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interview with Antonín Kocábek for Legalizace (CZ), 4/2020
How have you spent covid-19 pause? Were you relaxing or this was existential problem for you?
I spent most of the „lockdown“ at home, working on Book 3 of Stripped, my New York trilogy (there’s an extract from it in the June edition of Revolver Revue). I quite enjoyed the pause, being quite an anti-social type by nature, and there wasn’t much of a change from my normal routine. I’m a bit of a hermit, I don’t go out so much – only if there’s a band or a movie I want to see, or if I have a gig myself. My idea of a good time is to sit at home with a bottle of red wine, working on my book or writing new songs. So there was no existential crisis for me – only that it’s a pain in the ass to put the face mask on each time I go to the Vietnamese grocery store to buy another bottle of red…
Were you scared by it?
I think „concerned“ would be a better word. I’m not one of those people who denies the existence of the virus, and if you are unfortunate enough to get it, the consequences can be dire. I was speaking to my ex wife Marcia the other day. She used to play keyboards in my New York band Khmer Rouge, and later played with The Fall, and now she’s a hospital doctor in Cambridge, England. She tested positive in late March and was really sick for ten days. She said it was awful, and though she’s back at work now she still doesn’t feel totally up to par. So yeah, if you do get it, be prepared for a rough ride. And in my case I’m 67 years old, I’m an ex drug addict, and I caught Hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles in New York in the 1980s. I got cured of that ten years ago, but even so it means I have „an underlying health condition“ which could leave me vulnerable to the virus. But I’m not going to retire from life because of it. I spent the early 80s in New York doing drugs and having unprotected sex, right at the time HIV/AIDS was making its debut. I was more paranoid about that than I am about Covid-19. And there are dozens of other unpleasant viruses and bacteria floating around – Ebola, SARS, Avian Flu, Swine Flu, measles is making a comeback, probably turberculosis too. If you think too much about it you’ll go insane and you’ll end up being afraid to eat, drink, fuck, or do anything. You may as well just kill yourself right now! So as I say, I’m concerned enough to follow the health guidelines, but I’m not hiding in the corner covering my eyes.
You have lived 25 years in CZ. How is it changing - from your point of view - here, during that time?
The 1990s were a wonderful time to be in Prague, and I came here by chance at the best possible moment. It was really free and really wild and really creative, and everyone had a great party. Now you have a former STB agent and swindler as prime minister, and a Russian lackey with Chinese business interests as president. But it‘s pointless being sad and nostalgic about the Havel years, great as they were. It’s a different ballgame now, and Czech Republic is tied into the globalized economy like the rest of Europe. This means people generally have a higher standard of living, but it also means they are pulled into the rat race – which is what I was escaping from when I left England and moved here. You want a fast car, a nice flat, a wife and two healthy well-fed kids – well okay, motherfucker, you can have them, but you’re gonna have to work twelve hours a day (on flexi-time) to keep them! You can’t blame all this on Babiš, much as I dislike the guy – it’s simply part and parcel of the way the world has gone. Neo-liberal economics, zero hours contracts, and the rest of that Milton Friedman shit. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s a trade-off. When I came here in the 90s the clubs were fantastic, but there were still piles of lignite coal in the street, the sewers all stank and you couldn’t breathe the air. Now you’ve got clean air and nice smelling drains and beautifully restored buildings, but you’ve also got Babiš and Zeman. Don’t despair, it could be much, much worse. Look at Britain or the USA – what catastrophes! Trump makes Babiš look like the archangel Gabriel, and in Britain we have a 100% cretin in charge of things. If you look at the big picture, Czech Republic is a fucking nice place to be, so stop crying. You could be living in China!
Do You remember your first visit to Prague? Did you come then for a concert or what brought you here?
I had a Czech girlfriend who I’d met in London in 1990. She was born in Brno, but her parents had emigrated to Switzerland in 1980, so she’d grown up in Basel. I used to play solo concerts in Zurich or Basel to cover the air ticket from London, and this way I could afford to visit her every couple of months. Anyway, on one of these visits to Basel she suggested we take the train to Prague, so I could see something of her home country. This was in 1991. As soon as the train pulled into the station I felt at home here. I don’t know why, something just clicked. I felt it on an instinctive level, as if I’d lived here in a previous lifetime. I even convinced myself that I was an avatar of the English alchemist Edward Kelley, who had moved to Prague with John Dee (Jan Devus) in 1583. Kelley had been born near Worcester, the town where I grew up, and I‘d recently written a song called „Alchemy“. Not only that, but I’d bought The Complete Enochian Dictionary in London – it all made perfect sense! While in Prague, I dropped off my first solo CD Backwoods Crucifixion at Radio One. Zuzana, my Czech girlfriend, had been an au pair in London with a girl called Miša, who was about to get married to Jirka Neumann, one of the DJs at Radio One. I remember that Jirka took one look at the CD cover and said it looked like music to „hang yourself to”. It does have a very dark cover, but nevertheless he played it, and it got to be quite popular. My second solo CD God Is The Other Face Of The Devil – including the song „Alchemy” – became even more popular, and I was offered the chance to tour Czech Republic in the summer of 1994. The band Tichá Dohoda learned my songs and backed me on that tour, and my first Prague concert was at the old Bunkr Klub. By then I’d split up with Zuzana, but at the last gig on the tour – at u vystřelenýho oka – I met Jolana, the woman who is now my wife. I went back to London for a year, then moved here permanently in the summer of 1995. So yeah, „Instant Karma“ with me and Prague – or maybe „Instant Alchemy“ would be a better description.
What about your musical beginnings? Did you grow up in a musical family? Or what inspired you to start playing guitar and composing?
My family weren’t very musical, apart from my grandmother, who played piano. But she wasn’t classically trained and played only religious songs – Christian hymns. I remember the day of my first guitar lesson very clearly. My family was living in Worcester at the time and I was ten years old. The date was November 22nd 1963. An older boy who was the lead guitarist in a local rock and roll band - the Early Birds - had agreed to teach me the rudiments of guitar. I was just practicing „Shazam” by Duane Eddy, the first song I ever learned to play, when my teacher’s mother came into the room and announced some terrible news – President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and was feared to be dead. So it’s very easy to date this first lesson of mine, as it coincided with a world-shaking and tragic event. After a few more lessons I began to teach myself by listening to records and working out the songs by ear: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers – later The Pretty Things, The Small Faces, Traffic, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge. I did music as a school subject and learned to read the notes, but basically I approached rock music on an instinctive level. My biggest motivation to learn was the interest I got from girls. I wasn’t anything special to look at, not particularly handsome. But the minute I picked up a guitar the female antennae started to twitch! The first song I wrote was when I was 12 years old, and it was terrible: „When we used to walk and play / Down country lanes far, far away / You said you loved me and true love would stay / But it never, never goes this way.” C/Am/F/G. Totally hokey! I also had a couple of bands between the ages of 11 and 14 – The Feendz (we were allowed to play to our school class on Friday afternoons), and The Nova Sound, which was a real Mod band. We even supported British soul legend Geno Washington when he played in Worcester. Then I got interested in cycling as a sport and didn’t play music again until I was about 17.
As you said, you lived in the United States in the eighties. Why did you actually leave Britain? And why didn't you stay overseas?
I’d been trying to escape from England for as long as I can remember. I just don’t fit with the place, I don’t feel comfortable there. Maybe it’s to do with the English class system, the way everyone is put into little boxes, the way you are expected to „know your place“ in the social hierachy. People think that England is free, but it isn’t – not unless you belong to the middle or upper classes, or are part of the aristocracy. Anyway, my first escape attempt was in 1971 when I was eighteen and had just left school – me and a friend hit the „hippy trail“ with the idea of making it to India. The problem was we were too lazy to work and save money. We set off for India with about sixty pounds – probably about 20 000 Kc in today’s money. We were travelling overland and intended to stay away for a year, so it wasn’t very realistic. We got stuck on the Italian Riviera, never made it to India. To survive, we used to steal food from supermarkets – very Jean Genet – and I had my guitar, so I’d do a bit of busking on the sea front. Finally we ended up in Morocco and stayed there for six months till the money ran out. Then we had to steal our way back to England, where I signed on the dole. It went like this for the next few years – I’d get across to Europe at every opportunity and work on farms picking fruit, anything to escape boring old England. I was a bit too young to be a true hippy. I was more at the upper end of the age spectrum of the punk generation, the same age as Joe Strummer. I flew to New York in May 1979 to visit this girl I’d met in London. I ended up meeting a different girl, Debbie, who was a striptease dancer and a singer (I write about this in Book 2 of Stripped). We formed a band, the DC10s, and did one gig at Max’s Kansas City, after which the drummer died of a heroin overdose and the band split up. I stayed with Debbie for two years but she was absolutely crazy – psychotic. We used to have these amazing fights with knives and broken glass. Then I met another striptease dancer called Marcia, who I got married to. I formed the post punk band Khmer Rouge and she played keyboards. She later went on to play with The Fall (as I mentioned earlier in this interview). I ended up staying in New York for five years but got totally fucked up on heroin. Khmer Rouge split up, my marriage split up, I was broke and mostly sick from heroin withdrawal. So again I had to return to England, otherwise I’d have probably left New York in a coffin. I’ve been in Prague for twenty five years now. I’m remarried, I have a flat, a beautiful Czech wife, a great band and I’m clean of drugs. I won’t make the same mistakes again – I don’t wanna go back to fucking England!
Never say never with our politicians... Heroin in New York was your first knowledge with drugs? No trying and experimentations in teen age? No defiance of parents?
Of course I experimented with drugs before getting into heroin! You should read Chapter 3 of Stripped Book One („Až na dřen“ in Czech, published by Mat’a/Kosmas), it’s all in there – the teenage sex, the soft drugs, the fighting with parents. I started smoking pot at age 17, then got into LSD in a big way a year or two later. Between 1971 and 1974 I did more than 100 trips. This was at a time when the acid was really strong – the time of the Brotherhood Of Eternal Love, David Litvinof and Operation Julie. During the British police action code named „Operation Julie“, these hippy/capitalist entrepreneurs were busted with millions of microdots of LSD at a cottage in Wales, where they’d set up a laboratory to produce the stuff. The Clash wrote a song about it called „Julie’s In The Drug Squad“. Anyway, the point is that this stuff was really fucking strong – about 250 mcg a hit, as opposed to the normal dose these days which is 100-150 mcg. I was at university in Manchester at the time, but I never went to lectures. I just stayed in my room with the curtains drawn, tripping on LSD, reading The Tibetan Book Of The Dead and listening to Tangerine Dream. I ended up going insane. The flashbacks were horrendous, they went on for months, even after I stopped taking LSD. I think that’s one of the reasons I got into heroin – it calmed me down, took away the paranoia and incipient schizophrenia that I’d acquired as a result of all the bad trips.
Everytime, when I met some foreigners who visited Prague in 90s, They were shocked by public smoking of marihuana in clubs and pubs and the amount of alcohol. “There is more free than in Amsterdam here,” told me one guy from Italy in that Time. During the time, while he drank a small beer, the Czech girls had their second pint... In this environment, you were seriously getting rid of your drug addiction?
Well, I’m no angel, that’s for sure. But I quit heroin in August 1988, seven years before I moved to Prague, and I’ve never taken it since. I wrote about the last stages of my addiction in my book Junkie Love. The choice was quite clear at the time: continue using heroin and probably die in a year or two from overdose, AIDS, Hepatitis, violent attack or general bad health; or choose to live, make the big decision and definitively quit. I chose to live, and it was a very binary choice, very clear and very stark. After ten years of addiction, six of which were really heavy, it was quite hard to stop. But once you make up your mind – I mean REALLY make up your mind – you can do anything. These days I don’t even smoke pot. I mean, this skunk that you get in Prague is awful – it closes your brain down, turns you into a zombie. The pot I used to smoke in New York was absolutely different – Thai Sticks, Hawaiian or Colombian sinsemilla. It really opened your mind, made you sensitive to colours and sounds, gave you extra-sensory perception. Skunk just turns you into a stumbling, brain-dead idiot.
Many foreign musicians came to Prague in the 1990s, but most of them left again over time. Quite often they explained this by saying that Prague is quite provincial for music. Did you miss here meeting the famous musicians in Britain and the USA that you often mentioned?
Absolutely not! I am SO FUCKING GLAD to be away from all those phonies and posers that populate the US and UK rock music scenes. Man, it’s so empty and hollow – it’s all about fashion and advertising and image and profile. Marketing, in other words. So calculated, so BORING! I never had the idea that I was gonna get rich and famous through music – I never even thought about it, and that’s the truth. I got into music because it made me feel good, and it gave me access to girls, drugs, parties and mind-altering experiences. These days the music scene is so SAFE – you might as well just get a job in an office. Young people seem to go into it because it’s part of so-called „identity politics“ – they play music not because it makes them feel orgasmic, but because it gives them a social media profile that they can then market – either for money and fame, or other less-defined reasons like ego. Fuck that! As for those musicians who went back to Britain and the USA – lightweights and opportunists. They thought they saw an „opening“ here in the 90s and when it didn’t work out the way they expected they went back to the States to take up a career, start a family, whatever. Like I say, I’ve been playing music since I was eleven years old and I’m sixty seven now. Do you seriously think I give a damn about „making it“? Ha ha ha!
Simultaneously with the way you played with Czech musicians, you also performed with Nikki Sudden, and also with Fatal Shore and later with Dim Locator, with whom the recordings are published mainly in Germany. How did you meet them?
I first met Nikki in 1977, when he was playing with Swell Maps. I’d just moved down to London and I met him one day when he was selling copies of Swell Maps first single („Read About Seymour“) to the owners of the Rock On music stall in Soho market. We got talking and I bought a copy of the single, which I really liked. In 1978 I moved back to Manchester, and a year later I went to New York, where I lived for five years, so Nikki and I lost touch completely. We reconnected in London in 1993/4 when we were on the same UK record label. This was around the time that the Jacobites reformed to record Howling Good Times, and I had just recorded God Is The Other Face Of The Devil, shortly before I played in Prague for the first time. And then we really got to know each other after Nikki played the Bunkr Klub in Prague in 1996. We started writing songs together, which eventually formed part of the CD Golden Vanity. Then I did two European tours with Nikki, in 1997 and 1998, playing lead guitar in his band. Golden Vanity didn’t get released until 2009, three years after Nikki died, and I think it’s one of the most interesting and underrated albums either of us ever made. Chris Hughes (of Fatal Shore and Dim Locator) I first met in London in 1991, when he was playing drums with Rowland S. Howard’s band, These Immortal Souls. I opened for them at The Underworld in Camden Town, and Chris and I got talking and really hit it off. Later, in 1996, I met him again when Once Upon A Time did one of their last ever gigs at The Roxy in Prague. I met Bruno Adams, the lead singer of OUAT, at the same concert. I’d known his sister Bronwen Adams (violin player with Crime & The City Solution) in London – we used to go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings together after we both quit heroin. So I introduced myself to Bruno, and, as I did with Chris, I got on with him immediately. I was just about to do a tour of Bosnia-Herzegovina sponsored by the Soros Foundation, and I invited Bruno to accompany me. We had about a week to prepare, so we put together a set of cover songs by singer-songwriters such as Jaques Brel, Howlin‘ Worf, Robert Johnson, Lee Hazelwood. A deep and lasting friendship developed between us, and when Chris announced that he wanted to play drums with us, Fatal Shore came into being. Bruno and Chris lived in Berlin and I lived in Prague, so I used to drive up to Berlin in my green Škoda 120, and we started writing original material that we integrated with the cover versions. The first Fatal Shore CD (Rachot/Behemoth in Czech Republic; Moloko + in Germany) reflects this period really well. When Bruno died of colon cancer in 2009, Chris and I were devastated. Bruno was like a force of nature, but by the time he died aged 46 he was just skin and bones. Cancer is a motherfucker of a disease, and Bruno put up one hell of a fight, but in the end it got him. Chris and I still wanted to play together, but it would have been unthinkable to continue Fatal Shore without Bruno – he wasn’t the sort of guy you could replace, if you know what I mean. So instead we formed Dim Locator – initially with Dave Allen, who used to play with Hugo Race, more recently with Baron Anastis and Daniel Plashues on bass and guitar respectively. Dim Locator is absolutely different to Fatal Shore, it’s got more in common with „Kraut Rock” bands like Can and Neu! or Detroit bands like The Stooges and MC5, than it does with Lee Hazelwood or Nick Cave – it’s got heavier grooves, and is more trancy and psychedelic. But Fatal Shore was a classic, original band. Of course, we were never commercially successful – that goes without saying.
I remember, that you was a friend with music journalist Tom Komarek and help to his band Secret 9 Beat a few years ago. Are you interesting and watching the current czech young scene? Are you interested in a certain reunion on the psychedelic rock scene? I mean bands like Vellocet Roll, Branko´s Bridge, Purplefox Town, Dirty Old Dogs, Beps´n´Johnnies and others.
I try to stay engaged, but like I said I’m a hermit and I hardly ever go out. Plus I’m so immersed in my own stuff – the New York book at the moment – that I don’t listen to much music. When I do, it tends to be classical or Jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. So I hadn’t heard of these young Czech bands you mention, but I’m checking them out on You Tube as I write this interview. Vellocet Roll sound great! „Slag“ sounds kind of Australian to my ears – like Once Upon A Time mixed with Thirteenth Floor Elevators, which can’t be bad. „Creepy Tepee“ is also cool. I like the hypnotic repetition of colliding guitar riffs. This song reminds me of early Khmer Rouge, when we in our experimental phase and played the first White Columns Noise Festival in 1981. „Dig It“ by Branko’s Bridge is good too, a real Detroit sound like early Stooges and MC5. Takes no prisoners. Purplefox Town – getting into Skip Spence „Oar“ territory here. Careful with that axe, guys, and maybe take a break from the tincture for a while. But yeah, great stuff, I like it, and they have a great image! Not easy to pin down. Dirty Old Dogs – „One Day“ is beautiful. Reminds me of Tim Buckley mixed with (again) Once Upon A Time. So yeah, classic stuff, very emotive and powerful. Beps ‚an‘ Johnnies – the singer has an great voice and a commanding presence. And I like the fuzzy, blurry guitar noise in the background. It’s like Grace Slick on vocals with music by My Bloody Valentine. Please don’t take my referencing other singers and bands as any kind of put-down. I’m just giving you my initial, quick impressions of where these bands seem to be coming from. I could be completely wrong. But each of them is absolutely original and individual, and I wish them all the best with their great music. They also sing in English with no hint of a Czech accent – like native English speakers, with no over-rolled „rrrrrrrs“. Amazing sounds, and really optimistic for the New Wave of Czech alternative music. Other young bands I have seen or heard and really like are Manon Muert and Baro Chandel – though I hear that Baro Chandel have recently split up, which is a pity.
You play with bands and in duo with David Babka. But you released a solo album at the beginning of this year after a long time. Why? Weren't those songs suitable for fellow bands?
It was just something I had to get out of my system. „Cassandra Lied“ is probably the most personal and lyrically deep album I have done to date, and I had very specific ideas about the musical arrangements and instrumentation. I play all the keyboard and bass parts myself (except on the cover version of Bowie’s „The Man Who Sold The World“), as well as all the acoustic guitars and most of the electric guitars. I wanted to immerse myself in these strange songs, with no outside pressures or time restraints. In the end, I spent 318 hours in the studio, spead over fifteen months. Chris Hughes co-produced it with me, and plays drums, surf guitar and EBow guitar. Kristof Hahn played the amazing noise- lapsteel guitar parts. If you hear the bounce of the lapsteel tracks alone, they sound really avant garde – they could make an absolutely apocalyptic Noise/Psychedelic album by themselves. Then I had help from other friends, like Eva Turnová on backing vocals and Baron Anastis of Dim Locator playing bass on the Bowie song. Marcia Schofield did backing vocals on „When Did The Feeling Die“ and David Babka of Southern Cross played some excellent bottleneck guitar on the same track. We‘ve already started to play some of these new songs with Southern Cross. The guys in my band are incredible musicians and are able to play anything at the drop of a hat. I just wanted to go in a slightly different direction with „Cassandra Lied“, to get away from rock structures and focus more on layered sounds and atmospherics. More in a 70s „Kraut Rock“ direction, using loops, samples and film music, as well as early Joy Division, Magazine, Durutti Column and other Manchester post-punk bands. Chris and Kristof know this musical landscape very well and I didn’t have to explain anything. But it would have helped if I could have afforded Brian Eno or Tony Visconti to mix it!
On that album you collaborate with former Swans member Kristof Hahn and sometimes he even gives concerts with you. Are you a "soul mates"?
I’ve known Kristof for about twenty years, from when Fatal Shore were doing a lot of concerts in Berlin. He was good friends with Bruno and Chris, and we did several gigs with Kristof’s band Les Hommes Sauvage, who were one of my favourite Berlin bands. Later, Southern Cross did some concerts in Czech Republic with Les Hommes Sauvage. So yeah, we go back quite a long way. I wouldn’t say we were „soul mates“ but we get on well together and we are familiar with the same musical terrain. It was actually Chris Hughes who suggested getting Kristof on board with „Cassandra Lied“ and I’m really happy he did. By the way, Kristof will be special guest with Dim Locator at the Full Moon/Uni party in September. And as far as I know, he still plays with Swans – they just had to postpone the never-ending tour because of Corona virus and border controls.
You mentioned your books several times. Aren't you attracted to some non-autobiographical story? Are you writing anything now?
My books aren’t strictly biographical. They are based on real events that happened to me, but they are not linear, blow-by-blow accounts. Neither are they diaries. Time sequences are changed around, characters are invented, and there are stories inside stories, like those Russian dolls that fit inside each other. Some parts are quite factual, but then the narrative disappears into stream of consciousness, dreams and nightmares, parodies of other literary forms, social analysis, psychoanalytical analysis, poetic flights, philosophical musings. I actually hate those rock and roll autobiographies, like that stupid Motley Crüe book. You know – „we played a gig in Seattle, and there was a great orgy afterwards, then we bought a kilo of heroin and one of our roadies OD’d, then we flew to LA and I fucked three girls in the toilets, and Chicago was great the next night but we got busted by the police blah blal blah”. My books have more in common with Henry Miller or Louis-Ferdinand Celine than they do with Nikki Sixx. At the moment I’m editing Books 1 and 2 of Stripped for publication in English, while simulataneously working on Book 3 for publication in Czech by Mat’a/Kosmas. It’s big work – each book is about 48 000 words long, so almost 150 000 words in total. I want it to be the definitive novel of the New York punk years, something like „Please Kill Me“, if Henry Miller had written it.
Are you the type of rocker who would like to die on stage?
How undignified. Definitely not!
Do you have any wisdom of life to the end of this conversation?
If you’re gonna take drugs to push the boundaries of experience, keep enough perspective to know when to stop before you turn into a psycho or a zombie.
This interview was published in Czech language in magazine Legalizace, issue # 4/2020