From Poland With Love #2: Two Warsaw Experimental Imprints – Wounded Knife and SQRT

Posted by on March 25, 2015

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In the first installment of our From Poland With Love series, we compared two interesting Polish festivals that took place last fall, with the Kraków-based Unsound Festival well recognized and advertised across all sorts of music-related media while the other, Avant Art in Wrocław, remained in relative obscurity. For our second column, we’d like to focus on two important  Polish imprints, Wounded Knife and SQRT; both follow different aesthetics, release mostly on different formats, and are driven by different but equally gratifying principles.

Both labels operate in Warsaw’s thriving experimental scene: Wounded Knife release their music on cassette, while SQRT helps uphold the CD-R universe. Despite those differences they are both very active on the internet, keeping consistent and well maintained Facebook profiles, Bandcamp catalogues, etc. In the end, we all know a digital presence is key to radiating beyond a small circle of friends. Jakub Adamek and Mateusz Mondalski talk to the people behind SQRT and Wounded Knife to learn why they launched their labels, what methods they use and how they see the state of modern music.

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Jakub: I decided to focus on SQRT… ultimately what we got were some interesting statements, thought-provoking opinions, and stories of discovery and inspiration. Releases at both labels often began thanks to very unusual sources and connections. Be it psychedelic folk or field recordings, noise rock or ambient, both hubs play their own significant role in pushing the boundaries of music that little bit farther ahead. What did you find out about Wounded Knife, Mateusz?

Mateusz: I met Paulina Oknińska and Janek Ufnal on a Wednesday evening in February at Wrzenie Świata, a cafe/bookshop located in a cosy street right in the heart of Warsaw. The couple’s label Wounded Knife is known in the Polish underground scene for releasing beautifully designed tapes with avant-garde music ranging from ambient through jazz to field recordings. Paulina is a graphic design student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts so it was natural for her to direct the visual side of  the label. Janek, on the other hand, is in charge of the production process and you may say he does A&R for the label but it’s a very intimate enterprise so they share duties spontaneously and they decide about new releases together — simply by putting out what they like and deem worthwhile. They sell the cassettes usually in a volume of fifty copies (sometimes seventy five) that disappear very fast, then they publish the music online and give it away for free via Bandcamp.

I met them at the beginning of a new chapter as Janek and Paulina recently decided to experiment with the CD format through a series of split releases. They boast a catalogue of exactly twenty tapes and figured out it would be refreshing to try something new. The couple just released two split releases with four artists but in the long term they plan on exhibiting input from at least a dozen projects. These involve people like Günter Schlienz, founder of the tape label Cosmic Winnetou, who recorded a cover of Spacemen 3, the far-out British alt-rock band from the eighties. Paulina confirms that the focus will be on covers but Janek also mentions that Francesco de Gallo aka Hobo Cubes took a different approach and recorded an original track inspired by the works of famous New York jazz scene sax player Joe McPhee.

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Most authors come from abroad but the local scene will be also represented by releases from people such as Robert Skrzyński aka Micromelancolié, a Polish electroacoustic artist and Fischerle, a Warsaw-based experimental musician and head of the Pawlacz Perski record label already described in some blog posts at Decoder. Paulina and Janek disclose that the covers will even include tracks by HIM and Enrique Iglesias so the range of inspirations on the splits is bound to be intriguing. Janek discloses: “In the long term we plan to publish our first ever vinyl release. This is costly so the CD splits will serve as a cheap way to maintain output as we accumulate funds for the wax premiere.” Paulina adds: “We always released tapes in the volume of fifty copies and now the vinyl will be published in the amount of 250 copies so this is another aspect of the shift which makes it a challenge for us.” The label’s future depends on the success of their first vinyl but Janek and Paulina suggest that they’ll be transforming Wounded Knife into a label curating a blend of wax and tape releases. They also observe that Poles tend to buy Polish music whereas foreigners purchase tapes by artists from different countries. Paulina: “I really don’t get it. Sometimes we publish very interesting artists but I have the impression that some of our listeners won’t take the time to explore these new names and I’m sure they’d love them. So yes, it’s a pity but that’s the way it is. I also notice this in year-end lists where sometimes our label pops up but usually strictly through the Polish artists we release.” Janek comments: “I also feel this fanatic attitude towards local music in Poland which has its drawbacks but on the other hand it also helps to keep the scene so vivid and prolific.” Still, what he enjoys most is the idea of sending music to listeners as far from Warsaw as possible. To me Janek’s approach resembles the romantic concept of a message in a bottle which shows how idealistic they are in sharing their somewhat niche music but on a global scale.

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Jakub: Did you talk about the current state of the local scene in Poland?

Mateusz: At some point I asked them about their view on the vibe of the music scene in Warsaw and how labels interact with each other. I was curious to find out whether they have the impression that actors in the industry compete or support each other. Janek: “Oh, absolutely. We get a lot of support from other label owners especially as they amount to around 80% of our customers. To some extent we release tapes also to exchange them with friends who curate their other labels. We often make a joint order for tapes from abroad to pay less for shipping so yes, we definitely keep in touch with other publishers.” Paulina also points out that from time to time they enjoy putting on shows for their favorite artists who aren’t necessarily affiliated with Wounded Knife. Having said that, the couple doesn’t plan on organizing typical showcase events which they find rather boring. The couple told me an amazing story about Paul Skomsvold aka Former Selves, a Californian artist currently based in Spain. He has already released around twenty albums and is a key figure in the small international tape society. Paulina and Janek had observed his career for a long time and always felt he would fit well on Wounded Knife but their ways never crossed. To their delight, at some point Paul reached out to them and offered this of his own accord. It turned out he had played a gig in the US with Lake Mary, a folk/drone artist from Salt Lake City whose tape Komerabi was released on Wounded Knife in 2013. Paul loved it and that’s how he discovered the label. Janek and Paulina just released Former Selves’ latest LP Three Wells and two weeks ago he performed at Warsaw’s Eufemia, a boho DIY club located in a basement underneath the Academy of Fine Arts.

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Jakub: Unlike Wounded Knife, which seems to some extent like a coincidental child of the new cassette era, fueled by the influx of drone and experimental artists, SQRT is an older, even more obscure label. Founded in 2004 in Warsaw by Łukasz Ciszak, a guitarist and electroacoustic improvisation explorer, the label relies on small-run digital and CD-R releases, mostly opting for the modest 3” CD-R format. The scope of SQRT’s interest is also much more niche, sometimes ostracized even by far-out sound explorers: it includes EAI (electroacoustic improvisation), field recordings, minimal drone and the like. Ciszak explained that he started out with the label because there was apparently no venue for this sort of music: “there was not much happening in Poland at the time — except for XVP (which I discovered after a year of running my own label), and labels like Monotype or Lado ABC were just getting started. There was no place for my albums to be released.” The artist was encouraged to run SQRT by a friend and photographer Sebastien Chou — whose photos appear on some of the label’s artworks, including the Proceedings compilation. Having released a few CDs of his own, later on Ciszak started putting out music by other people.

Mateusz: I know there can sometimes be tension between the aficionados of different formats. Did Łukasz tell you about his view on the tape music renaissance?

Jakub: Unlike Wounded Knife and other small labels, SQRT isn’t that enthusiastic about the cassette revival — although he himself has released a split cassette with guitarist Artur Rumiński on Wounded Knife. When Ciszak started out, tapes were turning obsolete: “It was a moment when cassettes were pretty much unavailable and everyone thought they would never come back. But when they returned, I decided to be consistent [in releasing CD-Rs] not to join the fad.” That’s not all: according to Ciszak, much of the tape cult is little more than smoke and mirrors: “I have a feeling that while no one admits it, people listen to cassettes mostly via streams or just use the download codes that come with them.” He also suggests that CDs are simply easier to handle and he prefers their quality over tape hiss: when it comes to usage comfort (just to name the need to flip the tape) I definitely prefer CDs.”

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As many of the latest releases on SQRT are issued on 3” CD-R, most new albums on the label (or should they be named EPs at this point) can only contain 20 minutes of music. Both the small physical size and the limited amount of time force each SQRT release to become a little self-contained conceptual gem, with simple cover photographs that portray details of city landscapes or explore contrasts between urban and rural scenes… thus the sounds on each CD-R become transmissions from various divisions of the avant-guerilla. Many of them are also informed by field recordings and found sounds.

For example, Krzysztof Topolski’s Presence is a sonic documentary of different wild spots around the South East of Poland, weaving a thick sonic tapestry unspoiled by human activity. Katowice, on the other hand, explores processed field recordings of a major urban and industrial center augmented with deep drones and raw synthesizer pulsations. Ciszak admits that all of his releases convey a central theme and that the City has also become the essential idea of some projects, often inspired by unusual events: “There were indeed two “urban” projects – the one on Katowice and Warsaw. The concept to set the albums “in the city” has a double beginning – first it started with field recordings by Piotr Zakrocki that appeared on 2002’s Warszawa – ścieżkadźwiękowa (“Warsaw – the soundtrack”) wherein he recorded Warsaw’s central railway station. Secondly, the concept of using the city as an instrument (or rather a source for sampling) was inspired by the works of Mazen Kerbaj, who composed a song with a trumpet and a recording of the Israeli shelling of Lebanon.”

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SQRT aren’t limited to the sonic secretions of the city or the wilderness of cold, harsh caveman-tronics only. Apart from playing solo, Ciszak is also the guitarist of HUN, a Warsaw-based free improv noise rock trio (together with Tomasz Juchniewicz on bass guitar and Grzegorz Zawadzki on drums) that attempts to fill a missing link between DNA and Stefan Jaworzyn’s horrific Ascension, recently exemplified on Die Verschnitte — an 18-minute long, rusted, barely-glued-together jam of doom. Void1 follow a similar path, although their vision of improvisation is filtered through LSD-stained goggles, shimmering with distant echoes and slowly unfolding post-rock textures with a Japanese psych afterglow. Vexations by Bionulor bears the description “100% sound recycling” — because if we strive to recycle every material and make it reusable, why not perform the same with music? Bionulor’s Sebastian Banaszczyk took snippets of music he recorded from January to September 2014 and decided to cut, mix, and reuse them in new forms presented on the album.

Mateusz: As you mention recycling I recollect a fine tape on Wounded Knife by Warsaw-based artist Radosław Sirko aka Duy Gebord who alludes through his alias to the great French philosopher and writer Guy Debord, a forefather of the Situationist movement. Duy Gebord has recontextualized the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski as well as the Austrian Franz Schubert and he’s released original music on key Polish DIY labels such as BDTA and Pawlacz Perski. His cassette Mangrove on Wounded Knife encapsulated a whirlpool of guitar and percussion which arrived in a fierce labyrinth of contrasting sounds. The artist is very apt at mixing different textures as a sound engineer and cultural studies’ academic. I’m sure you’ll agree Mangrove is a compelling and very emotive piece of music.

Jakub: Of course, Wounded Knife and SQRT represent just a small piece of the bubbling Polish underground with plethora more labels and projects popping up on a nearly daily basis. It also shows the love for the DIY aesthetic, which is still well alive and getting better with more and more creative people joining forces in the experimental scene. These labels exemplify global thinking, connecting musicians from different backgrounds into a mish-mash of boundary-pushing sounds through a series of chance encounters that might not have happened without the courage of people like Janek, Paulina and Łukasz — all over the world.

[This installment’s header uses Stanisław “Witkacy” Witkiewicz’s 1927 self-portrait with Maryla Grosmanowa. Credit for photo #3, of Łukasz Ciszak, goes to Mikołaj Robert Jurkowski.]