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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 this country 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 here to play an indie-rock circuit that, depending on the city and club, generally has them 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 had 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 that 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 change 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 United States, the band went to San Francisco in 1992 as part of a program that brought some 40 artists from the Czech Republic to the States. Wanek says the shows were more like "cultural exchanges" than a tour. They met various club owners and music-industry representatives, and they 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 in Prague last year). But after Wanek and the band returned to Prague, they thought 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 make another trip to the States in 1994, and he spent a week in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York in an 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 reissue of all of Uz Jsme Doma's imported albums and the domestic release of its latest studio effort, last year's Usi(Ears).