David Babbitt spoke with Nikola Sekulovič about radical underground channels in the Soviet era, why art isn’t a sacred activity, performing in a mine and how the freedom of music has helped him understand the rigidity of law.
I’m not a very open person, so I had to force myself to communicate with other people in order to figure out the world around me.
How did you discover your talent for music? Was this something you knew as a child to be your destiny? Are you from a musical background?
I’m now grateful to my parents for sending me to a music school, but I was really just a kid trying to sneak that violin past the football field. Not cool. Later, my friends all wanted to be guitar players, so I ended up with a bass. With very few bass players around, it was easy to play with other people. At 14, I was already earning pocket money, and two years later I co-formed an alternative band called Gastrbajtrs, later known as Demolition Group. The band’s debut album was probably among the first indie LPs in then-socialist Europe. Soon, I was on stage with Laibach playing places like London, Amsterdam and Hamburg. Not bad.
How did you become aware of, for lack of a better term, cool music? In the West, where I am from, we have a perception that during the Soviet-era popular culture was controlled by the government — not unlike how popular culture is now controlled in the West by conglomerates.
In the early ’80s, there was a feeling of rebellion all over the place. Music was an efficient vehicle for all kinds of exciting messages and we were using all available communication channels. Clubs, festivals, record labels, TV, radio, etc. were controlled by the government but we didn’t bother to see it that way — the message was getting across, and that was all that mattered. Even underground, most of the information was in plain sight and authorities acted accordingly. In ex-Yugoslavia, they didn’t interfere most of the time, probably because they didn’t want to kill the source of important “field information.” I wasn’t put in jail or anything, but it was made clear that “they” know what we were doing, especially during the army service.
You were in the army and then studied to be a lawyer. How did you find your way to a life of music? How did these occupations work with, or against, your musical side?
I’m not a very open person, so I had to force myself to communicate with other people in order to figure out the world around me. Music was not about the notes, harmonies, rhythm, etc. and studying law was not about the rules. For me, it was all about relationships. Music has helped me understand and question the virtual rigidity of law, and vice versa. It’s a kind of art, embracing both. It also prevented many mistakes in my career.
By treating ourselves as idiots, a loss of meaning will necessarily lead to a devaluation of music.
Do you do music full time or do you do something else to subsidize your creative pursuits?
I don’t see music as some sacred activity that is detached from life, society or other arts or business. Isolating music from politics, religion, technology, refugee crisis, astronomy, etc. leads to a loss of its meaning. Voluntary reduction of artists down to providers of sensations for the pleasure of “body and soul” makes it even worse. Besides music, we chase other people’s time, energy, attention and money with visual and many other tricks, including business, marketing, behavioral science, etc. No big deal — we can’t imagine watching silent movies anymore, can we? This type of purity is gone.
Also, we always fear that our music will die in a small circle of our family and friends, so we engage all our talents to decode the desires of the audience or industry, yet we neglect to use our brains to decode the most important object: ourselves. Without this difficult activity, I’m afraid we won’t be able to invent interesting and valuable content and we’ll keep recycling the same old stuff. By treating ourselves as idiots, a loss of meaning will necessarily lead to a devaluation of music.
And to answer your question: half of my revenue is coming directly from music, the other half from thinking about music, people and everything that surrounds us. There’s not a minute of a day I’m not thinking about this big complex, including all the dirty business details. This not only pays my bills, but prevents my music from dying on its way to other people.
Can you speak about your support for the creative arts outside of being a musician? Your interview series and history with publications come to mind.
My observations attract a lot of hate. I think that devaluation of music is well-deserved and I don’t blame “the others” — media or industry. I blame ourselves, the people. Yes, technological development affects all three processes in human exchange: production, distribution and consumption. So what? Historically, we’ve seen it so many times before. The latest hyperinflation of activities, products, channels, communications, etc. follows the simple rule: the more units available, the lesser their individual value. It’s a simple game: we can’t afford time, energy, attention and money to process all the goodies available to us, so we play safe, letting 1% of these win, leaving 99% of other content to its own faith.
Weak as we are, we rely on wrong impulses: our previous experience, other people’s behavior, familiarity, likability, guilt, flashy sensations, all things that make us feel good. Industry’s research makes us tick smoothly by supplying a constant flow of digestible content. Non-standardized and possibly important messages are left under our radar; we’re not even able to find them, let alone process them properly.
In other fields of life, we’ve already evolved. Take fast food as an example. We all like it and it’s normal. It’s designed to be “good.” But we’re also educated enough to know about the dirty details and the manipulation related to it. So many of us not only avoid the pleasure of a Big Mac’s sensation, we’re even able to produce the opposite feelings all the way to disgust and we’re able to enjoy other, less flashy and possibly healthier food. In music, rationalization on such a massive scale is still far away.
So, a “listener” downgraded into a “consumer” becomes an easy measurable target. We see rules all over the place: songs as three-minute sequences of verses and choruses (a “piece”), 4/4 as a dominant rhythmic pattern, 12 semitones as a golden standard, predictable EQ curves and loudness levels, and don’t let me start about the lyrics. If musicians repeat stupid things like “Fly me to the sky,” it’s normal that nobody cares. On the contrary, if we could take credit for curing cancer or other important diseases, I’m sure the value of music would be reestablished.
Being “perfect” and marketable is now so common, available at the push of a button. The excitement of “mistakes” is hard to find, even though it can be brought to surface intentionally and rationally by simply ignoring or breaking the rules mentioned before. We only need to get bored enough and start employing our brains. If we’re able to understand the complexity of our latest mobile phone, we’re surely able to understand more intriguing forms of music. The question is only if we still consider music to be worthy of such exploration.
Funny, there used to be times when people were intimidated of innovative artists: new messages may have led to all kinds of revolutions. Pop music in the second half of the 20th century has affected so many important aspects of our lives today: sexuality and race, war, altered states of mind, purchasing power and voting rights, class inequality and tech development, global, national and individual identities, science and other arts. Six decades of rock & roll have been an extremely short but important deviation in 4,000 years of written history: the power of innovation that used to be reserved for the rich or otherwise privileged has been shared with no-name individuals, producing so many beautiful and influential results. If we agree to reduce our activity to pure entertainment, I’d agree to let this deviation die as soon as possible.
Can you describe your early years in the music/art scene in Ljubljana? Where would you say the influences and inspiration that lead to the scene came from?
Boredom is a strong creative engine. In the absence of all the goodies around us, we were forced to (re)create them ourselves. Apart from a couple of geniuses, copying influential music was a common practice. But the lack of information and the absence of appropriate tools constantly led to “wrong” results. So even the avernot age content had its own twist. It took me some time to realize that originality and excitement may happen despite of a handicap but because of it. And we could witness some “wrong” artists gaining enormous commercial success and social influence. I learned to love “mistakes.”
All the local scenes in the ‘80s in eastern Europe were shaped by the selective mix of information provided by very few individuals. These people invested their lives into this activity, and by the time their partial — and already processed — information got to us, we weren’t able to fit it in any proper “system,” so we had to interpret it ourselves and invent our own coordinates. The scenes built by such individual interpretations may be quite chaotic but can also be wildly productive. I saw a similar situation in 2010 during my 6-month stay in Beijing. Michael Pettis’s personal influence on new generations of alternative musicians couldn’t be ignored.
What impact did touring the world have on you and your activities at home?
Besides feeling cool and bringing some money back home, the most important part of touring for me was new information. Sometimes it was a product of observation and firsthand experience, but mostly it came from communicating with strangers. Except for a bunch of short anecdotes, I don’t have any big “best-friend” stories about the famous artists I’ve met. No, these were moments, not monuments. They were inspiring and challenging moments that were even more precious since they happened on a daily basis, each day in a different environment. So after the tour, you end up with a fuzzy collection of extraordinary experiences and you obviously recap and incorporate these in your system back home. Touring also enabled me to understand the role different people play in our circus: promoters, managers, waiters, bouncers, publicists, labels, merchandisers, riggers, PA guys, fans, dealers — understanding all of them better now, I don’t waste time at getting pissed off at them anymore. I try to make myself the least problematic person in the game. The game is much more fluid this way.
At the end of the day, any format is used to carry the content to the end user, so why not make the end user the format himself?
Did the change from being part of Yugoslavia to being an independent country and the change of government that entailed effect the creative scene in Slovenia?
What we once considered as “small” and “local” has turned into even a much smaller playground now. Like it or not, the national boundaries still affect the flow of information and people. Yes, we are mobile individuals, but we live in a team-shaped world and the pool of locally available collaborators, intermediaries and audience is important. Scaled down to the two-million population of Slovenia from 20 million people in Yugoslavia, it’s difficult to create successful — let alone sustainable — teams that’d be able to compete outside its own courtyard. We see more and more international collaborations on individual and institutional levels, while team-based activities mostly remain isolated within national borders. Counting on small national markets to provide for long-lasting artistic or business careers is a bit naïve — economic reality goes against it, especially since the European Union seems more fragmented than ever and we still perceive our neighboring countries as foreign markets. In small countries, many people understand the protection of national (or individual) identities as a defensive activity. I see it quite the opposite: if you want to influence the world around you, being offensive is a way to do it.
There are many notable collaborations between bands and the theater in Ljubljana. Is this indicative of the creative scene there, or is it happenstance that these collaborations spawned so many acts recognized outside of Slovenia?
It may be more a matter of quantity, not quality. In small communities, you work with people at hand and with the tools available at the moment. If you realize you’re not able to compete with the choices and big budgets of international professional productions, you simply work with what you can. It allows you to move faster and not to get distracted by mistakes. In the process, many fill their “serious” products with unusually big doses of humor. Serious people chasing the “big goals” may easily get lost.
Dan D plays with non-standard rock accompaniment and in some very unique contexts, including a mine and, on another occasion, with the Slovenian Symphony Orchestra. Does the band seek out these collaborations?
As quite successful late-bloomers with not much to lose, Dan D as a band would like to use the last part of our career to explore some of the easy targets. There are simple and not heavily exploited elements in music at the reach of our hands and we’re quite happy fooling around with them. Perception of music is another favorite toy of ours: different contexts influence both the audience and the performing artist. The easy experiment is exploring different venues, timings, products or rituals — each of these elements enable a different kind of experience. It surely makes you feel a bit richer.
Luckily, we have a loyal circle of fans who support our efforts. People love this band for many different reasons: some for its music, some for its emotional expression, some for innovation, some for honesty or other reasons. So we may still be able to release an album in cassette or in wooden log format; it’s still welcomed by our people. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the best possible carrier for audio-visual content: the human being. At the end of the day, any format is used to carry the content to the end user, isn’t it? So why not make the end user the format himself?
Beatles or Stones?
Blur or Oasis?
Curated by: David Babbitt
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: November 23, 2017
Total questions: 12
Word count: 2391
Reading time: Nine minutes
Amsterdam, brain, collaboration, complexity, consumer, consumption, creativity, Dan D, David Babbitt, Demolition Group, distribution, Eastern Europe, engine, Europe, European Union, experience, format, Gastrbajtrs, guilt, Hamburg, humor, impulse, likability, listener, Ljubljana, London, Nikola Sekulovič, production, radiation, radio, Slovenia, Soviet Union, Touch & Go Records, transmission, TV, underground, violin, Yugoslavia
About the curator
David Babbitt has lived and worked on the indie side of music, art and design for nearly thirty years. He has DJed, designed and screen printed for Wax Trax! with Interzone and was Touch And Go Records’ celebrated art director. He is also a student and teacher of Aikido and Iaido, two practices on the spiritual side of the martial arts spectrum.
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