Dovydas BLUVŠTEINAS | Lithuanian Underground Heroes to Conquer the World?

An Interview with Quinton Scott, the Head of Strut Records

It was almost impossible to miss Strut Records for anybody at least moderately interested in World Music. The label became famous for precisely selected exotic, but still danceable rare tracks compilations. Later on, there was the brilliant Inspiration Information series, numerous albums by Mulatu Astatke, Sun Ra, Ebo Taylor and many others,

as well as comprehensive thematic compilations. Keeping in mind that Strut Records mostly concentrated on African and Afro-American music, it was quite a surprise to learn about their plans to release Lithuanian marginal heroes Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu record box. It was even more astonishing to discover that it will be composed mostly of their obscure home tapes. The situation is really unusual and fascinating, so I was happy to have a chance to find out the whole story firsthand, directly from Strut Records founder and label boss Quinton Scott.

To begin with, let’s find out what this strange undying creature Ir Visa Tai Kas Yra Gražu Yra Gražu (And All What Is Nice Is Nice, in Lithuanian) is, routinely abbreviated to IVTKYGYG or called simply Gražuoliai (The Handsome Ones) by a close circle of friends is all about.

The band was started back in 1987 by two flamboyant persons from the Vilnius underground scene – the guitar-playing painter Artūras ‘Šlipas’ Šlipavičius and former amateur filmmaker and prominent Soviet-times records collector and dealer Artūras ‘Baras’ Barysas. While Šlipas is quite an experienced musician obsessed by the creation of art objects, Baras had no sign of any musical abilities. Šlipas has always aimed at sophisticated intellectual interdisciplinary high art projects and Baras was only interested in the most cutting-edge forms of cultural provocation and self-exposure.

Such an uncomfortable marriage of hippie aesthetics and punk ethics couldn’t last long. The band produced a couple of underground hits and released a cassette album in 1991. Baras hung out with punks and street freaks gradually sinking into a heavy drinking problem. Without any chance to play for audiences during the economic and political turmoil of early 90s Lithuania, IVTKYGYG escaped into endless studio jams. The object-oriented Šlipas forced his peers to turn each successful jam session into a reel tape album with proper cover art, song titles and credits. Those unique handmade albums were designated as birthday presents to the members and friends of the band.

By the middle of the decade Baras got a year of compulsory treatment in a so-called ‘therapeutic labour dispensary,’ a de facto Soviet prison for heavy drinkers. During his prolonged absence Šlipas decided to prove to the world that IVTKYGYG was a real band, capable of playing serious music. He enlisted his long-time friend, the brilliant sax player and composer Vytautas Labutis along with a bunch of younger jazz musicians and recorded solid fusion album Linkėjimai Falkenhanui (Greetings to Falkenhann) in 1996.

Right from jail Baras was unhappy with the news and just added a few words to the mix at Šlipas’ request. The band sporadically resumed its concert activities, but the split between the two deepened. IVTKYGYG created new, more experimental and visual projects like Washing or Sewing Machines Music, which were almost completely ignored by Baras. Instead, he privately released a compilation of all IVTKYGYG tracks with him as a vocalist on the CD Lavonai (Corpses) and went to London with his archive films for a brief stint at the Horse Hospital arts venue in 2002. Back home he had a few more years of ups and downs until he peacefully passed away in his sleep on the couch in his mother’s apartment.

IVTKYGYG recruited a new drummer, percussionist and a long-time friend and sophisticated music lover Arvydas ‘Makys’ Makauskas as Baras’ replacement. Makys easily performed all of his parts, technically even better than Baras ever managed, but it was mostly just a restoration. It took some time to prepare enough material for a new album, the well-played and nicely recorded Paradas (The Parade). It was released as an LP only in 2017. On the 30th year of its existence, IVTKYGYG succeeded in fusing Baras-style provocative whooping with serious prog-jazz-rock playing. Today the band is exactly 33⅓, which looks like a nice age to review what has been done and to start a new, maybe even more glorious chapter in their history. After a third of a century of trying and waiting, they have finally got their chance, so we’ll see what the results are.

Most of music fans associate Strut Records with World Pop Music heritage excavations. For us in Lithuania it was really strange to hear about your involvement with IVTKYGYG. Could you tell us a few words about your label’s interests and ideology?

I think Strut has always had a wide reach musically. When we started 20 years ago, we began by putting together projects around the roots of dance music, primarily, and have gradually branched out since then. African, Latin and Caribbean sounds are certainly a major part of our catalogue but we have released post-punk and 80s electronic compilations around Factory Records, New York cellist Arthur Russell, DJ Trevor Jackson’s ‘Metal Dance’ industrial collections and Romanian electronic mavericks Rodion G.A. The label was always designed to tell stories around lost or lesser known music, so IVTKYGYG has been an incredible discovery for David [David Ellis – the project’s co-curator] and me. It’s very rare to have access to such a large archive of important unheard music, art, photography and film.

What about the business side of being an indie label nowadays? How did you survive the death of the CD and what’s your recipe for the current, no less turbulent times?

I think quality is more important than ever. If we release a studio album, everything from the writing and recording to the artwork has to be excellent. For a compilation, it often has to be an area of music that people haven’t heard before and has to be well packaged with great mastering and great sleeve notes. We do actually still sell a fair amount of CDs but vinyl sales are strong and streaming can generate good income if you can build a momentum through marketing and PR around a project. There is Bandcamp now too which has been a real bonus for labels to sell directly to fans. We sell a lot on there now and they are definitely the future for labels like ours.

Strut Records is mostly a vinyl label in its current reincarnation. Do you have any special feelings regarding LPs? Are you a collector? A DJ? What was your way to launching such an unusual, but successful label? It seems that you started a whole new trend in the indie record business.

Yes, I do love vinyl! I have collected many thousands of records over the years (but unfortunately lost a large part of my collection a few years ago after a flood). These days, I am not too precious about whether I hear the music online, on a CD or on LP – I think good music is more important than the format but having an album on vinyl is still special. I get the same pleasure in finding a new discovery in a charity shop as I did when I was young. I do still DJ fairly regularly with the label and never tire of the challenge of weaving together the right set for the right occasion and audience.

With Strut, we started back in 1999 at a time when the compilation market was growing fast. Labels like Soul Jazz and BBE were already running and I could see that DJs were looking for more albums that looked back into the deeper history of dance music. So, we released projects on Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage club in New York, Grandmaster Flash’s pioneering turntable techniques and Massive Attack’s early years as the Wild Bunch DJ crew. We also saw that clubland was becoming increasingly interested in rare 1970s African music which would work for dancefloors and our ‘Nigeria 70’ album in 2001 was one of the first compilations to document the 1970s era when Nigerian artists were fusing highlife music with soul and funk. So, I think our early success was a mixture of good timing and also listening carefully to DJs and clubbers.

One of the most exciting questions about this crazy IVTKYGYG story is how you got to know them. And why have you decided that they could be interesting for your audience?

I first heard of the band through David Ellis who has co-curated the compilation. He was bringing Romanian electronic musician Rodion Rosca to London for a gig and had mentioned getting to know Artūras Barysas in Vilnius and London. The more I heard of Baras’ story and the background to IVTKYGYG from David, the more I was hooked and it just felt essential to tell the story of the band to the wider world. I think we both felt that the hunch was more than justified once we met them in person and heard the rest of their music.  

The music market has changed a lot in recent years – because of YouTube, Spotify and other digital platforms, I think people are now much more open to different styles and niches of music, and vinyl fans are constantly looking for something fresh to discover. I really think that IVTKYGYG’s music and story will touch a lot of people across different generations if we do a good job with the marketing!

What's so special about IVTKYGYG? I guess there are lots of much more original garage psychedelic bands from Eastern and Central Europe with even more dramatic and colourful histories. Nobody ever thought that IVTKYGYG played unique revolutionary music.  They were always considered as kind of crazy local drunkards – funny and lovely, but not much more.

Surely you’re teasing me here, David? They’re amazing! Behind their on-stage theatre, the band is full of great musicians. Artūras ‘Šlipas’ Šlipavičius is an incredible guitarist and Gedas Simniškis is a supremely funky and versatile bassist; you had Šlipas’ wife, Ara, in the band bringing great ideas, arrangements, odd touches and instrumentation. Baras out front was just brilliant. As well as being a known counter-culture figurehead in Lithuania, he had great on-stage presence and his visceral vocals were a perfect foil for the music. I think the body of music speaks for itself when you hear it all together – it is unfettered experimentation.

Baras was an important conduit in Vilnius for Western music through regular vinyl imports and, as we learned from his detailed ledgers, he amassed an incredible range of underground music, some of it really deep and obscure. Because of that, you can hear many different references in the band’s music from Frank Zappa and Joy Division to Captain Beefheart, Faust and much more. They soaked it all up and, because they were often only playing to a very small audience of friends at their home studio sessions, there is a pure spirit to their music as they progressed their sound into different directions. We had to work carefully to ensure that the 5 LP set represented the full range of the band’s work and we could easily have filled another 5 LPs with incredible tracks from their archive. I hope people start to take them more seriously; they should be a Lithuanian national treasure!

So, what's the plan with the forthcoming IVTKYGYG release? What’s in the box?

We start from their entire classic ‘yellow album’ from 1988 and, over the other four LPs, dip into their studio sessions, rehearsals, basement recordings and live gigs through until the early 2000s.

Many of their sessions were performed for band member birthdays and each performance was evidently recorded onto a CD which was given to them as a gift. So, there was only ever one copy in existence and no one else ever owned those recordings. So, essentially, 90% of the box set has not been heard by anyone outside of the band and their close circle. Alongside the music, we are including an extensive 12”-sized booklet featuring unseen photos, artwork and posters with sleeve notes by David Ellis, your good self, Baras’ son Vytis and the editor of the legendary Lithuanian counter-culture magazine Tango, Robertas Kundrotas. We are featuring extensive interviews with the band members too. So, we aim to tell the band’s in-depth story as well as giving the listener a strong flavour of life and culture in Lithuania from the 1980s onwards, both under Soviet rule and post-independence.

Could you say a few words about how the music was selected? If the source was a live home studio recording, some serious editing and mastering surely were needed? 

Yes, it took a long while for myself and David to go through the archive – there was probably around 30–40 hours of recordings in all. We wanted to try and cover the many different aspects to the band’s work so, alongside the ‘yellow album,’ we have included tracks from their other studio albums, excerpts from live gigs and many of the ‘Birthday Tapes’ sessions. Musically, it is stunningly varied and impossible to categorise, everything from raw and funky post-punk to hypnotic drone and boisterous rock. There are structured songs but, overall, the collection feels wonderfully unstructured, impromptu snapshots of moments rather than anything too tightly planned in a studio. The quality of the recordings does vary and we are mastering them to sound as strong as possible but, for us, the rawness of the sound is a major part of the appeal.

Are you planning any promotional activities? Will Baras’ movies or Šlipas’ paintings be featured in connection with the release in some way or will you be focusing on the band and its musical extravaganza?

Yes, it is definitely important to showcase the wider art happening around the band including Baras’ many independent films and Šlipas’ paintings. They are incredible documents of the time. Lijana Siuchina, an analogue film expert, has been working with us on restoring many of Baras’ short films from their original reels which we will show at events around the album and during the album PR campaign, and there are great art pieces and illustrations from Šlipas and also his brother Rimantas who designed the band’s posters and band logo.

This interview is for a magazine dedicated to Lithuanian music promotion abroad. What could you tell your colleagues from the non-corporate music business world about your impressions from Lithuania? Have you heard any of our other bands already?

I have to be honest and say that I knew very little about Lithuanian music before starting this project. I love that, through my work, it always leads to discovering a whole new world of music and I have explored a lot more Lithuanian sounds, old and new, since starting this project. I already have huge respect for the work you have achieved with Zona Records, David – I have been enjoying the WC Live at Radiologinė EP from the 1980s and the minimal, experimental folk sounds of Algirdas Klova. Of the more recent commercial artists, I really like some of Saulius Spindi’s material, mixing Lithuanian folk with Indian mantras and electronics. I have been spreading the word here among music fans!

We tend to estimate our music scene as neither advanced enough nor exotic enough to be interesting for a global audience. Is there anything that could catch its attention? What can we sell in order to make that happen? Is it worth some special effort or better just to play to your friends for decades and wait until someone finds you, like with IVTKYGYG?

Well, I hope other bands don’t have to wait that long! It is absolutely not the case that the music scene is not advanced enough. I do think there is a lack of connection to Eastern European music generally among the international music industry and that is mainly through ignorance and maybe because of the mental block of being unfamiliar with the language. From the music I have heard, some artists are perhaps more suited to a Lithuanian audience but some could definitely cross over to a much wider market, I think. Rock and metal are less my area but electronic artists and bands (like the ones I mentioned earlier) who are trying something peculiar, making unusual fusions and doing something different with Lithuanian traditional music could really interest overseas labels. You kindly invited me to present an award at the recent Lithuanian Independent Music Awards in February and both David and myself were really blown away by some of the music that night – we came away very inspired.

I think it’s more a case of focusing how to present the music to the wider world and cut through the noise to make it easy for people to discover some of the acts. It could involve a dedicated video channel to good Lithuanian music, something like Tiny Desk in the USA or Boiler Room in the UK or even a dedicated YouTube channel, accompanied by regular PR. Even if it takes work to get bands onto the radar of the right people, I always think that good music does eventually win through and will get noticed.

English text edited by Romas Kinka