Unchained Melodies

Anybody who's ever spent any amount of time with musicians knows that one of their biggest complaints is finding a place to play live. Certain clubs won't book their bands because they don't draw. Petty rivalries get blown out of proportion between neighboring scenes. (Hello, Dallas and Denton.) Rock clubs won't book electronic acts or vice versa. And touring? Fuhgetaboutit. Going on the road often takes more money and planning than bands have at their fingertips.

But such grievances seem trivial compared to the early years of Czechoslovakia's Uz Jsme Doma. (The name loosely translates as "Now I get it.") Though founded in 1985, before the fall of Communism in 1989, the band was lucky to play outside its native land. "It was completely impossible to tour," says Miroslav Wanek, Uz Jsme Doma's singer and guitarist, from Seattle, where the band is stopped for one of its 31 shows in a breathtaking 33 days. He goes by the diminutive Mirek, and his English is impeccable, spoken with an accent that says "Eastern European" to unsophisticated American ears that can't discern the differences between Slavic languages. He's also got a dry sense of humor that any fan of Czech literature will appreciate. "I didn't even have a passport. They didn't let me go anyplace, especially not the West. It was kind of a pain to go abroad anywhere, actually. The only easy country was East Germany, and all the other countries were forbidden. It was possible, but it was really a pain. You needed to get like a 100 stamps [permits], and when you got like the 60th one, the first one was already expired."

Playing in their native land wasn't much easier. "We played only Czechoslovakia, but they were small concerts, very underground, very illegal, actually," Mirek says. "We covered wedding parties or birthday parties or whatever private reason. And, of course, even that was forbidden, and sometimes the police came and sometimes they didn't."

It's a situation that may bring to mind another Czech outfit, one that started in the late 1960s: cult faves the Plastic People of the Universe. Like Uz Jsme Doma, the PPU--which was famously renowned for being one of Vaclav Havel's favorite bands--was often forbidden to play in Czechoslovakia because its music was considered "antisocial" by the government.

"That wasn't the reason, actually," Mirek says in relation to Doma's situation. "That was sort of Kafka's word [for it]. Nobody would really tell you what was wrong. They'd always said, 'It's fine, you can play whatever you want and blah blah blah,' but in a realistic way, there was constant censorship and constant troubles. Police officers would say, 'OK, you can play, but you need this type of permit.' And to get that permit was impossible. The point why they didn't like this music was not just this music. It was about literature, painters, any artists, people who tried to think and reason with their minds. These Communist officers, they really liked to take control of everything, of every little step of your life."

Doma, however, has never imbued its music with issues of social commentary. Over the course of six albums, this six-piece has crafted unique, playful and energy-charged music that may remind some ears of PPU because of the Czech language and idiosyncratic instrumentation--horns play a significant role in the band. But its sound also finds antecedents in the art-rock explosion of American absurdists like earl Pere Ubu and, to an extent, the really rollicking moments of The Fall.

And like both of those bands, politics was never the focus, though in the process its music became a political act. "We were never a political band," Mirek says. "My lyrics are about human troubles or loss or hope, or just characters and stories. They were never really political, but, of course, in the end, they ended up being that."

How culture influences music is an area of academic study called ethnomusicology, though rarely, if ever, is it a discipline applied to rock. Brit critic Simon Frith has occasionally ventured into that deep forest. But it's a fact you can't help but recognize if you've ever been fascinated by contemporary music from other lands. Rock and roll never really took in France (the country's lone great rock act is Magma), while Italy has churned out many solid rock outfits.

In the case of Doma, the band's complex, dense use of horns gives its music an urgent, throbbing undertow. It's especially powerful live, where this band can really whip up an impressive sprawl of pulsating noise. It's also a quality that lends the band's latest album, 1999's Ears, its textural punch. "We are secret hunters," Mirek says slyly, explaining the role of horns in the band. "That's sort of our joke. None of us was in the army. We were all, I don't know what you call it here, in our country you call it blue card. If you can't go into the service because you are sick or whatever like that, you get a blue card in Czech republic. And each person in the band has a blue card. But when you listen to the music, a lot of people told me that they can hear like a soldier march or something that's very much like army music. So maybe we, very deep in our souls, we feel like we're soldiers or hunters or cowboys." He laughs. "I'm just kidding."

Whatever it may be, it's a peculiarly fascinating sound to behold. And it's earning the band fans all over the world. After this current tour, the band plans to take some time off before starting the European festival circuit. After that, it will have two weeks in Croatia. And there's talk of traveling to Japan at the end of the year and possibly Brazil and Argentina next year, two places that initially heard the band over the Internet.

In fact, the band completed a two-week tour of Russia before heading to the states, and while there, it encountered fans it didn't even know it had. "It's really amazing, the Internet," Mirek says. "Even in Moscow, there were these young people who said, 'We have all your CDs.' And we asked them, 'How did you get it?' And they said, 'We ordered it on Internet.' So we'd ask, 'How did you hear about us?' And they said, 'We read about you on Internet.' And all we could say was, 'Oh, great. It works.'"

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Bret Mccabe