Face to Face Against American Primitivism in Eastern Europe: an interview with Jakub Šimanský
What happens when the drummer from a noise rock band picks up an acoustic guitar? Probably not quite what you’d expect. I have Marcus Obst from Dying for Bad Music to thank for alerting me to the existence of Jakub Šimanský, previously the drummer from Přerov’s Unna, now responsible for a small but growing catalogue of fine fingerstyle guitar releases that reference the American Primitive tradition, yet happily spiral off into multiple dimensions entirely of Jakub’s own making. Marcus championed Jakub’s music from the release of his first album, the wonderfully entitled Face to Face Against American Primitivism in Eastern Europe vol. 1, released in 2016 on the Czech independent label Stoned to Death. Since then, he has added Vol 2 to the canon as well as releasing an excellent duo album with his Unna bandmate and long-term collaborator, Tomáš Niesner. Jakub’s music was recently exposed to a wider audience via the inclusion of the Šimanský Niesner track Little Amber on the tenth volume of Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthems series. He agreed to answer a few questions for North Country Primitive.
The music you made for a long time as a member of Unna was pretty heavy, yet your solo guitar playing is very different to that. What inspired you to make music that was such a contrast to what you had been doing before? Do you see any parallels between Unna's music and your solo music?
That was about eight years ago. It was at a time when the band was developing into metal noise, but at the same time weren’t getting to play that much. So I started looking for another way I could be more independent and play more often and where also I could find a kind of meditative position against the noise of the band. During this time I loved bands from the Thrill Jockey label and by pure chance I discovered the name Jack Rose there. It was such a revelation. Such a great music and just one acoustic guitar. Maximum results with minimum resources. I was amazed. That was exactly what I was looking for. I followed the trail and I began to discover the whole damn family around John Fahey to the current players like Daniel Bachman and those released by Tompkins Square. It's been an amazing adventure and a journey I’m still on today.
Are you influenced as a guitarist entirely by the American Primitive approach or do elements of European (and specifically Czech) folk music influence your music?
The Czech Republic is a small country and that's limiting in many ways. There are many great musicians, but only a few of them have a really interesting acoustic sound that would interest me. I’ll mention some of them here. They are mainly folk singers around the free folk association Šafrán. People such as Oldřich Janota, Dagmar Voňková, Vladimír Merta and then Irena and Vojtěch Havel and apart from these, and also very popular in the Czech Republic, Karel Kryl. I can't identify any other Czech names that have something to do with acoustic guitar or acoustic sound that have influenced me: moreover it was mental influence only. As for guitar technique, I've most learned to play guitar from John Fahey's tabs and videos of guitar players as Jack Rose, Daniel Bachman, Chuck Johnson and others. I just put together primitive guitar techniques and the Czech environment.
Did you take a different approach to playing on the Face-to-Face albums and playing as part of a duo with Tomáš Niesner on Tance Neznámé?
The main difference between these two projects is that Tomáš and me wanted to try other possibilities of this style using a second guitar to find other interesting harmonies and rhythms. We have been influencing each other musically since we were little kids and we’ve been making music together since the start. So it was only a matter of time before we tried something together.
What is the balance of composition and improvisation in your music?
What are you planning next? I think I read on Dying for Bad Music that you and Tomáš were thinking about a follow up to Tance Neznámé?
Well, I'll answer both these questions at the same time. Yes, we’ve been thinking about the possibilities of improvisation when creating the new album. Tance Neznámé is a record where the structure is fixed because these were songs that I had already done a long time before and Tomáš just added the second guitar to already finished tracks. We started to compose songs together by the time we began working on a new second album and we immediately started to work on a system of improvisation in the new songs, because open tunings are kind of made for that. The new album is ready and recorded and there are songs where we didn't count and just enjoyed playing the guitar. But we didn't give up entirely on songs with a fixed composition. We still want to combine these approaches, but the truth is that we’ve been enjoying the improvisation more and more, so it’s going to have a big future in our playing. It's likely that the third record will be entirely improvisational.
Do you think you'll be focusing completely on your duo work in the future? Or is there likely to be a Face-to-Face volume 3?
I still play the guitar almost every day and I try to record all the stuff I think is good. So I have a lot of material that I can use for both projects. It's just a matter of choosing the right ideas for each of them. Both projects are equally important to me. If the songs are ready for the new album, I either record them alone or with Tomáš. It doesn't matter which project it is. This year I would like to release the new album with Tomáš and also release my solo album, but I am not sure if it will be under the title Face-to-Face Vol. 3.
Talking of Face to Face, you had a wider variety of sounds on Vol 2 than Vol 1. I'm thinking of the epic K-Hole Forever, which in places has an anxious, almost avant-rock feel to it, and the outright experimentation of On The Ledge. What was your thinking in including these more unexpected sounds?
I'm glad you picked that particular song. It's a funny and crazy song for me and actually it's such a symbolic completion of "the micro concept" of the whole album. What do I mean by the concept? It was a time when I was experimenting with acid and I wanted to explore how it would influence my work. Actually, almost all the songs from this album were created and edited from the original recordings under the influence of acid. Specifically in this song you can hear it the most. In the beginning, there was a lot of crazy sections from which I tried to pull it together and also a lot of space for improvisation. It was a breakthrough in my composing and thinking. I'm happy with the song, even though I will probably never play it the same way again. The same goes for song On the Ledge and the sound of the whole album. It was an interesting period when I didn't think too much about composing music. The music was made up of something like unconsciousness. I was often purposefully working with mistakes in the original recordings or I was working with chance. I think there was an inspiration from Miles Davis at that time. Home recording helped me a lot too and thanks to that I had unlimited time and more peace of mind for recording and mixing. Just for fun, everything was recorded on the Zoom H1 hand recorder only.
And finally, what music are you listening to at the moment? Any old or new recommendations you would like to share?
Recently I have been listening stuff like Jessica Pratt, Scott Walker, Jandek, Leo Brower, William Basinski, Loscil, Windy and Carl, Tim Hecker, Wandelweiser Group, Pauline Oliveros, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Luther Adams, Miles Davis, Evan Caminiti, Föllakzoid... and from the Czech and Slovak scene names like Tábor, Black Tar Jesus, Dezider Ursíny, Psí Vojáci, Thistle and Czech labels like Genot Centre, Punctum Tapes, Stoned to Death Records.