Adrian T. Bell, the Englishman who made the Czech LP of the year

Adrian T. Bell, photo: ČTK

Last week Different World by Englishman Adrian T. Bell picked up the prestigious Apollo critics’ award for best Czech album of 2014. While the record was his solo debut, Bell has been a fixture on the local music scene for over a decade as front man for indie band The Prostitutes. The day after his Apollo success we discussed his unlikely start with the group and what led to his solo outing. But we first spoke about an earlier period of Adrian T. Bell’s life, when he left his native Newcastle to become a naval cadet at the age of 16.

Adrian T. Bell,  photo: ČTK
“I joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, who are the supply ships to the Royal Navy, but they’re merchant manned. I trained as a navigator.

“It was brilliant. We went all over the place. I got some tickets through the mail when I was 16 to fly out to Canada.

“I joined a ship in Prince Rupert and we went on a jolly basically down the West Coast of the States, through the Panama Canal to Barbados and back home for Christmas.

“That was my first trip in the Navy. After that it got a bit mad when I went down to the Falklands in 1982. God, I’m that old. That’s when I decided I wanted to leave, because it was a bit close for comfort.”

Adrian T. Bell,  photo: ČTK
Did you have to grow up fast? I guess you were around a lot of older sailors when you were still quite young.

“Yes, there’s no time to mess around. People treat you as adults and they expect you to act like it. You have to forget all your kiddiness and get on with things.”

That was the early ‘80s, Cold War times. Did you ever have any encounters with the other side, so to speak?

“Yes… can I say this on the radio? We used to go for 10 weeks up to the North Pole and we’d be harassing the Russian fleet and they’d be harassing us and chasing us around and stuff like that. That was actually quite good fun.”

Russian fleet,  illustrative photo: Vitaliy Ankov,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
When you say harassing, what do you mean?

“Trying to find their navigation equipment, which was under the sea bed.”

You could have provoked World War III.

“No, no, I think everybody was kind of playing around. Everybody was polite to each other.

“There were never any bad situations, no firing or anything, but we were chased by these Russian trawlers… they were masquerading as trawlers but actually were kitted out with high tech radio equipment and radars and all sorts of stuff.

Manchester University,  photo: Mike Peel,  Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0
“You could see these aerials coming out of fishing boats and go, That’s not really a fishing boat.”

To jump hugely forward in time, how did you come to move here to Prague [in 1993]?

“I met my wife in Greece. I’d been in England for a few years. I’d gone to Manchester University after I’d left the Navy to study landscape architecture. I thought that’d be a good idea, but after a few years I thought, This is kind of boring.

Prague,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“So I went back to sea, to work on a yacht in Greece. And then I met my wife there, one summer, not on the yacht but one weekend. She said, Fancy coming back to Prague? And I said, Yeah, why not? Another adventure.”

Had you ever been here before that?

“I hadn’t, no. It was the whole mystification of the East that we lived with in those days. Nobody really knew what was beyond the Berlin Wall, really.”

Photo: Radio Prague
What were your impressions on your first trip here?

“You’ve been here the same amount of time, haven’t you? It’s changed a lot in that time. People have always been very nice. They’ve always been a bit dour. I got used to that after a few years.”

I don’t even notice it any more.

“I don’t, but I’m aware of when they’re trying to be happy more than when they’re being dour. It doesn’t sort of fit when a Czech waiter comes up and smiles at you.

“But anyway, they were very great times, actually. I remember everything being really cheap. But that’s just reminiscing, isn’t it? I don’t think it probably was that cheap.”

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
I think it was pretty cheap.

“Beer was only 12 crowns a pint, or per half litre… It was a good time. I’d met my new woman in my life. It was a big adventure. It was much more affordable to live here than in England at the time. I can remember it as just being a great time.”

I guess a lot of foreigners like myself came here and were kind of drifting and eventually ended up staying. But because you moved here for your now wife, did that mean you became integrated into Czech culture more quickly than a lot of us expats?

“I kind of avoided contact with expats. I was with my wife and tried to learn Czech, which didn’t go too well for the first year.

Photo: Radio Prague
“Then I joined a Czech darts team. And that’s when I learned my language and got a lot more mates and stuff.

“I actually came third in the Czech Open darts tournament, which was a big surprise to me because I was just a pub player. But they were just starting. The year after that it’d caught on and I was beaten badly.

“So I didn’t mix with expats so much. And I tried to get jobs in companies where they spoke Czech.”

How is your Czech now? One reason I ask is because your wife [Bianca Bellová] is a novelist – can you read her novels easily?

“Of course. My comprehension is excellent. I still have, as a lot of English people have here, a problem with pronunciation and speaking the language, because it’s a very difficult language. But my Czech is good. Everybody says it’s good. But they say that after 20 years it should be a bit better.”

Martin Přikryl,  photo: ČT24
I wanted to ask you about how you got into singing. I understand you kind of fell into it?

“It wasn’t so much that I fell into it, it was like I was dragged into it by my friend, Martin Přikryl. I was working with him at an advertising agency and he had a band.

“He heard that I played guitar and I had some recordings from somewhere that I let him listen to. He was looking for a new singer and he asked me to come along for a jam.

“I said I was only going for a jam, but when I got there I was introduced as the new singer. There was a bass player and a drummer there. And that’s when it kind of took off.”

Adrian T. Bell,  photo: Official Facebook of Adrian T. Bell
I guess you were about 40 at that time. How was it going on stage for the first time at that age? I can understand recording or rehearsing but going on stage…

“I was always the guy watching gigs but in the back of my mind I had sort of left that dream, whatever, in my 20s.

“Once I started doing it I found that it’s kind of a drug. It gets under your skin. It’s like, I have to do this again.

“But the first time I went on stage I was bricking it, as they say. It was, What the hell am I doing here? I wasn’t really the type of person who wanted to stand in front of people and to that sort of thing.”

The Prostitutes,  photo: Jan Trnka,  Public Domain
Your band is the Prostitutes. What have been the highlights of your years with the band?

“We won album of the year, when Filter magazine was around. We’ve played at some great venues. We’ve played Colours of Ostrava, we did a tour of Spain once. We’ve just played a lot of gigs, basically.

“I think the highlight for me is being able to go and travel around the Czech Republic.”

That’s what I wanted to ask you about. It always think it must be great for anybody in a band to see all these small, out of the way places where you wouldn’t go otherwise.

The Prostitutes,  photo: Official Facebook of The Prostitutes
“You wouldn’t. And I always surprised how friendly people are and how welcoming they are everywhere.

“Prague’s a big city like London is in England, but once you get out people are friendly, kind. They seem to enjoy themselves more than they do in Prague. Maybe Prague’s too spoilt.”

Have you played in any particularly unusual or unlikely places around the country?

“We played once for 10 skinheads who had forgotten to go home. This club had booked us but forgotten to advertise it or something.

Adrian T. Bell,  photo: YouTube
“We’re standing there and we realise there’s just 10 skinheads there and us. They looked pretty aggressive but they actually enjoyed the concert.

“They’d forgotten to go home, because there was a punk party the night before or something.”

After so many years with the Prostitutes what led you to do your solo album?

Photo: Official Facebook of Adrian T. Bell
“Basically I had all this stuff – ideas – hanging around. And playing on the road all the time, we never really had time to make up new stuff. We were playing the same stuff over and over again in each concert, which gets kind of boring.

“The lads had been less active one year and I decided I wanted to get on with this and do some more, because I can’t just let this music lie around and not do anything with it.”

Well, it’s gone very well, you’ve got the Apollo award. I was wondering if there was any kind of sniffy reaction at all from people to the fact that you were nominated and won but you’re not Czech. And it’s the Czech critics’ award, the equivalent of for instance the Mercury prize in the UK.

Adrian T. Bell,  photo: Official Facebook of Adrian T. Bell
“I’ve been here for 20 years and I know a lot of people in the music industry here, in the business, and they all take me as being ‘domácí’, which is like a home boy.

“I haven’t had any bad reaction from it at all, like [adopts stuffy voice], You don’t deserve this, because you’re not Czech.

“I’ve lived here for 20 years and I’ve been just as much part of the music scene as a lot of bands or anybody else.”

The album came out at the tail end of 2013 so I guess for you it’s old news. Are you working on anything new or have you got anything else on the way?

“I planning to do another album with the same guy I did A Different World with, Michael Rendall. He works with Youth, of Killing Joke. Youth is also a producer and he produced the Prostitutes’ album, last time.

A Different World,  photo: Official Facebook of Adrian T. Bell
“I couldn’t afford Youth and I noticed that Michael was actually doing all the work. As much as Youth was smoking joints in the background and talking about the construction of songs, blah, blah, blah, it was actually Michael who did all the work.

“That’s why I asked him to produce my last album. He loved doing it because he doesn’t want to be Youth’s sound engineer all his life.

“So I’m going to do the next album with him as well. Hopefully in May, if I can get the money together.”