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.

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