This conversation is – on many levels – borderline. It all happened after a long, reckless trip and a strenuous concert. I had an impression that someone is all the time cutting in on us so I was not comfortable and when the interview was over I had no idea whether I liked it or not. I was angry. We were talking – with uncanny brakes for food, vodka and looking for the keys to the hotel room – for three hours. We began when it was all dark outside and finished at dawn.
Conversation with Piotr Narojczyk / 23.06.2017 / OW WRATISLAVIA, Radzyń
The first question that comes to my mind after tonight’s show- what is the good preparation for the show and how do you maintain such high, repeatable level of energy during almost every performance? I always get an impression that you treat your instrument like your enemy- like you are almost angry with the harmonica….
You can have thousands of rehearsals, and still, you may come across some problems during the show. This is why I almost always play the show in my mind the night before- before I fall asleep normally. If we play somewhere for the first time I always try to check the room, stage- if we return somewhere I always tend to know where I should be standing, where I should be moving and what’s the best spot to come off stage and get to the audience. I like to get quiet before the show…I try to relax and contemplate what happened the night before especially when we are touring. I don’t like talking too much or laugh before the show. I guess I aim to maintain the energy within myself so I can give the audience 110% during the performance and if we are successful and I’m tired after the show I like to be on my own for few moments- I don’t like to talk to anyone then.
When it comes to the level of aggression towards the instrument I always play almost against the audience- I don’t play for them I always play against them…there is this internal energy which drives me just to show the audience how good the band are. If they don’t get it to begin, then it’s even better because it pushes me to give them even more- that gives me the assurance that they will witness the performance they will never forget. There are no limits on stage- everything is possible…you want to throw out all you got inside you, and the audience will let you do that. It’s like catharsis to me. And yes I do get angry with the harmonica as I don’t want it to control me or limit me but she sometimes does. You know harp is quite close to the human voice…she talks. You think you control the situation, but she will always surprise you. You get the puncture somewhere, turn where you shouldn’t turn…you run off the road, and you know you need to get back pretty soon, or you will crash quite quickly. That’s where the anger comes from.
You mentioned two things that contradict themselves- on the one hand, you say that everything is possible on stage but on the other, you plan or think what you will be doing. I get the feeling that you are the one that keeps everything structured on stage during the performance. What is the level of emotion and thought in your playing?
Yeah, I’m usually the one who tries to keep it tidy and the one who shouts sometimes and expects more than others and the one who sees that sometimes we could be better than we actually were. Generally, I don’t like empty complements- „Great mate”; „that was awesome” etc. the band is a chaotic creature – you can see that while you are on the road with us. There is alcohol, good times and many things that can distract you from what’s most important and the reason why we are here. All your artistic energy should be used on stage- otherwise, we are talking the talk rather than walking the walk. During the performance, it’s like Roman Wilhelmi said about his acting “you need to know when to give and you need to know when to take away”. You need to know when you can lose yourself on stage and let this chaos to vibrate in the air but there is a time when you need to hit the trigger and bring everything back to its place. Our band has got some formats which are divided by the improvisation, but we need to know when to hit the red button to find out where we are. You can’t just go off and let it go forever because that’s not always where you perform at your best. When we play Salve as the last number or an encore, and everyone in the audience is wild, you still need to maintain the right tempo of that tune, or otherwise, you will lose the vibe. Live, musicians tend to play too fast, but the music really works better when it’s played slower- it’s connected to the physicality of a human body- it’s easier to get the grove and dance for example. Music plays a different part in people’s lives – blues got invented because these guys wanted to clean their souls after the all-day struggle but the basic need for music was to dance. Sometimes in some senses, you are on stage to perform for people. This again contradicts itself with what I said earlier. I can be a philosopher and say that I play against the audience and all that kinda stuff but I have to enable them to dance, have a good time and feel the groove.
Ok, two things then – what defines a good show and how the audience impacts it?
An audience is only a spectator. It’s passive, and it’s as present as almost the mic stand. You need to know how to set it, and you need to know how to work it so it can do the job for you. On the other hand, a good audience is the one that you get the feeling from. You can have three people in the audience but you know that they are getting it but you can have 3 thousand and they can be a terrible audience- the number doesn’t really matter. What counts is what you receive from them and how you can connect metaphysically with them.
Ok fine- but that connection with this external energy changes the show or not?
Well with this band it definitely changes it because you consume and strive on what you get from them but it doesn’t prevent you to be hard with them sometimes either. You can almost treat the audience like an escort girl ha ha– in the metaphorical sense of course- sometimes they need to accept what you want but they pay for it!! Ha ha. If everything goes well and you feel that you get a lot of attention from them you can be nicer, but if they resist then you need to show them who’s in charge and let them know that you don’t take prisoners- In many ways, I think they like it. They like the band to take charge of the situation and dictate the rules that night. I really respect our audience and fans, but I just want to say how I perceive the music and art. I also believe that music these days is too nice, polite and sweet. The danger element is gone. Musicians back in a day where real motherfuckers, dangerous and their music was dangerous. If you jump on stage these days the worst that can happen the security will ask you to leave- James Brown would knock you out or probably shoot you! I love dangerous music, and I like to be a little afraid when I watch the show. I want our audience to experience the same. I want them to be away from the normal world for few moments. I don’t think that art should relax you- it should confront you…that’s when the communication is honest and real.
But then as a listener, you must accept this and almost become helpless. You need to let it go.
And I like that. You need to accept this. If you don’t then it means that it’s too terrifying, to hard or intensive or just to plain and sweet. If I want to relax, I can go for a swim or a massage. I don’t go to the show to relax. I want art to make me think and affect me. Make me think about this experience the next day- give me some magic. I don’t want to go to the show and say- it was OK. What does that mean? It was either great or terrible but never OK. “Ok” means that it didn’t affect me in any shape or form. If you tell me that this girl is OK, I’ll ask what’s wrong with her? She looks good, but her language is really bad…I don’t know- she’s missing a front tooth? There are no girls who are OK- they are either dynamite or not! And I don’t want anyone to say that we were Ok or our show was OK- I want us to be either phenomenal or totally shit in the eyes of our audience.
I agree – that’s the way you (band) are.
Yeah so if anyone says that we were OK that night, it means that we didn’t do what we meant to.
Going a little bit on what you said earlier on that you would want to be a listener of your own show. What do you miss on stage? What sort of experience or feeling?
I would like to experience that once as I don’t quite believe when people say how good the show was. I would like to make my own mind. You see and perceive things differently from a stage, and I think that visual effect also plays a very important role. How many good live albums do you know? They don’t satisfy me fully because if it’s a great live recording, you almost think- I wish I were there… what a show it had to be! So when I see a roaring audience screaming for more in front of me, I often wonder if I had the same feeling if I was there because sometimes I question if I would. I’m never sure if we were as good as the audience reaction would suggest. Same as tonight- you said that it was a great show and I would like to just experience that for a moment from your point of view. We’ve played the shows where I was completely convinced that they want more but at times I felt like they are asking for an encore because they just expect one.
I’ll argue with you here for a moment- sometimes the show is so dramatic that it works and closes in 45 minutes and I don’t want an encore anymore- It annoys me when people still want more.
But you are on the other side! You can judge this, and I’m never 100% sure from where I stand.
Do you always put so much doubt on yourself?
Yeah pretty much always. I never like our videos, and I’m quite critical about our performances and our albums. It’s quite difficult to judge yourself, and in general, I don’t really know if I’m the person that I think I’m. Today you told me that I look like a proper motherfucker, but I don’t perceive myself that way. I talked to Grigor about it, and he said the same thing as yourself. He says that people don’t want to talk to me because they are afraid but yet again I would like to sit beside myself and really find out if that’s really the truth.
So to some degree, we are on the same side- you are the only one who you really trust when it comes to perceiving the art.
Ok- I’ll approach the performance aspect but in a different way. Mikolaj Trzaska stated, that he likes playing shows while on the road- he claims that this fact is important because it’s a “road music”. What about yourself? How does being on the road influences the music in your opinion?
Very much. I generally think that being on the road is like a life lesson- it makes you tougher because you travel like an old circus from town to town. You meet new people, and that’s important too. The show itself it’s about a 5% of it. It’s almost what Charlie Watts said about being in Rolling Stones for 50 years – “ 5 years of playing and 45 years of hanging around”. And that’s how it is. You play for 5 minutes and for 45 minutes you are running around, argue, run, sleep, drive, get changed and only for a small period you play the music. All of this things affect the way you play. Apart from that, you travel with four guys – all of us have different habits, none of us is gay and even if we were nobody would be interested in each other because the smell and snoring kinda takes the romantic element away ha ha. The road, in my opinion, indicates how strong you really are as the band. You are strong on the road because you can overcome the hunger, long travel and you can concentrate and really hit the audience with the music at the end of the day – you really recognise the real band on how they work on the road. The quintessence of every band is a live show. Not the recordings, which producer they use, image, what they say in the interviews and what standard of the hotels they sleep in. What matters is a live show, and that’s it. If you can interact on stage and bury your human differences if you can compromise… if you can do all these things, then you are a strong band.
Now I would like to leave the band for a moment and talk about your field a little bit. Where did the idea of electrifying you harp playing came from? What were the stages of creating your own sound?
Well, we will have to start from the beginning I guess. First of all, as a teenager, I was living in boarding school, and I failed in love with the band called Dzem. I still love them really… I know, and I don’t really care that you don’t like them. I love the original line up and today’s line up I respect. Ryszard Riedel when it comes to the phrase and tone is a second-best singer after Niemen in polish music history. …no point arguing about it. Give me an example…I’ll destroy it in a second. There was no guy who had such an artistic intuition…almost like a child but very honest and real. No real school or training but the music was in him. So when I heard “Absolutely Live” I first heard the harp. Best polish live album by far….
No, no way…
Ok, I know what you are going to say…Niemen, SBB, VooVoo….I say “Absolutely Live”.
It starts with the „Norwegian Blues Impression”, and I love the harp he played there. After years I see that it wasn’t great technically, but that’s not what’s important. He could create the vibe. Just like Dylan. Dylan sings pretty badly, plays poor guitar and his harmonica playing is terrible, but if you put everything together, it sounds wonderful. Riedel could do that too. Then my bother bought me a harmonica- it was cheap, and that was great. It wasn’t the best, but it didn’t matter. That’s how I discovered the blues, and that’s how I got to Little Walter, James Cotton & Junior Wells- phenomenal Chicago style harmonica players, but I was missing something. I couldn’t identify with that as unfortunately I wasn’t born black…
Hold on for a second….Ok, we can carry on now- for a moment my allergy gave me a reminder, and I felt like I’m not getting any oxygen, but I’m good now.
So yes their phrasing was in my opinion too ascetic. I’ve learned all their licks and riffs, and I think everyone should go through the same, but I couldn’t express myself. It’s almost like with painting – in Picasso pictures although he fucked the rules you can clearly see Diego Velasquez, and I think it’s the same with the music- you can’t just simply invent something completely new. All of your music needs to have some basis or foundation…and then I heard Paul Butterfield. Fantastic white harp player and a phenomenal singer. I discovered „Lost Electra Session”- the album that was originally lost in 1964 and found again in 1993…I then thought- God, I need to play like this. I must sound like Paul Butterfield. That was the guy I wanted to imitate. First, you imitate, then you emulate, and then you innovate, and you get to your own style. You can divide musicians into the guys who will never go beyond imitation, and you can find the ones who by imitation or trying to imitate got their own distinctive sound. When it comes to all of the effects, I always feared that I would end up playing in some blues band but being a harp player somewhere in the corner of the stage with the bullet mic and I’ll be vamping some nonsense, and no one will even notice that I’m there….I guess my ego started to surface there ha ha. I was afraid of that, and then I heard the guy called Jason Ricci who turned my world upside down. Best harmonica player in the history of music! A homosexual guy from Maine… he’s got the wife today. His phrase was dense, very dense but also very bluesy and based on Butterfield. That’s when I found that bridge between the old school and modern approach. Butterfield phrase with all the modern effects and open approach to music. There is no rock, jazz or blues… none of it! It’s music… total fusion. Like life- you are a husband, lover, taxi driver and you ride a motorbike… you are anything you can take. That’s what Ricci’s music is. After years I can see some negatives about it but not then. That’s what really influenced my playing- I wanted to sound like a guitarist! I don’t want to sound like a harmonica player. I think that harmonica is boring and has terrible, infantile social & cultural connotations… harmonica player is often perceived as the old boring fart. And this sound, that handshake…that prison register…the most stupid sound you could possibly imagine. I think it sounds silly and I think it destroys the soul of this instrument. In our band, it sounds at times like another guitar or like a Hammond organ. It gives you that rotating foundation…everything vibrates, but it also plays a solo parts too. What’s interesting we are considered as the blues band, but we don’t really play the blues in its pure form. The instruments set up would suggest it, but everyone realises that it’s not quite what they expected from the show ha ha!!
Ok, so you were talking about the second guitar. Let me ask you about the moments when Gerry and you play a wall of sound like Black Sabbath does with bass and guitar. I s this something you planned and arranged or did it just happen? Was the set-up of you being one of the frontmen planned or did you just jump into your spot?
Nothing was arranged. It all happened after the meeting with Dave who influenced that. It’s connected to our first meeting really…that flying pint and that lyrics stand…
I beg you I don’t want to hear about this anymore….everyone asks you about this since 2009…It makes me sick when I read this story again and again….I want to skip this story at all cost!
But that’s important!
But I don’t want to talk about it. You told the story hundreds of times…enough!
But this is important from the other aspect…not the stand or pint glass is what’s an essence of the story.
Now I’m interested (laugh)
What’s important is what I said to my girlfriend then- “I need to play in the band with this guy”.
That was typical Gerry. He borrowed someone’s guitar because he didn’t take his own one…walked into the club and PLAYED like a motherfucker! That was it. Wild! And that sound and tone! He introduces himself and then we didn’t see each other for next four years. Everyone told me that I need to meet this guy before I actually met him. It was the same with Dave- everyone told me that I’d wet myself when I hear this guy….and I did. I can’t really remember how it happened but we ended up in my flat and we ate pizza and talked. Dave told me a lot about himself, about being a session guy in London…and London for me at that time felt so far away. I knew straight away that he was my guy. We played together in the band. The set was based on covers or standards- a little bit of intellectual blues kinda thing…the guitarist was quite good…then Grigor appeared. Great guy…big personality, he plays well and everything sort of start to come together, but I start nagging Dave to phone Gerry. He tells me that he knows him really well as they played in the band together…I keep nagging him even more so Dave did text Gerry, and you know the rest of the story. We met in the same bar, and that was it. Gerry, Dave, Grigor and myself. Dave said that if we are here together, then we should play something…and that was it. Nothing was ever the same after that, and no one came on stage after we finished. We played two songs- nothing was planned, and then Gerry decided that we make the band. Nothing was planned then really- it just happened. Don’t get me wrong- we now know our strong and weak sides, and we know who is responsible for what. My role in the band wasn’t planned either. It sort of came from my character I guess. Same as the guys. Everything was really natural. Two frontmen. This is the band of my dreams in many ways. I could see it that way, and I guess the rest of the band sort of identified themselves with this vision. I talked to Grigor about this, and he agreed. I do have a vision for the band and sort of know where to get the canvas from and where to buy the paint and Gerry paints by using these ingredients.
So when we are talking about everything happening naturally, nothing being planned- can you become a musician or are you born with it? I think that you have to be born with it.
In my opinion- both. You can be born with it, but you can become it too. What is the talent? I define it that you can give the guitar to 100 five-year-old kids, but only one out of 100 will get interested in it… it will puzzle him, but he will want to solve it…
Yes but you can see that you need to be born with it.
Well as far as the instinct goes- I guess yeah you have to be born with it. You have to hear it and feel it. I feel that – it’s natural to me, but I’ve also learned a great deal over the years. You need to feel some connection, expression with sounds… D minor is one of the saddest chords out there. Play it on the guitar… if you don’t feel that sadness in there… there is no music in you.
We can argue here- there are cultures where the music is always happy…
Yes, you are right. You know that interview with Tomasz Stanko where he talks about the light, and it’s influence on how you feel the music…
Yes of course….I like that statement and even asked Trzaska about it too…
There is definitely something in it. Well, we have the Slavic soul. We are alcoholics, romantics; daredevils… we will always resist something. So when you come from our cultural background, and someone plays you a d-minor, and you say that this is happy and nice then you shouldn’t breathe ha ha. How can you not hear the sadness, tragedy and purposeless of life? Tell me how? If that doesn’t move anything in you than we have nothing to talk about. This is what I call a musical talent- that you can see these things. It’s like when you read Bukowski, and this doesn’t move you…”All that matters is how well you walk through the fire”. All it matters is how you behave when you are in the borderline situation. You are a father not when your kids are good, and they do well at school… you are a father when you need to get them out of drug addiction. You aren’t a husband when everything is rosy but when you need to rescue your marriage. If something goes well it just simply happens itself. What’s your role then? Do you understand what I mean? There is another motto which connects really well with the music- „Find something you love and let it kill you”… this is what the passion and talent are. There is no money in it. There is no audience, to begin with. But you love something, and you will do anything to achieve it. You laboriously try to get where you know you need to be- aim; objective. Your mother tells you to go and study the law… your fingers are bleeding from playing the guitar… everyone tells you that you are mad, but you aim to be a musician. Most of the musos don’t understand it either. That’s why I don’t really like to talk to them. They are boring and pathetic. Not all of them of course. I hate when they are jealous that we just played a great show and then they come in and tell you how great we were…tell me that I’m a real deal artist or something – I hate that. I want to talk to the artist about the literature, history, music or anything in between but not about same old fucking blues or where they are playing the next show! Do you remember when I told you that I used to buy albums because I like the way some musicians looked? You know who looks good? Tom Waits! Inked…damaged…or Keith Richards…wrinkled…fucked by life. Look at polish Jazzer Wojtek Mazolewski- he’s manufactured. He looks like a guy from a Playboy magazine or something. That’s the sort of image that people want to see these days. You can buy it, but you can never buy the way the other two look. Good looks, expensive leather jacket and a good haircut it’s not enough…all it matters is how you really can play.
I would defend Mazolewski as apart from his looks his playing is really strong. Not everywhere but in Pink Freud for sure. You liked the live recordings of Autechre repertoire. I agree that his looks are too much, but when you close your eyes, you will hear the fire.
Ok, I agree, but that’s get lost in media. His image was created not for being a masterclass bass player or his craft but on his clothes and the way he looks. Not everyone just listens with their eyes closed. I know why he did it and Ok he achieved a lot but his brother is a much better musician but very few people know about him. Ask anyone on the street about Jerzy Mazzoll. No one knows him. I can guarantee you that there are 3% of jazz fans on Wojtek Mazoleski shows.
But I’m not interested in this. On the show, people are there to make the room full, so the acoustics are better. If someone doesn’t bother me by talking during the show, I don’t care if they are jazz fans or not.
These three percents are the people with that instinct for art, and I think you just need to have it in you. You will never learn in. The art is in you. You either feel the scent of the women, and you find the one or you will always keep pulling cheap girls! Same goes for the music.