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Foreign Affair

Czech indie rockers Sunshine are three wild and crazy guys -- musically speaking, anyway.

Kay (pronounced kai, like sky) -- who, like the other members of mostly punk outfit Sunshine prefers to go by his first name -- keeps apologizing for his English.

"I'm sorry, it's very difficult to speak on the phone with me," he says for the third time. "Many people tell me this. It's easier, you know, face-to-face."

In truth, Kay's English is as generally competent as a native speaker's (the only significant communication problem is the occasional dropout on the cell-phone connection), but even when he audibly struggles to find the precise wording to represent his thoughts, he often hits upon a unique, nearly poetic phraseology that says volumes more than the King's English would normally have allowed him to.

Of Sunshine's musical influences: "Previously, we were almost strictly hardcore. On the San Diego model. Screaming."

Of Sunshine's touring opportunities and the attendant complexities: "It's difficult economically. Everything is about the fucking dollar."

Of Sunshine's lyrics: "On that album [Velvet Suicide, Sunshine's latest], we use English. Probably not very good English. We try to use a mixture of language. Some of it means nothing."

Of Sunshine's tendency to experiment with several musical styles: "It's definitely possible to find all these things on the album."

Of the consistency of Sunshine's overall idiom: "We try to make [the new] album so that if someone were to listen or to buy, they would know it was the same band. They would, you know, intuit the hardcore."

Sunshine is an almost strictly hardcore band from the Czech Republic -- three guys (vocalist/guitarist Kay, drummer Dan and keyboardist/bassist Martin) who've been together, in just that lineup, for six years. Velvet Suicide, the band's new album on Big Wheel Recreation and its third full-length release, is a sheer wonder and a delight for those who've been craving a good old guitar-heavy post-punk raveup.

To listen to Velvet Suicide -- the first several songs, anyway -- you'd think this band had been locked away in 1977 and force-fed a steady diet of Ramones, Circle Jerks and Descendents sides. The kickoff number, "Hero 78," begins like an outtake from The Ramones Leave Home but soon distinguishes itself by slithering through a couple of slow, sensible time changes that prevent it from sounding like mere aping. The further you get through the album -- certainly by its midpoint -- the clearer it becomes that hardcore punk is only one of the colors on Sunshine's palette.

Most of Velvet Suicide's songs go through a carefully crafted series of tempo and mode shifts, in fact. It's part of the style the band has tried consciously to develop: "The songs sound similar, even the ones we're playing now on the tour, for the next album we want to record. We are definitely open to anything, but the most important is the final version."

Talking to Kay about the "final version" of the songs on Velvet Suicide soon brings the discussion around to the many musical styles represented on it, the eclectic assemblage being what most impresses the first-time listener. That is to say, intuiting the hardcore elements in Sunshine's repertoire isn't terribly tricky, but what's really striking about Velvet Suicide is the band's refusal to lock itself into that mode; we are emphatically not talking about a revivalist punk group, but rather a band aggressively honing its chops in a number of dialects. "Basically, our [three members'] influences are similar: late-1970s, early-1980s punk and new wave, but we also bring in dance music. We have a different flavor in some songs."

Furthermore, the influences are much broader than simply "dance." Sometimes that flavor manifests itself in analog looping and raps (assembled by Kay) in a song like "Adventures With Her Stereo," a funky track equally heavy on breakbeats and nervous guitar scratchings. Sometimes it arises in the light, airy folk melody of the otherwise frenzied "Porn Orchid." Sometimes it appears in the early-Cure lush echo and sparse instrumentation of "The Stardust Angel" (Kay's voice actually bears many similarities to Robert Smith's, cranked about a third higher), or the Fugazi-style open harmonics and heavy drum rolls on "Dope Driver Called 'Virgin Boom.'" But taken as a whole, the album coheres, in large part because Sunshine wears all of these influences on its sleeve without segregating each from the other.

And if you're wondering how the language factor affects the album, be assured that even the most broken English seems to work when put to Sunshine's various uses. Lyrics in hardcore punk are a mug's game in any case, and even native-born, ostensibly literate wordsmiths tend to mangle their verbiage when the volume gets cranked up. But Kay's lyrics are crisply sung and cleanly recorded, so that when we hear him sing "welwet suicide" on the title track, or we get to a passage like "I don't need know who I am/Somebody else/I don't need know where I go/Somebody know," he sounds supremely confident. Hell, for all we know, he wrote the lyrics that way in the first place, and who are we to criticize Sunshine's twiddled English when it might be an artistic decision? Better to bypass this point gracefully.

But then, what's all this grab-bag songcraft in aid of, besides the conscious fashioning of diverse elements into a "signature style"? Kay is somewhat less forthcoming on this point, possibly because it's an interpretive issue rather than an elemental one, but a quick glance at the contents of Velvet Suicide reveals a fixation on female beauty -- or, more accurately, the assumptions and dangers that underlie notions of female beauty. Song titles such as "Glamour Jenny's Song," "The Picture of Anorexic Beauty" and "L.I.P. (New Model)," along with an inner-sleeve glamour-puss shot captioned with the phrase "DID YOU KNOW ALL TOP MODELS ARE DAMN ALIENS?" seem to suggest a thematic thread, but Kay is reluctant to point to any one philosophical underpinning for those elements.

"Yeah, I know, but...it's hard to explain," he shuffle-steps. "I'm sure it's probably a reaction to some sorts of things." And then he repeats his caveat about how sometimes the words mean nothing.

Well, not when you stack them up this heavily, they don't. But Kay's so open on other issues, it seems impossible to think he's truly holding out on you. "When we began the recording, we had the basic skeleton of each song. But we tried to put out all of those influences. We tried to change who we were [on the last album, 1996's Nice Songs From the Shadow Under Room]. People were thinking of us as hardcore, so the structure of these songs was open to anything: dance, or [influences like] the Cure, or Joy Division. This album, Velvet Suicide, was much more experimental, but we still keep it with some punk or hardcore."

That they do. And far from feeling nervous about setting foot on U.S. soil, Sunshine, assisted by friends and supporters across the country, is loving the trip; the band is actually in the midst of its second jaunt through the States, a tour that's winning acclaim from critics and fellow musicians alike.

"We are on our second time in the U.S.," notes Kay. "We came here in 1998 for a shorter, low-budget tour." This memory prompts another short digression about the "fucking dollar," after which he continues, "but it hasn't been difficult for us over here, I think really because lots of people have helped us out a lot. We're good friends with [Texas-based hard-rock band] At the Drive In, we toured Europe together a little while, and they gave us a really good deal for eleven shows to open on the East Coast." (Sunshine and ATDI released a split twelve-inch on Big Wheel Recreation earlier this year.) "And we had a really good booking agency for this tour, so...it's very good."

On this night, Sunshine is in Missouri, smack in the middle of their second U.S. tour; in the next few days they'll head west, then back east (where they'll meet up with ATDI for those eleven supporting dates), then back to the Czech Republic, where "we'll relax for a little while, you know. Chilling. And then we go to Poland."

Poland. In the winter. For two and a half weeks.

"The guy who owns the main, top indie label in Poland, he heard us and he liked us, he set up and booked the whole tour. Two and a half weeks in Poland alone."

These are heady days for Sunshine. Courted by major acts for opening spots, wooed by one man's ardent fandom into spending twenty wintry days in Poland, flinging chords left and right on a noisy, rollicking album, newly backed by U.S. support and distribution...You might think some of this new success would have gone to Kay's spiky-haired head.

But no. "I really thank you for taking this time. I hope you can get something usable out of this interview. It's very difficult for me, talking on the phone."

You said that already -- and in very correct English, too. But, hell, it's difficult for all of us when it comes to cross-cultural exchanges like the ones Sunshine is trying to pull off. Kay shouldn't sell himself, or the band, too short. If Sunshine's language confidence ever catches up to its musical talent, we'll be in for some meaty retro punk indeed. And when that time comes, you can make your own jokes about the new day rising.

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