Interview with Jevta and Vrach (DATA, Sizike, The Master Scratch Band)
Discom: Can you tell us something about your beginnings in electronic music? How did you start DATA?
Vrach: It was so long ago…hmmm.. I had two Syndrums (peew, peew kind of electronic drums), Jevta had a cassette recorder and few guitar pedals. Friend of ours was given a synth by someone and we were just stunned with it!
Jevta: Things happen at random and only decades later you realize which events actually determined your life. If it wasn’t for our music, we’d most certainly be still living in Belgrade, Vrach a bored dental tech and myself a struggling designer. We lived very near each other –he was a young but esteemed drummer working with several pro bands back then, while I meddled in rock on a much more amateur scale. We shared intense interest in design and comic art and often drooled together over the latest records. When music suddenly changed and instead of rock, funk and punk, we started hearing new bands like Yello, Logic System, Depeche Mode and all, we were so awed that we just had to go that way. Within a very short time, we changed our looks, sold everything we could and bought a synth – I think it was Yamaha SY-1 with a few basic preset sounds. Neither of us had any idea whatsoever about keyboard playing, but we soon got other bits, syndrums and eventually Simmons kit and from then on, there was no way back. Nobody could understand what possessed Vrach to give up a promising musical career and team up with someone who couldn’t play an instrument to save his life, but we just clicked.
Discom: It is known that you had one of the largest collections of synthesizers, drum machines and electronic kits in Belgrade, starting from the 80s. How hard was it to get some quality equipment back then? How did you find your equipment?
Jevta: As far as our owning a ton of gear goes, it was nothing like that at first. Yes, it was extremely difficult to even obtain the latest records, let alone modern equipment, but camaraderie was a beautiful thing about life back then. I remember in the beginning, we mustered up a four-track, a mixer, and a delay unit but desperately needed a better drum machine than the CR-78 we had. Then we heard that some guy was about to bring home the very first Roland TR-808 from London. We promptly tracked his phone number and were at his door within hours of him landing. We persuaded him to lend it to us for a couple of days right there and then, before he even unpacked it! It turned out this was Ljuba Bubalo, from the band Beograd and from there on, we ‘palled-up, swapping and borrowing gear to each other countless times. In those ‘good old days’, you could literally approach anyone and ask them to borrow a piece of gear for a few days or even weeks, in exchange for them using something you had. People didn’t have any reservations about it even if you didn’t know each other and even though some instruments were very costly –everyone was incredibly cool about it. We’d ring Sasa Habic (the most prominent producer in former Yugoslavia, Mustapha by Bebi Dol is his most famous work- author’s note) introduce ourselves and immediately ask to borrow his eight track. Then we’d go to see him and walk out with additional pieces of equipment we didn’t know he had. We lent to and borrowed from Habic, Kornelije Kovac, Sloba Markovic, U Skripcu, Max & Intro, Bubalo brothers, Enco Lesic, many Belgrade studios and everyone else. We were extremely lucky to have lived in a society that was not brought up on fear and greed.
Discom: You have worked with a great number of leading musicians from Belgrade and appeared as guests on many albums. How much that experience meant to you, especially in terms of composing and arranging your own songs? We assume you were able to invite almost whoever you wanted to appear on your album?
Vrach: It was easy to get guests. Everyone knew those two crazy guys with big calculator (Roland MC4 sequencer). Bebi Dol, Zoran Zagorcic from Du Du A, Duca Markovic, Japanac, Max & Intro, … everyone contributed something. As per collaborations, we worked with Bajaga (his first album originated in Jevta’s garage!), U Skripcu, brothers Vranjesevic, Naya, Sladjana Milosevic, Bebi Dol, Aske, you name – we made some noise on their records! As per helping us write new stuff… don’t know. We were still musically illiterate and were to busy to learn chords and theory behind all that.
Jevta: That again brings up the solidarity spirit we all shared. More often than not, our collaborations were not about financial exchange but about sheer creativity. Okay, back then, musos were probably a much closer community, yet people would simply answer our call because they’ve heard we’re doing something different, something mad. There was an occasion I’ll never forget, where Kornelije Kovac invited us to contribute on a recording, where Sloba Marković had already set up a heap of polyphonic synths. We came in with a handful of mono midgets under our arms, a Pro-One, SH-101, and a drum machine. Sloba was already perplexed as to why would Kornelije prefer our toys to his rig, but he nearly died when we outlined our approach. Not only had we stated that we’re against learning to read music, but also that we play with one finger each and only ever use white notes! Being a truly gifted player, he naturally thought we’d be utter waste of time, yet within minutes of hearing our ideas, the maestro became a fan. Generally, as soon as people came across our stuff, they became open to collaboration.
Regarding our composing and arranging, this was intrinsic, a ying-yang process for us. I was rabid for creating sounds, melodies and mastering the hardware side of things, while Vrach was genius for the rhythm, structure and the vibe. Conversely, he disliked tweaking and I wasn’t much into production, so we synced from the onset. I’d come up with sketches, clips and blips, he’d separate the good from the bad and the ugly, and we’d get to work. I actually can’t recall us ever disagreeing about a choice of tune, how it should flow or sound.
Discom: How did it come about that you invited Jasna Dimitrijevic and Ljiljana Dimitrijevic to sing with Jasmina Brankovic, which was already a member of the group DATA? How did you form a band Sizike? Whose idea was that?
Vrach: I knew Ljilja from school and Jasna was her sister…I cannot recall how we got in touch with Jasmina…it was long time ago. Hhmmm…? Everything started as a bit of fun and just snowballed from there…
Jevta: It’s hard to apportion individual blame:) for the audible crimes we committed together, since we operated totally under the influence of evolving music scene at the time. While Dragana Saric (Bebi Dol) was our on-demand Madonna and Jasmina our resident Alison Moyet, we thought we should also have the whole Bananarama. Dimitrijevic sisters couldn’t sing just like we couldn’t play but they looked the part, and more importantly, they agreed to the idea. As we loved the underlying humour of Yello, we thought it’d be fun to combine flippancy and girly element with electro music. Sizike were never meant to be taken seriously.
Discom: It is interesting that all of your mutual releaes: DATA- ‘Neka Ti Se Dese Prave Stvari/ Ne Zovi To ljubavlju’ SP, Šizike- ‘U Zemlji Cuda’ LP, The Master Scratch Band-‘Degout’ LP , came out on 1984. Next year, in 1985 you were pioneers of synthpop, wave, break beat/hip hop in Yugoslavia? Was it too much for a then scene?
Jevta: Sizike album, which was recorded entirely at our friend and abbetor Nikola Bezek's studio, was in fact completed nearly two years prior to its release, but it took forever to get it through the layers of PGP administration. The other two releases happened much faster as Jugoton’s head, Siniša Škarica, was sharply tuned into our work. If we were pioneering, I certainly didn’t think about it back then – I was permanently wired to the possibilities of sound shaping.
Vrach: It all happened at the same time just because we got a lot of new gear, we had access to a lot of studio time and were just so into it. We were just listening a lot of stuff and getting influenced by everything. Synth pop – there were people who were doing it better than we did at the time..Denis & Denis, Beograd, Videosex, etc..we were jokers, we were taking a piss and not taking anything seriously. We never had good singers and that resulted in never having a mega hit in old Yugoslavia (like Denis & Denis, for example). What people respected us more was for programming skills, crazy ideas, our equipment, electronic drums and record collection, which was major source of inspiration…that is why we ended up collaborating with lots of people. I was coming to London every 2-3 months, bringing 100s of records and new synths every time.
Discom: After leaving Yugoslavia and arriving in London in 1986 your career is equally interesting: both of you experienced artistic affirmation. This fact is especially fascinating when we take into account common stereotypes prevailing in British society, concerning the conservatism and tradition as the foundations of the system. How difficult was to stand up for creative existence in London?
Jevta: We never made a conscious decision of moving to London. Vrach used to visit UK here and there, and at one point we decided to go together to get some new studio gear. We both studied in Belgrade and so we went for a six-day trip. After a few days, a countryman turned up in our hotel and offered to get us jobs in return for our plane tickets. In those times, you could do that – use anyone’s ticket and just get on the airplane (hell, you could even smoke during the flight!). In the old Yugoslavia, neither of us worked ever, and the proposal sounded very much ‘rockstar’ to us. We thought, hey – wash dishes or break walls for a couple of months, meet a few girls, get some money together and head back home – how bad could it be? But 80s London turned out to be too awesome and we stayed and stayed. There was much more cultural and racial integration then, people were easy-going and the best part of it all – we came across as extremely rare and exotic. Nobody really heard of Yugoslavians back then, people wanted to be around us and things came easily. As we stayed, our paths diverged. We fell in and out of jobs, in and out of loves, areas and situations, until eventually we both settled here. I spent very little time doing odd jobs and soon discovered London live music scene where I first got involved in creative work. The British conservatism you rightly mention, started coming to the fore in the mid-nineties but by then I was established in publishing and design, later going towards digital arts, illustration and writing. Importantly, I never stopped creating music.
Simply put, I was very lucky to never experience the dark side of my adopted society. What contributed to this was the fact that we happened to get inwell before the waves of Eastern European migration and Western demonization of Serbia. Nowadays however, kindness is in extremely short supply, and life much harder for newcomers.
Vrach: When we arrived in UK in 1986, we had bag full of demo tapes and after we were rejected by every record label we went separate ways. After that, it took me quite a long time to release my first record in the UK. Finally, in 1994 I had first single released on Logic Records, label set up by famous band Snap!, distributed by BMG. It was another 4 years, doing all sorts of music projects – from demos to sound-a-like compilations for Asian market, before I had a proper breakthrough with a remix of Gloria Estefan’s come back single – Don’t Let This Moment End, which went to Billboard Dance No.2 (obviously as a part of remix package with other artists) BUT it opened a door to Sony US for whom I did a lot of stuff afterwards. M People, Donna Summer, Kristine W, etc. Then it picked up in UK, and 10 years later I did almost 100 remixes for major labels including some big names, with over 10M of combined sales… And during all these years, no one asked where I was from, they just cared about music. If it was good enough, no one cared who was behind it! But with all things happening (internet, mp3, sharing, etc.) it all had to come to an end and I pulled out of it after 15 years. Fees were getting smaller and smaller, demand was getting smaller, piles of equipment that I accumulated were becoming a burden, and costs of running a studio (rent, phone, storage) were getting too much. Time to pull the plug!
Discom: How do you see that early period of your career when you look back now?What kind of feelings, memories, and thoughts it awakes?
Vrach: Nostalgia, fun, good times…enormous amounts of will and time to spend on learning new technology, instruments and making music. We were getting very excited with every new album released (Yazoo, Depeche Mode, Yello, etc. etc.). Today, I don’t get excited about anything musical or technological any more..
Jevta: As soon as propaganda machinery started heating up in the West, it became obvious that the old Yugoslavia was an anomaly and a detriment in the eyes of the Western world. Within mere months ofbeing in Britain, it became easy to see that Yugo standards of living, health, education, and just about everything else were leagues above. The things we saw in English-spoken movies were never the things average people actually had here. As such, Yugoslavia was long ago doomed since everything about her was terribly wrong from a capitalist point of view. It is a sad fact that ‘progress’ is now strictly measured only in fiscal terms when a truly progressive country such as Yuga, could so readily wiped out. The freedom, the confidence, equality, creativity and sheer happiness the old Yugoslavia gave to our generation, are rare and sorely missed luxuries in this new world. The thing I most regret is that no country is able to bestow so much upon their young anymore.
Discom: It is evident that people today have different approach to music, and life. Do you think that a technological revolution and content availability led to the creativity crisis or the problem is more complex?
Vrach: People who were into the music before, really worked hard to get everything mastered, being Instruments, programming skills, playing, etc. Today, new generations are brought up on cut-and-paste type of music. Endless number of programs with ready made melodies, bass lines and drum loops, ready to be stacked together into a „song“. Mind you, we were not any better then, but we had to re-play lines that we were „borrowing“. We also shamelessly sampled some records (not possible today), but technology was pain in the arse and one had to put a lot of time to make it work. Today, anyone can make stuff that sounds better than what we did in minutes on cheap laptop. That’s why there is so much music today. It is impossible to keep a track on new stuff and even more difficult to spot new talent as they get drowned in a sea of faceless new artists and DJs.
Second, music lost its value, hardly anyone pays for it. Everything is available instantly, leaving no time to look for something in the record store, discover something (without Google) about band you like, etc..total over saturation of information. But new generations get used to it very quickly and that is how things change.
Jevta: I find the problem is rooted in the way the technological revolution was hijacked for the purpose of widespread dumbing-down of the population through glorification of the stupid and over sexualisation of everything. We have more content and knowledge available than ever before in history, yet our retention rate of actual knowledge depends mostly on our storage devices instead of our brains. We’re bombarded with so much digital noise that our analog intellects are too busy gasping for breath while trying to get a sane word in. It’s similar with music nowadays – the amount of stems, sounds and samples is so bloated that when you get a new piece of gear, chances are you’ll fall asleep before you checked them all out. Don’t take me wrong – I adore the tech and how a studio worth of gear fits in my laptop. I love having terabytes of sounds of every instrument known to man, available to use 24-7. But. Back then, we never got overloaded because there was something magical in actually making everything from scratch. We had no templates, only pure zero. But shaping that dull sinewave through the filters and pushing the oscillators to scream in entirely new frequencies that threatened to blow your speakers before you made them musical, that was something else. Its buzz gave you a real buzz each time, because nobody else had that exact same tone. And it was all yours, born by your hand, even if only for a moment… for there was no memory storage then. You had to be truly inspired whenever you wanted it back.DATA’s synth rig from 1984 (Roland MC4B sequencer + MIDI interface, Roland Juno 106, Pro-One synth, RSF Kobol rack, Roland MKS-30, Roland SPV-355 Synth and Roland SBF rack Flanger).
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