Domininkas KUNČINAS | The B-Sides of Lithuanian Pop Music

‘Lithuanian music doesn’t only thrive in pop. There are just as many bands and performers who create what they like and are not a single bit less loved for it,’ – say the organisers of T.Ė.T.Ė. alternative music awards, which has returned in 2020 after a seven year break, and add that their goal is to acknowledge musicians for their creativity, professionalism and real contribution to the scene. The Lithuanian alternative music scene has the special category The Alternative of the Year at the national pop music awards M.A.M.A. as well. Alternative music is part of contemporary pop music, not its antithesis, these genres continuously interact and intertwine by feeding and morphing into one another. The aim of this article is therefore not to separate and define what is pop and what isn’t, but to subjectively review the margins of the Lithuanian music scene that are further away from the centre of the entertainment world, some sort of grey zone between pop and underground.

In recent years, both M.A.M.A. and T.Ė.T.Ė.[1] have rewarded one of the most visible characters of the Lithuanian music scene, Benas Aleksandravičius and his band ba. In one of his recent interviews, the musician talks about how conditional and meaningless these divisions actually are: ‘The alternative music scene is something that the mainstream would like to be. There is simply not as much money in the alternative scene. [...] But to be serious, who draws the line between the alternative and the mainstream? It seems that it’s bad to be part of the mainstream, but actually it’s not like that at all. [...] We play alternative music, alternative rock and we are just a few people out of the many who brought this genre to the major stages in Lithuania. [...] Is it good or bad? That’s not for me to judge, and it’s not even that important.’

The contexts of alternative music are constantly changing: something that was banal pop music in the 90s sells today as an alternative craft nostalgia. All this is reminiscent of the process of gentrification in cities, or to paraphrase the name of one British alternative rock band – Alternative Will Eat Itself. According to the music journalist David Stubbs, ‘In these times rock'n'roll has been corporatised and corporations have been rock'n'rolled.’ However, there is a will to believe that the musical spirit which inspires artists to search, try and experiment will survive and that every pop epidemic will find its own vaccine. Otherwise, the balance would be broken and music would lose its fundamental ability to evolve.

The biggest Lithuanian super hit so far has been the Singing Revolution, which happened 30 years ago and was first recognised by Iceland. If we were capable of singing while the bullets were whistling and the tanks were roaring, why can’t we, just like the Icelanders, develop a unique and internationally appealing music scene?

What Is Alternative and What's It Eaten With?

The dictionaries define alternative [from French alternative < Latin alterno – ‘interchanging’] as the necessity or possibility to choose one option from a few. It’s common to think that alternative music is music produced by performers who are outside the musical mainstream, that is typically regarded as more eclectic, original, or challenging than most popular music (such as conventional rock, pop, or country), and that is often distributed by independent record labels. Another dictionary mentions that the definition of alternative music is an umbrella term used to describe music that is not played on mainstream radio or consumed by the mainstream audience, or whose music does not fall into any other genre.

It’s said that The Washington Post used the term for the first time in the 70s. In his book Alternative Rock, Dave Thompson indicates that Patti Smith’s album Horses, Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed and the formation of the British punk band Sex Pistols were three cornerstone events that gave rise to alternative music, and its origins are related to artists such as The Velvet Underground or Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd.

The first national Indie Chart was launched in Great Britain at the beginning of the eighties. It was compiled from the distribution data of independent record labels. One of the most important American music publications, Billboard included ‘alternative’ in their ratings in 1988 as they wanted to reflect the growing popularity of the music played by college radio stations. A few years later Perry Farrell, the leader of Jane’s Addiction, introduced a travelling festival Lollapalooza, which united different alternative artists such as Henry Rollins, Butthole Surfers, Ice-T, Nine Inch Nails, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and so on. That autumn Nirvana's first single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' exploded, and at the end of the year a very influential magazine, Spin, summarised: ‘This year it first became obvious that something that used to be called alternative rock, [...] has already moved to the mainstream.’ Today it’s possible to purchase clothes with the logos of alternative bands at any supermarket anywhere in the world and Lollapalooza has become a part of sleek pop culture.

Changing Lithuanian Alternative Energy

In Soviet Lithuania, however, things were quite different. Almost until the very moment that Lithuania announced independence in 1990, the music scene was controlled by the government. Only those vocal instrumental ensembles reaching a certain artistic and civic consciousness were officially allowed to create and perform, whilst amateur artists such as Sa-Sa were forced to live a parallel life in the underground. They all burst out in the geyser of the Singing Revolution – various music charts were schizophrenically flickering with names from cheap pop to heavy metal, from patriotic songs to melancholic indie rock. At some point even the song by the avant-garde band Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu called ‘Šunparkis’ (Eng. Dog Park) ended up there. Šunparkis is the courtyard of the current Lithuanian Presidential Palace where subcultural gatherings used to happen. By the way, the band is still active and Brittish label Strut Records is going to release their early records in 5 LP / 3 CD box including a book and other collector items.

With the free and romantic wind of Independence bands like Antis, Bix and Foje managed to tour even across the Atlantic. But today only some dusty legends remain of this regatta – Bix was supported by still then unknown American band Nirvana at their concert in Germany, and Antis played in the legendary CBGBs club in New York. It may be ironic, but today the leader of one of the most interesting Lithuanian alternative music bands, Bix, shares the secrets of the entertainment industry on the reality TV show X Factor.

The melomaniacs who found their way onto the newly appearing commercial radio stations coloured the air with the sounds of noncommercial music. A weekly TV show of heavy music called Tamsos Citadelė (Eng. Citadel of Darkness) was broadcasted by the first commercial television Tele-3 – another capitalist paradox. A special bi-weekly newspaper for young people called Mes! (Eng. We!) was published from 1990 to 1994 and the first issues of an influential magazine, Tango, appeared in the same period as well. Along with the MTV shows 120 Minutes, Headbanger’s Ball and others, these and other channels inspired the first indie scene of an independent Lithuania. Once the commercial media optimised its content, only a few remained dedicated to alternative music. Radio stations like Start FM and Palanga Street Radio broadcast different content, while most of TV/print content moved to internet, but only few resources provide a steady stream of information.

The Worst Bands Festival, which was organised in 1988–1997, became a rare opportunity to perform on stage for many musicians and for some it became the first step towards recognition. The first independent Eastern European record company, Zona Records, established in 1991, also significantly contributed to the promotion of alternative music. It’s hard to imagine now, but the huge billboard in the main square of Vilnius advertised the records re-released by Zona Records of bands such as Happy Mondays, Pixies, Dead Can Dance, Sugarcubes, Joy Division, and Cocteau Twins. The record label still releases the albums of local alternative bands, be it Lithuanian reggae ambassadors Ministry of Ecology, or sharp No Real Pioneers screamo, or indie band Silverpieces, or improvisational music virtuoso Paulius Kilbauskas. Few local labels worth to check are Dangus Productions, Partyzanai Pop, Suru Records, Tilto Namai and others.

Later the starving Baltic Tiger[2] and the economic crises caused quite a heavy hangover to the entire entertainment industry – a society in need of bread didn’t need any more games. After a short stretch of bliss, alternative music retreated like a falling tide. The late Generation Y and the early Generation Z born in free Lithuania got rid of most of the Soviet mentality complexes, started to speak English better than Russian, travelled the world freely and felt themselves a part of the global world wide web. On the one hand, this encouraged more freedom of self-expression, on the other – it brought a deluge of potential influences. In Soviet times, music records were delayed by decades, today the whole world can hear you as soon as you click ‘publish.’

According to Gediminas Šečkus ‘Audronašas’, the host of the radio show called Audronaša, which has been broadcasted every Monday for thirteen years: ‘Lithuania, like most countries which broke out from the occupation of the evil empire, went through the stages of maturity. All other processes including culture followed after. The idea, the thought, was far ahead of the performance technique when the metal scene was forming. But this was a quarter century ago. Since then a young and talented generation of artists has grown up and they are not afraid to combine all kinds of different things in their work. They don’t aim to somehow push their Lithuanianness onto the listeners either.’

Contemporary Popular Alternative

The emotional post-punkers ba., hippie neo-psychedelics Garbanotas and dark-sad-wave representatives Solo Ansamblis – these are the whales carrying the Lithuanian alternative scene today. All three already have one foot in the pop scene and each is capable of attracting an impressive crowd on the local scale. Unfortunately, these bands are little known to international audiences, apart from a few performances at showcase festivals, and they would attract scarcely a few listeners in Poland or Latvia. This is something of a circular problem, because having become well known on their own turf, they don't want to play on much smaller stages to unknown audiences. Conversely, some musicians from one subculture or another only known to the smaller audiences in Lithuania, but searching for their unique sound, receive more attention abroad: London based June Records released the vinyl Vega by Caroil, Dutch Knekelhuis released Bizarr by Patricia Kokett, Young And Cold Records from Germany brought out Reflections by Pindrops, French label Season of Mist – Vaitojimas by Erdve. The obstacle to entering the bigger waters for many is… life. Many of these artists can’t leave their main income sources, which are not music usually, for longer periods of time and there is no one who would like to dive blindfolded into the global ocean of music. The tours to the showcase festivals in Europe have only resulted in singular gigs, mostly in other showcase festivals. There is an ongoing discussion as to whether these events are useful and meaningful – and there is no ultimate answer.

Vaidas Stackevičius is one of the key players in the Lithuanian pop scene. His music agency M.P.3 successfully works with popular artists, but sometimes diverges and releases an album by the goth veterans Siela or by cheeky, but fierce rock newbies Timid Kooky. According to Vaidas: ‘Although you always want better, I think that the alternative scene in Lithuania is well developed and generates interest. When looking back at the nineties and two-thousands now, I miss only that vitality in alternative music, which at that time impressed me very much. But times have changed and music has changed as well. The Lithuanian alternative music scene is represented internationally perfectly well by such bands as Solo Ansamblis, Timid Kooky, shishi, and Sheep Got Waxed. More than twenty years ago the export of the Lithuanian music started exactly from within the alternative circles.’

The latest album by Solo Ansamblis, called Olos, was released by the Canadian Artoffact Records this year, but a potential breakthrough was held back due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead the melomaniacs of the world have already ‘chosen’ a band of a similar genre from this region – a few years ago Detriti Records from Berlin released the album Etazhi by Belarusian band Molchat Doma, and this year it was released by Sacred Bones Records from the USA. The spaces for concerts of this band have ‘increased’ every time because of enormous interest both in Europe and across the Atlantic. Perhaps the exotic factor of the crumbling but enduring ‘last dictatorship of Europe’ has played a role, or the resurgent popularity of the 80s aesthetics – Viktor Tsoy and his band Kino played very similar music during that period. In the work of Solo Ansamblis, there is more originality in the search for new forms, and they say: ‘As popular as we may seem, we don’t assign ourselves to popular music neither musically, nor commercially. The Lithuanian market is small and we can’t survive on music alone. The majority of what Solo Ansamblis does is driven by ideas, without the blind goal of earning a lot of money, with a passion for giving emotional joy and refinement to the listeners, and of course to ourselves.’ 

In the Strangling Embrace of M.A.M.A and T.Ė.T.Ė

The nominees for this year’s M.A.M.A award ‘The Alternative of the Year’ were: colourful guitar rave album Abundance Supreme by Without Letters who are currently taking a break from musical activity; composer Paulius Kilbauskas, who is experimenting in the worlds of improvisational instrumental music; post-metal rock band Autism for their conceptual album Have You Found Peace?; and ironic art-rock band Arklio Galia, who released their 6th album Tavo Laiptinėj & Ant Savęs (Eng. On Your Stairway & On Myself). The eventual winner was Jonas Narbutas’ alter ego Kabloonak. Narbutas has played drums in various bands for almost two decades as well as recording the solo albums Piano Out Of Tune (2016) and Kabloonak (2019), with melancholic folk/indie melodies. ‘Sensitively poetic and maturely sarcastic, some parts of his work are very well suited for the last dance for two after the last visitors of the rowdy bar have left,’ – say the reviews. ‘It’s a sad and beautiful world,’ as Kabloonak himself sings. 

Although the M.A.M.A. awards organisers brag about their 80-member jury, most of the jurors are fairly unfamiliar with the alternative scene, so the results are doubtful every year. Many questions have also arisen concerning the returning T.Ė.T.Ė. awards and their choice of direct opposition to the pop scene. The music competitions Garažas and Novus continue the tradition of the above-mentioned The Worst Bands Festival and the search for new talents. New names appear there every year, but unfortunately most of them sink into oblivion a few years later.

One of the organisers of the main Lithuanian alternative music festival Devilstone, Vaidas Voronavičius, is quite pessimistic: ‘Everyone is playing their own safe music somewhere. There are indoor and outdoor festivals, there are organisers, there are bands which tour abroad, there are albums, there are places to play at, there are nightclubs. All fricking amazing. There are many concerts for international bands. Life is booming. But this is only one side of the coin. The polished one. Because it seems to me that nothing amazing is happening. We don’t have many great bands, we don’t have talent. There are no good concert halls of small, medium and large size. Although we have famous names and a few successful artists, there are only very few of them. We don’t have strong bands playing rock well. Who’s cooking up a good, heavy, raucous rock?’

Gentrification and Incest on the Alternative Scene

The band ba. mentioned above supported the British Shame at the Loftas Fest in the autumn of 2019, but while watching this concert a question arose – who is supporting whom. In the rhythm of neo-punk world renaissance, ba. caught the attention of surprisingly many listeners of this type. The rising waves of the alternative scene have reached  even the peaceful holiday makers of the pop culture coast, attracting the attention of such brands like Jägermeister who have supported electronic music performers in the past.

The above-mentioned ‘whales’ Solo Ansamblis and Garbanotas emerged from the waters of darkwave and neo-psychedelics respectively, and diluted the sweetness of the mainstream. Within the changing microflora of pop music more and more new mutating organisms appear: baroque indie band Abudu, jautì counting the numbers of rock mathematics, punk kraut surfers Egomašina, Planeta Polar distilling their own neo-cumbia sound, family folk/indie duo Kamanių Šilelis, IYE trap or post-ironic avantgarde rap by Vilniaus Energija, post-hippies Flash Voyage, and harder calibre guitar improvisers Sraigės Efektas and Fume, who shook off Burialesque influences in search of unique electronic co-mutations.

According to Vytis Puronas, who has returned to the stage after a long break with a new project Bleach Cult: ‘It’s interesting that the sense of caution and fear of risk is still prevalent in Lithuanian pop music. And the breakthrough that would make pop-musicians interesting internationally is not really happening. And that’s not a question of money. Alongside pop there are many interesting phenomena. There are young performers and composers who create and shape their own unique style. For them, “shoobeedoobap” is no longer just the freedom to jazz after music classes, they already search for new forms of self expression, they are aesthetically literate and grasp the concept of sound quite early on. Or they land from other unexpected fields, learn to use audio editing software and weave their own original sound.’

Musical ‘incest’ is quite a frightening trend: the members of Garbanotas play with Kabloonak, the guitarist of the latter and the bassist from shishi ‘work’ at Ministry of Ecology, and Kabloonak himself plays drums with Planeta Polar. Then again, Iceland has a population seven times smaller, but its musical export doesn’t suffer because of that.

Heavy Artillery

‘Once the musicians set themselves free from the “I have to do this” approach and changed it to “I do what I like,” Lithuanian metal music became far more distinctive. To find one denominator that defines the Lithuanian metal is as easy as finding one description for all Italian wines. It’s best to sample and find something that suits your taste. The most important thing is to be daring,’ – says Šečkus ‘Audronašas’ and names the best known artists on the scene: ‘The quartet from Vilnius Erdve, singing about modern cruelty and superstitions (how little have we moved forward from the dark middle ages!) are currently one of the strongest in the sense of creativity and performance – the famous French record label Season of Mist, which released the Lithuanian band’s album Vaitojimas, acknowledged that as well. Juodvarnis continues the ninth century neopagan tradition surrounding it with progressive music. Although quite small, the Lithuanian metal scene has its representatives with a distinctive style: the horror movie maniacs Pekla, thrashers Phrenetix fronted by the charismatic vocalist Lina Vaštakaitė, ever more performing in Europe Awakening Sun and Au-Dessus. Black metal veterans Dissimulation and Nahash – very rare, but always welcome at the gigs, and Luctus, taking inspiration from the two, developed the black art much further than music.’

The festival Devilstone grew out of metal and other heavy music, but in recent years it has expanded its genre palette as far as ‘extreme rock’n’roll’ and ‘every year it introduces relevant rock, metal and electronic music creators from Europe and other parts of the world.’ It was partially influenced, according to the festival organisers, by the stagnating metal scene. Voronavičius says that ‘Metal is completely contracted. There are no new emerging bands, and if there are, then they develop very slowly, unproductively. Because there is no audience, there is nowhere to play, and it’s becoming harder and harder to trigger the interest. The genre has lost its popularity. The community is scattered, it’s not as homogenous as it was even less than ten years ago. The youth is not interested in heavy music. This is a huge problem for the market and for all its participants.’ 

Electronic Riding the Wave

A long-time figure on the scene and one of the organisers of the Minimal Mondays event series and r.i.p. festival Sūpynės, Nerijus SHN Damaševičius, says that Vilnius is widely famous for its dance music clubs Opium and Kablys. The scene is also hard to imagine without the new DIY colony Empty Brain Resort. Lizdas has also shaped a strong and diverse community. The Kaunas scene is reinforced by the GHIA commune, who raise the spirits with both their releases and their events in unconventional places. 

Voronavičius partially agrees: ‘There’s nothing strange about such a wide choice of electronic music parties-events-festivals on the market. This scene is riding the wave.’

‘It’s great that the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) bubble in Lithuania didn’t inflate after all. Techno and Manfredas’ house music remains popular, Electronic Body Music (EBM), New Beat, Goa Trance, Electro and Breakbeat, post-post forms are delightful,’ – says Damaševičius. ‘The styles go through their cycles as always – after the return of EBM and trance, various bass directions follow, it’s nice to hear experimental, new age etc. music played at various events and on the radio. There are more high quality and original music releases in physical format: Patricia Kokett, Caroil, Amora Lamor, Static Motion, VA, Auren, the list goes on.’ Antidote Community crew, influenced by a similar Cercle project, is creating spectacular high quality videos as promotion of local artists.

Although the scene is predominantly masculine, there are more and more women artists: from professional composers such as Monikaze, who is experimenting within the orbits of futuristic abstract bass, experimental electronica and Intelligent Dance Music (IDM), to self-taught Ruta Mur, who is researching the retrospective nostalgia of the 80s.

Clubs and Festivals

‘Talking about concerts, during the cold season in Lithuania metal music “lives” in nightclubs such as Lemmy in Kaunas and nArauti in Vilnius, festivals such as Armageddon Descends, associated with punk culture, grind and hardcore scenes, rave in the underground XI20 and the festival In’Feast,’ – explains Audronašas – ‘and there are exceptional festivals in the summer: Kilkim Žaibu combines the old customs of war and metal culture and has already been running for three decades, whilst Devilstone is famous for its wonderful freedom and unfettered rock’n’roll spirit.’

The organiser of the latter, Voronavičius, evaluates the situation critically: ‘The scene is so poor that the alternative bands play in pop festivals. Yes, the posters of international mainstream fests may feature together such names as Watain or Snoop Dogg. I’m not trying to say that it’s not happening, but we have two types of alternative artists: those who attract large audiences, and those who don't. There are quite a few who gather smaller crowds, but we don’t have that middle class. We don’t have a strong guitar music scene and we don’t have talented people who would like to, and know how to, play heavy music, not just garage music.’

‘Together with the festivals that have been brought to an end lately – Satta Outside, Tundra, Supynės – a certain era that was shaping the local scene and its music trends has ended as well,’ – thinks SHN Damaševičius: ‘It doesn’t seem that anything is missing with Yaga Gathering and their expanded musical direction, Braille Satellite gathering all “outsiders,” the emergence of Cape Kablys and the increasing quality of DT Camp. The festival practice is changing, everybody obviously knows more, has been in many places and there is less anxiety in general.’ 

Of course, most festivals in Lithuania are different because of their unique settings in nature. Reporter Cai Trefor from Under the Radar writes after having attended Yaga Gathering: ‘I don't think I've ever been to a better festival location in Europe. Yes, it helps that it's a heatwaveukelia weekend; but it's more than that: it's just stunning to be under an hour from Vilnius, the nation's capital, and feel so remote. [...] It's just got so many other things than music going for it and the music it does put on are picks from the heart by promoters who really know their stuff. I think this is a powerful contender for best small festival in Europe for it's all round attributes. Supreme taste on every level and total and utter respect for the land, and the well-being of the people on site. Yaga Gathering is legendary.’

Comfort Zone and Free Falling

One piece of folk wisdom says that you can’t be a prophet in your own land. If you don’t want to lose yourself in local affairs and become a designer or manager who plays music in your free time for pleasure, you have to dive in without knowing what’s at the bottom. Playing for pleasure, of course, is wonderful – you can even become the next big thing in this way. Thanks to modern technology, a lot of interesting music is being born in the bedrooms or attics, but when success comes, not everyone is ready to get on and ride it with Icarine wings to the skies. Yet the only way of doing it is to leave your comfort zone and feel the thrilling free fall/rise. Unless you’re ok with the thrilling status of a local celebrity.

So far Lithuanian electronic music is doing the best, maybe because this scene originated and developed at (almost) the same time as in the rest of the world. Names such as Manfredas or Ernestas Sadau and his Digital Tsunami are perfectly well known on alternative dancefloors around the world and Opium club in Vilnius should be subsidised for its touristic attraction.

‘There are very few bands which do very well or do something interesting,’ – says Voronavičius. ‘As soon as some new band plays something fresh or does something different – the excitement on the scene is felt immediately. Everybody talks, shows, tells. But very often such bands lose their breath and become unproductive, they are unable to write good songs (hits) and are affected by the rest of the small local scene factors.’

Akli, dadcap, John's Shower Band, JUTZ, Mėlyna, Palmės Žiedas, Plié and the list goes on – will anybody hear these names, or will they be eaten up by everyday life or the local pop scene, or maybe everything will just get covered with the homogenising film of oversaturating capitalism? 

Translated from the Lithuanian by Erika Lastovskytė

[1] Ironically enough, translated from Lithuanian these stand for Mom and Dad respectively.
[2] Baltic Tiger is a term used to refer to any of the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during their periods of economic boom, which started after the year 2000 and continued until 2006–2007.