The Plastic People of the Universe are back with a new album entitled Maska za maskou [The Mask behind the Mask], their first release in nearly a decade, and the first written since the death of their previous lead songwriter Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa. The group are absolute legends of the Czech rock underground, and it was their imprisonment by the communist authorities which famously sparked the Charter 77 protest movement. But while they may now feature in modern history books, the Plastic People always insisted they just wanted to be allowed to play their music – and since 1989 have been more or less a regular gigging band.
Guitarist Joe Karafiát (also known as Joe Carnation) wrote the music on around half of the songs. He explains what prompted the group to put out their first fresh material in so many years.
How would you compare the new album to previous albums by the Plastic People?
“On the previous albums Mejla Hlavsa, who died in 2001, was the main composer of all the songs and everything… when he died it was really hard to replace his songwriting. He was a really great songwriter. So the difference is that this new CD The Mask behind the Mask is our work, these are our songs, our arrangements, so there is a bit of a difference. We went to a really good studio, we could use really top gear. But we still have that underground sound. We like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart stuff, so…it’s modern and it’s not modern.”
I know you personally wrote the music on many tracks on the album. How much of a challenge was it for you personally in a sense standing in the shoes of Mejla Hlavsa?
“Oh, it was really hard. I wrote six songs and there’s another track on which the whole band improvised together…It was kind of hard to get into that groove, vibe, I don’t know how to explain it. I’m doing a lot of other stuff and I didn’t want it to sound like the other bands I’m in, or whatever. But I think it’s good, it’s good.”
Did you find yourself in a sense imitating him?
While Joe Karafiát composed the music for several tracks on Maska za maskou, there was a great deal of collaboration in the songwriting. Many of the lyrics, for instance, were written by one of the musicians who founded the group 40-odd years ago, saxophone player Vratislav Brabenec.
“Everybody is working in his field and everybody is working as much as possible [laughs]. Three members of the band started to be composers”
How did it work? Did you give them your finished lyrics or did they give you music and you wrote lyrics to it?
“First is the lyrics, usually.”
What is the significance of the title Mask behind the Mask?
“That’s a lyric that was written 15 years ago. Everybody has a mask and behind that mask is another mask and he’s ready to use another mask and…and…etceteras.”
When I met the Plastic People on Wednesday they were preparing to leave for London for a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Did Joe Karafiát find any difference between audiences abroad and here in the Czech Republic?
“We’ve played in England only once. But when we play in the States people want to enjoy themselves more. They don’t want to think too much, they want to have fun. The Czech audience is more thinking, they sit on their asses [laughs]…”
Are they more intellectual?
“I think so, I don’t know [laughs]. Except for the young girls – they’ve got all the excitement [laughs].”
You’ve appeared in the Czech version of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock’n’Roll. Is that still going on, and what has the experience given the band?
“Oh man, that was really great. We went to the National Theatre to play our music, our messy music. They were the first gigs in the National Theatre…it was like, wow, what are we doing here, what’s happening?”
Is that all over now or are you still doing those shows?
“Yes, we’re still doing the show. They’re moving us from the main stage to some other place, but it’s going to happen in February.”
Several members of the band are I guess into their 60s. Do the Plastic People still like touring? I know you’ve got a tour of the Czech Republic coming up soon.
Can you imagine an end date for the Plastic People?
“It’s a hard question [laughs]. I don’t want to imagine that…what am I going to do?! [laughs]”
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