Prague Rock

Mirek Wanek (left) and his Czechmates in Uz Jsme Doma.

In 1985, when Uz Jsme Doma first got together in the tiny border town of Teplice, north of Prague in what was then communist Czechoslovakia, the band experienced an existence that would make its American contemporaries think twice before using the word "underground" as a self-descriptor. The band's music -- then a noisy, boundless mutation of Slavic traditional sounds, punk and jazz -- was, for all intents and purposes, illegal: State-owned radio and record companies determined what music was permissible and what wasn't, what was politically and socially acceptable and what threatened to incite more free and daring expression. Uz Jsme Doma clearly fit into the last category.

"Like the other groups who didn't want to follow the fashions and rules of the communist world, we were considered dangerous to the system," says Mirek Wanek, the band's lyricist, singer, guitarist and pianist. "We weren't interested in all of the official things that were expected by the state. If you were operating with their consent, you had to play festivals and competitions and things. Everything had to be checked -- your lyrics, your words. We didn't want to follow those kinds of rules."

Like the more notorious Prague outfit the Plastic People of the Universe -- which faced violence and frequent incarceration as a result of its unwillingness to play by the state's rules and disbanded in 1984 -- during its early years, Uz Jsme Doma operated as an essentially covert musical operation. In Teplice, the band performed only a handful of times -- in hastily staged performances announced only moments before showtimes -- to brave crowds undaunted by the very real possibility that the police would be only minutes behind, eager to shut down the event and send all of the "anti-socials" away. If the crowd and bandmembers were lucky, they were merely sent home; often, however, they were sent to jail. The establishment didn't even approve of the band's sources of inspiration: The musicians befriended visitors to the American embassy who were brave enough to smuggle British and American sounds into the country. It was a method that created a bizarre, fragmented picture of what was happening in music outside of Czechoslovakia. From the bandmembers' perspective, it appeared that artists like Frank Zappa and the Sex Pistols, the Residents and Pere Ubu were the stuff of mainstream Western pop music.

"Luckily, many of the people we met were travelers -- adventurous, educated people," Wanek says, laughing. "So they had good taste. They brought good music."

The American infusion led to a profound and rapid change in the band's music, mirrored by what was happening on the Czechoslovakian political scene. As Uz Jsme Doma moved from a largely unstudied, calamitous experiment in art rock to something far more complex -- a nearly inexplicable mixture of frenetic time signatures, operatic vocal harmonies, brass sections born of avant-garde experimenters like John Zorn -- there was a growing sense that communism's hold on the Czechs was loosening. The band suddenly found itself performing more shows -- a whopping fifteen in 1987 -- without too many hassles from state officials. Then, in 1989, everything changed: The Velvet Revolution overturned more than forty years of communist rule, resulting in the formation of the Czech Republic. The new nation ousted former officials and elected a playwright -- Václav Havel, reportedly a Doma fan -- to the presidency. Though the band's activities were interrupted during the Revolution -- so that Wanek might attend to his duties as a leader in the Teplice interim government -- Doma managed to perform 27 times in 1989 and even gained access to a recording studio for the first time. A three-song EP followed.

Stateside musicians and artists who have glimpsed a bit of what Doma saw in the '80s -- thanks to political moralists like Jesse Helms and others who, given the chance, would probably adopt a system of state-sanctioned artwork -- might expect a wallop of bitterness in the band's music. Yet in the decade that has followed its creative liberation, Uz Jsme Doma has remained a surprisingly down-to-earth and humanist operation, concerned more with art and intellectual and personal expression than with political themes. The band's recorded output (its six full-length recordings, beginning with 1990's In the Middle of Words, have all seen release in North America by the D.C.-based Skoda Records) traverses everything from fantasy-land soundtrack (1995's Fairytales From Needland) and the occasional pop-driven love song to carefully conceived and complicated jazz operas. Uz Jsme Doma is known for the power of its live performances, which clearly incorporate an element of theater -- a quality that came to full fruition in 1995, when Wanek and his mates performed in a Prague production of Freakshow with their longtime heroes, the San Francisco-based dadaist collective the Residents.

In 1998, the band scored and performed music to The Little Bell, an animated film based on the artwork of Martin Velícek, the Czech painter who is credited as the band's sixth official member. "He knows how to paint our music," Wanek says of Velícek, who has created all of the band's CD and promotional artwork and who illustrated a Uz Jsme Doma pop-up book in 1997. Pop-up books, animated films, freak shows -- no wonder the state found the band so loathsome.

"We have always been focused on positive energy," Wanek says. "That is what we want to give the audience. Sometimes our music comes off almost like a shock, but it has an effect on the audience that usually winds up to be a positive experience. We like to think that our audience comes for a challenge -- they are not so scared off by something that might sound unusual or different to them."

Last fall Uz Jsme Doma released Ears, a nine-track studio effort recorded in Prague with producer Daniel Rathburn, formerly of the San Francisco-based Idiot Flesh, a band that considered bicycle wheels and cowbells as suitable as any other instruments. Rathburn's kitchen-sink approach is a complement to the sonic experiments braved by the Domas -- in the album's forty minutes, the listener is treated to everything from military chanting to Pogues-ian sing-songiness, from straightforward 4/4 melodies to mind-buzzing progressions that make the work of Zorn's skronking Naked City ensemble seem tame by comparison. Though the bandmembers are all primarily self-taught, there's a precision to the sound that suggests a healthy method in the musical madness.

"Some people think we improvise, but it's not so," Wanek says. "We think of it kind of like an orchestra. Everything is very carefully scored -- it's not spontaneous. We get it down so it's perfect, and then that's exactly what we play on record and in our concerts. In that way, we are much more like a symphony than a rock or a punk band, though we have elements of both in our sound."

Maybe they're not so radical after all.

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