Jakub Šimanský and Tomáš Niesner © Jakub Šimanský

American Primitivism goes east

Jakub Šimanský just released his second album »Face To Face Against American Primitivism In Eastern Europe Vol. 2« as well as the album »Tance Neznámé« with Tomáš Niesner from Unna. Together, they tell skug what this is all about and how it works in the Czech Republic.

In addition to his work in the post-rock / sludge band Unna, Czech artist Jakub Šimanský, from Brno, has made a name for himself as a solo artist, continuing the classic path of American Primitivism, not without letting Czech influences be heard. He publishes the results under the title »Face to Face Against American Primitivism«, his critical examination of tradition is already somewhat included in the name. In addition, together with his colleague from Unna, Tomáš Niesner, he published the fantastic album »Tance Neznámé«, which is even a bit more, well, psychedelic and experimental than his solo stuff and one of the secret highlights of 2019. No exaggeration. skug asked them a few questions.

skug: You brilliantly revitalize the vibe of American Primitivism as played by Robbie Basho, or John Fahey, but add your very own personal style to it. What is the connection between the typical American genre and the Czech one?
Jakub Šimanský and Tomáš Niesner: We appreciate your words. Actually, we still ask ourselves what the typical American and what the typical Czech genre is, too. What is authentic? In the communist era there were just a few original records that leaked here from the West. What used to resonate the most here was the typical American mainstream country music, like Johnny Cash or George Jones. This stuff had a strong influence on the local music and with Czech lyrics it transformed into something of its own. People like Pavel Bobek, Michal Tučný, Yvonne Přenosilová, Greenhorns or Rangers also used to cover these American country singers and the songs are still pretty popular. It was also somehow connected to the tramping phenomenon. People were turning back into nature and starting to build cottages almost everywhere to get the instant feeling of freedom. Anyway, we’re not hooked to this stuff at all.

Is there a scene in Czech? Or are you alone with creating this kind of music?
If you are pointing out the American Primitivism style, we dare to say that there is no scene or maybe we just don’t know about it. It seems like we are an exotic exception here that is raising up the musical diversity. We have grown up in, let’s say, an underground / hardcore scene which wasn’t always paying attention purely to loud music. However, it’s really hard to talk about the Czech »scene«. Czech is a small country and musicians playing different genres mostly know each other pretty well. On the other hand, since we started to play acoustic guitars, we are still meeting new people. People from the Stoned to Death, Silver Rocket or Genot Centre label are doing a really good job. Also, promoters from Punctum, based in Prague, or AVA kolektiv from Brno are throwing very exciting line-ups and shows. Groups like Wabi Experience or Severní Nástupiště, who we have recently played with, are also definitely worth checking out. If we go back in history from our point of view the most interesting stuff started to happen in the 1970s / 1980s. People like Dagmar Voňková from the artist group Šafrán were completely out of the common categories and became our inspirational source. These are just a few picks. Sorry for not mentioning all of them.

Don’t be sorry. I guess all those names you mentioned are rather unknown to most people from the other side, from the West. I can see the aforementioned genre American Primitivism is, thanks to the internet, known to a lot of people. Artists like John Fahey, or Robbie Basho are well-known »insiders«. Isn’t it time to re-discover those artists from the East?
To be honest, who cares about non-western musicians who try to follow these influences? There are surely some, but it seems like they are always one step behind those from the US, UK, or whatever. However, there are certainly some gems that are worth listening to. It just needs more effort to explore. But if you’re looking for them, you’ll find them. Even we ourselves are trying to step out of the shadow of American Primitivism. We mix all those influences from east and west, not because we want to, but because there is just no other way to do it. And in the end, we can have a little hope that some people will discover some other great local artists because of us.

Songs like »Variations on J.F.« go into a certain direction we know as American Primitivism (I guess everyone knows who J.F. is), but you allow more melodies to flow through the very fast picked notes, it is somehow less raw. At the same time, one can hear the melancholy in your music, which is pretty much the same, since that feeling is a universal one, in the US and in Czech. What is it about this that made you quit noise rock?
There are definitely some recalled memories in »Variations on J.F.« of that period when we used to play together in really loud bands called Unna and Baalzac. It means that period was not skipped. We got tired of this kind of music after almost ten years of playing it, so it led us to explore different styles and to experiment. By some lucky accident we ended up playing this acoustic music. However, we are still active in the bands. Jakub keeps drumming in Fotbal and Tomáš plays the guitar in Vlněna.

You just released »Face to Face Against American Primitivism in Eastern Europe Vol. 2«. For me it’s another step forward, more experimental, droney and dark (»On The Ledge«), then again very charming and heartwarming (»The Black Rose The White Masks«) How was it to work on that?
Sure, there is definitely a more experimental approach on this one. I had quite a lot of material, so when »Fullmoon« – the Czech music magazine – offered me to release my next solo record on CD there was no reason to say no. The whole thing was recorded at home on a cheap recorder and cellphone, mostly when I was on acid or high.

Who is responsible for that beautiful cover artwork?
We decided to take a picture of ourselves in this chateau because of its unusual location and style: exotic wall paintings and the historical spirit of the Napoleon area, or a brothel, or a casino inside. And we were rehearsing just a few meters from there, so it was easy. The cover was then processed by Štěpán Adámek, who does really cool illustrations by the way, but he’s taken more of a graphic design approach on »Tance Neznamé« and it looks amazing.

Do you plan to tour Europe soon?
We would really like to but it’s not that easy to reach this point, from our perspective. We are touring a lot in Czech because we have some connections here, but almost none across the borders. Hope we’re getting there. And maybe this interview will help some people to find out that something is happening here too.