Written by Ryan Keating – Lambert
I recently caught up with Please the Trees frontman and singer-songwriter Václav Havelka at the exclusive listening premiere of the band’s new album ‘( /\ r |>’ (Carp) and chatted about life, Prague, music, and of course trees. Stalin Skate Plaza was the perfect venue for such an event. With the beating melodic melancholia from beginning to end, the trees surrounding Stalin in Letná Park were certainly pleased, not to mention the sea of onlookers and myself.
Having heard some of the band’s previous music I was sure the album would be good, but it blew me away. The thumping beat of the track ‘Suite F’ reminded me somewhat of a darker and moodier Queens of the Stone Age, while the music video for it reminded me somewhat of Scandinavian group Fever Ray – a gorgeous assault on the senses. This entire interview was done while Havelka was spinning tracks on a turntable, so in some way I think the music itself shapes this interview a lot too.
So, obvious question first.. I’m sure you’re asked this a lot. How many people talk about your name being similar to Vaclav Havel’s.
There is no connection but I’m happy I had a chance to meet him in person. Years ago on one of Lou Reed’s last visits here, I was told he was coming and that they’re looking for his personal driver and asked if I was available. I ended up doing it. One of the meetings was with Vaclav Havel. When they came out of the restaurant where the meeting took place Vaclav was cheering to everybody around, shaking hands. When he came to me he introduced himself saying “Hi, I’m Vaclav Havel,” and I said “Hi, I’m Vaclav Havelka” and he burst out laughing. This was my only chance to meet him before he died, and it was amazing. Love the man. Am proud that I experienced an artist leading this country.
You’re originally from East Bohemia, tell us a bit about your childhood..
I was born in Pardubice and when I was 7 we moved to the Krkonoše mountains where my parents started to work as hotel caretakers. From then up until I was twenty years old we were living a nomad life, moving around, changing schools. This gave me strength to grow as an individual and define my personality, love of travelling and love of meeting different people.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I think I wanted to be a pirate or a villain or something. I still feel the same. Then I discovered rock and roll, found out that in art basically anything is possible when you work hard and know what you want.. and that was it for me.
I’ve heard your name means that you literally play music to “please the trees”. Have you always been in touch with nature and the environment?
For me, everything I do is kind of unconsciously done with nature, I don’t even think about it. It’s in my roots. My family from my mother’s side were farmers, guess that’s where my love for folk music came from. It used to be for the music of ordinary people back then – workers, farmers. Then it changed to the music of intellectuals. When I was starting this band with guitar player Zdeněk Kadlec we were joking that since we don’t have fans we will play to please the trees…
Tell us a little bit about the Please the Trees project..
We started that in 2010, a friend of ours, John Reynolds – a gardener in Manhattan, secretly plants trees in different gardens he takes care of, and he suggested that we should do the same.. And we thought, wow that’s an interesting idea. So when I’m booking a show now I ask the promoter if we can plant a tree somewhere, with someone who’s gonna take care of it. We have a map of them on our Facebook profile. At the moment it’s 267 trees. We wrote a tribute song to John called ‘Paint This City Green’ and released it on the A Forest Affair record.
Photo: Julie Hrnčířová
You’ve toured Europe, the United States and the UK, and also Israel. How does the audience differ abroad to here?
Being able to travel with the music and communicate across the world through different cultures is the main goal for me. It’s also very spiritual. Playing a show is a ritual for me. Seems like in our music there’s something that people from anywhere can identify with. We love playing small rooms, feeling the crowd. I like to challenge myself and the band. I’d rather play for crowds of strangers than people who love us. The best experience in this sense lately was opening for Robert Plant in July in Brno. We had a great time but some of the people couldn’t stand us. We were chosen by the man himself but were not announced, nor did we bother to introduce ourselves. I received e-mails after the show from people saying that we should simply stop performing, they couldn’t stand it.
I read recently that your band was described as being part Grizzly Bear and part Arcade Fire, would you agree?
Everyone has their own associations depending on what they like. I’ve heard a lot of them, sometimes strange, funny but interesting. We are influenced by many things, many bands, various musical styles. We do not think about what we play. It’s very intuitive. We haven’t even rehearsed in the past two years at all. The new record was written and rehearsed on the road. I’m happy that I have a rhythm section I can depend on (Míra Syrný on bass and Jan Svačina on drums), and that is able to serve the song.
Tell us about Carp, why “carp”?
Every record of ours has a story. This one started a few years ago when I bought this drawing of carps from the young artist Hubert Suchý. This drawing of his really appealed to me. I knew when I saw it that I was gonna use it for sure in the future. Using it for the cover art of the record and calling it Carp felt very natural then. Carp is some sort of a symbol for South Czech where the city of Tabor is, and also where the band has its roots. This record is about going back to the roots as well as a new chapter in our history.
Album art: Hubert Suchý
Then came the idea for the first video for the song Suite F. Since calling the record Carp we had to use footage of carp fishing from a pond but we wanted to give it an even darker edge with the demon and create sort of our own mythology.
That’s very interesting. I understand you have some other music projects, what else are you working on at the moment?
I get so much inspiration from different places, but I can’t do everything with one band. Each project has it’s own concept and identity, they’re parallel lives. At the moment it’s Were Mute with multi instrumentalist Carl Warwick, noise experimental project Vac da Hawk or with the rapper Martin Tvrdy aka Bonus project Tvrdy/Havelka with which we reworked old Czech underground hits with electronic arrangements.
Busy guy. You’ve also written music for some theatre productions, are you a theatre goer?
My relationship with theatre started when I married an actress. I love working on music for plays. It’s a different kind of work when I’m in the service of the director. It’s very organic and you never know where it’s gonna take you until the opening. I did a couple things at the Prague Estates Theatre, Dejvicke Divadlo, Alfred ve dvore and Divadlo na zabradli. Last year I did screen music for the film Mista with David Boulter from Tindersticks.
What do you listen to when you’re chilling out at home?
I listen to music all the time. I feel like a music fan more than musician. There’s so much new music but at the same time I’m always filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve been a MOJO magazine subscriber for a year and have read lots of musical blogs and other magazines like Wire, Uncut, Full Moon, loved Plan B when it came out, also Arthur magazine, Under The Radar etc.
What are your music guilty pleasures? Any mainstream pop in your record collection?
I always thought when growing up that values reside in underground stuff so that’s where I want to belong. Then when I got there I discovered that most of the people there were narrow-minded lazy posers. People say pop is evil but I don’t think so. Madonna grew up on the streets, she used to be a punk. She does what she loves and is super professional. The same for Justin Timberlake and others. I don’t judge anybody. I think it’s very important to do something, anything. Not just sit, drink and curse. That’s quite typical for the Czech underground music scene especially.
What’s your favorite kind of tree?
Probably the birch tree.
Nice choice. How would you describe Prague?
Hard to say. I’m not a city type but I don’t mind living here. It’s a village.
If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you see?
Musically? Hank Williams, Miles Davis or John Coltrane playing live. Hendrix, The Doors too or early Bob Dylan.
What’s your favorite word in English and in Czech?
Humility.. pokora in Czech.
Written by Ryan Keating-Lambert. Photography by Julie Hrnčířová.