Prague Rock

For Uz Jsme Doma's barebones U.S. tours, it's not about the money -- it's about the 300-pound cowboy

They're all ears: Uz Jsme Doma.
They're all ears: Uz Jsme Doma.
In the midst of his sixth tour of the United States, Uz Jsme Doma singer-guitarist Miroslav (Mirek) Wanek says he has finally realized why the Prague band, which has visited the U.S. to tour at least once a year since 1995, makes such a deliberate effort to drive a rental van from one seedy bar to the next, often playing close to 30 shows for the month it's on U.S. shores. It would be easier for Uz Jsme Doma (pronounced "oozh smay doamuh"), which is highly respected in its hometown and throughout Eastern Europe, to stick to more familiar turf. The tours here are simply too shoestring to be profitable. So why is it that the band keeps coming to the U.S. to play an indie rock circuit that, depending on the city and club, generally means staying up until the early hours of the morning, sleeping on the floor, and performing before small crowds that are often unfamiliar with the group?

"That's something that has changed," says Wanek, calling collect from a pay phone outside a club in Portland, Oregon. "At the beginning, we wanted to make contacts and create a larger audience. But during all these tours, I found another point of view. Because of the response from the thousands of people -- we've played more than 400 gigs altogether -- we feel that these people get some new information. They're always surprised by what they get. They get some new view of how music can work or culture can operate. I feel that, not only can we get something out of touring, but we can bring something and teach something that they don't have here. In the beginning, we wanted to make it here and do something for us. But now I think that we are bringing something special."

Wanek, who was born in the northern Bohemian town of Teplice, studied classical piano in his early teens, but by his late teens, he discovered the Sex Pistols, bought a '60s-vintage guitar (which he still uses) for the equivalent of $15, and started FPB (the title translates into "fourth price band," which is a loose connotation for the lowest rating given to a Czech club), a group which Eastern European critics have called one of Czechoslovakia's best punk acts. Wanek initially heard several musical groups that influenced him -- tapes of which had to be smuggled into the country. He listened to the Sex Pistols, the Damned, Fred Frith, and Henry Cow, and came to the conclusion that all of them, despite their differences, were punk, which explains the way Uz Jsme Doma freely mixes Zappa-like jazz riffs with distorted, punk rock guitars.

Wanek initially wasn't a member of Uz Jsme Doma, but he met the group in 1985 when FPB and it shared the same stage -- they played together on a riverboat, because concerts in Prague were illegal at the time. Wanek would join Uz Jsme Doma a year later and drastically changed the group, causing many of its members to depart (original saxophonist Jindra Dolansky is the sole survivor). For the most part, the band remained underground until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, but afterward it began recording and playing outside of the newly formed Czech Republic.

"After the revolution, we immediately made two CDs, and we made our first contact abroad," Wanek says. "For one, we wanted that, and secondly, a lot of critics in the Czech Republic, if they had a chance to write about us -- and some did so, even before the revolution -- said we were something to show to the world that we could be proud of. After the revolution, we wanted to find out if they were right. We went to France and Germany, and continued to Belgium, Poland, Italy, Austria, and we were thinking that maybe we could go to America or Japan."

In the effort to land a tour in the U.S., the band went to San Francisco in 1992 as part of a program that brought some 40 artists from the Czech Republic to the U.S. Wanek says the shows were more like "cultural exchanges" than a tour. They met various club owners and music industry representatives, and also found their musical soulmates in ex-Dead Kennedy Jello Biafra and the Residents, a San Francisco group that plays similarly schizophrenic music and has collaborated with Uz Jsme Doma on several occasions (notably for a series of concerts that took place in Prague last year). But after Wanek and the band returned to Prague, they thought that their efforts had been wasted when they tried to renew the contacts they had made.

"We kind of lost hope, because I sent some letters and got no response," Wanek says.

Wanek decided to take another trip to the U.S. in 1994, and he spent a week in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York in the effort to make the kind of connections that would enable the group to tour.

"I met thousands of people and gave them some material so that we could start this thing seriously -- one year later we made it, and we keep coming at least once every year," says Wanek, who has a record deal with the Washington, D.C.-based Skoda Records that has resulted in the reissuing of all of Uz Jsme Doma's imported albums and the domestic release of its latest studio effort, last year's Usi (Ears).

Produced by Dan Rathbun, an Oakland street musician who played in the now defunct group Idiot Flesh, Usi continues to explore the theme of communication breakdown that emerged on the band's previous efforts. Illustrated by Prague artist Martin Velisek, who's officially considered a member of the group, even though he doesn't tour with the band, Usi's cover art features a depiction of a giant ear instructing a classroom full of ears. Wanek, who recently went through a divorce, says the concept of the album revolves around the phrase "the ears teach the other ears to listen," a line which appears in the title track.

"If I want to teach somebody, I have to listen also," he explains. "The people in Kosovo have been killing each other and don't listen to each other anymore. They're completely disconnected. The reason they have war over there is because they are deaf; they just can't hear. I feel like there's a relationship between all our albums. It's almost the same idea from different points of view. The first album was called In the Middle of Words, and that's something similar. If there's too many words, people can't understand or listen to all of them. They just listen to the first three words and don't have the patience to hear the whole story -- especially here, I have to say.

"What we've tried to do from the very first album to now is turn people's attention to listening to each other," he continues. "It's very difficult to explain it -- that's why we do music. I've been in Bosnia and seen people fighting, and it's absolutely nonsense. If you had those people around the table with you, they wouldn't fight and could be friends and partners or whatever."

Uz Jsme Doma is not always as serious as Wanek might sound. After all, this is a band that commissioned a pop-up book (illustrated by Velisek) that depicts a history of the band with various cut-outs that can be manipulated by pulling on cardboard inserts. Recently, the group performed the music to The Magic Bell, an animated film that is enjoying a two-year run as a theatrical production/puppet show in Prague and, with any luck, will find its way to the States. And the band inflects tracks such as "The Cowboy Song" (from Usi), one of the only in its catalog to have lyrics in English (the rest are sung in Czech), with its unique, Eastern European sense of humor.

"[The Cowboy Song] is about two almost identical characters -- one from Czech and one from somewhere else," Wanek explains. "I just heard that word "dickhead,' and that's who these guys are -- they just go to work every day and go to the pub every day and talk about how they could be big if they could just do blah blah blah. Of course, you can meet these guys in the Czech Republic a lot, and you can meet them here too. Even though they are so stupid and stuck to one empty lifestyle, it doesn't mean that they don't think. It might be that, somewhere deep, they dream about something and miss being a real cowboy, like the Wild West. It's in each man; that kind of very secret dream to act like a real man, even though you are 300 pounds and probably can't sit on the horse anymore. From this point of view, the song is kind of sad, and I feel sorry for those people."

Uz Jsme Doma might have attracted a cult following in the U.S., but Wanek has said that the music scene in Prague, which thrived despite opposition from the government during the Communist era, hasn't been as vibrant after the revolution. Ironically, the difficulties involved in creating art during times without oppression might be more difficult than creating it during periods of censorship.

"I think it's possible to do good art and not just be against something," Wanek says. "Bertolt Brecht wrote: "We just passed the difficulties of mountains, but in front of us are the difficulties of flats.' At some point, maybe these difficulties of flats are much more difficult. To build something good is much more difficult than just criticizing something bad."