Václav Havelka is a man of many talents. He promotes rock concerts, presents a radio programme and runs a small music label. But first and foremost he is a musician; solo under the name Selfbrush and with the band Please the Trees, Havelka has steadily become one of the most respected artists in Czech independent music.
The singer and songwriter released his debut album Three Names in 2006 under the name Selfbrush. “Self” is key to his work, as Havelka – who also dabbles in painting – has always done his own thing. Growing up in the relative isolation of the Krkonoše Mountains, he simply had no alternative.
“I just followed the aesthetics of not learning anybody else’s songs. I started to write from the very beginning, which was, like, funny and…terrible. I started right away recording demos, tapes, and making covers and sending them to people.
“Somehow I approached the DIY aesthetics, but not knowing what DIY was, that there was some scene that this represented.
“And then, because I always listened to English and American music I thought, this is beautiful – the communication, how wide it can get, and the travelling and everything. I just thought, I’d really like to sing in English. I went to England for two years – I went to school and cleaned houses and was doing babysitting.”
Tell us about Selfbrush – what does the name mean?
“That came from painting...they were just two words I kind of liked the sound of together. And to me it describes painting your own painting, yourself. So musically that’s what it meant to me, painting my own profile or, you know, image of myself.”
The unusual title of his first project perhaps reflects Václav Havelka’s approach to language.
“I never write in Czech and then translate it. I keep reading in English and keep absorbing the language. Even though I can understand that my spelling and…it’s different from English people, but maybe that’s what might make it more interesting too. I just hope it works.”
The singer is best known to Czech music fans for the band project Please the Trees, whose debut CD Lion Prayer came out in 2007. Havelka had been happy working on his own until he hit it off with Some Other Place, a purely instrumental band from south Bohemia whose music he was really into.
“I made a pure solo record with Selfbrush, but after that I met these guys from Tábor, from Some Other Place, and they were lacking a vocalist, they were lacking a singer.
“I just thought, this is maybe it, let’s try something together. The fact they’re from Tábor and I’m living in Prague meant a lot of travelling. But I felt, OK, I’ll try. I always am trying to do my best and see what it brings, if it’s worth it.
“The very few gigs we did together with Some Other Place, under the name Some Other Place, were pure improvisation for me. I wrote some lyrics to the music which they had on their record. Without a rehearsal we did our first show at 007 in Prague and it was a pure…freak-out, I never felt such a feeling, you know.”
Now it’s probably fair to say that Please the Trees is a better known name than Selfbrush. Does either take priority for you?
“I think the priority now is the band. Because it takes more concentration, there are more people involved…If I hadn’t met the guys in the band I would definitely spend a hundred percent of my time on my solo work.
“I don’t write like, now I’m writing for Selfbrush, now I’m writing for Please the Trees. When the song is finished I kind of decide…I think the priority now is Please the Trees.”
What are your ambitions for the band?
“I always had big ambitions…It’s not about fame for me, it’s more about being able to do what I love, with the people that I love. This is just amazing to me, with music.
“I just hope with the aesthetics we have that we can bring it to the point of travelling, making records and making people happy. That’d be great.”
As well as making his own music, Václav Havelka hosts a music show on Radio Wave, runs a small label called Absent Hour, and with a partner promotes concerts by visiting alternative groups in Prague. Given his broad overview, how does he regard the Czech capital in terms of musical vibrancy?
“It’s getting better. Last year, especially fall 2008, there were three or four shows every week…There’s so much music. At the moment the business is changing. Bands have to play live more than in the past, because that’s the only way they make money. Records are sold almost just at shows.
“I think it’s getting much better, because a year or two back I was still missing stuff…even though I have my dreams for bands I’d like to bring, or go to see in Prague.
“But it’s getting good. And people are capable of promoting it in a good way. For instance what we do with Scrape Sound – which I’m kind of involved in – is we book the stuff we like, we love, and we just feel it’s worth doing in Prague.
“But it’s a pain. It’s a pain, because there’s money involved. We don’t have money for promotion, so it’s more based on friends of friends of friends, you have to meet all these people personally and spread it and burn CDs…but it’s a laugh, you know, it’s music.”
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