lie heavy on Kwiatkowski as its birthday looms – October 27.
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: We liked Headache and we still like Headache, so we are not so arrogant or self-assured enough to believe that anything that came afterwards would live up to it. There was so much positive feedback for Headache, so it was a joyful time for us. That said we were very tired because there was so much that came along surrounding that nice feedback, a lot more than we ever expected, and it was great but it really took it out of us. We started to write new songs, then one year exactly after the premiere of Headache we said to each other, “Are we ready for another baby? Another Headache?” We respect the Headache baby but we felt it was too exploited in a way. So this time we tested this new album on many people first, on our friends and journalists, people at festivals, as because it is part of us it is difficult to see if we were making Headache part two. We see us as evolutionary, not revolutionary. We didn’t want to change outright – but we wanted to step forward, evolve.
Jolly New Songs could take on many different meanings as a title. The phrase itself could be seen as jocular, even pantomime-esque, certainly here in the UK anyway, and yet it’s something of a misnomer as many of the tracks on here aren’t joyful at all. How then do you think that phrase encapsulates what’s happening on the album?
GK: In the past we have always had problems giving names to our albums, mainly because we find that things could mean different things to each of us. So we refused to name them – our first EP is called EP, our first album is just called LP. Our second album was called ++ or Cross Cross because it was the (image on the) cover. When Headache arrived we couldn’t see how we couldn’t give it a name, so came up with a new challenge – whatever we all thought was the best track would become the name of the album. So with Jolly New Songs it wasn’t anything intentional. On the other hand we often have done things unconsciously without considering the step, so it has transformed into something else. Not only is it paradoxical – it isn’t jolly at all, but sad – but it is somewhat lighter an album that Headache is, as those songs carried a lot of darkness.
Can you elaborate on the darkness of the songs? Is it in the composition, the rhythm…
GK: Some of the songs we see as march songs. ‘Never Forget’ obviously. ‘Jolly New Song’ also. There is this movement we really like, Franz Schubert’s Lieder Winterreise (Winter Journey), very short German songs, and I thought aspects of the songs on the album have this aspect of fighting, yet in the same way full of energy and full of joy.
There is a clear disparity between the albums on the first listen; with Headache there was this restless sense of urgency, something that has somewhat been laid aside on Jolly New Songs. Yet nothing is truly joyous or indeed clear-cut on the new album, which undercuts any sense of immediacy. Headache really hits you sonically, a kinetic blast, while this one is far more insidious that gets under the skin. Was that part of that evolutionary process, to take what was successful with Headache and juxtapose it with more subtle, dissimilar methods? It is imbued with unease, therefore making it difficult to describe the journey it takes you on.
GK: While we were testing this new material on everyone – friends, family, musicians, journalists, owners of labels – it isn’t common that 95% of the feedback is the same, yet with Jolly New Songs everyone says that there wasn’t the aggression that was in the last one, that you needed to listen two, three times, maybe even four times, to truly get it. But not because it was hard to understand but because there is an atmosphere built into the songs that is hard to describe, and it lingers. Conclusions change about the album the more it is listened to. But strangely we as members faced the same problem. In the past making a track listing has been really easy, it falls into place. With this, every member envisioned the track listing in a different way. The songs lend themselves to interpretation far more than Headache does or even could. There is this book by Julio Cortazar, an Argentinean writer who lived in France, where you could read it in any order you want (Hopscotch) . So to settle it for the album, we chose the track listing in alphabetical order. So the listener can see that. But really our producer (Michał Kupicz) sent us the masters in alphabetical order and that spoke to us in another way, to choose the order as accident. A very strange compromise but we were satisfied. This shows that it is a strange album, and we respect it, but of course are really open to other voices (to interpret it).
Some of the songs feel quite nebulous; not that they are half-formed, more like a spectre or ghost, haunting the listener. Songs seem to be getting going, building, exploding, and then they are gone again. Yet the next song starts and the whisper of the last doesn’t leave you, your mind is still processing what has happened beforehand.
GK: I think that most things that happen in the band come through accidents. We promise ourselves never to be bored at rehearsals and to be satisfied with that. I think we are testing many things all of the time, so nothing becomes fixed in place, we are always shifting. There are four members of Trupa Trupa but it is really rare in the band that there is a fully democratic idea from the band. For us we see ourselves something like Fugazi, where every member is a composer, every member has a distinct voice, every member is author and owner of their lyrics. Every member has particular tastes and listens to different kinds of music. For me, the most important music is the classical style of music you know, Glenn Gould, as well as the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. For Wotjek who also is singing it is the Swans, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, more the New York avant garde scene. Rafal (guitar) is more a fan of Elliott Smith… So when we meet each other, we never have time to make one proper vision, so we are carrying these backgrounds with us. Maybe that is why what we are catching is very strange. We can come together with a song but it is just the body, like architecture, like sketches. We build from the musical blocks that we have.
It is such a diverse melting pot musically, but you are also well steeped in things literary seeing as you are a recognised and published poet. In the press notes it’s stated that Walt Whitman was an influence on the last song on the album, ‘To Me’. Were there other literary or political influences that helped with the building of these songs from architectural sketches to Jolly New Songs?
GK: There are many paths taken, and can be taken, through the lyrics of this record. They come often from very dark and very pessimistic situations, and the people of Gdansk where we are from. It is in the north of Poland by the sea and is best known because the Second World War started here. On the other hand the solidarity that came about for the people of Gdansk informs it as well. On the other hand one of the world’s greatest pessimists in Arthur Schopenhauer was born here. These are all influences without even thinking about them. And for many years, centuries, Gdansk was not part of Poland but more of a free city, a port, with these shipyards, a gateway to the world, something like Hamburg or Liverpool. So Gdansk has always had a history of spreading new ideas. But there are many other influences on this album, most of which take things at a dark angle. ‘Never Forget’ – there are not many songs about the Holocaust and Shoah. My grandfather was a prisoner in a concentration camp not far from Gdansk, and many Polish people were in or have direct relationships with people who were in concentration camps. Poland is the site of the world’s biggest genocide. On the other hand my grandfather was also a German soldier in Wehrmacht, so there are very complicated histories here and they leave impressions on us, they mark us. But again, these are just songs. I would like people just as much to treat the songs just as songs. I don’t like to talk at length about famous artists or events in history because it may inform me and what I do but it may make a song into a situation that can only come at in a particular way or with a particular idea in mind.
Even if you divorce the songs from these totemic influences, the sonic palette you have created is not so discerning that anyone will be led down the same aural path. The genre staples – post punk, psych rock, noise rock, the avant-garde, the influences you have mentioned already – can lead to very different interpretations. Christian Eede, from tQ, reviewed ‘To Me’ and described it as “triumphant”, and the presser from Blue Tapes & X-Ray Records describes elements as “anthemic” – and outside the slipstream of the album perhaps it is. But for me the album subverts those mainstream signifiers to the point where ‘To Me’ comes across more as a sly counterpoint to what we would expect crossover songs to be…
GK: See, it is what you want it to be (laughs). The word anthemic – what does it mean? To me I don’t – is it religious? A national anthem? ‘To Me’ could be powerful, and I don’t want to say it isn’t, but to me it isn’t. Others have compared us to psychedelic music and no-wave, or mentioned bands like Swans, Shellac, Slint, Beak>… Nothing we do is conventional, like a rock song structure, which is what I think of as anthemic. But then what do I know?
You write the songs!
GK: It’s not what I think, I think we are a deconstructive rock situation. But people hear what they hear.
Very pragmatic of you! Well let me tell you how I listened to this album. You sent me a couple different versions of Jolly New Songs quite a few months ago now, so I have listened to it often. So the final listing has been somewhat disorienting to me, because after the dark journey that you take me on, ending with ‘To Me’ – I can’t work out if it’s a tip of the hat to hope, or if it’s more of a brainwashed downer denouement, something Orwell or Bradbury or Levin would concoct, like Rosemary’s Baby (which incidentally I watched on mute while listening to this album a couple months ago), where such a landscape of murkiness and uncertainty breaks you down in a sort of “if you can’t beat them, join them” kinda way. I can’t shake the unnerving feeling that, in the context of the album, having these moments of pop lightness only serves to subvert notions of hope, a sucker punch ending to a dystopian story where the protagonist hasn’t broken free at all but is very much a cog in the machine. Now I may be in a totally unique position in how the album makes me feel, but that unsettling nature makes me return the needle to the beginning. That sort of grotesque emotion and the Self, it’s unnerving yet utterly transfixing.
GK: Yes! To be truthful I have been pushing for such a hypothetical outlook (in the music) because ‘To Me’ becomes a sly wink, a slap to the audience to wake up, you’re wrong, there is something else going on here. Michael Haneke, a great Austrian film director, for me the album is positioned in this downward position so that the ending comes out like a Haneke film. It could be seen as one thing, but hopefully it can be seen as a perverse version of something more conventional. You mention Rosemary’s Baby and to me this is very much a movie album. ‘Love Supreme’ for example is very much similar to Roman Polanski, offering sound for a creepy horror movie. It’s cinematic in a very graphic sort of way.
I have been really floored by this album, but it is one that has crept up on me, like the best paranoid slowburn horrors of Haneke, Polanski and even Ti West of recent times, a subliminal listen. It feels like a slanted way to appreciate an album…
GK: As band members we had really similar reactions to how the music was coming about. We were coming up with ‘Only Good Weather’ and we looked at each other and said, “What the fuck? What are we singing, what are we playing? It’s stupid!” But we felt there was something to it, so we kept it. And then we came up to the second part of the song, the disaster part, and we were even surer that there was something to this, even if we didn’t know what ‘this’ was. Which made us happy because it isn’t easy to make not obvious guitar based psychedelic music anymore. What we have ended up with on Jolly New Songs are songs that are kinda traditional, but on the other hand are soundtrack songs, on the other hand they are like ‘Never Forget’ with this strong story about a death camp, on the other hand they are ghost songs for a kitschy horror film. I know I shouldn’t be so positive about the songs because I cannot be objective, but I can say we liked it but we were really interested in what everyone else’s reactions would be, in the way the songs kinda freaked us out also.