Polo house, the Baltic beat, and the rise of the Polish electronic music underground is profiled by Matt Anniss.
There is something undeniably thrilling about the slow expansion of electronic music and underground dance culture beyond its traditional American and Western European borders. While it would be foolish to argue that Eastern European nations currently boast scenes and the music industry infrastructure to rival the UK, France, Germany or Italy, their growing status within dance music cannot be questioned.
Right now, the most productive underground electronic music scene in “New Europe” belongs to Poland. Those at the heart of the action may complain about low numbers at left-of-centre club events, and an unsupportive local media, but there’s no denying the rude health of Polish electronic music right now.
It has been a long time coming. It has taken well over a decade for Poland’s underground electronic music scene to grow, expand, diversify and develop a unique identity. Happily, this growth, fuelled by an expanding core group of DJs, producers, labels and record stores, is beginning to be noticed further afield than the key cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Poznan.
Last month saw the release of Polo House, a joyous celebration of Poland’s new wave of disco and Balearic-inspired deep house producers from Transatlantyk Records. While it reflects only one aspect of Poland’s diverse dance music culture, its success has led many outside of the country to wonder whether the Eastern European nation is on the cusp of something very special.
Certainly, those in the midst of the action believe there’s a real buzz about Poland right now. “In my opinion this year is groundbreaking for ambitious and fresh house music in Poland,” says Warsaw-based Adam Brocki, who releases under the Newborn Jr. and Matat Professionals monikers for Transatlantyk and S1 Warsaw. “Finally, people who have different musical backgrounds are starting to deliver something that is beyond. For me, it’s better than ever. You could go to Side One Records here in Warsaw and you will find many solid records produced by Polish artists. Many of the young producers, such as Selvy, Klaves and Lutto Lento, are already working with international labels. I think we’re closer than ever to a really healthy Polish house music scene.”
Lubomir Grzelak, the experimental noise maker turned dusty house and techno fusionist better known as Lutto Lento, agrees with Brocki. “It’s getting better and better. People who used to hide in their bedrooms are slowly coming out and showing their productions. Artists are getting more conscious and are not afraid of doing new things.”
Few in Poland are quite as qualified to put the current state of the scene into context as Mat Schulz, co-founder and artistic director of Krakow’s Unsound Festival. In many ways, Unsound’s success mirrors that of the Polish underground at large. Founded in 2003 as a small celebration of underground electronic music culture, Unsound is now a major international event, with spin-off showcases, parties and mini-festivals in New York, Toronto, Adelaide and London. Where once their line-ups fit a handful of Polish DJs, producers and live acts around an impressive selection of international talent, recent events have seen homegrown artists nudge closer to the top of the bill.
“There are so many artists and labels doing great things right now that I’ll get into trouble if I miss people out,” Schulz says, laughing. “If I was making a list I’d mention The Phantom, RSS Boys, Piotr Kurek and his various projects, Wilhelm Bras, We Will Fair, Kucharczyk, Zamilska, Eltron John, Lutto Lento (pictured below), Ptaki, Duy Gebord, Michal Wolski, Fischerle, FOQL, Mirt and Ter, and the father figure of Polish electronica Jacek Sienkiewicz,” he says.
“There are almost as many labels doing great things, too – The Very Polish Cut-Outs, Technosoul, S1 Warsaw, Transatlantyk, Mik Musik, Dunno, Audile Snow, Bocian for more experimental music, and Bolt Records for some really interesting music from Poland and neighbouring countries,” Schulz continues, then adds, “I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, though.”
How times have changed. It wasn’t so long ago that Poland was, in the words of S1 Warsaw’s Rafal Grobel, “a desert” for underground electronic music. There have always been exceptions, though, and two names that crop up time and again as key figures in Poland’s dance music development are the Sienkiewicz brothers, Jacek and Maciek.
Jacek began his production career in the mid 1990s, when he founded Recognition Records as an outlet for techno and experimental electronic music. He was one of the first Polish dance producers to receive wider acclaim, thanks to releases on the likes of Sven Vath’s Cocoon and Hamburg’s Smallville label.
He started out in dance music around the same time as brother Maciek, who cut his teeth as a DJ and promoter in Warsaw in the early ‘90s, following the fall of communism and the opening up of Europe’s borders. By that point, Maciek had already been working as a music journalist for a number of years (he would later go on to present a nation-wide TV show on the subject between 1995 and ’96). Both brothers fell head over heels in love with club culture, immersing themselves in DJing and promotion.
“I started around ’91-92, playing parties with my friend DJ 600V, who would go on to become the very first Polish hip-hop ‘super-producer’,” Maciek Sienkiewicz remembers. “We would play all sorts of stuff. At that time we had a few hundred people raving every Saturday until 8am at all sorts of music, from EBM through to heavy rock. Anything went down smoothly – Meat Beat Manifesto and Public Enemy, Psychic TV and Mudhoney, Sun Electric and NWA, Foetus and Orbital. There was nothing but a groove.”
At the time, the scene in Warsaw – not to mention Poland at large – was tiny. “There were virtually no regular clubs and no proper DJs when I was starting out,” he admits. “In Warsaw, there was a club called Filtry that was somewhat of a staple. There you could hear DJs playing vinyl records they bought from the UK, mostly house and breakbeat, hardcore. I was always into blending different genres, but these were the sounds that dominated.”
In those days you could count the number of successful Polish producers and labels on the fingers of one hand. Electronic music – be it dancefloor-focused material or more experimental fare – was only of interest to a handful of diehard enthusiasts. Slowly but surely, things began to pick up at the turn of the millennium, initially through an unlikely expansion in the hip-hop and beat-making scenes. The most well known exponents of this style was Skalpel, who released a series of albums on Ninja Tune throughout the noughties, featuring distinctive cut-ups of old Polish jazz records. Behind them, though, was a small but dedicated scene represented by the likes of Warsaw’s JuNoMi Records, which was founded in 2002.
“At that time, there was a good record store in Warsaw where you could meet the city’s best DJs,” says JuNoMi co-founder Groh, now the man behind acclaimed glitch-hop and electronica imprint U Know Me Records. “There was one big problem, and that was almost no new Polish records on vinyl. So, a few of us decided to launch JuNoMi, and later many other imprints such as Fuente Records for house, Funky Mamas & Papas Recordings, and finally U Know Me.”
Record stores often play a key role in the development of underground music scenes around the world, and it was no different in Warsaw. The opening of Side One Records in 2005 would have a profound effect on the city’s underground dance music scene.
“Side One was hugely important, not just to me but plenty of others,” says Rafal Grobel, who also runs Boiler Room Poland as well as the S1 Warsaw imprint. “Within weeks of opening it became the main DJs and collectors spot. They opened my mind and others to boogie, disco and jazz. There I met all the experienced DJs running the scene, listened to their stories and opinions about records.
“When I later launched the S1 Warsaw label in 2012, it was named in honour of the store, and linked to it, a bit like All City or Rush Hour. Later this year, we’re releasing a triple-vinyl box set to celebrate a decade of Side One, featuring new tracks from artists that have had the strongest impact on the Polish scene over the last ten years – the likes of Ptaki, SLG, Kuba Sojka, Eltron John, Chino, and Jacek Sienkiewicz.”
Grobel believes the current upsurge in Polish electronic music activity can be traced back to 2008, when a new generation of house and techno DJs and producers began making waves. Chief amongst this new wave were Catz N Dogz, whose success in gaining releases on ‘Western’ labels – primarily Dirtybird and Get Physical – showed what was possible.
“I believe the boom started with club nights and parties,” Grobel enthuses. “Suddenly all the big acts started playing Warsaw at the peak of their popularity, not five years after. Over the next two or three years, most of the top bookings rocked the clubs in town. These were all booked by people we used to hang out with – the likes of Jan, Club Collab and Artur8, who was really ahead of the curve with his bookings.”
While the club scene was undoubtedly thriving – not only in Warsaw, but also to a lesser extent Krakow and Poznan – there were still relatively few producers or labels representing homegrown talent.
“We have this complex relationship with the West,” says Maciek Zambon, founder of The Very Polish Cut-Outs and Transatlantyk labels. “Back then, you could be an amazing producer, but if you didn’t make it in the West, nobody would acknowledge you in Poland. As soon as producers started to get a bit of success in the UK, France, Germany, Holland and so on, suddenly promoters started to book them for festivals and events at home.”
Along with Pets Recordings, S1 Warsaw and others, the 2012 launch of The Very Polish Cut-Outs began to alter that mindset. “I think the success of the Polish Cut-Outs and other labels encouraged a lot of people to start their own imprints,” Zambon says. “They saw that if I could do it, they could, too. At the beginning, everybody wanted to release something on a Western label. Now, they’re thinking they can do it themselves, or get exposure on the other Polish labels that are emerging.”
The Very Polish Cut-Outs was significant for a number of reasons. Although a re-edit label, it offered up reworks – initially in a slo-mo, Balearic or dub disco style – of obscure, old and little-known Polish records. This ‘homegrown’ flavour can be still be heard, some years on, in the samples featured in the work of Ptaki (pictured above) – whose debut album, Przelot, has attracted attention from the usually reticent mainstream Polish media – Naphta, Selvy, Das Komplex and others featured on both Zambon’s Transatlantyk imprint, and Maciek Sienkiewicz’s similarly impressive Father & Son Records & Tapes.
“After the fall of communism, we’ve always been looking to the West – this idea that ‘West is best’ and so on,” Zambon says. “Skalpel was one of the first bands to get international acclaim by sampling Polish jazz music. That gave people a spark to do it. Now what we’re seeing now is the second wave, but with their own spin on things. Now Ptaki are getting more and more fuss, and I hope that this inspires people, not only to make music themselves, but also to look at their Polish heritage, and sample more from what we have here. The records are easy to access, but with the Internet you can get records from all over, and many DJs travel. It’s not about the access, it’s about looking at the heritage.”
The underground electronic music landscape in Poland has changed much over the last few years. Now, most major cities have their own small but growing scenes. “The scene in Poznan is pretty good right now,” says Wotjek Gawronski, who recently made his debut as Freux on Transatlantyk’s Polo House compilation. “It’s mostly techno DJs whose ultimate success would be to spin some USB sticks in Tresor on a Wednesday afternoon. Besides from that, we have a lot of talented people.”
Gawronski references the collective I’m So Addicted. “Selvy, Matat Professionals, or Michel Ratajczak. Everyone knows each other, so it feels like a real community, which Feelaz from the Vinylgate record store has helped to nurture. The WOSK vinyl-only club is also the hub for the Poznan underground scene. There’s a great selection of events and a great soundsystem.”
Over in Gdansk, things are subtly different, according to The Very Polish Cut-Outs regulars Jazxing. “There are some dub producers who have been very successful, like Reza and Hatti Vatti,” says Mateusz Filipiuk, one half of the disco and deep house duo. “When it comes to house and techno music, we are playing frequently with Radekk, who is the main man behind Cyman records.”
Head over to Wroclaw, and you’ll find another “techno city”, according to Pawel Klimczak, better known for his releases on Studio Barnhus and Transatlantyk as Naphta. “As it is quite techno I have a hard time fitting in with my weird ass house music,” he jokes. Clubs like Das Lokal and Baubar exude the sense of community, Klimczak tells me, “especially when it comes to nights from crews such as Regime Brigade and Strikt.” In terms of producers, Klimczak highlights Astro Buhloone, “those guys are making really cool and original house music, whilst en2ak has put an original spin on the new beats genre, and Night Marks Electric Trio are doing fine job by blending modern beats with jazz.”
Despite these developments, it’s Krakow, Poznan and Warsaw, in particular, which remain the most vibrant musical hubs – even if the club scene in the latter is nowhere near as electric as it once was. “There were some cool nights historically, and there still are some good parties out there, but I wouldn’t say they are a driving force behind the scene most of the time,” says Marek Stuczynski, AKA scene stalwart Eltron John. “I relocated to Warsaw from Krakow last year. There’s not so much going on as maybe there was, but there is a cool, open-minded techno night run by Jacek Plewicki called Brutaz. He has a great no-nonsense approach and draws a younger, but very dedicated crowd.”
Putting questions about the current health of Warsaw’s underground clubs to one side, there’s no doubt that the city is spearheading a new golden age of Polish underground dance music. This, of course, leads us to another question: why now?
“Obviously the developing economy has something to do with it,” Unsound’s Mat Schulz says. “People have a bit more money to spend on musical equipment, studios, and so on, or to do something crazy like start a label. But there’s also a real confidence, which manifests itself in all sorts of art forms in Poland. You also don’t feel that Polish electronic musicians are just copying styles imported from the US or UK. They have their own voice, which is part of a long and complex history of music in this country.”
With such variety, it’s hard to focus on one style above others. It is true, though, that the sample-heavy “Baltic beat” style of Ptaki and Das Komplex, and the Polo House pushed forward by S1 Warsaw, Transatlantyk and Father & Son Records & Tapes, in particular, is distinctively Polish.
“There’s a huge interest in making stuff that is not so shiny and well quantized,” says Adam Brocki of Matat Professionals and Newborn Jnr fame. “It’s now about strange harmonies, going beyond short loops and simple drum patterns.” Brocki feels the next stage would be leaving “clubby vibes and incorporating more live instruments, exploring more jazz and disco influences.”
“I’m personally hoping that our scene is going to move out from being a ‘constellation of individuals’ to a state where it’s more about that special loose flow of energy, in which you could develop real feel of scene,” he says. “We’re not there yet, but it’s coming.”
Lutto Lento picture at Sonic Phenomena, Lublin courtesy of Tomasz Kulbowski.