Tomáš Kelar swaps tough UK music bizz climb with Mountaineers for mega (and tiny) crowds with Midi Lidi

Midi Lidi, photo: Midi Lidi Facebook profile

Musician Tomáš Kelar’s career began as drummer with the Welsh band Mountaineers, who rubbed shoulders with some big names when they signed to Mute Records. Now living back home in the Czech Republic, Kelar is a member of the highly regarded electronic group Midi Lidi and also produces the female rappers Čokovoko.

Tomáš Kelar, photo: Ian Willoughby
Tomáš Kelar comes from a musical family: He is the son of the well-known gypsy singer Ida Kelarová, while the leading Czech avant-garde performer Iva Bittová is his aunt.

In the early 1980s, Kelar’s family moved to the United Kingdom from Czechoslovakia, where alongside her singing career his mother had been active in Brno’s alternative theatre Divadlo Husa na provázku.

The musician – who also goes by Tomino and Tom – did come home before 1989, though his visits became more frequent after the fall of Communism.

Still, he tells me on a sunny afternoon in Brno, it was always a bit of culture shock returning in those days, when he was a music-obsessed teenager.

“For me at the time, being influenced by all the latest happenings in music that I was listening to coming out of the UK, going back to the Czech Republic was pretty much like going back into [laughs]…

“It’s difficult to describe, but things that weren’t available in the shops. Whatever you could bring back for you friends, everybody was grateful and appreciative of it, because it just wasn’t available at that time in the shops.

“And the music scene – waves of music in certain clubs and festivals – wasn’t something that, when I was of that age, I could really get into.

“Everybody was raving on about Siouxsie and the Banshees, from what I remember, although it was 10 years later. Depeche Mode also had a big influence. Those were the sort of talking points that you could…discuss. But the rest of it was incomprehensible for me.”

Midi Lidi, photo: Texa / Midi Lidi Facebook profile
Back in Britain, Kelar was gradually starting to go places with the guitar band Mountaineers. They were one of the first artists on the hip indie label Deltasonic, before eventually signing with Mute, home to the likes of Depeche Mode and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

“We started in Wales when I was I think 14, or maybe even a little bit earlier. That was in North Wales. We moved to South Wales the first time we went over but later on we moved to North Wales, and there I managed to find lots of fantastic people who, out of boredom, wanted to make music.

“We started off with a covers band performing mostly in Wrexham. That’s the way we kind of learned to apply let’s say some kind of creative impulse we had.”

When did it get more serious and when did you begin attracting the interest of labels?

“Around about the age of, what, 23. I don’t remember the year. There were a few labels from Liverpool – most of us had moved to Liverpool, because that was a much better scene.

“I think that was the time when people really started to wake up. It was around 1998 when Deltasonic started with Alan Wills, and he managed to find a lot of talented band like The Zutons, The Coral… Ladytron from Liverpool were getting a lot of interest at that time.

“We were I think lumped in with that scene, although we were completely different. And I think on the back of that we managed to get interest from Mute, which eventually gave us a record deal and released our songs and LPs.”

I guess Mute is one of the world’s biggest indie labels, or at least former indie labels. When you signed for Mute, did you think, here we go, we’re away now, we’re going to go places?

“Well, obviously that was the romantic vision of the whole music industry. We knew that Mute was an indie label primarily, though focused on electronica. But at that time I think Mute was ‘mutating’, it was changing.

Midi Lidi, photo: Petr Lundák / Midi Lidi Facebook profile
“Obviously on their roster they had Nick Cave, which was not typical of what Mute fans were used to. They were used to Erasure, Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget, Add N to X, and this kind of indie electronica.

“For them to sign Mountaineers, I think it was a little difficult to grasp and to persuade people that this was a good product. I think they experienced a lot of difficulties, we experienced a lot of difficulties.

“But at the same time it was incredible fun and a huge learning process for absolutely everybody. We toured with Nick Cave, with Goldfrapp, who at that time were really reaching their peak.

‘So, yeah, we were romanticising about the fact that we would do really, really well. But I think it kind of reached a plateau and nobody really had the energy to continue that relationship – especially when Mute had decided to sell most of their artists, or at least part of their catalogue, to EMI.

“We were one of those bands that didn’t have a strong enough rooting yet. We had released a mini album, an EP and a full-length album, and I think that wasn’t enough to convince EMI to continue that partnership.”

The loss of the Mountaineers’ deal prompted Kelar to up sticks and move back full-time to the Czech Republic in the mid 2000s. Now living in Brno, the musician has in a sense found the success that evaded him in the UK, having joined one of the country’s biggest alternative groups, Midi Lidi.

“Moving was just a natural, instinctual decision. I already had a wife here. I had two children with her and I was looking forward to having a longer period of time together – it was just a natural decision to make.

“The only worries at that time were if I would be able to continue in some sort of creative industry or let’s say music or theatre – anything that would satisfy me personally.”

You’re now in Midi Lidi who I guess are one of the more respected of Czech bands. What do you think it is about them that sets them apart from other groups here?

Midi Lidi, photo: Midi Lidi Facebook profile
“I think it’s that there’s no dogma in the band that once you reach a certain size or popularity that we will only do that type of concert. We’re open to playing concerts in small villages for, let’s say, 50 capacity venues.

“I think that’s the key. We play big festivals for 20,000 or 30,000 people. We also play venues for 50 people. I think that’s one of the nice things about Midi Lidi – nobody has any huge egos that then kind of strangle the project.”

Petr Marek started the group a few years before you joined. Do you have input on the writing, or is it all his baby?

“I don’t know what happened before I joined. I joined two years ago. But from what I know, at that time it was a concept band, it was all based around midi communication and it had a much stronger emphasis on visual communication.

“There were, I think, six people involved originally. It was an art project that eventually transformed into a, let’s say, more standard band.

“Obviously, Petr enjoys having a kind of directorial role. But I think he’s not a dogmatic type of person. So the creative input comes from everybody and that can be applied today as well. The last album was the baby of absolutely everybody – with some kind of directorial role from Petr.”

As well as performing at venues small and large with Midi Lidi, Kelar has a day job as booker at an impressive rock club and bar in Brno named Kabinet Múz – and also produces the city’s irreverent female rap duo Čokovoko. Indeed, it was his input that made Čokovoko’s 2011 sophomore LP Hudba a marked step forward from their less polished debut. What form does that cooperation take?

“I basically give them an order to produce some texts [laughs]. And when I say order, it means negotiate some day when they might be ready to record. They then move back that day by a month or two months.

“We eventually reach a consensus on a moment when we can actually record the vocals. When the vocals are recorded the music is applied…”

Čokovoko, photo: Sjon
And it’s your music?

“Yes, it’s music which I produce. Obviously the girls are very, very clever at choosing samples that they want to incorporate.

“We then start producing the whole audio side of things. The rapping is edited and put into the music. We go into the studio with that as a demo, let’s say, and re-record mostly the vocals, because obviously the changes have to be learnt and performed, and create that live feeling on the album.”

Otherwise, what does the future hold for you musically?

“We’re in the middle of recording the new album for Midi Lidi, we’re about to start Čokovoko – we’ll see if we start on time.

“And Midi Lidi have also quite crazily agreed to do soundtracks to two films which have to be finished by, I think, September. So there’s a lot of work to be done this year.

“Plus touring, obviously. I think Pohoda [in Slovakia] is the biggest festival we’re doing this year.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on June 14, 2013.