Avtomat: ‘Our community was tired and angry’
Avtomat is a man who wears many hats – an openly queer composer, producer, DJ and vocalist, graphic designer, typographer and 3D illustrator, proud member of the Oramics and Ciężki Brokat crews, co-creator of Radio Kapitał, and Polish ambassador for Keychange. His own music has morphed several times throughout the last ten years – from purely synthetic timbres and polyphonic singing with Pleśni to a perplexing fusion of rhythmically and sonically jagged compositions, to the bass-heavy club tracks on his latest EP, “Gusła (Human Rites)”. His thirteen-year experience of supporting the queer, anti-fascist and underground club scene has connected him to a disconcertingly disparate selection of the most forward-thinking sounds on offer today. In his series of DJ-sets and club nights he blends unusual rhythmic patterns, kicked up a notch by his improvised vocals.
How have you been in the last year, year and a half – especially as a musician and DJ, someone active in the club scene, with clubs shut for most of the time?
If I said I didn’t struggle I would be lying. It was a huge challenge to redirect my creative powers inwards, but I feel it was beneficial for me. Nightlife is a huge inspiration and it gives me the drive to go the extra mile, but it can also be a terrible distraction and a way to propel procrastination – at least for me it was. The first couple of months of lockdown were a creative vacation for me – I took care of my closest environment, started eating and sleeping well. I played a couple of livestreams, but it was a formula that quickly lost its appeal for me. It was a time to regroup, plan for the time ahead and finally take the plunge to work on a full EP, rather than single tracks for compilations. During the two previous years, I just didn’t have time to concentrate on my studio output, I was busy trying to earn a living being only a musician.
Still, last year was very lucky for me – I didn’t have to backtrack and give up music as a full-time career, as many others did. I’d managed to work up a household name for myself before the pandemic and survived only thanks to my creative endeavours and activism (writing, producing, licensing my music, giving talks, etc.) and teaching DJing in the Instytut Dźwięku. I scaled back my lifestyle quite a bit to achieve this, but I was adamant I didn’t want to let the pandemic make me go backwards in my journey as an artist. I was also very lucky to start a working relationship with Granko Agency – quite a unique phenomenon in Poland, dedicated to creating a sustainable framework for the Polish electronic music scene. I’m so grateful to have some of the more tedious workload connected with promotion and bookings taken over for me by an entity with a work ethic and an overview on many matters that are close to mine.
Your EP “Gusła (Human Rites)” on Tańce was your first in seven years. It was partially shaped by your residency at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw where Oramics, a collective you are a member of, performed a healing ritual. In August 2020, on the eve of the performance, you got arrested at the protests against the arrest of Margot Szutowicz of the Stop Bzdurom collective and the intensifying oppression of the LGBTQ+ community in Poland. The EP has numerous allusions to the increasingly difficult situation for the community in Poland in the last few years (one of the most direct ones a quote by Przemysław Czarnek about dehumanising the LGBTQ community). Can you recollect what led to the events in August 2020, and what happened after? How has this influenced you almost a year later? What is the current situation?
The events of 7th of August 2020, were pretty much inevitable. The ludicrous sentence that was given to Margot was the straw that broke the camel’s back – our community was tired and angry with all the obvious political manipulation we were (and still are) falling prey to. For me, it was also a personal breaking point – I see myself as a rather cowardly person, I was never brave enough to stand in the front line during protests. But that day, even though my legs were shaking at the knees and right-wing bandits were circling the monument I climbed – anger won. I wasn’t going to passively consent to our laws being broken and our very nature being used for cynical political games.
Our residency in the CCA had already been based mostly on the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community even before I got arrested, so the fact that I arrived at the final event straight from jail gave it that much more meaning. In retrospect, I feel I was extremely lucky to have had this opportunity, because playing a gig (partly consisting of the, at that point unnamed, “Gusła (Human Rites)” material) acted as almost instant therapy. It was the first time I had let myself channel my repressed emotions through music so completely and it felt so incredibly good that it later informed the whole process of working on the EP. I let the music flow freely, so to say, without analysing how it was going to be perceived, if it was modern enough, niche enough, approachable enough.
Right now, the situation is even worse – the almost complete ban on abortion (that I wrote “Szeptucha (Hex Therapy)” about), police brutality, the awful legislation being proposed in the parliament week after week and the open, unabashed hatred that the ruling party is perpetuating towards our community have never been worse. These are basically the subjects that my next EP is going to tackle, so I guess now I can say that my creative floodgates have been opened for good.
On the EP, aside from the more abstract and concrete references to the status quo, you are also using polyrhythms and syncopation present in Polish folk dances such as the oberek and chodzony. Can you elaborate? What is your relationship to traditional music as such, especially that of your country?
My musical upbringing was very diverse – my mother was a co-creator of the biggest, then independent, radio station in Toruń, my hometown, and both she and my dad accustomed me and my sister to all kinds of music. We listened to King Crimson, Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream and Black Sabbath, but also to Clannad, Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins as well as a lot of film music. They also never interfered with my own burgeoning tastes – I went from an early fascination with Roxette and Ace of Base through metal and industrial all the way to electro and early bass and rave music.
Traditional music only came into my life when I came back to Poland after my studies and settled in Warsaw. I met a bunch of people devoted to upholding the traditional dances and songs through the Wszystkie Mazurki Świata festival and I started singing traditional polyphonic “biały głos” songs from Poland and Eastern Europe thanks to the open workshops that it provided. I’d been producing music for almost ten years by then and it was just a matter of time before I put two and two together and in 2012 created Pleśni – a band which fused bassy, broken-beat electronica and these wildly emotional traditional songs. We toured a lot and had lots of material, but we only released a maxi-single. Shortly afterwards, I ran into the worst creative block of my life and never finished the album. When in 2020, the publisher-to-be of “Gusła (Human Rites)”, Łukasz Warna-Wiesławski of Tańce, approached me with an offer to create an EP of club music based on traditional Polish rhythms it seemed almost too serendipitous to be true.
You are also a member of the Oramics collective, created in 2017 as a platform for women, non-binary and queer people on the electronic scene. Your reach goes beyond Poland, and also focuses on other countries in the East/Central European region. Can you talk about your involvement in the collective?
In autumn 2018, I was already starting to get some recognition as a DJ in Poland and I was already throwing quite successful queer nights with my other collective, Ciężki Brokat, as a counterbalance to the frequently toxic gay-only scene. Joining Oramics seemed like the next logical step for me – they had a clear agenda of representing the underrepresented that resonated with me a lot, but they also underlined their search for quality. Together, we achieved some of the biggest feats I’ve ever been a part of. In the wake of the violence at Białystok Pride we released “Total Solidarity”, a huge, 122-track charity compilation aimed at raising funds for grassroots LGBTQ+ organisations in Poland (the hate campaign was already advanced back then) and “Sonic Resistance”, a similar compilation helping Rojava in Syria. We managed to mix well-established names and total newcomers in our podcast series, which shines a spotlight on femme and LGBTQ+ artists from all over the world. We have successfully raised the matter of representation of Eastern and Central European artists in global electronic music media. Oramics have also been instrumental in helping me overcome the artistic block I spoke about earlier – they motivated me, reassured me, grounded me and taught me how to work collectively and how to be assertive.
What led you to get involved in activism? Was it a personal motivation, the particular situation in your home country, or an overall feeling of discontent with how things are in the world? Did you consider relocating to a place like Berlin, where there are no such societal pressures?
I don’t really like calling myself an activist per se. I’m not the kind of person who appears at every protest and devotes their whole life to bettering the world. I just do as much as I can to use the platform that I have as a musician to raise awareness of certain subjects and frequently use my music as a vehicle for that. It stems both from the feeling that I’m very privileged and need to pay this privilege forward, and personal motivation. Me being vocal about LGBTQ+ issues and women’s rights in Poland is just a way of ensuring that kids don’t have to experience all the hardships I experienced growing up as a queer or that my sister experienced as a woman.
I completely understand that many people from Poland didn’t want to spend their whole lives fighting and moved abroad, but it’s not an option I have. I’ve studied abroad and found that I am really attached to my country, my language, to Polish culture in general. Despite all the hatred and bigotry that cynical political campaigns and the Catholic Church have inspired in this nation, I still see a wealth of redeeming qualities – we are hard workers, we’re not easily brainwashed by the absurdities of late capitalism, we have an innate sense of honour and justice. We’re also a nation that suffered immensely throughout the last couple of centuries, so I feel like we deserve a bit of a break. Lastly – in my mind leaving Poland would be leaving it to be led straight into a Russia-like situation, and I couldn’t live with myself if I chose the jump-start for my career that Berlin offers over my most cherished ideals, as pompous as it may sound.
As the lockdown is slowly easing, and cultural events slowly restarting (outdoor at least), what do the next couple of months have in store for you?
I’ve just finished working on a new club-oriented release for a foreign label, which I’m very proud of, but I can’t divulge many more details right now. I’ve just released a new track on a tape compilation aimed at raising funds for the operation of Radio Kapitał, a Polish community radio I co-created two years ago. I’m also finishing an original score for a project for Warsaw-based Teatr Studio in cooperation with the Archive of Public Protests, and I’m starting work on a quadraphonic sound piece for a French modern art festival. I want to use the summer to work out the architecture and additional musicians for live acts I’d like to play in the autumn, based on new material and “Gusła (Human Rites)”.
In terms of nightlife – I’m being sceptical as of now. There are already plans for a couple of outdoor events, but I want to make sure all the necessary steps will be taken to avoid them being incubators for COVID; we all really deserve a longer break from the pandemic.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova