Jan P. Muchow: Whoever remembers the 1990s in Prague wasn’t there
Born in the then East Germany, musician and producer Jan P. Muchow (48) moved to Prague with his family as a small child and in his teens was a promising football player. But sport’s loss was music’s gain when he founded The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, perhaps the only Czech rock band to make any real impact in the West in the early to mid 1990s. Following several line-up changes, EOST coalesced for a long time around Muchow and actress Kateřina Winterová, though the project has now been dormant for several years. Today Jan P. Muchow is primarily known for his production work for some of the country’s most popular artists and for his film soundtracks.
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’s John Peel session became their first release on Go Discs.
You grew up in Prague’s Jižní Město, or South Town, the country’s biggest estate of grey concrete prefabricated apartment buildings. How was that?
“I think it was a good place to grow up, because there were loads of other kids you could play football with.
“There were huge prefab apartment blocks with maybe 15 entrances. You could pass all the way through these buildings and there was always something to do and somewhere to go. Once I even set a haystack on fire.
“So it only started to bother me once I reached puberty and realised I was living in a horrible prefab block with claustrophobic low ceilings.
“I enrolled in secondary vocational school on Betlémská St. in the city centre and sat in Café Slavia, which was nearby, all day every day.
“And I discovered living among prefab blocks wasn’t the only possible way to live!”
In your youth you played football competitively in Slavia Prague’s youth setup. When you started also getting into alternative music and sitting in cafés and going to clubs, how did you manage to combine those two things?
“I spent more time in Café Slavia than at school and the idea of getting up at 3 o’clock and going to the football Slavia and getting togged out became less and less appealing.
“Also I kind of drifted apart from the other guys in the football team.”
I don’t suppose they were much interested in indie bands like The Cure or The Smiths?
“Not at all. That was maybe the main factor.
“It wasn’t just the fact that I’m lazy by nature – I was just wasn’t interested in being involved any more from the social perspective.”
You were 18 years old when the Velvet Revolution happened. Did you feel lucky to be that age in that particular moment?
“It was only afterwards when I looked back that it occurred to me that I had been just the right age in those days.
“I have friends who were a few years younger and they didn’t really experience it.
“I spent more time in Café Slavia than at school and the idea of getting up at 3 o’clock and going to the football Slavia and getting togged out became less and less appealing.”
“And I have older friends who went into business and started earning money and today they’re living off their investments.
“But I was glad that it never occurred to me that life could have this economic aspect; I was way more interested in the arts and travelling.
“I read books that I couldn’t read before and listened to radio stations I wasn’t allowed to before.
“I was glad that all of a sudden I could live a full life.”
How did your generation of musicians differ from the ones before you?
“Some people started out playing instruments or in bands by doing other people’s songs. That’s how they learned.
“But the first songs I did were my own ones. We may have done cover versions a couple of times, but just for fun.
“So sometimes if I’m somewhere and somebody pulls out a guitar and says, Play us something, I just can’t!”
So no traditional Czech campfire singing for you?
“Once I was at some charity event at a children’s home where there was a campfire and a guitar came out.
“The kids asked me to play something and all I could play was Lucky Boy, which at least the older people there knew.”
You acted in the 1996 film Šeptej (Whisper), which was partly filmed in actual nightclubs and bars and really is one of THE artefacts of 1990s Prague. How do you look on it today?
“Now I like it.
“But for a long time I was embarrassed, of course, because as a non-actor when you’re on set you realise that it’s no coincidence that there are good and bad actors.
“You think you’re playing more upbeat or sadder and the director is going, But it’s just the same – can’t you really try?!
“But today I’m always meeting people who say that it meant a lot to them and that they like the songs.
“So actually now I’m glad that I was a part of it.”
What are your standout memories from the early days of EOST?
“To paraphrase, whoever remembers the 1990s in Prague wasn’t there; now I know why they say that about the 1960s.
“Of course, I can’t remember it all in detail, but when you ask, the one word that comes to mind is ‘freedom’.
“We just played what came naturally to us. For instance, not having a saxophone in the band.
“That was mainstream in Czech alternative or underground music in those days, and those bands thought we were weird.
“And they thought because we didn’t do solos that we couldn’t play!”
Also you sang in English, which is unusual now for a Czech band and was even more unusual then.
“Some people thought that we sang in English just because we wanted to go abroad.
‘But it’s like if you play ice hockey, you want to play in the NHL. If you sing opera, then in Italian.
“I basically began to pay attention to music because there was a band called The Cure. And they sang in English, so my first information about music was in English.”
Jan P. Muchow’s music for the movie Samotáři (The Loners) is much-loved by a whole generation of Czechs.
One of your first records [...Fluidtrance Centauri...] was originally recorded at the start of 1993 as a session for the English radio DJ John Peel, who was one of the most influential DJs of all time. How did that come about?
“Some time in 1991 we gave our first EP, Pigment, to a promoter who ran a club in Kladno with his friends.
“Then one day somebody told me, John Peel played your record last night on the BBC World Service.
“Peel said somebody had sent it to him from Czechoslovakia.
“It turned out that this guy in Kladno, Míla Špáňa, had bought an extra copy and sent it to John Peel, without even knowing his proper address.
“And somehow it arrived and he started playing it.”
But wasn’t there a story about Peel looking you up at home or something?
“It turned out that this guy in Kladno had bought an extra copy and sent it to John Peel, without even knowing his proper address. And somehow it arrived and he started playing it.”
“What actually happened was we sent him our debut LP and the address of the label, Reflex Records, was on the back.
“They were on Pařížská, which wasn’t a big fashion street in those days, and he stopped by there one day when he was on holiday in Prague.
“How I heard about it was I came home one night, my folks were in bed and there was a message saying, Call the label.
“So I phone up next day and they say, There was some man looking for you, some DJ. These guys at the label couldn’t speak English.
“As a joke – trying to be funny, right – I said, Do you mean John Peel?
“And they said, That’s the one. So we met up with him and Peel said, I was in Prague so I thought I’d invite you to do a session for my programme.”
Which put you in very fine company. David Bowie, Joy Division – almost anybody who was anybody in music had done a Peel session. But I gather it took a while for you to actually record yours?
“In those days Czechoslovakia wasn’t in the EU, so it took absolutely ages to get a work visa and when we finally did get it, it was for just one week.
“So we arrived in London and went into the studio in Maida Vale the next day and recorded the session.
“This was at the end of January 1993, and we were sleeping in a caravan in front of a friend’s house.
“As we were there for a week, we’d managed to arrange some gigs in London from Prague, by fax.
“On the Wednesday we played at some small venue and afterwards there was a knock on the dressing room door from a guy in a sports jacket.
“He said he was from Go Discs! and his name was Andy MacDonald.
“Andy MacDonald came up to us and said, What are you doing tomorrow? We said, Our visas run out tomorrow and we have to leave Dover by midnight. So he invited us to lunch the next day… When it was time for dessert he said, I’d like to offer you a five-album deal.”
“He said he’d seen us the night before and liked it and was going to come the next night with some other guys from his label.”
That was a relatively big independent label, right? They had names like Portishead, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller.
“Go Discs! was one of the few UK labels we actually knew. And naturally we thought that the next concert, the night before we left, was a total disaster.
“But Andy MacDonald came up to us and said, What are you doing tomorrow?
“We said, Our visas run out tomorrow and we have to leave Dover by midnight. So he invited us to lunch the next day.
“It was in a gorgeous building – gold discs everywhere.
“When it was time for dessert he said, I’d like to offer you a five-album deal. We couldn’t have been happier.
“And our first release on Go Discs! was that Peel session.”
But somehow despite being on Go Discs! and being by far the best-known Czech indie band at that time you never really made it so big in internationally. Do you think The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa fulfilled their potential?
“Naturally I can’t judge from the artistic perspective.
“But we definitely could've made a greater effort and not split up immediately after achieving a proper international profile.
“It was a mistake. Typical Czech švejkism.
“When something of importance is at stake, Czechs don’t appreciate it, they don’t put their noses to the grindstone.
“I’ll give you an example from that time, because Czechs are different these days, but in the women’s final at Wimbledon in 1993 Jana Novotná really had Steffi Graf on the ropes.
“She was just one or two points away from destroying Graf. And then came the exact moment that happened to us too.
“When all she had to do was smash it, she suddenly got nervous, or whatever.
“In our case, we didn’t appreciate the opportunity. Because everything had gone so easily.
“And at the very moment when everything could have moved up several levels for us, it just didn’t work out.”
You’re probably best known now for your studio work. From today’s perspective, was getting into producing, film soundtracks and advertising work a good move for you? It might have become tiring leading a gigging band for decades.
“I’m not the kind of guy to wake up in the morning and think, My life could be different.
“But exactly, I’m not built for playing on stage.
“Being on stage makes me feel bad, it makes me nervous, and I don’t enjoy it at all.
“So being in the studio – on my own! – is a lot more enjoyable for me.”
A couple of your songs, like Lucky Boy, which you mentioned earlier, from the film Samotáři (The Loners), really became popular and kind of entered the culture. How is it hearing them when you’re out and about today?
“It never occurred to me that Lucky Boy would get such a response, because for us it was just a bit of fun.
“I remember when we were doing promo for the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa album Slowthinking, which came out in 2002, some guy from a magazine told us, Those songs are actually pretty good – they could be hits, if you made a bit of effort and pushed on a bit.
“We just looked at one another.
“I couldn’t explain to him that we didn’t make music so that radio stations would play it.
“When something of importance is at stake, Czechs don’t appreciate it, they don’t put their noses to the grindstone.”
“If they do, great, but we’re not doing it for them to like – we’re doing it so that we like it.”
You’ve produced a lot of artists, including many female vocalists, like Sára Vondrášková, who sang on a song you co-wrote, Lay Down from the film In the Shadow, and Aneta Langerová, who’s one of the Czech Republic’s biggest stars. Typically, do you come across relatively unknown singers and bring them to record labels, or do music companies bring artists to you?
“Both. Most frequently the artist approaches me directly, but sometimes the labels contact me and put in touch with the musician.”
And how hands on are you as a producer? Do you tend to play on artists’ albums, or write with them?
“It varies. For example, Aneta Langerová had a band but she stopped playing with them, so it ended up that we did the whole album as just the two of us.
“Sometimes I don’t need to do a thing myself physically.
“Other times I play all the instruments and the vocalist just sings.”
How satisfying do you find being a producer?
“Being on stage makes me feel bad, it makes me nervous, and I don’t enjoy it at all.”
“You can never get enough of working with talented people.
“For example, when I worked with Načeva, it was fantastic.
“She’s great, her band are great and the lyrics were by [novelist] Jáchym Topol. It was a joy to be involved in that project.
“Or Sára Vondrášková, AKA Never Sol – she sings and composes incredibly well.
“I’ve also worked with Bára Poláková. In her case it’s more about the lyrics, but she’s also unique.
“So in every case it’s, I’m not sure if I’d say satisfying, but it’s enriching for both sides.”
The last record you brought out was The Antagonist, a compilation of music, mainly songs, from across your long soundtrack career. It must have been gratifying that it was so well-received?
“It was nice. Even though most of the songs were ‘to order’, if I can put it like that, I selected them for the compilation, so that means I naturally have some relationship to them.
“I was also surprised when they told me at the label Supraphon one week that it was sixth or seventh in the album chart.
“I don’t know if that means sales are so low that even my record got into the top 10!”
The positive response didn’t inspire you to produce a new album of songs?
“Maybe, but it’s not as if I’m going to say, now I’m going to do an album of songs. I’m just not the kind of guy to make plans.”
So no plans to do something new with The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa either?
“The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is sleeping at the moment. It’s a sleeping beauty.”
This song was on 2002 LP Slowthinking.