‘We didn’t wish to sound near something like Sting’: the exhilarating freedom of the Czech shoegaze scene

‘Sting wouldn’t try this. The guitars are too loud, the voice too drowned.” Jan P Muchow, of Czech shoegaze band the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, is remembering how sound engineers used to patronise them after they emerged on the daybreak of the Nineteen Nineties. However as Muchow says, “We didn’t wish to be three universes near something like Sting”.

The Ecstasy despised guitar solos, used English lyrics and hid behind reverb and distortion. Czech listeners, accustomed largely to folks music or schlager pop, weren’t prepared for it. “Our early excursions outdoors Prague felt like Simple Rider,” Muchow remembers; organisers from the homes of tradition, relics of communism throughout the nation that might host concert events, had been horrified by overpowered amps catching on fireplace, and audiences lined their ears when confronted with large partitions of guitar.

However within the capital of newly democratic Czechoslovakia, which was about to change into the Czech Republic in January 1993, tons of of individuals stood bathed in bliss when confronted with the heavenly melodies and hulking guitar suggestions of not simply the Ecstasy, however a complete wave of different shoegaze bands who resonated past the nation’s borders – and who now take pleasure in a second life on radio station NTS and archival YouTube channel Eastern European Shoegaze.

Within the 80s, within the extra open instances of perestroika, Czech youngsters had been divided into two camps, followers of Depeche Mode or the Treatment. The latter camp devoured cosmopolitan German radio and went to listening periods thrown by enlightened music journalists of bands on powerhouse indie labels similar to 4AD and Creation Information. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 introduced an finish to the one-party communist state. Buoyed by optimism, youngsters may now dream of getting a profession in music. The data blockade within the communist period meant Czech bands had been all the time a number of steps behind, however now, through MTV or the imported British music press, they may comply with shoegaze bands similar to My Bloody Valentine, Experience or Slowdive.

A small however energetic Czech shoegaze scene duly sprouted, with the otherworldly layered music of the Ecstasy, noisy dream-pop by the Bare Souls, esoteric noise by Right here, and Sebastians, who added a saggy Madchester gloss. They had been buddies who produced one another’s albums, used the identical tools and partied collectively.

Naked Souls playing in a Zurich squat in 1993.
Bare Souls enjoying in a Zurich squat in 1993. {Photograph}: –

The Ecstasy had been in all probability the primary band from the previous japanese bloc to be signed by a London label (particularly Go! Discs’ sub-label Free), incomes followers similar to John Peel and Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. “What an ideal title, wow!” Lou Reed later exclaimed on BBC 6 Music, concerning the band title impressed by Bernini’s sculpture of Spanish Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila. “Our ambition was to soften the guitar sound into abstraction and creativeness,” says Muchow. “Saint Teresa had an immaterial expertise she couldn’t describe – it’s related with music.”

The scene quickly developed its personal vocabulary for the style, impressed by the sylvan melancholy of the nation they had been born into. “We needed to attempt it with a mode no one else performed earlier than right here. It was potential. You would carry out with out permission and didn’t should attend rehearsals in entrance of the communist fee to verify the lyrics had been OK,” says Milan Šíp, the bassist and vocalist from Prague trio the Bare Souls who had been impressed by the psychedelic explorations of Spacemen 3. “I wasn’t shoegazing on the pedals. I used to be cautiously taking a look at what I used to be doing – I used to be no virtuoso.”

The Czech shoegaze scene’s centre was Prague, however not solely – Right here had been shaped within the small city of Vyškov, about 240km from the capital. “We needed our title to precise the right here and now,” mentioned guitarist Zdeněk Marek in a 1993 interview for the Czech music journal Rock & Pop. Right here, who opened gigs for bands similar to Yo La Tengo and Siouxsie and the Banshees, had been hippy children with ardour for cathartic expression and referred to as their model “flower noise”.

“In contrast to Prague bands, we carried our cables not in fancy instances however in plastic baggage,” Right here’s drummer Martin Pecka jokes. “Shoegaze meant freedom. Amongst these younger individuals, it was a strategy to categorical all the things hidden inside for all these years,” provides Right here’s vocalist Valerie Chauvey, who moved from France to Vyškov to show English and French. “There was an explosion of emotions and freedom.”

The Ecstasy – Muchow on guitar, bassist Jan Gregar, drummer Petr Wegner and Irna Libowitz with haunting vocals – recorded their debut EP Pigment in 1991 and obtained help from Radio 1, the primary impartial radio station in Czechoslovakia, which began broadcasting from catacombs underneath a former Stalin monument in October 1990 as pirate station Radio Stalin. “My technology listened to Radio 1, and the Ecstasy was performed 5 instances a day,” Muchow says. “All people talked about us, and our first live performance was bought out.”

Within the early Nineteen Nineties, Prague was poor but sexy, and have become a vacation spot for western artists. English novelist Tom McCarthy, later the twice Booker-nominated creator of The rest, C and Satin Island, was amongst them. “Prague was rising in my creativeness,” he says. “This playwright and dissident [Václav Havel], who was buddies with the Velvet Underground, had change into president. It was an especially thrilling time. The whole lot was in transition.” He arrived in Prague in late 1991 and landed at a live performance of Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. “The noise was fairly excessive. The model was clearly influenced by Anglo-Irish bands like My Bloody Valentine,” says McCarthy, who lived in Prague till 1993. “A wierd set of cultural migrations had been taking over a singular kind at the moment. This music appeared to hold the load of historical past in a manner that shoegaze bands again dwelling didn’t.”

After the gig that night time, says McCarthy, he fell asleep solely to get up to BBC World Service enjoying the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. “I assumed, this isn’t a dream. Andthen, 10 minutes later, I tuned in to [Czechoslovakia’s] Radio 1, they performed Ecstasy as effectively, and knowledgeable me that John Peel had simply performed the Ecstasy on the BBC.”

Peel broadcast certainly one of their poppiest, closely feedback-driven tunes, Sq. Wave, which was named after the fuzzy guitar pedal the band used together with about 20 others. British music journalist Simon Value, who was working at Melody Maker, was listening too. “It was a type of issues the place no matter you’re doing, you simply sit up and hearken to the radio, and also you cease all the things you’re doing,” he remembers. “I all the time tried to find new issues for the paper, and Ecstasy had been excellent.”

Here performing in 1996.
Right here performing in 1996. {Photograph}: Dagmar Dufková

However tastes had been altering quick. By the point the Ecstasy reached London to report a Peel session in January 1993 and play a number of exhibits, Nirvana had been browsing the primary waves of the large US grunge tide, Warp Information had their paradigm-shifting Synthetic Intelligence compilation, and Britpop had begun dictating the flip from dreamy introspection to realism and brashness. The curiosity in shoegaze was winding down. “Ecstasy of Saint Theresa had been perhaps the final shoegaze band I actually appreciated,” Value confesses.

“Do you keep in mind My Bloody Valentine? No, I imply actually keep in mind? Bear in mind the best way they pulled the earth from underneath you? Do not forget that sudden explosion of potentialities in your head?” begins his live review of the Ecstasy’s live performance at London’s Bull and Gate in February 1993. Then he describes one of many songs, Fluidum, from their Peel session: “That is liquid music, alternately flowing like mercury and seizing up into towering glaciers.” (The tune was lately included subsequent to Chapterhouse, Slowdive and extra on the compilation Cherry Stars Collide: Dream Pop, Shoegaze & Ethereal Rock 1986-1995.)

The success of the Ecstasy opened doorways. In March 1993, MTV Europe filmed 120 Minutes hosted by Paul King in Prague with the Ecstasy, Bare Souls and Sebastians, whose music movies rotated on the channel commonly. The identical 12 months, the Bare Souls lastly launched their debut EP, Two and One on Zurich’s Misplaced Information, and went on to tour England and later Switzerland with Stereolab.

The Ecstasy then labored on their most experimental album but, Free-D (Unique Soundtrack), contained in the London’s Blackwing Studios, with Man Fixsen, who was the sound engineer on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. They progressed to a post-rock part, utilising area recordings of cicadas and birdsong and electronics in spatial ambient soundscapes, much like contemporaries similar to Seefeel on Warp Information.

“We had been like kids in toy store,” recollects Fixsen, who guided Muchow in exploring the probabilities of the recording studio as a compositional software. The remainder of the band had been left to their very own gadgets. Attributable to rising tensions and an absence of communication, Free-D turned their swansong (although Muchow, now a movie music composer, resurrected the Ecstasy as an digital duo within the late 90s, influenced by trip-hop).

Right here’s debut album Swirl caught the eye of Peel, and so they had been the second Czech band to report a Peel session in December 1993. When BBC engineers noticed their dilapidated amps, “they had been horrified – they wanted to safe the containers for security causes,” says Right here guitarist Tomáš Luska. The Peel session was later launched as Sikusaq, the place heat violin and piano provides extra colors to the palette.

Right here moved past their shoegaze inspirations. On 1996 album Entre Deux Soleils – with Muchow as producer – the band land between post-rock, new-age esotericism and jazz fusion, using xylophones, distorted saxophone, and a big selection of conventional folks devices, such because the Slovakian wind instrument fujara, an Irish bodhrán drum and a kantele, a Finnish plucked string instrument much like a zither. “We opened our minds in direction of area,” provides drummer Pecka. “We actually needed to work in as open settings as potential with none style boundaries.”

Tom McCarthy in the meantime moved again to London and set to work on his first novel, Males in House (printed as his second after the success of 2005’s The rest). A political allegory concerning the quest for a stolen portray, it’s set within the early Nineteen Nineties shoegazing Prague across the bohemian group McCarthy was a part of, and incorporates a band referred to as the Martyrdom of St Sebastian, “an amalgam of all of the bands collectively that gives the soundtrack to the novel,” McCarthy says.

“It’s taking a look at this world in a state of disintegration and all these individuals looking for their place, however are sort of misplaced in historical past,” he continues. “The sense of lateness is all the time constructed into any interval. Situationists had been saying ‘Paris is gone’ already within the 60s. New York eternally feels it’s too late, however Prague then felt like, yeah, now could be the time.”

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