The Slovak group Kiero Grande, two Polish bands and the Brno musician Jan Fic with his solo project progressed from the competition Blues Aperitiv to the international festival Blues Alive in Šumperk. Jan, or Honza as he is informally called, who under the label Red Bird Instruments makes cigar box guitars and other instruments, is otherwise known as the frontman of The Weathermakers, playing their raw blues even at Porta. And in several festivals he appeared as leader of the mock country group The Honzíci. The interview that follows took place on the occasion of the release of the solo album Město (City), which Jan Fic together with the producer Martin Kyšperský officially presented on 17 December in Brno’s Stereo – Vinyl Culture Shop.
Honzo, I can see that you first got in touch with me in September 2014. You wrote to me at the radio about your group The Weathermakers: “Our group is quite a young ensemble and our main aim is to play authentic blues – not in the sense of copying old songs from the beginning of the last century – but by placing the original ideas and rhythms into a modern context while preserving the original minimalist spirit.” With the passage of time I have to admit that this is a very accurate characterisation. But where did The Weathermakers come from?
I come from the village of Rybníky near Moravský Krumlov, but after grammar school I went to study in Brno. Later after being forced by injury to leave the army and not completing the Military Economic School, I found work and played in pubs as well as on the street. At one event in the pub The Immigrant on Veveří street I met Jakub Svoboda, who played the mouth organ. We tried playing together but it didn’t work. We kept going, meeting up at my place, trying to play some songs, but we got on together, and then I tried some twelve-bar blues. So we played blues together on the street and in pubs, were joined by some other people until there were too many and it became disorderly. Until in 2014, like you mentioned, the standard line-up of The Weathermakers came into existence, which is how we still play today.
How did the idea of blues come up? Did you already have some experience with it earlier?
I started to play guitar at the age of twelve because my best friend got a guitar and that meant I had to have one as well. With four hundred which I saved on a part-time job, I bought from a lad in the village an old Bulgarian guitar and taught myself three or four chords. One time I was with mum in Znojmo and we went into a music shop. There was a guy sitting there and strumming a guitar. I gazed at him admiringly and he offered to teach me blues. I had no idea what blues was, but mum was overjoyed at the idea. So I went to Znojmo for guitar lessons with Roman Havlík. He led me to blues and to what I do today.
How did you see blues at that time? As a musical structure, rhythm, mood …?
At the age of thirteen we do not carry any stories with us. I saw it in terms of structure, liking its lack of melody. Only gradually did I begin to realise that blues is a kind of culture, folk music, stories that are also played on other instruments than guitars. Gradually I came to the authentic blues form. Not that I would play traditionally but I began to write. Even in Czech.
In The Weathermakers did you start playing original works immediately?
When we started with jamming in pubs, we mostly played things in the style of Sonny Boy Williamson and other classics in the genre. But Kuba and I slowly began to write and at first we tried English lyrics that were mostly put together from classic phrases. Blues lyrics have good prosody and by combining them we created new lyrics. But in the current Weathermakers we opt more and more for Czech songs, which are more credible.
Yes, what I like about The Weathermakers is that you have managed to free yourselves from the American blues background (which you also sometimes make use of) and in your songs refer to the Czech environment. But it isn’t that easy to transfer the blues like that …
We worked at it for a really long time but didn’t come up with much that was usable. We discovered how various words work. Czech has a completely different melody and onomatopoeia works differently than in English; we respected its poetry with a musical component. Today we rarely play established blues tunes or riffs because they don’t work too well with Czech lyrics.
Do you read poetry? Are you interested in general texts?
I have to admit that I read very little, mostly my excuse being that I don’t have time. But I love poetry. I enjoy reading the beatniks, and from Czech authors Kainar and Skácel. Kainar brought the blues to Czech, even if that led to a slightly different blues … And Skácel is really authentic. He came from rural South Moravia like me and I think I can tell the stories that lie behind his verse.
When did you add the skill of instrument making to the ability to play the guitar and write songs?
From childhood I worked with my dad in the workshop and he carefully taught me a bit of everything: He taught me welding, working with wood … I had a period when I took apart electrical appliances – car radios, vacuum cleaners… When I began to play the blues and discovered that they are for a different instrument to the ordinary guitar, I really wanted to try it. At that time in the village we did not have the internet so I had to go to Moravský Krumlov to the library and it was really hard to get information for example about the cigar box guitar. I made several unsuccessful attempts before I began to manage it. When I make an instrument myself, there is a tale behind it, from finding the material, through all the failures to the final result.
So the main reason was to have that experience?
The main reason was curiosity – I wanted to know how it would sound. And I also wanted to have something that no one else had. And I got hooked on it.
Nowadays you are far from only making guitars from cigar boxes.
After I had made the first ten or so, on which I was learning, I put in an advert that I give them away, swap them or sell them for small sums. And people who were interested responded. Gradually I perfected the technology and then began to also make other instruments. For example I came across the Danelectro guitar, which was a very primitive instrument from the 50s that was made for some supermarket chain. They looked like solid electric guitars but had a skeleton of soft wood and the top and bottom boards were of Masonite. It was a kind of a weird guitar, but I fell in love with its daft sound and wanted to have one. At that time you couldn’t get hold of one in the Czech Republic and so I tried myself to make a sololit guitar. Then came other instruments, and in the meantime I learned …
I didn’t go to guitar school but I found out that in Moravský Krumlov as part of the Petrof piano works there had been a guitar school. So in the neighbourhood there are plenty of former guitar makers who no longer ply their craft. I asked around for advice, I also read a lot, and I spoilt lots. Even today I am still learning, I am building guitars and electric guitars and trying to distinguish myself from what is sold today in the major music shops. I can’t compete with cheap guitars from Asia and I want my instruments to be different in some way.
In what way are they special?
Who has one of your instruments today?
My guitars are owned for example by Martin Kyšperský from the group Květy, Jakub König alias Kittchen, Honza Homola from Wohnoutu and Mikuláš Bryan from ba.fnu, who has perhaps ten of my instruments. The number now is no longer so small.
With The Weathermakers you have twice made it through to the national round of Porta. Do you think your Czech blues suits Porta?
Today I would say we don’t belong there. But I used to think we did. I did not see that there is a difference between folk, country and blues. These genres belong together, arose in the same country, and all are popular music with common themes. Rather I was unpleasantly surprised to find this isn’t so. Often it is taken that those who play blues do not belong among folk musicians. If it continues like that then it is going to break Porta.
It was in reaction to how you were “received” Porta that you founded the orthodox country group The Honzíci. Do you see the season in which you appeared you’re your comrades in fatigues under nicknames in a positive light?
Yes, but The Honzíci were supposed to finish with the participation in Porta.It was supposed to be a joke and end with that. But I hope it also had some point for others, that it opened their eyes and held a mirror up to them. I also hope that it entertained a few people, but the problem was that the group was made up of people who have their own projects or were leaders in other groups. Our energies ran up against each other and in the end it began to be unpleasant. Honzíci’s biggest enemy was itself.
Some of your lyrics were made up of country music clichés. What was most difficult about coming up with such a repertoire?
Making sure it was not embarrassing. We wanted to come up with something that wasn’t just dumb pointless shouting, but something we could justify.
Now you are releasing a solo album Město. How did that come about?
I have already been playing solo for a long time. I played long before The Weathermakers. Although with the group we try to stay in genre, my solo playing, even if naturally tending toward the poetry of blues, does not stay within any constraints. So I had some songs that did not fit with The Weathermakers and which I played by myself. But it is kind of an accident that an album came from them. It is down to Martin Kyšperský for whom I several times repaired instruments. I did not want to ask for money and so we agreed that at some point I would want to record something. In spring 2017 we agreed that I would go and record some songs in his studio as a demo. And in the end this turned into a whole album.
Were some of the songs created during recording?
Not all the songs which I played solo were a fit for the album thematically. Once we were recording the album I did not want it to be fragmented from folk songs through to raw blues. So I had to write some more songs that better fitted in their themes or moods. For example I wrote the song Je čas vypadnout (It’s Time to Get Out) on the train on the way to Martin’s studio.
Did you make more effort with the musical or the lyrical coherence of the album?
For me it was about the story. It may not be apparent on the first or even the second listening, but for me personally this disc has its story and its development. I wanted to put into it everything I have experienced in Brno so far. There is virtually nothing concrete there – everything is about feelings and about what happens inside a person. Kind of my spiritual journey … Not spiritual in the Christian sense of the word, even though I see myself as having a strong faith. I have gone through many moments when I hesitated and considered what it is. I did a lot of seeking and it was not always wonderful.
Do you see the album as a turning point in your career so far?
For me it is a turning point, but as there is so much work around it I feel like it had taken a long time and I have lost sight of what it meant for me at the beginning. I was overjoyed with it. I was really impressed with what Martin Kyšperský was able to do with it as a producer.
What did you allow him to do with the songs?
Given that up to now I haven’t had experience with such a major recording, I rather learned from him. We really understood each other in the use of various noises and the use of objects that are not directly used for making music. In the studio we looked for something that could make some kind of screech and Martin played with his finger on the piano strings. The album is not melodically sophisticated – its strength is its emotionality and its depth of sound.
Is that how you imagine the sounds of the city?
Yes, it has a lot to do with it, since if a person goes through the city, isn’t closed off and perceives a while range of things going on around, it is a mess, but an engrossing one. On this album of course some music can be heard, but there are also the sharp attacks of the piano, which might evoke your own steps, and also the screeching of a tram going around a curve, and other places that call to mind the city.
This year in the spring you were successful in the competition Blues Aperitiv and got to the major international festival Blues Alive in Šumperk, where you appeared in November. What did this mean for you?
It was unbelievable. When some nine years ago I found out about the existence of Blues Alive, I felt like a young kid who stands before a cathedral and says how wonderful it is and he wants to go inside. Now I’ve been there. It seemed wonderful to me, but on the other hand I was so nervous that I completely ruined my performance. But it was an experience.
Do you have any similar goals?
I don’t have any goals. Jakub from The Weathermakers has a saying that you can have an ambition but what do you do when you have by some chance achieved it? So I’ll leave things be. I don’t earn my living from playing. It could be goal to get to Colours of Ostrava? I am not doing anything for that and I can survive if I never get to play there.