Rock and Roll Renaissance
Reverend Vincent Farnsworth on Prague's Rock Glory - Past, Present and Future.
The Year of Our Lord is 1992, and underground clubs strewn around the center of Prague are supporting a sweaty and gloriously confused indigenous rock scene. In Mala Strana, Club Ujezd's classic hole-in-the-wall front room offers everything from lost western garage creatures to eastern frontier bands like the Ukraine's notorious ELZA, which mix classic Residents-flavored punk riffs with beautiful Slavic anger. Across town, you can duck into the larger and legendary Bunkr club on a dark street off Revolucni, only to find Prague's own Slunicko playing the last set of their sweet but dark Bohemian hard pop. At Bunkr an appreciative crowd masses nightly along the lengthy bar to see a constant parade of disparate groups from around the world. Roxy is another constant source of live music surprises, within raw confines that resemble a warehouse more than a club.
That was then. Ten years of Normalization has transformed Ujezd beyond recognition, and a knocked down wall creates today's café-bar; and the internet-bagel spot that opened next door has thoroughly pacified the entire corner. Noise complaints from cranky babickas and institutionalized xenophobia combined to end Bunkr's days. (To its credit, the place lived up to its name when Prague cops had to drag never-say-die stalwarts up the grimy stairs during their last stand of protest.) Techno culture moved in with the lethal combination of DJ worship, drugs, herd instinct and easier technical and financial arrangements for the clubs, all but eradicating live music at the Roxy and places like it for months at a time. What central rock venues that remained started choosing the dormancy of cover bands - so-called "revival" acts - when they offered anything live at all.
The excitement of the newly opened East faded, yielding to international economic realities which left penny-wise bands with no reason to tour east of Germany. By the end of the 90's, the Prague rock scene slept likes chips of rust under a coat of primer.
Still, life struggled on around the edges, with vibrancy sometimes exploding in little pockets out in harder to reach places like Club 007 in Strahov or Delta on the way to the airport. Offbeat venues such as Zizkov's Clown and Bard hostel offered an irregular forum for bands perfecting their sound. Great word-of-mouth band blasting went on - and go on - in completely pohoda venues with such names as U Strelenovych Oka (The Shot Out Eyeball). Over the years countless small clubs and other occasional venues have come and gone. While its offerings were never all that shiny, Batalion has always been there slugging away in the very center with its sequestered back stage and uneven band offerings. Palac Akropolis in Zizkov Major also strove to be a serious live venue instead of just a hangout.
And now, finally, signs of a rock revival - a true Prague scene - are starting to appear. The techno tsunami, stabilizing into a calcified drug culture, is tiring itself out, with some former dance spots are starting to offer live music as their main draw. More and more new bands are crawling out of the panelaks. New alternative clubs like Guru are able to open with some assurances of stability as Prague settles into the slot of being just another semi-Western capital with slightly less changes-per-minute and EU entry on the horizon.
Don't Call it a Comeback - The Squall Story
Enter the angst-rock trio Squall. Runaways from three different English-speaking countries, the band is both creator and product of the burgeoning rock scene - if it takes off then Squall could ride the wave, while their every show tests the scenes' parameters. Tyson Cosby, singer-guitarist of the band and a yo-yo Praguer for years, has seen things come full circle. Talking while the Lazy Pigs did their acoustic thing in the subdued atmosphere of Red Hot and Blue's dinner show, he surveyed the landscape for the Pill.
"There's a vibrant scene," he says. "You can go out every night and see bands. There are maybe too many bands - but it beats the hell out of Hungary," referring to his between-bands stint in Budapest in '98, where he found the rock scene he'd first glimpsed in '92 had dried up into dust. Although the plentitude of shows doesn't mean they're going to be GOOD ones - the challenge now is how to pick and choose when you go out. There are a core of exciting bands amidst "swill that people have to wade through to get to…shitty bands that have had too many piano lessons," as Tyson puts it. Does he see the current upswing gaining force in the next few years? "Definitely."
Tyson locates the genesis of the current revival in one club and one American record label. "There's this scene that's just starting to come out of its little ghetto. It's all based around the club 007 from ten years ago. All these kids, they were teenagers inspired by Amphetamine Reptile records. They were one of the few labels that came systematically and brought bands to 007 in the 90's." The club's location in the basement of a college dormitory also was also perfect for influencing future rockers now coming into their own. Tyson names other influential labels as Kill Rock Stars, Touch and Go, and Discord. "That really shaped the people who went to 007."
That this was mainly a western-led and English language influence hasn't hurt Tyson and the Squall boys. Tyson is Canadian, drummer Carl Warwick is British, and bassist Richard O'Connor is Irish. When they combine here as Squall, what would be a good band in Chicago threatens to be a bit more. Big fishes in the still small if expanding pond of Prague, passion drives their shows. Carl's pop sensibility moderates Tyson's manic-depressive guitar and Richard driving bass, so Squall's hardcore elements are leavened with what Tyson calls "space and quietness" - that is, songs where he "can hear the people in the back and listen to their conversations." How would he answer the charge of just being Sonic Youth imitators combined with a little San Francisco speed? "I would be flattered if Sonic Youth is ever mentioned in the same sentence as Squall. If we were mentioned in the same sentence as Spinal Tap I'd be flattered."
It's a mix that's attracting an expanding Czech audience. "As far as locals, they accept us," Tyson says. "In fact our biggest fans are Czech." One concern he gets from Czech fans is about Squall's permanence in Prague. "They're nervous we're going to split."
A Prague Profile in Distortion: Tyson Cosby
Tyson is the happy Prague expat, and his personal odyssey has been a variation on a classic theme - the western rat-race dropout. His plans for settling down in Prague in 1995 were initially set back when all his savings were pickpocketed while stoned in Amsterdam. It was a "pull your head out of your ass" kind of experience, he says, which forced him to take the first plane back to Canada. The disaster afforded him a chance to finish his English Lit degree and thoroughly assess his North American quality of life, surrounded by "East Vancouver prostitutes, homeless kids under the balcony, and manic-depressive pot-smoking prozac-popping roommates." There was also something of a punk revival going on in those parts, and he also got to see a lot of bands with the attitude that it "doesn't matter what you do as long as it's loud and noisy." He eventually made it back to Prague, where his first band project was Swarm, which only played six gigs before he moved to Budapest. Swarm came together in February and folded in July, but Tyson can't immediately recall if it was '98 or '97, showing a loss of linear time frame so common in Prague, that sense of years blurring together. He came back from Budapest with lots of material and a "two years out in the desert" attitude.
Squall is band number two for the 30-year-old Tyson, and the fact that he is no longer a hormonally-driven kid with pimples might explain his relaxed attitude about Squall's place in the scheme of things. Like his day-job teaching English to businessmen, his aims are modest, and reflect how it's the process, not the goal, that becomes the point the longer you live in Prague - a city the Dalai Lama once cryptically described as "a vortex in space and time." Tyson just wants to be in the middle of it, to play with good bands with integrity.
"Success is doing a tour and having a reputation among other bands that you respect…the first thing is you have to have a sound, and then you start emailing people and that's it. Maybe there are 60 people [that know your music]. For me it's just doing it, making the posters, recording, contacting people, trading fucked up concert stories or accidents or whatever…I don't think that Squall is ever going to hit the big time."
No world conquest? No stadium concerts? "Outdoor concerts - it's not our thing. Usually the stage is ridiculously big, people are far away…The club should be small and dark. Like at Shuplik [a strange little sometime venue in deep Zizkov] with no stage, people right in your face, breathing on you, that's far better than some big 60,000 people…" His voice trails off, and his eyes unfocus a little. "Although, I don't know," and he laughs, and in that laugh could be many things, from a comment on the absurdity of the thought, to the possibility that integrity could be stretched so large as to include stadiums.
But for now Tyson's take on Squall, and their toil in the Prague rock scene, stays Zen-like. "You have to do what you're doing where you are. Some bands think 'OK, something's happening in Seattle so we'll move to Seattle, or something's happening in Manchester so we'll move to Manchester,' and they're chasing something not real. It would have been nice if we all met each other in Tacoma in 1986, but we didn't. Maybe you're in Istanbul…" And again the voice trails off, the implacable essence of Prague's late Autumn, descending triumphant.
Reverend Vincent Farnsworth
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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