Mama Bubo Interview (Jupiter08)
The Prague-based label Endless Illusion’s second release of their Jupiter08 project (dedicated to music made in Czechoslovakia during the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic) is Máma Bubo’s electronic classic “Planeta Haj”. Read on below to find out more about the band and the Jupiter08 project.
There are bands that epitomise a certain period, let’s say a Zeitgeist. They sonically express the ephemerality of their environment which formed them, reflect upon possibilities that are available to them. Then there are bands which transgress period associations. The combination of a place, time and a certain chemistry results in something that sounds familiar, yet remains timeless. Such is Mama Bubo. An iconic band that carved its own path and in spite of a relatively short active lifespan, created a unique synthesis of sound – an amalgam of postpunk/minimal synth/dub/reggae – text, visual aesthetic and an (abstract) reflection of the era. Mama Bubo was founded in March 1983 by Karel Babuljak, Jiří Charypar, Vlasta Matoušek and Zdeněk Duroň. Planeta Haj (1985) is their landmark release. It’s an encounter of a human with an alien, juxtaposed with minimalist synthscapes, melancholic moods, distinctive rhythmic arrangements. It’s the mysterious woman walking through the deserted post-apocalyptic concrete block estate in the video for “Skončíš jako já” (You Will End Up Like Me), and it’s also the Roland SH-101 synth on the backdrop of the cold, industrial premises in “Nemám tvář” (I Have No Face). It’s the seized passport and samizdat, underground, and DIY not as a choice, but a necessity. Their landmark album has been recently remastered and rereleased via Prague-based label Endless Illusion/Jupiter08.
Interview conducted by: Lucia Udvardyova
How do you perceive your album Planeta Haj within the context of your work in retrospect?
Jiří Charypar Bubochar: Planeta Haj has a CRUCIAL place in the history of our band Máma Bubo.
Karel babuljak Bubol: From the standpoint of my work, it’s perhaps the second realised monothematic creation of music and lyrics, bandmembers, fans in action, friends – each of us had something to offer. For instance, we borrowed the reverb from Dan Fikejz, mixer from Lazy, tape recorder from Munzar or Robin Hájek, Moog from Šulc and the cover was printed by Záruba – everything was done the way I felt and how I perceived (similarly to people around me) the year 1985. – And what kind of music was it? Stripped, acute, primitive, while at the same time it was also mysterious, limitless. It’s a reflection of a communication crisis, a scream of solitude, enclosure. I’m very surprised by how successful it has become, I’ve no explanation how it could have happened. I do try not to overvalue my contribution, PLANETA HAJ is part of a larger body of work too. In today’s world, there’s much more of the unimaginable.
Vlastislav Matoušek: I consider Planeta Haj to be the most inspiring project of Máma Bubo. It was almost exclusively the creation of Karel Babuljak and I personally view it as an apex and unique synthesis of his musical, poetic and philosophical work. I was going through a difficult period at that time. After 15 months of imprisonment in Pilsen-Bory for breaching the article 100-incitement (because of a collection of witty poems by one of my friends about communists, police and Soviet soldiers), I desperately tried to finish my studies at the music faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where I’d been previously successfully studying. I worked as a cleaner at the construction site of the sports area under Grébovka, and ocassionally tried to meet up with my three children from my first marriage, which dissolved while I was in prison, etc. The alternative, uncompromisingly non-commercial work with Máma Bubo constituted an island of freedom in the darkness of the happy socialism that surrounded us. When it comes to Planeta Haj in particular – largely due to Karel’s creative peak – I was able to limit my contribution to slight compositional and colourful finesses from the realm of classical music, which your usual rocker, pop or folk musician wouldn’t come up with. I particularly remember the sound of my old Russian alarm clock, which we set to 15 minutes and then played the song „Za zdí tak dlouho“ (So Long Behind the Wall), before it brought it to a halt with its ringing, similarly to bells announcing the end of our stay in this world of Illusion.
How did you record the album, what instruments did you use? Planeta Haj has several experimental, electronic parts, which are coupled with synthop and minimalist structures (such as the excellent 11-minute-long „Co to má být“ What Should It be?), there are also notable reggae and dub influences (two of you also played in the reggae band Babalet).
JCH: BABALET was a parallel project of Karel and I. We tried to separate it from Máma Bubo, but sometimes this wasn’t possible. Karel would play his new tracks on the piano and we tried to make the arrangements, each with our own instrument. We rehearsed a lot and were always together, everything was done on the go. I remember meticulously preparing the guitar used on Planeta Haj at home. We searched for sounds, moods, programmed the drum machine. I would emphasize MINIMALISM and a certain AMBIENT NATURE laid on a monotonous base of electronic rhythms, the MOOG synth and guitar effects. We didn’t use as much DUB as in Babalet there though.
KB: To me, dub is a game. When a band plays and it works out – and before someone takes over – the musicians repress their ego and become the music. The style and the sound of Jamaican DJ’s really chimed with me in this respect. I was fascinated by the development of an instrumental passage.
I created planeta Haj – musically and lyrically – in the winter of 1984-1985. The year 2000 seemed as distant as the change of the government. This seemed like science fiction. When I wanted to present compositions to the others in the band, I showed them my demo recordings which determined the style and arrangement. The arrangements on HAJ are simple, guitar often doubles bass, synths play simple melodies and suggestive soundscapes, trumpet was added later. All of us had absolute freedom provided we mutually enriched each other. Vlastík and Jirka perfectly understood me and were eager, it was amazing to work with them. They just got the vibe. Our drummer was conscripted and thus we used a drum machine instead, I think it was a Roland. It was Jirka’s job. PLANETA HAJ was launched on 12 April 1985 at the Futurum Club in Prague. Fans wanted to hear our old material, but we didn’t meet their expectations. We decided to record in the summer in the same vein as on the three previous albums. We’d road-tested the tracks at our gigs beforehand. Their straightforward form enabled a great deal of improvisation with each of the interpretations sounding different.
At some point we borrowed a mixer, echo, tape recorders, drum machine and various other instruments and drove it to my house in Prague’s Vinohrady one Friday evening. Petr Neplech, a nice guy who sometimes worked as a sound man at our gigs, was mixing. We finished it on Sunday. We were recording on two tape recorders TESLA B116, perhaps a Revox too. The base track was recorded on one tape recorder – using a Moog, drum, synths, guitar. We then replayed the recording through the mix and sang on top of it and recorded it simultaneously without a cut on the second tape recorder in one take. This was the final mix – the master tape. The only machine which we used was the drum machine, everything else was played by the musicians. We didn’t have any ambitions. We were simply making an album and that was exciting.
VM: I enjoyed the synths more than the bass guitar at that time, which manifested in a rather depersonalised machine-like approach to the dark, uncanny atmosphere of the songs. I played on a borrowed Minimoog, and two synth „toys“. I still have the Casio V1-1. Later I incorporated Roland SH-101 with which I also posed in the video for „Nemám tvář“ (I Have No Face) in the documentary film Hudba 85 (Music 85). Our stage presence was marked by a „theatrical“ perspective and mischief, for instance we played in masks. There was a lot of humour involved as well.
The lyrics on PLANETA HAJ are touching upon feelings, relationships, abstract images. There are also foreign-language samples. What importance do the lyrics play on this album and what do they express?
KB: It’s about an encounter of an alien with a human, or perhaps rather an attempt to do so. Both worlds are so close to each other, yet the path from one to the other remains unrealistic. In spite of the fact that one speaks to the other, he or she can assume the other doesn’t hear it because they are dealing with their own issues – and no wonder. Eventually the second person turns to the first who’s long been gone…
Which bands did you listen to back then? How did you obtain these records? Did they influence you?
JCH: Of course! I listened to: Japan, Yello, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Police, Clash, King Crimson, Miles Davis, Soft Machine and many others, plus a lot of reggae.
KB: I listened to whatever I could. I borrowed LP’s and recorded them on tape. I was influenced by everything.
VM: I was about ten years older and started with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Hendrix. I’d fallen for ethnic music since my studies of Music Theory at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University in Prague and composition at the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, which I’ve been teaching as my main subject since 1990 at the aforementioned academy and at the Department of Music Theory FF UK in Prague probably until my retirement (Karel and I founded our first world music band called Relaxace, where I played on an Indian tabla, percussion and flute). I also listened to contemporary experimental music, of course, such as Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, George Crumb.
Apparently you tried to mainly present your work through tape recordings – made in your home studios – rather than concerts. How did the distribution of these recordings look like?
JCH: Understandably, there were very few concerts at that time. We weren’t mainstream, but the ALTERNATIVE/NEW WAVE. Not an easy ride! We mostly offered CASSETTES at our gigs and to our friends, sometimes also via post. Petr Cibulka was dealing with the „distribution“, mostly with our permission.
KB: With a permission? But not mine! Nobody asked me. I booked us shows though. A gig was always something special. Apart from our originals, various other recordings were also sold, for instance live recordings. The production and distribution of such recordings was often done without my knowledge. For instance, Mikoláš Chadima, Petr Cibulka and Blackpoint sold records with my music in the 80s and 90s and nobody had bothered to tell me about it. We had records which we made in our own impromptu studios, and we offered them on magnetic cassettes. We made everything on our own, and I realised it’s the best way.
VM: You were bound to end up with samizdat if you wanted to create freely and present your work in the dark days of the totalitarian regime. I took it as a given and wasn’t interested in selling works.
How were you influenced by the political situation in Czechoslovakia at that time – artistically and personally? For instance the videos for „Skončíš jako já“ (You Will End Up Like Me) and „Nemám tvář“ (I Have No Face) document the desolation of the environment and the period (but perhaps also express the visual aesthetic of minimal synth/postpunk as such). The album oozes a certain feeling of melancholia.
JCH: Obviously we tried to remain independent of the regime as much as possible with literature, films, theatre, music – any inspirational sources. In the end, my career acts as a proof: as a construction engineer I ended up working in the boiler-room of the Ministry of Culture at the end of the eighties (until 1990)…
KB: Each and every situation has an influence. The desolation of the environment and the period – as you aptly described – is still a current topic. I’ve never found any general solutions, truths or principles for this. The experiences are inconsistent, so perhaps that’s why the melancholy, resignation.
VM: Looking back, the stay at „Bory“ enriched me fundamentally. I met and made friends with – among others – Jiří Dienstbier and Václav Havel. We would meet them both at our gigs sometimes. Thanks to Václav, who was interested in all kinds of music and my music activities in particular, I managed to get to a personal meditation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he visited our country for the first time, etc. It was upon Václav’s expressed wish that we resurrected the original setup of Máma Bubo in 2010, and we still play so until this day…
(all photos sourced from the band’s archive)
Endless Illusion is a record label and promotional crew run by Layup and R.Kosmos based in Prague, active since 2011. The label recently launched its Jupiter08 project, which seeks to uncover and promote music made in Czechoslovakia during the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic period. You can read an excerpt from its manifesto (full version here) below:
The aim of the Jupiter08 project is to promote with dignity the quality which was created here, yet it didn’t have the opportunity to leave the notional bubble of the sealed east.