The Latvian instrumental band Very Cool People recently released an album with the long title 50 Years of Influence + 30 Years of Cool Equals 13 Years of Music Hooliganism. In a few days they will come to Brno to present it – they’ll play on 17th September in Music Lab club. And besides the songs from the aforementioned album, you’ll also get to hear the complete new songs from the yet-to-be-released projects. The band, led by guitarist Elvijs Grafcovs, who answers our questions, has plenty of them.
Help us decipher the long and complicated title of your last year’s album. What does the equation mean?
We try to make each of our albums different. Some are instrumental, for others we invite singers. This was supposed to be a purely instrumental album, but we wanted to come up with a story for it. 50 Years of Influence is about the Iron Curtain that people in our country lived behind for 50 years. We in the band are not that old, we were born between 1981 and 1990. But when we started going to school and started learning to play instruments, we still had the Russian methods of education in Latvia, where there was no room for jazz or popular music. We were mainly involved in classical music, which was great, because you learn your technique well, you master the instrument, and so on… But the methods were what they were, just "old style" teachers with pointers... Gradually we all gravitated towards jazz, and in the meantime I also listened to and played blues. We also went abroad to study, because after 2000 in Latvia there was still no jazz department in the academy. And that’s what the next part of our album title means – 30 Years of Cool. That’s the period of independence, when we were all turning to the west and trying to absorb all the western styles like jazz or funk. It was also the crazy 90s period we grew up in, with all the mafia and stuff. But it’s also super cool because everyone can travel wherever they want, and we have freedom. And at the same time we realized that we have something special because we are influenced by both Eastern and Western culture. So we decided to put everything that has influenced us since we were kids on this album, whether it was classical music, klezmer, music from Tarantino movies, jazz, improvisation, all that. So all of that is present on the album, and that’s why the album has that title. And as for the album cover... I don’t know if it was like that in the Czech Republic, but in our country during the Soviet times, everyone had a carpet on the wall in their apartment. So we had a special two-by-two-meter carpet made for our album, but the funny thing is that we had to have it made in Belgium. So it’s a conceptual album that blends our musical influences with what we personally have been through as musicians.
For you, are albums more collections of individual songs or comprehensive wholes?
Our previous album came out just before the epidemic started. I already had the idea to make this CD, but in the meantime Covid struck. Because there were various measures in place in Latvia and neighbouring Lithuania, we managed to play mostly one to three gigs a month even during the pandemic – sometimes it was just online, sometimes with an audience, but we still had a lot of free time to compose and focus on the new album. We went into the studio in August 2020 and recorded it. We think of it as one continuous piece of work. I like albums. Now we had to release a single, but that’s purely for promotion. Otherwise, I prefer full albums and I can’t say which is my favourite song. I have a lot of favourite albums from my childhood, like A Go Go by John Scofield and many others.
How does the songwriting process work in your band?
I used to be the main songwriter in the band, but this time it was more of a collective effort. I wrote some parts of the album, the drummer wrote some, the sax player wrote some, and the keyboard player wrote some. We also worked in such a way that one of us would start composing a song and hand it over to the other to finish it. Of course we then continued to work on the individual ideas in rehearsals. We also like to play the new songs in concerts before we go into the studio, because we can tell which passages don’t work very well by the reactions of the audience. After all, now at the two Czech concerts we have coming up, we will definitely play some songs from the album we want to release in 2023 with singer Paula Saija.
You record both purely instrumental albums and recordings with guest singers. How is that different for you as a musician?
We’ve been an instrumental band from the beginning. However, we gradually found musicians and singers in our surroundings who were tuned into a similar wave as us. Although we continue to play mainly instrumental music at gigs because we enjoy it so much, and I believe we give people the right energy. Plus, I talk between songs, I introduce the band and I think the music itself then speaks for itself. Of course, somewhere around 2017 we said we’re going to try to release one album every year and we’re going to do that for at least ten years. We’ve been doing it for five years now and we’ll be releasing a new album this fall as well. It’s going to be a live record with vocals, a tribute to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison in funk and soul arrangements. So I like more instrumental albums myself, but it’s also fun with singers. In general, I like it when musicians transform when a band records different albums. Look at Miles Davis, for example. Every one of his albums is completely different. It’s similar with John Scofield. I also like guitarist Mike Stern, but he has all the same albums. I like his style of playing, though. But as a bandleader, I like my band to do different albums. Maybe some music critics or some fans only like our instrumental records, so they focus on those. And others like albums with vocals. We’ve done three different programs just this summer – one, the aforementioned tribute to the singers of the Woodstock generation, and then we’re still doing the 50 Years of Influence program in Lithuania in particular, and we’re already rehearsing live the songs from the album that’s coming out in 2023. It’s fun and it’s so interesting for us at the same time. We did fifty shows this summer, twenty-five of them public and twenty-five of them private. Last weekend we had two shows on Friday and two on Saturday. And each one was with different repertoire.
How often do you play in other Baltic countries?
Of the four concerts last weekend, three were in Latvia and one was in Lithuania. And I think that’s the current ratio – we play a quarter of our concerts in Lithuania. We did a lot of shows in Estonia in 2014-2017, but we don’t go there much nowadays. After all, it’s a completely different country with a different language. I know that you still have a lot in common with Slovaks, you understand each other, but it’s not like that with us. The scenes of the different Baltic countries are more separate. Estonia is already too much on the fringe for us. We don’t go to Finland much either, and there’s nothing beyond Estonia... We play festivals there sometimes, of course, but we don’t focus much on the local scene. We’re more interested in Lithuania, Poland, Germany. Lithuania is also interesting for me because I studied in Vilnius and I speak a bit of Lithuanian. So it’s easier for me. But of course I would like the market of the Baltic countries to be more connected. I see that Czechs and Slovaks cooperate more, that you know each other more.
And concerts in general? Is there as much interest in your band as you would imagine?
Thanks to the fact that we have more different projects, we can’t complain about the lack of playing. We get invited to pop and jazz festivals, for example, as well as various town fetes and other events. But overall, there are fewer and fewer places to play in Latvia. For example, there is only one jazz club left in Riga, fortunately not far from our rehearsal room. After the epidemic, many clubs closed down and I see this problem, for example, with my students at the Jazz Academy. Between 2000 and 2015 there were a lot of clubs, you could play practically anywhere. In Riga alone there were maybe fifteen places to play. Today, when you start a band or a new project, no matter what genre you play, you have a problem to play live somewhere. Our band stopped playing in clubs about five years ago, and nowadays we prefer bigger venues or theatres in Latvia. But we miss playing in clubs a bit, and that’s also why I like foreign tours where we go back to clubs. For example, in autumn we regularly go to Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia. We’ve also started coming to the Czech Republic, and we have a gig in Slovakia coming up in October. We also enjoy concerts in Germany, where the audience is very open. We also play at big festivals, but we like to stop at a small club on the way back to enjoy the wild atmosphere we like again.