Joe Karafiát – guitarist and songwriter with Plastic People of the Universe

Joe Karafiát

Joe Karafiát is a songwriter and guitarist with the legendary Czech underground rock band the Plastic People of the Universe. Karafiat, who has also played with groups like Garage and his own Joe Carnation Band, had first met the Plastic People’s Vratislav Brabenec in the 1980s when the two were living in exile in Canada, but didn’t become a member himself until 1997. When I met Joe Karafiát (53) in Prague last week, we first discussed his beginnings as a musician.

“Actually I started to play electric guitar at maybe 17 years old. A friend of mine brought this old Czech electric guitar and I plugged it into my reel to reel. Wow, that was it, that changed my life, that sound, long notes, distorted notes.

Joe Karafiát
“I started to really work on that. I went to school for two years to study classical music, but I didn’t like it. It was too much work. I’d rather go and have a beer and play in a band.

“We formed a few bands, but it was really difficult to get any gigs, and to do anything, basically.”

What years are we talking about, when you first started playing in bands?

“That’s back in the ‘70s. I went through three or four bands. Actually I was in one band, I don’t even remember the name of it but we played every Friday, Saturday, at a college club – that was the only chance to play.”

I know later you emigrated to Canada. When did you go to Canada and why did you go to Canada?

“It was a kind of trip, you know. I wanted to go to England, I wanted to stay in London. I paid some money to certain people to get out of the country, it was me and two friends of mine and we basically hitchhiked to get to London.

“I stayed in London for two years but I couldn’t get a work permit, it was really painful, I couldn’t work. So I took some English, I went to school.

“Then I got some Czech sponsoring in Canada, in Ottawa…and they got me over to Canada.”

What year did you arrive in Canada, and what did you do when you got there?

Joe Karafiát,  Canada,  1984,  photo:
“I left Czechoslovakia in 1980 and after two years, it was ’82, I went to Canada.”

What did you do to make a living there?

“Actually I got a great job. I started working as a messenger in a law firm. I didn’t have to do anything [laughs], just tried to hide. I could just enjoy my life, I played music, was in a few bands.

“I got bored after a year or so. I had to move on, so I went to Toronto. That was ’83, ’84.”

Were you making a living playing music, or was it more like a hobby in those days?

“Oh, it was just a hobby. I always wanted to do my own stuff. I wasn’t into the top 40. Everybody wanted top 40, in bars…I didn’t want to do this.

“There was a lot of heavy metal stuff at that time, stuff like Jon Bon Jovi and I hate that [laughs]. I was more into alternative kind of stuff. I had a few projects, but that was just fun, I had to work.”

Was it the case then that your music career started or happened after you came back here, after the revolution?

“Yeah, that’s kind of strange. One of the reasons I left Czechoslovakia was that I wanted to play music. And I didn’t do much, because there wasn’t so much time…there was a few years when I didn’t do anything. In Toronto I met Vratislav Brabenec from the Plastic People of the Universe. We got drunk a few times and started thinking about some projects, and did some, in Toronto.

“After the revolution, in ’91, I went back to Prague to see my family. My mum got sick and I had to stay at home. I got a gig with Garage and I started my own band, the Joe Carnation Band.”

How did you come to join the Plastic People in the late 1990s?

“Vratislav Brabenec went back to Prague for a visit and I think it was in ’97 President Havel asked the band to play one gig. All the people were invited to their gig, it was at the [Prague] Castle. It was quite weird, you know.

“After the gig, which was really successful, I got a call from some of the guys in the band, asking if I wanted to help them to tour. They were just talking about one tour, 15, 20 gigs. I said, sure, thanks a lot, I’ll do it, oh yeah.”

You mentioned Václav Havel. I was reading an interview with you in which you said that he was a non-playing member of the Plastic People of the Universe. What did you mean by that?

“What happened was that last year or two years back we played in [Prague venue] Meet Factory and he came to me and said, I want to join you guys on stage. I’ll be sitting on a chair, like a member of the Plastic People.

“So we said, sure Václav, come on stage. So he came on the stage and sat on a chair for half an hour, and then he left.”

He just sat there?

“Yeah. Too bad, maybe he could have played some tambourine or something.”

Having lived in England briefly and also in Canada for a good few years, how would you compare the underground music scene here and in those countries? And is there anything that differentiates Czech underground musicians?

The Plastic People's latest album - 'Maska za maskou'
“There is some similarity between underground musicians in the West and underground musicians here. Usually they are poor artists, surviving, paying the rent, trying to make a little money, doing whatever, and playing their music.

“Especially these days it’s similar here. It’s very hard to make a good living here.”

Is music the only thing you do then? Can you make a living just from playing music?

“Yeah, I have to, I have to. I’m in three bands, another two projects, I have to work all the time. All the time.”

Do you ever get tired of rock clubs and playing in the same places, maybe to some of the same people?

“Oh yeah, I’ve had enough [laughs]…I’m getting old too. I would like to do less gigs and do more interesting stuff, maybe do some recording again, which I used to do. I don’t do it much these days, because I don’t have the energy. When I go on tour for seven days and then I have two days off I’m not going into the studio. I go for a walk in the woods [laughs].”

Can you see yourself continuing to play music into the future?

“I hope I die on stage. That’s going to be my final trip!”