A Glitch in the System: An Interview with Grzegorz Kwiatkowski / Culture.pl
How is it that a small psychedelic band from Gdańsk has fans that include Henry Rollins and journalists from ‘Pitchfork’ and ‘Time’ magazine? Culture.pl’s Filip Lech speaks to Trupa Trupa frontman Grzegorz Kwiatkowski.
Filip Lech: Trupa Trupa was a small psychedelic band with a decent reach among media and listeners. You performed at a few festivals until Blue Tapes and X-Ray Records noticed you – a small boutique label in England. Now you have reviews of your music in the Chicago Tribune and Rolling Stone; you play shows across Europe and North America. How did all this happen?
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: It’s weird because we don’t seem to have some of the traits necessary for this to happen: It’s just some guy singing, waving a pot above his head and wearing some kitschy golden lace on his pants. I won’t dare to describe my bandmates, but I think that together we don’t look quite exciting, but perhaps we fit into the category of bizarre. Of course, the most important thing is the music, although even it has similar aspects and in this way, Trupa Trupa seems like a glitch in the system. This misunderstanding may seem interesting to a lot of people. Most of all it’s interesting to us [laugh].
FL: Do you translate the name Trupa Trupa when you play abroad?
GK: No, because for many people it seems more interesting in Polish. Sometimes people translate it as ‘Dead Body, Dead Body’ or ‘Corpse, Corpse’. Either way we didn’t have much of an idea for our name. It’s our biggest blessing – there are four of us and we have four different ideas. There’s an air of chaos and democracy, it’s difficult to reach a consensus, but it works. The inability to define ourselves helps. There are plenty of bands who have their own vision, image and message. We’ve been helped along through some luck, as well as asking questions instead of giving answers.
FL: You said that the band is democratic and that you’re not the leader, but you are almost always the one who speaks for the band. Could you introduce us to your friends?
GK: We don’t have a leader, I’m just the most talkative. If I were to become the leader, my friends would leave the band. I try to convince them to do media appearances every once in a while, but they’re not too eager. I work with media so I understand how to communicate well. I think that they have an appropriate perspective and when they read Sasha Frere-Jones’s article calling us ‘one of the best rock bands in the world’, they react with laughter bordering on irritation. And that’s good. It’s an appropriate balance.
Trupa Trupa is made up of a diverse group. Wojciech Juchniewicz is the bassist, vocalist and co-writer. He is also a painter and a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, much like Tomasz Pawluczuk – they lived together during university. Rafał Wojczal is a filmmaker and photographer. You might have seen his short documentary Ra-ba-ba-ba, which he made with Ania and Adam Witkowski about their meeting with Adam’s father. I’m a poet, and my new book Karl-Heins M. recently debuted.
FL: What does your hometown of Gdańsk mean to the band?
GK: Every member of the band would answer that question differently, and the same goes for every question you’ve asked. For me, the city has a huge influence on me, which I didn’t realise for many years because I was convinced I was perfectly isolated. My influences included my family situation, as well as the city and military situation, since the Stutthof concentration camp was only a few dozen kilometres away from Gdańsk.
A few years ago, alongside Rafał Wojczal, we found almost half a million shoes from the concentration camps, since Stutthof was a central location for most of Europe. In Stutthof, they took the leather off of shoes, which was then used to repair clothing and military items. We’re fighting with the museums to do something about it. That is, we’re not fighting with people, just the situation. After a few years of ridiculous bureaucratic shuffling they came up with their own absurd idea – after pressure from Polish and international media, they decided to collect the shoes and they decided to bury them alongside a statute commemorating the victims on the museum’s grounds. I’m against this. In accordance with Georges Didi-Huberman’s book Images in Spite of All, I believe that artefacts should be exhibited. They should be visible. The museum decided to bury them. They’re hiding them again.
My grandfather and his sister were both in the camps. This experience buried them. After the war, she went crazy and he became a quiet, hidden man, which, in a certain way, carried on to my father and me. Visits to the museum with my grandfather raised ethical questions within myself. In a certain sense, I never outgrew this childhood phase, where I played with toy soldiers and so on. Westerplatte was my favourite place as a child.
Two of my friends from the band came [to Gdańsk] to study. It seems to me, that for them, the world of music is the world of music. I don’t think they would say that this town has a particular influence on them. They wouldn’t talk about the history, the beach, the Tri-City bands. The beaches are nice, but the Gulf of Gdańsk is claustrophobic to me, lacking the space of the open sea. Although nature is important to us. In the Tri-City, we have beautiful forests.
FL: You talk about Gdańsk so grandiloquently, so I’ll ask my question in the same manner – what of Poland?
GK: Just a few years ago, I thought that Trupa Trupa could have been founded in England, the Czech Republic, Latvia – I no longer think that. I think that we’re a very Polish band. Our crookedness, our experience outside of the system – a weed like this could only exist in Gdańsk, in Poland. Part of this was that we weren’t informed that we were under-financed, that we wouldn’t land in the hands of incredible managers; that stopped us from being moulded into the appropriate shape. The fact that we’re so comfortable with mistakes and messes comes from our backstory. From the fact that we have been devastated by partitions, world wars, communism. This affects the psyche of families, an entire generation, even if we’re not aware of it.
Wasteland, emptiness. Only this emptiness isn’t the intellectual posing of a coffee shop philosopher from a rich family, it’s something greater. It’s a place where one of the largest genocides in human history was enacted. Poland maintains the air of a graveyard. As a nation, we’re so enamoured with death that we constantly dance with it. I think this is reflected in Trupa Trupa’s music. We have a lot of songs about death, but not because that was the idea for the band. It simply hangs in the air, and we absorb it like a sponge. These things affect Trupa Trupa: democracy, the fact that we’re from Gdańsk, where World War II began, even the birth of ‘Solidarity’. So it might be how I describe it, or perhaps not. Trupa Trupa’s music is born from all these perspectives.
FL: Listening to your albums, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the fifth member of the band is Michał Kupicz – your producer. His influence is very distinctive, recognisable in several Polish bands’ music.
GK: He has a huge influence on our music; from our chaos, he brings out interesting conclusions. I would compare him to George Martin, although we’re obviously not the Beatles. He records us, then mixes our sound to suit his needs. Usually, we’ll ask for minor changes, but most often it turns out that he’s right. When he mixed the album Headache, we disagreed about many things, saying that the sound wasn’t us. It took us a while to become used to it, although his version was decidedly better.
FL: You don’t sound retro, but you don’t sound contemporary either. That natural sound sets you apart.
GK: That’s all thanks to Michał. On our last album, I asked him to bring our sound closer to the Beatles on Magical Mystery Tour. It was a silly idea. I begged him to add additional production to the album. To run it through a tape and so on. Michał recorded us in the studio and said: ‘No, there’s no need to do anything else’. Our new album is barely altered, it sounds mostly like it did in the studio. The strength of our band comes from the fact that the listener creates his own narration. Our songs are a little undercooked. The listener decides what the album means. That’s why everyone hears something else.
We know how to play with mistakes. We’re very attuned to it. It’s the same in my poetry, I eavesdrop on conversations on the bus or tram, adding context. Everything is laid out on a platter, but not everyone sees it. All you have to do is display it correctly. There’s no need for excessive flourishes. Maybe there’s an artistic choice behind uncovering something. Sometimes that’s enough of a gesture.
FL: During concerts, you’re a completely different band than on your albums, much more aggressive. Where does this aggression come from?
GK: I’m happy that the albums sound different than our concerts. I sing off-key and Wojciech Juchniewicz shouts. Before college, he lived in Skarżysko-Kamienna, where there was a big post-punk scene. Fans of Fugazi, Sonic Youth. He plays an integral role in creating the band’s atmosphere. With his shouting, he takes us into a kind of darkness. That’s why our concerts are often imposing and aggressive but full of mistakes. We constantly have problems. The bigger the problem, the better. That’s what I think. By that, I mean that each mistake opens us up to new possibilities. It seems to me that we have great intuition when it comes to working with mistakes.
Recently we were playing at Pogłos in Warsaw, and during the second song my guitar strap snapped, so I held it up with my neck and played on it like a violin while singing simultaneously. Sometimes people think it’s part of our show. At OFF Festival, the power went out, then my guitar amp gave out. I started kicking my guitar to get it to work. From the outside, it looked like some sort of rock performance, but it was simply a battle with our equipment. There was a similar situation two years ago at SXSW in Texas, where my amp burned out. The year after that, my guitar broke. I received a replacement, but it was broken too. I decided I had nothing to lose. I shouted at full volume, in some kind of obsessive-compulsive fugue.
FL: You’ve been touring more often; you recently had a tour in toured the United States and soon you’re embarking on a tour in Europe.
GK: It seems that getting the word out is best achieved through concerts. We’ve been playing way more concerts than before. Although we could play 150 concerts a year and still need to do more. All of this is possible because we have so many good partners – we’re represented by Paradigm Talent Agency and ATC Live. Although if we played that many concerts, whether we wanted to or not, we’d turn into a professional band. In my opinion, that would be a problem, something would go wrong. The word ‘career’ doesn’t exist in our band. We’re happy with what we have. With our strangeness and the cavities in our teeth. It’s not pride about being amateurs or naively standing in opposition against the professionals. It’s about allowing mistakes to carry us like flowing water, and full control over reality wouldn’t make it possible, it would be too rigid.
FL: You’ve recently published a new book of poetry.
GK: My new book is about, among other things, eugenics, Aktion T4, euthanasia, as well as anti-natalist empathy. Out of sympathy to my wife, who has dreamed of becoming a mother for a long time, I agreed to have a child. We had a son: Franciszek Lew. I wrote this book while my wife was pregnant. I thought it would be the end of the world. The end of my poetry and the end of the band. I thought I would have to back out of everything, because I was a hypocrite. But it’s okay. That is, I am a terrible hypocrite. Now even more so, because I’m an anti-natalist father. And I have an even greater distaste towards life. Not an aversion – a sympathy towards life. I don’t feel hostility towards anyone. Instead I have an aversion to the mechanisms that lead to suffering; that is, we feel suffering, inflict it on others and then we die.
FL: Does your poetry come from a lot of different sources?
GK: A large part of this poetry is comprised of quotations from witnesses, observers, murderers. It’s a kind of sculptural work, finding fragments that I shape into a musical pattern. It’s about returning people’s voices to them. It’s my Don Quixote ideal, which not everyone agrees with. I would like to infuse poetry with facts and history. I’m not interested in press tours; I’m interested in the musicality of poetry, alongside the unbreakable truth of history and the maintenance of multiple perspectives. Alongside that, a lack of aestheticised suffering.
My personal heroes are Anna Świrszczyńska and her poems about the Warsaw Uprising, or Czesław Miłosz and his Kroniki. I continue their traditions of family and home themes. My grandfather’s experiences in the camps; my mother worked her whole life in a special needs school; for most of my life I lived next to the Srebrzysko Nursing Home – its original patients were dragged out to Saxony and gassed there as part of Aktion T4. The older generation has a certain concern that someone as young as myself – especially in terms of publishing Radość – writes in lyrical masks and is a hochsztapler, someone jumping on board for money. That wasn’t the case, but everyone has the right to his opinion, so in a certain sense that is the truth, since we should respect all opinions and discussions.
FL: You not only give a voice to others, you also translate. ‘Walter Stier’ is a literal translation of a fragment from the monologue of the main character in the film ‘Shoah’. You retained the meaning of each German word, while, for example, the English translation of the film, which is available on YouTube, translates the fragment with substantial changes.
GK: You’re almost right, but not quite. The last words of the poem are not from Shoah. The last words are my descent to hell. In any case I make certain cuts, I write things down on my broken Nokia 3110, which has very little space for messages, up to 100 characters. I have to fit everything in 100 characters, although that’s enough for a whole poem. The phone’s problems benefit my poetry, necessitating conciseness.
An ideal poem for me creates a landscape with different voices, drawing different positions – and the reader himself has to decide which side he’s on. Maybe he’s not on anyone’s side, because he doesn’t have to choose. The most important questions to me are the biggest ones. The fact that a human is born and dies and in the meantime suffers and inflicts suffering – to this day I don’t understand it. I don’t understand murder, either. Or perhaps, in a different way: I understand, but I don’t understand. Sometimes I think I understand – in a purely biological sense, fighting over territory. But when I read more about it, I stop understanding. My problem is trying to understand evil, its presence and purpose.
FL: Are you ever tempted to set your poems to music?
GK: I don’t know.
FL: Your poem ‘Szymon Srebrnik’, who has the same main character as ‘Shoah’, ends with these words: ‘no no no’. It’s very musical.
GK: I didn’t think about that, but if coincidence or accident leads me in that direction, I’ll do it. It’s certainly more important to me that Trupa Trupa and its democratic model are never changed into Grzegorz Kwiatkowski and Trupa Trupa. In any case, that would be impossible.
FL: How do the different experiences as a musician, songwriter and poet influence you?
GK: For many years, I was very paranoid and tried to separate poetry from music; about a year ago I gave up and decided that was pointless. I believe in a democratic system, but I can’t pretend that I’m not a poet. These two worlds are very close to each other. Almost all of my lyrics on the album – I’m not the only one who writes songs for Trupa Trupa – are similar to Szymon Srebrnik. No One, Nowhere, I Dream About, Anyhow, Anyway. I jokingly call the new album The Samuel Beckett Lonely Hearts Club Band, because it’s a musical album, entertaining, but the lyrics are a linguistic wall, anti-entertainment and anti-aesthetic, because my poetry is technically anti-poetry.
My works are published by Biuro Literackie; this is the shortest book of mine they’ve ever released. The three other books had 22 rather short poems. The new one has 21 poems, even shorter. In my poetry I’ve reached a certain wall. Of The Sun is a rather minimalist wall. After having a child and working on our newest songs, which we haven’t released yet, I can see that Trupa Trupa’s new works will be something darker, more aggressive, but dripping with life. It’s time to get dirty, gather up meat, muscle and life. I think that there’s nothing behind this minimalist wall. If we were to repeat this gesture, it would be futile. Thankfully, plenty of mistakes and unnecessary things occur in life, and these experiences can be heard in our music. I never had animals, not even a dog. Now I have a son, who wakes up in the morning smiling and happy, and that’s something I have to weigh myself against. Somehow become accustomed to it, understand it.