Monday, October 27, 2008

Gloomy Someday: Kristof Hajos of The Unbending Trees on Their First Album, International Recognition, and the National Pastime of Melancholy

Ah, the Hungarian pop scene, a target so big you could drive a tour bus through it. With bands like the Moog, who basically represent the outsourcing of western indie pop, and MC Speak becoming a Jonathan Safran Foer character come to life, it is like a bad joke that somebody keeps retelling, hoping it will eventually get a laugh, if but for no other reason than out of mercy.

True, you get the occasional Balkan-infused bright spot, but mostly it is a grim world for new-music lovers. It shouldn’t have been surprising—yet it was—when The Unbending Trees’ first video, "You Are A Lover", shot in a stark and minimalist black and white, capturing all the melancholy of a Budapest that looked trapped in time, started making regular appearances on MTV. Even more gratifying, The Unbending Trees actually turned out be one of Hungary’s own, though backed by an international record label. Having been spotted by Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl on myspace, and subsequently signed to his label Strange Feeling Records, The Unbending Trees are aimed at an international market. But it turns out Hungarians also liked what they saw, and the elegiac, affecting song rose to number 5 on the local video charts before the album, Chemically Happy (Is The New Sad) was released this earlier this month.

I sat down with The Unbending Trees frontman Kristof Hajos at his favorite Ráday street café Mode (since closed) to find out what he was thinking by putting out melodic, carefully arraigned and written music, and thus confounding all my nasty preconceptions about Hungarian pop, and discovered he had more than one story to tell.

Mókus: In terms of “You Are A Lover”, it made me a little angry that some foreign band came to Budapest and captured the feeling of the city so well, then I discovered it was Hungarian, which was pleasing.

Hajos: It was a funny thing because Ben (Watt) didn’t want a video, because of it not being cost effective, and then I thought that there is a young guy who I used to work with on some web pages, and I asked him to help make the video. I was just coming up with ideas of what to do, and I was just sitting on the underground, the földallati, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if there was just some couple who would snog next to me like hell. And I told him this idea and we were thinking like, to do this in the BKV might not be such a good idea, so why don’t, we just do it in a car? So I asked my colleague who sits next to me ‘do you feel like snogging in a video?’ So they came but they split up after the video, but it was a lucky combination because the video cost zero forints and the welcome has been really warm.

Mókus: The famous Hungarian song "Gloomy Sunday" came up on my youtube search of you.

Hajos: We covered that version live, and it comes up on all these sites for some reason. But it is also going to be on the UK edition of the album.

Mókus: Why not on the Hungarian release?

Hajos: That would be too cheap, too obvious, but for England it seems like a good thing to do. We also used to do "A Whiter shade of Pale".

Mókus: I read that Hungarians were rated the third saddest population in Europe.

Hajos: I think our music is not going to help. But when we signed with Ben, I did not think the album would be published here because it is so against the mainstream here in Hungary, but the welcome has been a lot warmer, I would have never dreamed to be played on MTV like we are.

Mókus: Well, it is fresh.

Hajos: But Hungarians don’t care about what’s fresh, they care about what the trend is. But we are not Kylie (Minogue).

Mókus: Then what is your logical predecessor?

Hajos: I don’t know–I don’t really listen to music like that. The music itself is written the two other guys, Peter Hary and Havasi, the renown pianist, I only write the lyrics and sometimes the melodies. But the melodies sort of come from the music anyway. So what they say is we are sort of like Nick Drake or Tim Buckley or all these people who have died prematurely. We were also compared to Antony and the Johnsons, but he has a much higher voice. It might be just because he plays piano, I don’t know.

Mókus: Is there anything specifically Hungarian about your music?

Hajos: I don’t know. The Kodaly way of music education is in our blood, so maybe.

Mókus: Do you mind talking about what the album title refers to?

Hajos: That is fine to talk about. The album is called Chemically Happy (Is the New Sad). I had a nervous breakdown in 1997, and they started treating me with different kinds of drugs, tranquilizers, and antidepressants. It was useful at the time because I could finish university and quit smoking, but I developed something of an addiction, which was very depressing. It was like, before age 30, every day wondering if you forgot to take your pill in the morning.

Mókus: Is going off the medication perhaps not worth the psychic sacrifice?

Hajos: Not really. For the first couple of years, but afterwards, I had to be really careful. It was just too much chemistry, but not the right chemistry. I have come off tranquilizers completely, and struggling to come off anti-depressants, but it is difficult, because it is not a physical, but mental addiction.

Mókus: Do you feel the medication altered your personality?

Hajos: Well, it took away my moods. That is what that line is about, chemically happy is the new sad. Not really happy, not really sad, just in the middle. But that is also an experience.

Mókus: Do you think Hungarians are resigned to being sad as part of their national identity?

Hajos: Yeah, well I definitely think Hungarians are not the happiest people. I lived in Slovenia for a year, and it is an amazing change. You cross the border, and people start smiling, well maybe it is not so black and white, but wherever you go, people are so much more optimistic. Even if you go to London. There is not much to be happy about in London either. But I don’t foresee moving out there. I am quite happy with my job right now. So unless it is really necessary, I don’t think I will move. Maybe if the band becomes that successful over there, but that is not very likely. Seriously, that would probably fuck me up again mentally. I like walking in the streets like everyone else. It is perfectly lovely playing in small clubs, having a bunch of people that appreciate your music.

: I also like the new video to "Overture", was there a story behind it?

Hajos: "Overture" is a duet with the every-so-lovely Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl). It is funny when you get to sing a duet with your once idol. When she agreed to do it, that was one of the most amazing times of my life. The song is about trying to open the other. I find we are getting more and more closed and trying to hide our real selves from others.

Mókus: What are Strange Feeling’s expectations of the album?

Hajos: We just had a little chat with him (Ben Watt) about that, now that the album has actually been in the stores for two weeks. I don’t think he is interested in sales. He just wants to get us out there, in the first place. If we sell a couple of thousand copies, it’s fine. Of course playing music is very enjoyable and I don’t want to worry about it. I do find releasing an album very tiring both physically and I don’t want to end up in an asylum.

Mókus: I sent the video to a friend of mine in New York. He said he loved it, but detected a sort of underlying hysteria.

Hajos: Underlying hysteria? I don’t think it is underlying at all? I think it is quite obvious.

The complete interview with Kristof Hajos will be included in the upcoming music-themed print issue of Pilvax Magazine.

Photo of The Unbending Trees by Balint Radoczy, used by permission.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter, or: Budapest’s Real Underground Culture

The underpasses that lay under Budapest’s main boulevard intersections, and spill out from the main train stations, are the toxin-collecting lymph nodes of the city. Or, more generously, autonomous break-away zones of punks, prostitutes, and free-ranging men not adverse to a tipple. They are the malls of the downtrodden, each one offering its own particular brand of service and its own individual grimy culture, or, sub-culture, if you will. If you are lucky you can find a few of the city’s more colorful street artists performing, some descent grub, or get a good buzz on, all underground. But which has the most dynamic range of services and entertainments? We rated select city underpasses based on the street-food available, the entertainment value, the cleanliness, and the avoidablitiy, (meaning, how easy it is to bypass aboveground), to determine a winner. Which one came out on top? Read on.

Spoiler: it’s Nyugati Underpass.

Blaha Lujza: Resembling a social club for retired circus carnies, or casting call for Sid and Nancy Go to Budapest, Blaha has turned into a run-off ditch for miscreants, homeless, and worse, missionaries. We send our missionaries to Africa, Africa sends theirs to Blaha. It also serves as the main canteen for the Krishna soup kitchen, a gathering place for refugees, and a supporting wall to more than a few drunks. Punks claimed the center pillars for a while, and Roma have ad hoc vegetable stands, selling whatever is in season. That the Scientologists haven’t set up an outpost from their nearby headquarters seems short-sighted. After all, if you believe in aliens, Blaha would be a good place to start looking for them.

Eats: 2/5 There is but one bakery, and a decent looking gelato stand inside, though the Krishna soup line that forms outside it is open to all.
Entertainment: 2/5 Plenty of missionaries and nationalist organizations set up camp here, but few of the classic Hungarian street musicians deign to play this seedy venue.
Cleanliness: 2/5 That it is cleaned nightly does not matter. It just feels dirty down there, even with no dirt in sight.
Avoidablilty: 3/5 nearby crosswalks at three of four streets of the intersection make it easily avoidable.

Keleti: The extensive Keleti underpass recently underwent a huge renovation, leaving it with significantly fewer kiosks. An international and commuter travel hub, Keleti has always attracted its share of loiterers. Former home of Budapest’s speed chess players, Keleti suffers for their loss. That said, if you are willing to dine with the hoi polloi, food possibilities abound, as do book stalls.

Eats: 3/5 Very good, with the Baross Étterem in Keleti and several Hungarian büfés, a stand to get sausages and beer, as well as a Pizza Hut outlet. Gone with the renovation, however, are the excellent potato lángos and fried chicken stand.
Entertaiment: 1/5 Surprisingly under-utilized by buskers, considering all the tourist traffic. No pubs or gaming.
Cleanliness: 4/5 Doesn’t feel that bad, probably due to the really dim lighting.
Avoidablility: 1/5 Want to cross Rákóczi by the station? It is a must, though Keleti station itself is accessible without going underground. If you want a local train ticket, however, it’s down you go.

Boráros Tér
: Also with an open air courtyard, it serves as a connection point for commuters coming in from the burbs, or crossing over into Buda. One of the more palatable underpasses, mostly because there is so little to offend. Homeless gravitate towards the matronly babushka sculpture/drinking fountain, and her bronze patina bosom and oblong wine casks.

Eats: 4/5 Burgers, gyros, bakeries, pizza, plus lángos and sweet kürtos kalács – there is a lot of fast food here, some of it not terrible.
Entertainment: 2/5 Not even Zámbó Jimmy could entertain the grim commuters that speed through Boráros. Have yet to see anybody try. There is a pub, though.
Cleanliness: 3/5 Nothing too stinky going on, though the darker the corner, the more likely it doubles a minimalist pisseur.
Avoidability: 2/5 almost unavoidable if you need to pass this way.

Déli: Buda has so few underpasses, but Déli pu. makes the most for its Buda residents. Déli is the gentlmen’s underpass. With a jewelers and a bank, it is the Switzerland of underpasses. An open air courtyard offers a few creature comforts, including seats and a curious geometrical sculpture. There is much to love here, including varied cuisine, and lots of shops.

Eats: 3/5 A sit-down restaurant, a Chinese büfé, pizza, and traditional Hungarian can all be found on the environs, plus a late-night green grocers, and a really good bakery and donut stand in the corridor that runs under Alkotás.
Entertainment: 2/5 Most of the best street entertainers can be found in Buda, but not at Déli. They favor the outdoor venue of Moszkva Tér. There are a few pubs, however, and a gaming room.
Cleanliness: 4/5 Pretty good considering the foot traffic.
Avoidability: 4/5 Doesn’t connect major thoroughfares, therefore easy to avoid.

Nyugati: The crumb de la crumb of underpasses, it is a scary, strange, fascinating world unto itself. The catacombs that run towards the train station are filled with kiosks selling knock-off designer wear, perfumes, and a few book stalls. And, for the record, they don’t take kindly to having their picture taken.
Eats: 5/5 Fank me? Fank you! They have it all here, from Subway and Burger King franchises, to American hotdogs, gyros, an all-night green grocers, and a really good donut stand. Venture further in to find Hungarian büfés and pizza by the slice.
Entertainment: 5/5 The venue of choice for Korean missionary choruses and the dudes who play on half-filled glasses, some of the most interesting street performers can be found here, just keep your hand on your wallet. The speed chess players have taken up residence towards the Westend mall entrance, and take on all comers. Also, a casino, and a really cool American-diner looking bar, plus a pub that sells Ft 70 wine spritzers. The wayward Roma girls and attendant managers have made it the new Rákóczi Tér.
Cleanliness: 3/5 Food smells tend to overpower the stink.
Avoidablity: 1/5 There are days when I shudder knowing I will have to pass this intersection, and I have seen friends take their lives into their own hands by trying to frogger their way across the street rather than brave the journey under Nyugati. But like a black hole, you are ultimately powerless against its pull. Might as well make the most of it, and have a fank on the run.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fall Out Baj: the Trouble with Ákos, Emo, and One Drowned Kitten

Hungarian singing star Ákos turned 40 this year. The world at large failed to notice.

Ákos, who made his mark before the days of the pre-fab, TV-packaged Megasztár, is one of the few home-grown stadium draws in Hungary. To the casual observer, he comes off as a typical self-aggrandizing, bloated crooner, whose videos are filled with weepy, candle-holding, Hungarian flag-waving youth, designed to reinforce exactly what Ákos means, or should mean, to his fan base. Ákos is also an outspoken advocate of nationalism and center-right politics within Hungary. But it wasn’t always blatant nationalistic pandering for Ákos. Before his solo career, he played in a much-loved, but much less listened-to synth-pop band, called Bonanza Banzai. Highly derivative of Depeche Mode, the Hungarian Depeche Mode Fan Club still regularly play Bonanza Banzai videos at their parties. So, how did this spandex-wearing, died hair aficionado of glam pop (and all the "People are People" values it represents) turn so deeply conservative?

The answer is that Ákos (as a persona) always was conservative, much like so many members of what constitutes your average ‘alternative’ community here in Budapest. You are more likely to see a Hungarian flag pin on a typical Hungarian punk than an anarchy symbol, as likely to see a swastika as a pentagram decorating a goth. Many counter-culture movements, which tend to be so socially progressive in the States, share a union with right wing nationalism in Hungary. And, by all appearances, it is a very comfortable marriage indeed. One the same bill, I saw Egészséges Fejbőr (Healthy Head Skin, or Healthy Scalp, a loud and profoundly racist hate-core band) and a rockabilly band Sonic Cats play together, the audience seamlessly transitioning from do-woping to "Blues Suede Shoes", to heiling Hitler along to lyrics of songs like "Fekete Majmok" ("Black Monkeys"). What is surprising about an EFB concert, is just how easy it is to fit in: they don't play to just skinheads, their audience is, by all appearances, a cross-section of (white, non-Jewish, obviously) Hungarian society. People bring their kids.

The most conspicuous manifestation the right/left union in Hungary was the recent (alleged) coupling of a far-right anti-Semitic blogger and the Hungarian chapter of the Animal Liberation Front, who paired to execute and document an action against entities involved in a theatrical performance at a Jewish run and patronized club, Sirály, that involved dumping a bucket of pig shit on the objectionable person's head. That an artist who drown a kitten on film was targeted by ALF, doesn’t really bear much comment; the art itself was banal, heartless, and just dumb, and ALF typically take such radical action against abusers of animals. What was shocking was the partnership of Hungary’s most vocal right-wingers and an organization with an ultra-progressive cause.

Why does such a thick cord of nationalism tie together so many counter-cultural factions here? The lameness of Hungarian rock is partially to blame (I am coming to realize that Hungarian rock is going to be the whipping boy of this particular blog). The majority of both successful and up-and-coming Hungarian rock bands give their audience little more than pale imitations of foreign bands, and have so piteously little to offer by way of non-manufactured rebelliousness, originality, or social agenda. Just look to Hungarian emo for a truly toothless, mall-ready, and vapid music scene. It is hard to see local emo as more than foreign fashion and identity filtered through semi-talented opportunists. Conversely, a band like EFB, in addition to longevity (their hate is a slow-burning one, they have been around for almost 25 years now), they offer passion, community, and social agenda. And believe what you want about youth apathy—they do want the structure of social agenda, a scene to aspire to (where acceptance is not signified by mall purchases and expensive hair-cuts), a cue about how to cope in such a quickly changing society—and I would venture to say that the world of the Hungarian teen is vastly more complicated than mine was when I was growing up.

Or perhaps its attractiveness lies in the fact that nationalism is one of the last causes which resists being bought and sold, or turned into a transient fashion, despite the best efforts of Ákos’s sellers (MTV, VIVA). Nationalism holds little hope of attracting corporate sponsorship. It is one of the few authentic grass-roots movements around, and Hungarian identity is a cause worth fighting for in these borderless days of the EU.

But god, don’t I just want to stop every flag-waving Hungarian punk and point out the disconnect there; that they are walking oxymorons. Don't I just want to take them by their shoulders, shake them really hard and demand to know how they could have possibly taken "God Save the Queen" literally. And as much as I also just want to write the whole thing off, I can’t. These are the kids I have taught, laughed with, cared for, who I don’t want to disavow because of a scribbled swastika or Justice for Hungary tee-shirt.

I don’t know, maybe Ákos is more relevant than I give him credit for, and at 40, is still a true representation of Hungarian counter-culture. That is a scary thought.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.