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New musicians: not in it for the money

  • 2002-01-31
  • Julie Vinten
Julie Vinten talked to three new Latvian bands about the ups and downs of being young musicians in a country in transition.

Peter Helms and Mareks Auzins from Aparats were partying the night before. They crack jokes and giggle right through the interview - a performance not unlike their behavior on stage, where they jump about, laugh and generally enjoy themselves.

Helms is the guitarist and lead singer. He writes the music and the Latvian lyrics. He's Danish but has lived in Latvia for many years.

"I try to make the music light and fun. Our audience consists of people who enjoy themselves and have a sense of humor," he says.

Aparats don't show off. They play music that's straight to the point. It's easy to listen to, and you may find yourself humming the tunes all day. It puts a smile on your face and reminds you not to take life too seriously.

"Latvian is not the best language to rhyme in," Helms continues. "The words don't fit together, so you have to change them a little. But because it's not my own language I can always say I didn't know and make the excuse that I'm from Denmark."

They're now recording their first album, due to be released in the Baltic states through the small record company Melo Records. Their first single, "Galdnieks" (Carpenter), is simple, well-crafted pop music and is about exactly what the title suggests: what it's like to be a carpenter.

They're not bothered that the Latvian market for singles is tiny. The plan is to release three more singles before the album, "Roberts Larionovs," comes out.

Into the groove

The band Kuba are also casual and unpretentious when they're on stage. The bass and guitar players sit on the stage with their legs comfortably crossed like a group of Buddhist monks as the rest of the band swoons around them.

Kuba's instrumental music is an interesting cocktail of jazz, post-rock, pop and funk. The sound twists and turns, rises and falls in rhythm and tone. It doesn't inspire you to get up and move, rather the smooth noise slowly infiltrates your brain and makes you relax and sink into the slow groove as your thoughts wander.

"Actually we don't know what style we're playing. It's a bit of everything," says Toms Ostrovskis, the bass guitarist. "Some older people say, 'Well, they play jazz, but they're not very good at it. They have to practice.' And young people might say, 'That's interesting pop music.'"

Kuba's caused great excitement with their first performance last year at the Metro club in Riga. Now they're recording their first album. They aren't hoping to sell much because the market is so small, but they've already sold over 100 demo CDs.

While they don't want to rule out the possibility of releasing their album outside the Baltic states, fame is not something they strive for.

"To make money you have to play five days a week, but if you play the same thing even twice a week you get tired of the music", Ostrovskis explains.

Being in another band, Satellites, has already given him and guitarist Janis Zilde the experience of fame. "We were very popular, and people would recognize us in the street and scream," says Zilde.

They didn't find that a pleasant experience, and Kuba has decided to step away from the promotion ruckus.

"We are not commercial. No interviews. No photos. No TV appearances. No, thank you," explains Ostrovskis.

The Baltic Times, they explained, is an exception.

Escalation

"Our music is heavy, aggressive, emotional music," says Gusts Leimanis, bass player and manager of F[ei]K.

This band's music is a raw power outlet, and the best thing in life for the members of the band is to be on stage as they empty themselves of energy and negative vibes.

F[ei]K don't follow the old heavy metal formula of hard guitars, bass, drums and screaming vocals. As a metal crossover band they ambitiously blend different musical genres in with the metal sound. The core of the music is always the robust strumming of the guitar. But other elements, singer-songwriter Verners Biters' voice, for example, which drones softly and then escalates into a rough growl, show that F[ei]K have an ear for building up musical contrast.

"Our inspiration comes from a place I don't know about," Leimanis whispers mystically. "It falls on you like a wave. You start playing and don't understand what's happening - and then you have a song."

F[ei]K will soon release their debut album, "The Inevitable," which will also appear in Lithuania and Estonia, and the group is certain that their record company, Microphone Records, will also try hard to release it beyond the Baltics.

Where did the debut title come from? Right from the start they knew they were going to release an album, they say. "We are going forward, and it is inevitable," Biters says.

The lads aren't interested in fame and money. Making a living as a musician in Latvia is tough. They call themselves a non-profit organization.

They will go as far as they can go, they say, and will hopefully get a few useful contacts abroad. But so far, the money is not for food and drink, but for guitar strings.

A lot has happened since F[ei]K formed in 1998, when they played Nirvana covers on guitars they hardly knew what to do with. Before they won second place at the annual Liepajas Dzintars rock festival last year, audiences didn't care much about the band.

"People were like 'F[ei]K? Whatever,'" reminisces Leimanis. "But now most people say that for the first time Latvia has a new metal crossover band that can match those abroad."

Evolution

There are no big, bold ambitions about fame or money from any of these bands. They are realistic and know that selling just 2,000 or so CDs in Latvia is an extraordinary accomplishment.

"You earn money with gigs, but income from CDs is ridiculously small," says Helms.

Biters works in a music store. He knows firsthand that young people don't have much spending money, and since CDs are expensive they are more likely to copy an album from a friend than buy it.

Because the Latvian market is small, you'd expect there to be hard-minded competition between bands. But Zilde says that there are few bands playing in the same style, so they aren't likely to "steal" each other's audiences.

"We're all friendly with each other and interested in what everyone else is doing," Helms insists. "We're all aware that audiences are small, and we're all doing this because it's fun. It's great to have a CD out, and even better if someone buys it. It's even OK if someone copies it."

F[ei]K don't agree. There are bands playing the same genre as theirs, they say, and they've experienced envy and gossip because they have a CD out.

Also there aren't many clubs or stages to play in and around Riga, and often the groups have to fight for the big gigs.

Making the leap to the world outside the Baltics also seems like an impossible task. Asked when Latvia will finally be able to compete with bands from the rest of the world, some answer tomorrow, others in 20 years.