From Poland With Love #4: Lutto Lento vs. Piotr Kurek

Posted by on February 12, 2016

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Welcome to the fourth installment of From Poland With Love, our column focused on new and notable Polish music. In previous episodes we reported on two festivals in Poland, discussed two Polish underground labels, and interviewed the Polish art and design duo Pussykrew. This time we are back to present you with a feature on two Polish musicians whose names keep popping up in the underground lately: Lubomir Grzelak, also known as Lutto Lento, and Piotr Kurek, who recently released a new album under his moniker Heroiny. In this episode of From Poland in Love, Mateusz Mondalski and Jakub Adamek digest conversations with the artists and talk about the ideas behind their work.

Jakub: I tend to think of both Grzelak and Kurek as musical “self-made men,” two artists who have managed to create their own niche within international electronic music using social media and the Internet, small cassette labels, a few simple instruments and computer software. They invented a recognizable “brand” of sound (even though Lutto Lento appears to be a little more intangible in this respect). Additionally, they have a lot in common — the same approach to rhythm and texture, the willingness to work with samples and found sounds, their embrace of the Polish underground and newly emerging labels. Basically, they are two young men with a vision, who are doing a lot to help keep Poland at the forefront of new music.

Mateusz: Yes, as we were trying to work out the theme for this episode, we almost immediately connected Lutto Lento and Heroiny. It’s not only the fact that they’re close friends… for those with some existing familiarity, it’s also worth mentioning that back in 2013 and 2014 they toured Europe together under the aegis of Sangoplasmo Records, the cassette label curated by Grzelak (currently on hiatus). The ties between these two are very organic — Lubomir released Piotr’s widely acclaimed Edena LP at the end of the same year. They always seem to have shared a similar language in music and their careers have been developing in a similar fashion.

For example, both artists are engaged with theater — though it must be said that Piotr Kurek is a veteran in this field in comparison to Lutto Lento. Back in December I heard his music arrangement in “The Possibility of an Island,”  a theater play based on the acclaimed 2005 novel by Michel Houellebecq at the Warsaw based avant-garde Teatr Rozmaitości. Kurek told me that he loves to work with theater because it allows him to act independently, in his own zone, but at the same time able to interact in a sort of interdisciplinary artistic environment. Grzelak on the other hand, produced music for “The Taming of The Shrew” at Cracow’s Teatr Bagatela in early 2015. Though both have become recognizable advocates of something like “non-dance” club music in the Polish arts scene.

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Though both lean towards house, it’s certainly still in a vein which many DJs would find too experimental for the dancefloor. Having said that, Lutto Lento has made visible steps toward straight-up club themes, with 2015 being a productive year. He released Whips in June via London based label Where To Now? which he followed up with another two EPs, one for Polish balearic house hub Transatlantyk and another with Slovakian oddball club label Proto Sites. I just hope Lutto Lento keeps his adorable sense of humor through the transition, something I enjoyed on a tracks like “Gipsi Sam.” It doesn’t happen too often that you hear frogs croaking along samples of violin, right? At the same time, Kurek, a seasoned composer formerly known mostly for his albums recorded with found sounds, vintage organs, Rhodes and synths, has made a clear shift with his new project Heroiny. His Ahh-Ohh LP published via Warsaw-based label Dunno (co-curated by Grzelak and Polish music journalist Filip Lech) sounds like a tongue-in-cheek score to a spaghetti western. Kurek remains distant from “the club,” but clearly the addition of a drum machine — the dominant force on the eight-track LP — has narrowed the gap. Its raw percussive feel shows that Piotr might have enjoyed the rise of L.I.E.S., Opal Tapes and L.A. Club Resource. 

Do you agree, Jakub? Or see their outputs differently?

Jakub: What I really enjoy about the work of both Piotr Kurek (under his given name and as Heroiny) and Lubomir Grzelak/Lutto Lento is their ability to engage in music creation on the deepest, most professional level, while being incredibly light, or “tongue-in-cheek,” as you say. When I listened to Ahh-Ohh, I wouldn’t have imagined a spaghetti western, though I was highly intrigued by the fact it was described by Kurek as “Jandek house” and “gay funk” — both humorous, but still somehow apt descriptions.

Kurek has a lot of fun clashing the drum machine with seemingly random, open-ended guitar strumming. This sort of playful sensibility emerges in all of Kurek’s work — with the exception of his more rhythmic, sampled-base solo works, such as Edena or Heat. Heroiny seeks a middle ground between improvisation and rigid structure. Lutto Lento’s works also entertain a bit of a playful side, although less noticeably. However, last year’s Mondo Hehe is full of quirky, funny samples and is generally light-hearted, as implied by the title of the EP. I think you used the perfect term to describe the music of those two, “oddball,” but Kurek and Grzelak are oddball in the most positive, refreshingly creative way possible. It seems like they create music just for themselves, for their own entertainment and the fact it ends up on the Internet is just a happy accident, a byproduct of a creative process. Lubomir even stresses, when asked about whether he feels like a performer or a DJ, that “ dividing music into dance and other types of music stopped making sense a long time ago.”

Mateusz: Yes, indeed. Chance actually plays an essential role in the methods of both as well. When preparing this episode of From Poland With Love I met up with the first of them at Ministerstwo Kawy, one of my favorite cafes in Warsaw. We sat down in this loud and lively place to discuss in a very casual fashion Heroiny and Kurek’s recent engagement with theater. He told me how he initiated his new project in the comfortable space of a hotel in Seoul back in autumn 2013, where he had been invited for a three-month long artistic residency. During his stay, Kurek received a Native Instruments drum machine as a gift from Gyeonggi Creation Center where he worked alongside musicians from South Korea and Lebanon. In the meantime, Piotr compiled 8mm found footage videos into collage shorts as a side-project, resulting in his first ever visual exhibition at Seoul’s Ilju & Seonhwa Gallery. Piotr was actually quite amused when he told me that one gentleman who really liked his videos turned out to be the defence attacheé for India (lol).

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Coming back to Heroiny, during his free time at the hotel, Kurek started jamming with the drum machine and simply experimented with different rhythm patterns. This was how he came up with the idea for Heroiny. A few weeks after returning to Warsaw, he picked up an electric guitar he’d owned for many years, and instinctively figured out a setup that would take him to a totally new place. He’s an amateur guitar player and I’m sure you can also hear this awkwardness on tracks such as “Useless Funk” which gives his music a truly DIY spirit. It’s perfectly on point that you mention Jandek as Piotr Kurek told me that during his Korean residency –as an outsider in this alien environment — he spent hours on end watching anything from no-wave to punk concerts on YouTube from the seventies and eighties. With Lutto Lento I see an analogy… a close friend of his once told me Lubomir likes to buy rare seasoned gear and simply indulge in free experimentation, be it synthesisers or drum machines. He doesn’t bother to read manuals, preferring hands-on studio experience, and crafting his fabulous and playful tracks through a process of trial and error.

Kurek’s DIY approach is further manifested in Ahh-Ohh‘s home-designed cover art, made using software for creating websites. I think the outcome is remarkably slick and I loved how the extravagant font spread out on the white background. It’s funny though, apparently this method later brought about editing problems — the format he used was dedicated to an HTML environment and it was difficult for Kurek (and Grzelak who helped him out with the final treatment of the cover) to edit the cover in a professional program like Photoshop. You had a Skype call with Lubomir before we sat down to prepare this piece, right? He was extremely busy in 2015 and it was his most prolific year ever. I think it’s his work over the last year which made him a respected producer in his own right. At the same time, I think he has released a lot of music in this period.

My favourite Lutto Lento was Whips released on London-based label Where To Now? label also known for releasing music by artists including Beatrice Dillon, KETEV and WANDA GROUP. At the same time, I have to admit Dog Leaf is also a beautiful release with the heavenly choir samples and trumpet. It’s just a lot more serious and it makes me worry that it’s Lutto Lento’s turn towards the more rigid regions of club music. How do you feel about Grzelak’s recent offerings? Have you ever seen him play as DJ Tiger, his hard-style club alter ego? That’s something really wild. I’m sure you couldn’t believe it’s actually the same person. I know Grzelak has a soft spot for low-brow culture and the emotions hidden in nineties’ rave and trance.

Jakub: Indeed, Lubomir still has a soft spot for “populist” things in music, like trance music or even the bombastic music from movie trailers, but it’s all just part of a larger scheme, namely his interest in music design. Lutto Lento doesn’t stick to one place but expands into various directions at once, always trying to cover new ground and — maybe — “master” it in the future. Same goes for Kurek, they’re both unstoppable, dodging all attempts at professional pigeonholing as far as their music is concerned.

Mateusz: Lubomir is currently busy performing here and there in Europe, both deejaying and playing live. He’s completing a few EPs but the big news is that he’s working on a new LP, Dark Secret World — the same as for his live set from last year’s Unsound Festival. If Lutto Lento’s new album sounds similar to that fusion of hypnotic, sinister beats and kinky cinematic spoken word, then I’m definitely thrilled to hear it. According to Lubomir, his LP is set for release around autumn.

Let’s not forget Grzelak also co-curates Dunno Records. They have a weird 12″ in the works and a few 7″s. As for Piotr Kurek, he is currently writing a chamber opera based on Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. The opera will entail four acoustic instruments and two voices with the premiere taking place in May. Kurek will also continue his collaboration with Warsaw’s Teatr Rozmaitości, while he works on a new album under his given name. Last but not least, Kurek has also been enlisted to participate in this year’s SHAPE platform, a collaborative initiative of European avant-garde festivals. Other artists slated for 2016 include Edition Mego’s Klara Lewis, PAN’s M.E.S.H. and Janus’ KABLAM. And the hottest scoop — as I think we’re the first to report this — is that Grzelak contributed original music to the Polish movie “All These Sleepless Nights” by Michał Marczak, which just won the Best Director Award at Sundance. The film tells the story of a group of young people soul searching in Warsaw, looking for love and enjoying the freedom of youth and their frivolous adventures in Poland’s capital. So as it’s plain to see, Lubomir Grzelak and Piotr Kurek are making waves right now and I’m just happy that Dwight gave us the opportunity to give Decoder’s readers a brief and hopefully entertaining introduction to their respective worlds. Make sure to keep an eye on these two. ​

[Header image is based on a photo by Benoit Pailley of Paweł Althamer’s “The Neighbors” exhibition at the New Museum in 2014. All other photos appear courtesy of Karolina Zajączkowska.]