Initially, I’d like to thank you very much for taking your time to answer this interview. It has been many years that I’ve longed for an interview with such an artistic and innovative band. I ask you to, please, introduce yourself to our listeners.
Thank you for the kind words, Markus. We’re from the Czech town of Plzeň (or Pilsen; the word ‘pilsner’ is derived from the name of the city) and we’re approaching 15 years of the band’s existence. There are four of us, we go by the names of Morbivod, Strastinen, Karl and Well. The best-known member is undoubtedly Morbivod, who’s also a founding member of black metal acts Trollech, Stiny Plamenu, War for War, and – together with Strastinen – the funeral doom band Quercus. Umbrtka started under-underground, with CD-Rs distributed to just a couple of friends, but during those 15 years enough people had taken a liking to what we do so that we can do ‘proper’ releases of our material nowadays, though it’s not entirely unimaginable that we would go back to the old ways one day. The word ‘Umbrtka’ doesn’t bear any meaning in the Czech language. It’s another name (glimpsed in a moment of epiphany) of Ivo Krátký, an older, extremely ordinary and maybe even somewhat dull-minded and inapt real-life guy from Plzeň, who also happens to be the ingenious Lord of All Work, god of dirty streets, heavy industry, cracks in the asphalt, machinery, outskirts, old factories, abandoned brickworks, inner courtyards, municipal dustbins, railways, autumn, black winter days, rain, years spent in changeless cycles, bucket-wheel excavators, meaty meals in really bad working-class buffets, cheap pubs, life, death, enlightenment, endarkenment, strange afternoons, heavy drinking, power plants, salami, civil engineering and just about anything else that feels right to us, his apostles and followers. Umbrtka is a pivotal character in many of our lyrics, though not all of them – there are whole albums without him being mentioned. The man himself doesn’t know he’s a god and that there’s this mythology being created around him for years and years, but I guess he wouldn’t care anyway. That’s the kind of god he is.
As far as I know, Umbrtka’s new album V Dešti Mech won’t be a metal release. Did you guys had it in mind to release a fully non-metal album this time or did it happen naturally? Can you describe how this album will sound and if there’s any Umbrtka’s releases, in a way, similar to V Dešti Mech?
I guess for a moment we really believed we’re going to release a completely non-metal album this time around, it was supposed to be this electro-pop thing. But in the end there are metal or at least metal-like elements aplenty, starting with vocals. We just couldn’t help it. The general spirit of the album is one of change, as evidenced even in the cover photo of Strastinen having his trademark beard shaved off after the birth of his first child earlier this year. But there are definitely passages similar to both Kovový háj and Spočinutí, or even Nad propastí dne back from 2003. The overall sound is a loose combination of metal/old electro/techno/pop/rock, song structure is at times nonsensical, the whole album has a weird flow, and we are quite pleased with it.
Connected to the previous question, generally speaking now, not about V Dešti Mech per se, Umbrtka’s music itself: the band’s sound is difficult to be “described”. You have labeled before that it should be called grey metal. In this great metal “genre” we hear so many styles, black metal, avant-garde, experimental music, jazz, too much to be named. How would you describe Umbrtka’s sound and do you think that there’s a limit of what Umbrtka would play or not? Do you think that the band could release another album such as IVO or Kovový háj?
I’d like to believe there is no such limit. Every one of us has their own favourites, we draw inspiration from many sources, and I don’t see any situation where we should say „let’s not go there“, other than that we would know we’d fail miserably, and even then we would most probably do it. Some of our fondest memories are of creating something surprisingly disastrous. And grey metal is more of an idea than a distinctly defined genre, just like black metal was, at least at times (e.g. I seem to remember old Mortiis albums being hailed as ‘non-metal black metal‘). Basically, we take many things we admire about black metal, such as the raw honesty, sense of awe, certain minimalism, irreverence and fuck-it-let’s-do-it-our-way attitude, and we also take some of its tired yet wonderful clichés a theatrics, and we combine them with our own esthetics, the umbrtkian narrative and other sources of inspiration. Let’s see, here are some people, mostly music makers, mentioned in the collective ‘Thanks to’ section of the V dešti mech’s booklet, just to give you a general idea of who inspired us during the making of the album, without those inspirations necessarily translating into direct homages:
František Štorm, Necrocock & Master’s Hammer, Olivier Messiaen, Hank Amarillo & Darkthrone, Kimi Kärki & Reverend Bizarre, Neurosis, Esbjorn Svensson, Laibach, Oldřich Janota, Deathspell Omega, Throbbing Gristle, King Crimson, Summoning, Sonny Rollins, Agalloch, Black Sabbath, Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Arvo Pärt, Peste Noire, Karel Vepřek, Warning, Josef Váchal, Knut, Vladimír Boudník, K. C. Green, Andrej Tarkovskij, Rush, Dead Can Dance, Paysage d’Hiver, The Prodigy, Veni Domine, Tim Schafer & Double Fine, Cecilie Langlie, Michael Land, Paul Chain, Vladimír Holan, Elijah’s Mantle, Sopor Aeternus, Richard Wagner, Meshuggah, Iiro Rantala, Ulver, J. S. Bach, Nuit Noire, Paul Verhoeven, Kraftwerk, Melvins, Taake, Wolves in the Throne Room, Manilla Road, Deafeaven, Deine Lakaien, Aluk Todolo, M.O.O.N., Von Thronstahl, Nina Persson, Burzum, Lana Del Rey, Dornenreich, Abbath, Woods of Infinity, Ivan Mládek…
About the last part of your question concerning future albums, sometimes we contemplate a return to those most primitive sounds of our very first albums, but making another record in the vein of IVO or Kovový háj would also be a possibility. Maybe we’ll ask our dear friend František Štorm of Master’s Hammer to do some more guest-work for us, because he very much gets what Umbrtka is all about, and maybe we’ll start playing country music. We would still call it grey metal, of course.
Still in some sort of way connected to the previous questions, how’s Umbrtka creative process? Do you guys prepare everything before going into the studio, where you would just have to record the songs? Or do you record the second you had a riff, vocal line or drum pattern in mind and then play with it in the studio, see if you needed more drums there, or more bass there or a specific vocal sound? Are the lyrics written first or the music?
The process differs from song to song, but we almost always write lyrics first. We don’t do much preparation music-wise. Basically if anyone has an idea, he brings it forth, we play around with it for a while and usually record it straightaway, so we can go for a beer. Then we return to it after some time, listen to the sounds we’ve created and see if we still like it. We’ve got our own little ‘studio’ and the whole process is very much DIY. Sometimes the best bits (at least from our point of view) come unexpectedly, like when we gave the microphone to this semi-homeless guy in the streets and he started telling us some amazingly godawful ribald tales and singing what I guess was some kind of a love song. Here are two photos from that night:
We instantly knew that we’ll have to use it, and it ended up in the electro/techno song Bunkr on V dešti mech. Somehow it works, even though it doesn’t make any ‘objective’ sense.
It is a known fact that Umbrtka has interesting lyrics. You sing in your native language, Czech, and in my humble opinion, it makes the music much more interesting. But, unfortunately, for a lot of the fans it is very hard to fully know what Umbrtka is singing about. How important are the lyrics for you and also, could you explain to us what are the concepts behind Umbrtka music?
You see, Markus, it can be difficult to explain those concepts even in Czech. My first answer in this interview mentions many things that fascinate us and that we like to write about, and also the concept of the god Umbrtka himself. There are other common themes and ideas that tend to pop up in the lyrics here and there, such as the destruction or deconstruction of the Sun and cunning plans to that effect, the need for a totalitarian state with Umbrtka as its obligatorily beloved leader, and so-called ‘prachmatism’, which is yet another word to describe our grey umbrtkian worldview. We also like to borrow from existing religious or even political texts and twist their specific message and pathos to suit our needs. We appropriate grand visions and contradictions of many different ideologies and beliefs, and even our own lyrics tend to contradict each other. There is definitely some tongue-in-cheekery involved, but at the same time we create lyrics that are deeply personal. To give you an example, the lyrics to the song Poznání from the album Spočinutí is actually a paraphrasing of a gnostic text called The Thunder, Perfect Mind that is genuinely close to my heart; changing it so it fits Umbrtka’s cosmology means no disrespect to the original on my part. But there are other paraphrases that follow a similar suit, yet can be seen as a mockery. There are over-the-top lyrics about waging total war, destroying things that are deemed too new and clean, filling the Sun with concrete and installing a merciless autumnal regime, and there are intimate pieces like Blowitz on V Dešti Mech, which is Morbivod’s poetic impression of visiting an abandoned house tied to his family’s history. There are dream visions, there’s straight up heartfelt poetry, there are allusions to history and there are things we’ve just overheard in a pub. The thing is, it can be hard to tell which is which, it can be unclear when and whether we’re being serious or not. And that’s kind of the point. We don’t separate those things.
And there is one more aspect of it all: we are friends, and close ones at that. As I’ve already said, we are all quite different, to the point where Morbivod collects old school satanic black metal, while Karl has become a hard-line catholic some six years ago and stopped writing lyrics altogether. But it doesn’t matter, it just makes things more absurd, in a good way. I was Karl’s best man at his wedding, Strastinen was mine, Morbivod was Strastinen’s. Morbivod himself is still up for grabs but I imagine that when the day comes, we’ll uphold the tradition. We like to get drunk and to go on trips together, we have our ritualized walks through the industrial outskirts of Plzeň, we were through quite a lot side by side during those fifteen years, however queer that may sound. And that also informs many of our lyrics.
Regarding Umbrtka’s amount of releases. I find it very interesting that the band has released many albums, some of them very long, in a short period of time and still managed to let us listen to a qualitative work of music, being them very different from one another. If it’s possible to answer, please, let us know how do you guys manage to achieve that?
I guess we just record what we have, don’t overthink it and move on. We’re not a traditional band, we don’t play live, we don’t tour and we have a ‘no demos’ rule, meaning we only ever record albums. The only thing in our discography that should be called a demo is Ruka Nicoty (The Hand of Nothingness). Then there’s this record of ours called Melša: Frank Zappa Meets Darkthrone. It’s not even a demo, just a collection of outtakes and pisstakes that wasn’t really distributed in any way. Unfortunately, the name of the record sounds so cool and irresistible, it often ends up being the first Umbrtka ‘album’ people try. For obvious reasons, it then becomes also the last.
Another thing that helps is that apart from Morbivod we are extremely lousy musicians. We had an exceptional big gig two years ago, where we just hired real musicians from Morbivod’s other bands to play the instruments so that we could just drink and enjoy the show. I believe that we also greatly benefit from not caring all that much about listener reactions. There’s no money to be made doing what we do and few people actually understand it, so there is no reason not to do it exactly as it suits our particular whimsy at any given moment.
Can you confirm or not one rumor about an Umbrtka member? It concerns those Black Metal ilustrations were inspired by the great artist Helena Zmatlíková, right. Were they really done by an Umbrtka member? No need to mention each one. And if you know/ can, please, if you can answer this, how did this idea came up? What was the intention behind the drawings? I must add that they are simply amazing!
Thank you, Markus. Yes, that was me, actually. There’s not much of a story behind it, but here goes. Last year the Czech version of Google’s homepage had a Zmatlíková-themed doodle to commemorate the 90th anniversary of her birthday. I was immediately reminded of how strange and unnatural her illustrations always seemed to me as a child, and I mentioned it on my Facebook, quoting H. P. Lovecraft’s Pickman’s Model: „And the faces! It was not any mere artist’s interpretation that we saw; it was pandemonium itself, crystal clear in stark objectivity. (…) [she] coldly and sardonically reflected some stable, mechanistic, and well-established horror-world which he saw fully, brilliantly, squarely, and unfalteringly. God knows what that world can have been, or where he ever glimpsed the blasphemous shapes that loped and trotted and crawled through it…“ A debate ensued and at one point Strastinen (who is a professional painter and an arts teacher himself) mentioned that Zmatlíková should do the cover art for our next album – were it not for the unfortunate fact that she was long dead. But looking at her old book covers I realized she already did quite a lot of metal artwork, it was just hiding in plain sight. I’ve started up a graphics editor and, well… I was quite surprised how it all turned out.
Still on the subject of drawing/ cartoons/ animations, are you familiar with the classical Czech works such as Mrňous a čarodějnice, O Maryšce a vlčím hrádku, Kybernetická babicka, Uloupený obraz, Svatební košile and many others? What do you think about them? Which others would you recommend to watch?
Of course, they were all an important part of our childhoods and we can at least partly blame them for what we are today. Incidentally, Mrňous a čarodějnice (or Teeny-Tiny and the Witch-Woman) is referenced in the lyrics of our old song Umbrtkova Luna svítí dětem, specifically the use of those three magical objects to shake off a pursuer. It was directed by Gene Deitch who had a most interesting history with Czechoslovakia. Among other things, he tried to make an animated adaptation of The Hobbit with Czech artists including Jiří Trnka; the plan never really succeeded but it’s a fascinating read and watch if you’re into either animation or Tolkien. (http://genedeitchcredits.com/roll-the-credits/40-william-l-snyder/)
As for other Czech works, I would recommend basically anything by Trnka (especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Karel Zeman (Krabat – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Baron Prášil – The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, or his adaptations of Jules Verne’s stories), Krysař (The Pied Piper) by Jiří Barta, or O statečné Kačence aneb Krčma hrůzy, which is a great little penny-dreadful type of story with buckets of blood.
You’ve released videos for some of your creations. How important are the visual aspects for a band like Umbrtka? Do you plan to release a new one for V Dešti Mech? Still on this topic, but about Czech cinema, which I’m particular fond of, are any of the band members fan of your national movies? If so, are there any movies that you’d recommend?
I’d say there hasn’t been a great film made here since Jan Švankmajer’s Faust. Good, possibly, but not great. You would do well to stick with the older stuff, František Vláčil’s masterpieces (Marketa Lazarová, Údolí včel), Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator) and some other examples of the Czechoslovak New Wave, and, again, the incomparable Jan Švankmajer. I was delighted to find out that Agalloch used samples from the English dub of his Faust in their Faustian Echoes.
Our own music videos are absolutely DIY and lo-fi, and I guess it’s going to stay that way. I enjoyed putting together the video for Generální úřad pro tmu from various short films by the quite unknown V. M. Kobrin, but there are no plans for a new video as of now. Of course, that could change rather quickly if we have the right idea.
The usual underground question. Czech Republic has many very interesting bands such as Oblomov, Trollech, Umbrtka (naming only a few). Some of the classical acts also hail from Czech Republich, with bands such as Master’s Hammer and Maniac Butcher. How do you see the Czech underground metal scene nowadays?
I see it as fragmented yet somehow still functioning, both thanks to the internet. I’d wager it’s the same as anywhere else, there’s lots of fine and intelligent people in the scene, and lots of dimwits, there are some good bands and loads of bad ones. There have been some very good albums released recently by Cult of Fire, Panychida or Inferno – and Master’s Hammer operate on a different plane altogether.
Also, how do you feel about the musical industry for the underground bands nowadays? How hard is it to be able to tour, release an album, to promote the band? And for that matter, how satisfied are you with WereWolf Production work?
We’re really satisfied with WereWolf’s work, they do whatever they can to get our stuff to those interested. It’s not that hard for us – or anybody – to release a CD, it’s of course much riskier to do an LP. We’ve had limited vinyl releases of three of our older albums by Library of Hellfire Gods Productions where the vast majority of copies was pre-paid. It’s a crowdfunding model of sorts and apparently it works. We’re also in the process of setting up a Bandcamp page with all of our older works in the original (non-)quality so that people don’t have to download those dirty old gems from questionable sources.
Alas we reach the end of this interview. I hope you have enjoyed answering it as well as that our readers have enjoyed this conversation too. One more time, thank you very much for your time. All the best in your future life/ works. Any last words for our readers?
Thank you very much for your questions, Markus, and sorry for the longish answers. As parting words, I’ll just quote the great late Reverend Bizarre: „Doom what thou wilt“ and „live free by the side of your god“. If that god happens to be Umbrtka, that’s fine with us.
July 5, 2014