Vlatko Stefanovski: Until I Satisfy My Artistic Appetite
It is not easy to describe what Vlatko Stefanovski does with his guitar; it seems that he has been on a quest for his whole career to discover the real possibilities of the instrument. People tend to believe he was born with a guitar in his hands, and this is hard to argue. For the last thirty years his work, both with his band Leb i Sol and his solo output, has reflected his diverse tastes and delicate guitar playing. Not many people have John McLaughlin, Mark Knopfler, Allan Holdsworth, and Joe Satriani praising their work. His precise, flowing style was one of the identifying trademarks of Leb i Sol's sound and regardless whether he is playing acoustic or electric guitar, Stefanovski has demonstrated musical qualities that have made him one of the most exciting and progressive European guitarists.
Stefanovski started his career at an early age in bands such as VIS Jegulje, Iris and Breg (the last fronted by keyboard player Miki Petkovski). The band Leb i Sol was formed on January 1, 1976 by Vlatko, Bodan Arsovski, Dimitrija Chuchovski and Nikola Kokan Dimushevski. During their twenty-year existence, the band achieved enormous popularity in what is now known as former Yugoslavia, which can be compared either with U2 or other pop acts at the top of their game. The band made a name for itself with its live and memorable performances, which even at quite an early stage of its career gave it an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. That period was very productive for the band as it recorded twelve albums and wrote music for numerous films and plays. One of the main features was its approach toward covering folk tunes (Aber Dojde Donke, Yovano Yovanke), which at the time was still unchartered territory which it threaded bravely. The lineup constantly shifted, but both Vlatko Stefanovski and bassist Bodan Arsovski form the core.
To mark its 20th anniversary, in 1996 the band released a double compilation Anthology, which was a collection of some of its best work to date and a worthy swan song. Since then, the band has remained inactive but its members have pursued successful solo careers.
The first solo recording that Vlatko ever did was Cowboys and Indians, while he was still with the band. The line up featured many guests, even exclusive ones, such as Goran Bregovic, Zlatko Oridjanski, actress Ana Kostovska, master drummer Mahmut Muzafer, Ilija Pejovski, Goce Dimitrovski, etc. His next project titled Sarajevo was recorded in 1993 and it was music recorded for a play written by Vlatko's brother Goran Stefanovski and was directed by Slobodan Unkovski. The CD was released in 1996 as soon as the civil war in Bosnia ended. In 1997, he released the soundtrack for Stole Popov's movie Gypsy Magic, and the title track "Gypsy Song" became an instant hit throughout the Balkans and today it can regularly be found featured in many world music compilations. The soundtrack was bolstered by the exclusive performances of master musician Medo Chun of Ensemble Teodosievski fame and Gazmend Berisha (Project Zlust).
Later in 1997, together with Miroslav Tadic, a professor at CalArts in LA, he recorded Krushevo a collection of traditional songs and reels played on two guitars, which to this very day is one of the highlights of his career as a recording and performing artist. For five days, they recorded their music at the Makedonium in the city of Krushevo. By the end of 1998, he released an album with his Trio, simply titled Vlatko Stefanovski Trio, a tour de force featuring some heavyweight performances by Vlatko and his trio. He wrote music for several films which was latter collected and released as Kino Kultura in 2001.
During this period he made guest appearances on various artist's records like Bojan Zulfikarpasic's Koreni, Vanja Lazarova's Ritmistica, Gibonni's Judi, Zviri i Beshtimje and Mirakul , to name but a few. The work he did with Gibonni proved to very fruitful and succesful, both commercially and artistically, as well as giving him the opportunity to meet and work with musicians such as Manu Katche, Pino Paladino, Tony Levin, Geffrey Oriema who would later perform on his next solo effort titled as Kula Od Karti (Tower Of Cards).
Last year he released Treta Majka, which is a continuation of his work with Miroslav Tadi.' The conversation I had with Vlatko took place first in one of Skopje's many clubs and then at his home studio Ezoteria. Shortly before that his brother Goran Stefanovski, with whom they worked together on numerous projects, was accepted as the member of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences (MANU) where he gave an inspiring speech. This mix of the urban and the domestic contributed to a vibrant discussion covering a wide and dazzling spectrum of topics. I have to admit that Vlatko is by far one of the most interesting interlocutors I've ever encountered.
All About Jazz: How did you and Miroslav Tadi' meet? When someone analyzes your and Tadi''s biography it is obvious that you two have different career paths on different continents and apparently different affinities? What made you decide to work with him?
Vlatko Stefanovski: I have a theory that musicians recognize each other and if they are destined to collaborate together they will. Mainly, they recognize each other according to the class they belong to. If they are punk-rocker kids from the neighborhood, they are going form a band. If they happen to be musicians that are going to play in pubs and restaurants, they are going to recognize each other, form a band and play together. If it's about musicians that are playing jazz and are going to jazz festivals, for e.g., then they are going to meet and work together.
Something similar happened with us. We met in Belgrade at our mutual friend's concert, the late bassist Vojin Drashkotzi. To his infinite delight, he was the one that introduced us. For a while he had an idea to introduce us to each other since he had an impression that we had similar affinities and that we should meet although the paths that our careers and lifes had been quite different. I grew up and worked here in Macedonia and the Balkans (what is now known as former Yugoslavia), whereas he took a different path i.e. he first went to study in Italy and from there to the USA, where he is still working today.
What brings us together are two important things: love and obsession for the guitar as an instrument and the love for traditional Macedonian music. And that's not all, as it goes wider and it includes different music traditions from this part of the world. Therefore, it was logical for us to meet and when we met it was logical to play together, to exchange ideas and experiences related to music and guitar playing, issues and experiences that he is well acquainted with, (through his avant-jazz approach) with the things that I know about and have experienced myself (through my rock'n'roll background).
One can sense many things in Miroslav's playing since he graduated at a classical music academy. He studied Bach, studied and played blues music, even delved into Brazilian music and flamenco. Miroslav is totally devoted to what he does to the point of fanaticism. I'm a bit different, as i give myself freedom to write lyrics, to make arrangements, to compose, to make recordings, to form and disband bands, to play with different people. As a character, i'm more nervous and my projects last until I satisfy my artistic appetites.
AAJ: Since Treta Majka is the last of a trilogy which started with Krushevo, how did you make the choice for the songs that have appeared both on Krushevo and Treta Majka?
VS: The choice was very spontaneous. Say, from our archives we took what he knew, what I knew, we exchanged ideas easily and made them happen quickly. The music is already there, a living and breathing thing, and one should just open his ears and eyes in order to play it. If you already know how to play a guitar and if you have a good command of your guitar skills you can easily master certain types of songs (pop, folk, rock'n'roll). You can even master more complicated reels and rhythms.
This can be learned quite easily since all of that is already in our heads, soul and genes. We carry all that stuff within ourselves. It's like passive luggage from which one can draw from, take from, which should be researched and sometimes even freed of. Your head is always swirling with plenty of ideas, ideas waiting to be given shape, and there is a moment when one should sit down and make them real i.e. you have to materialise your own dreams, ideas and passions.
AAJ: What was the starting point for Treta Majka, since Krushevo and Live in Belgrade were based on the same subject? What were some of the basic ideas of what this record should be and not be about?
VS: By principle, I love to dig up things that haven't been done before or not have been performed very often. On the other hand, Miroslav thinks that this is one of my local minded prejudices. An example of this is "Kalesh Angjo," a tune that I have played at least a hundred times before. His reply was, Yes, you have played that tune a hundred times before, but no one in the USA, Germany or England knows it and people there will really appreciate if you play it for them, and that is true.
For some people that are beginners and who are about to start exploring Macedonian music, its like you are serving them a delicious piece of cake for the first time. To me this is very interesting, intriguing and exciting. I have previously recorded "Ne Si Go Prodavaj Koljo ÄŒiflikot" (Don't Sell Your Land Koljo) with my rock Trio and I opposed by saying that I have already recorded it in another format and we should choose another tune. But, he was delighted by this song and I relented to his arguments. On the other hand, I enjoy when I come across something that I don't know, like the Turkish folk tune "Anadolu," which I took to heart immediately. This is great, because moments such as these are quite interesting, which makes playing even more interesting. The choice of material was very spontaneous and this isn't a case of selecting a song 2 minutes before a session starts, but there are things on this album that we had worked on 2-3 years prior to it.
The technology for making music can be compared to food making i.e. it doesn't matter what ingredients you will put in the pot, but what matters is how it will taste in the end. Because of that Miroslav and I are letting the music flow from our hands without much consulting or deliberating about concepts. Let's play and record and later we shall see what we have done. No one can tell in advance what the final result will look like in the end.
AAJ: How did Teodosii Spasov took part in this story? He already played with you two at the Sava Centar, Belgrade, and before that you performed with him as part of the Balkan Horses Band.
VS: In the meantime, I happened to meet Teodosii Spasov with whom we became good friends. It was logical for us to bring him on as a guest, if you take into account our friendship and all those performances we had together. He is one of my dearest friends from the Balkan Horses project. He is truly one of the top musicians from the Balkans.
AAJ: In relation to the previous question about Teodosii and the Balkan Horses, can you tell me where did the idea to make a band consisting of musicians from the Balkans come from?
VS: The idea emerged sometime around 2000, when we had a joint concert at the Skopje Fair with the Trio and the band Anastasia. For that occasion we invited a few managers from several Balkan countries among which there was a guy from Sofia, by the name of Krasi Zeljaskov. A day before the concert, during lunch with my former manager (Yvo Yankovski) we suggested that if we want to do something that will have a wider impact beyond this region, we should join our forces and do something that will promote all of us in one package and that way we could present ourselves to the western music industry. That way we could show that there is something happening here. Let's not only import music but also let's try to export it a bit. After 6 or 7 months, we received the first initiative from Sofia (Bulgaria), to create a band with musicians from several countries from the Balkans and to try and do a project. In the beginning we played concerts with this band and only afterwards we started thinking about how our first record should look like.
I think we should have done a studio record first and then went out on tour. But, we didn't have much time to gather all those people in one place and cut a record, so we agreed for each of us to suggest two songs that we are going to perform at concerts. Some interesting musical moments did happen here but we never got to realise entirely our initial ideas. All that Balkan Horses has ever done is a live DVD and a record from our performance at the antic theater in Plovdiv (Bulgaria) and a second record from our concert in Sofia. It's a beautiful recording but those are songs that I have done on other projects and the others have done them in their own projects as well. There wasn't any chemical reaction i.e. there wasn't any joint effort which would result in new music, but it only looked like sampled Balkan musicians. As long as the idea to work together and establish cross-cultural communication is sincere, this will function without any problems. But, as soon as the managers got their fingers into it, it was then when things began to dismantle. You have problems with sponsors, and having 7 musicians from 7 different countries traveling and working together is technically complicated. Because of that, the idea never managed to fully come alive.
AAJ: Tell me about your last solo recording, Tower Of Cards. There are performances by many top musicians from around the globe. Please tell me who participated here and what sort of emotions and ideas went into making it.
VS: On this record there is a plethora of interesting musicians and there are plenty of interesting songs, which I think are going to have a long life and are yet to be really discovered. One of the world's leading drummers Manu Katche plays here, I also had a mega popular singer sing two or three verses, and that's Gibonni from Croatia, then the legendary keyboard player from SerbiaKornelije Kovach (Korni Group), a programmer from Skopje, Vasko Serafimov. There is a guest appearance by the late great trumpet player Goce Dimitrovski (known as the trumpet player on the "Otpisani" TV series theme), the brilliant violinist Gazmend BeriÅ¡a (Project Å½lust), Nora Poloska sang backing vocals, and some keyboard parts were played by an old friend of mine Valentino Skenderovski (one time keyboard player of Leb i Sol and a renowed producer).
This record is truly a diverse one as it took me almost a year to finish it, and I had enough time to invite people or to pay them a visit to do some recordings. It was a slow production process and during that period the songs took different shapes, and some of them were made even 3-4 years prior to the album's release.
Tower Of Cards is a collection of my impressions i.e. it is a collection of my songs and impressions during the last 5-6 years. I had to write and sing about all those things that have haunted, frightened, delighted me and warmed my soul in the meant time. I had to tell about all those things that preoccupied me and I guess not just myself, but also the people from my generation. Of course, what I just said refers not only to people of my age, but even to people older or younger than me.
I was born in the middle of the previous century and we went through many things, as we saw two or three political systems changing. My generation is quite interesting since we were born in one era, grew in another, while we are raising our families and living our lives in totally different era. One day should I decide to write a book I'll put into words my thoughts on this issue. Not only that this period is interesting, but we are living in a very interesting part of the world. This is a period when one political system hasn't entirely gone while the other one still hasn't arrived. We are living in a period of an endless transition.
AAJ: One of the bands that you perform with regularly is the Trio. Not long ago it grew into a Quartet. The first time I heard about it, to be honest, was at an open-air festival in Å tip [a city in mid-Macedonia], in the mid 90's. What made you decide to form a Trio? For a time there, even Leb i Sol functioned as a trio.
VS: The Trio is like a tripod and it can be very steady and at same time very unsteady. The electric trios are also known as power trios, and it should be that way in order to function properly. In 1996, I received an invitation from a friend of mine from Stip, who happened to be organising an open-air festival there. He invited me to perform on that festival, but at the time I didn't have a band to perform with. But he gave a suggestion to form a band for that occasion. Then I invited MiÅ¡ko (Mihail ParuÅ¡hev) and AÄek (Aleksandar Pop Hristov) whom I've known from the Skopje's club scene. We had 2-3 rehearsals, we played there on that festival and in retrospective I think we gave an excellent performance although it was our first. I like playing with the Trio as I've been endlessly inspired by Jimi Hendrix's TrioJimi Hendrix Experience (as well as by another band of his, the Band of Gypsies), for which I think is one of the best trios of all time. Cream was also a very powerful rock trio.
The Trio has room for everyone i.e. it gives enough space for everyone to express themselves and to use their instrument to the best of their abilities, both as a rhythmic and melodic instrument. There is enough space i.e. tapestry for improvising as much as you need. As formation, the trio is very slippery because if the groove isn't right and if the music isn't as it should be then the music will stop, i.e. the machinery itself will stop.
I really love playing with the Trio, but recently we welcomed another member, Damir Imeri on keyboards, who is a real revelation for me since he is truly a talented musician and is someone who is not really affirmed as a player. He does arrangements for all kinds of singers, but that's not his true affinity. His true affinity is jazz and jazz-fusion and I think he jelled fine with the existing trio where in the meantime the personnel changed.
Now, I play with Djoko MaksimovskiDjole on bass and Dean Milosavljevi'Dino on drums. I've been working with this personnel for the last 4 years. The musicians from Macedonia know certain things by default i.e. you don't need to explain much when it comes to uneven rhythms. If someone doesn't know them you cannot explain them to him in plain words. To a musician from France or Sweden you can count those rhythms but you won't be able to make him play them. Even less of a chance to get him to play them properly. The musicians from here know what they are all about and without much fuss we just agree on the rhythm and onward we go.
AAJ:Tell me about the album Vlatko Stefanovski Trio.
VS: The album was recorded in 1998 and for the first time we recorded something more serious in my own studio (Esoteria). There were some tunes with vocals and some traditional reels. There is a tune called "Vlatkovo Oro" (Vlatko's Reel) which was called that as a joke. I feel very emotional about it. There were some interesting tracks like "UFO," which looks like heavy metal but actually it is an imaginative instrumental track.
The inspiration for the title was taken from a newspaper article "UFO nad Å tip" (UFO over Å tip). I served the army there and all those UFO sightseeing got me interested. Those UFO's are an inspiration to many. I think there was a band under the same name. All that is intriguing and is on the edge of common knowledge is always inspiring. Musicians always delve into territories that common people rarely go into.
AAJ: Beside this, you have extended this band into a nonet. What is the difference between playing with a group as this one compared to the trio or duo?
VS: It is a great pleasure to be performing with a big band. Those people took part in a group that played the music from the Kino Kultura album i.e. the soundtrack music I've been doing. It is difficult to organise them all and to have those people for a certain date since they all have their own obligations and arrangements. It is a great privilege to gather all those musicians at one place, especially these that I work with, since they perform regularly abroad, at weddings or are working somewhere else.
I cannot lead them and I cannot look after them as a band but I can only invite them as guests for a concert. With Kino Kultura we had two concerts (one at Sava Centar, Belgrade and the other at Univerzalna Sala, Skopje). It's a demanding work but the pleasure of playing with a band, where you are making music with other 8 musicians, is great. The pleasure is truly great and the musical matrix that these people are making, i.e. the background or the tapestry that they are capable of creating is really fantastic. It's a real enjoyment.
AAJ: On your projects you had the opportunity to work with numerous musicians with different background. What are some of the qualities that you look for in your sidemen before deciding to work with them?
VS: Talent is important, and some background as well. This really is not beginner's school. I want to work with people that have achieved a certain level and with whom i can easily communicate, which means you don't have to do too much explaining so you won't waste precious time. I don't do much explaining during rehersals and we are just adjusting minor details. Simply, there is no space nor time for one to learn and each of them has to do their homework on time. That means practising, transitioning from a level to level. We cannot wait for someone during a rehearsal to learn something. You do that stuff at home or before arriving at a rehearsal, and much before going on stage.
Musicians work together according to the class they belong to. That is why you'll see famous jazz musos working with people from their own class and not with some anonymous musicians. This is not just happening in popular music but in other cathegories. An e.g. is Zubin Mehta, the conductor that conducts with the Vienna Fillharmonic Orchestra. One could invite him to work with the Macedonian Filharmonic Orchestra but it will be very costly and it would be an incompatible cooperation.
AAJ: Apart from different bands and configurations, what happens when it's just you and your guitar?
VS: I'm always with my guitar and i'm always searching for new solutions, either musical or sound solutions. I'm always searching. Not long ago, I purchased a new pedal so i'm working on different combinations with the pedals and the equipment. Otherwise, I'm looking for solutions for ideas that I've got, for certain tunes. I'm always on the look out for a moment when a certain song matures, then I'll just throw in some other ideas that I deliberately leave unfinished as I know when i work on a demo and if it is too good it will tie me too much and I won't be able to make many changes. But, if I make a scheme it will give me more space to play with it or to erase it. Sometimes, I act a bit irresponsibly towards my ideas as I often leave them to wander in my head unrecorded, and if they survive great and if they don't, no problem, we will get back to them some other time.
AAJ: Do you get frustrated by the technological aspects of music making?
VS: Regularly! The times we live in have imposed too much technology, and I get frustrated on regular basis but not by my own playing or the usage of technology but by technology itself. Not long ago, I bought a new computer and each purchase is stressful as the new and fast processors won't accept the drivers from the previous programs. It's a bloody unnerving game as new programs do not function on older computers. It's too exhausting both for the finances and the nerves, and I know that my life used to be simpler. At the time, you had a guitar, acoustic and electric, an amplifier and your job was to make music. The moment your music matures, you go into the studio and you record it. There are people, recording engineers and producers, who are there to make sure that it sounds good.
Now, you are left to the mercy of all this technology. Now you have to take care of the recording, the mixing and the post mastering all by yourself. Ok, you don't have to do that too and you can spend your life writing songs with a pencil and a paper, but I don't want to be that much archaic. Because of that, a man has to meet all the challenges, including the new age which imposes a struggle and is ignorant towards older concepts and values. One has to fight with all of that. Few days ago one of my computers broke down and fortunately it's not the one that I use for music making. The more technology there is, greater are the chances for something to get broken. On the other hand, one should not remain that analogue based and should digitalize a bit.
AAJ: During your rich career you had an opportunity to work with numerous musicians. What are some of your fondest collaborations?
VS: According to the success of the projects, the collaboration with Miroslav Tadic is something that is very important to me as what we are doing has received a great response everywhere and I think it is right to keep on going and maintain this project that we have. It is an important collaboration to me. Generally, I find everything to be important, because with whomever i worked with I always gave my best. I have always tried to build a normal working relationship.
I had an opportunity to work with Bojan Zulfikarpasi' who i think is a genius. He achieved great success in France and he invited me to work with an interesting bunch of people on a project titled Koreni (Roots). Another one is Lala Kovachev, a drummer, who now doesn't play at all. He was the founder of Balkan Impressions, a band that in the middle of the 80s did what Goran Bregovi' does now. I was also part of that band and we had a group of 4 female vocalists from a group called "Paganke," (Pagans), we had people who played on pipes and we had Feat Sejdi' and his brass orchestra. All of today's Balkan fusion variations that we witness were already done in 1984 or 1985 with Lala KovaÄev. He worked mostly in Munich, Germany and he played with truly important jazz names such as Chet Baker and other figures from the jazz's premier league. He is one of the dearest people that I have worked with.
AAJ: What about Gibonni, what's your relationship both as a friend and as a collaborator with him been like?
VS: In 1998, Gibonni invited me to play on an album titled Ljudi, Zviri i Beshtimje and I accepted his invitation. His manager, Ozren Kaceljak is an old friend of mine and, of course, at his invitation and recommendation I accepted this collaboration and while working with him I realized that Gibonni is a great author i.e. songwriter and musician. This collaboration has allowed me to meet Manu Katche, Pino Paladino and Tony Levin. The experience of working with these people was truly wonderful and profound since these people are first class peformers in any music genre. I really had an intensive working realtionship with Gibonni which resuletd in many concerts, 2 studio albums (Ljudi, Zviri i Beshtimje, Mirakul), 2 DVDs, many lunches and many travels. He is really a very interesting person, very witty, emotional and humane.
AAJ: One of your dearest associates is your brother Goran Stefanovski, a well known and respected writer, who helped a lot when it came to writing lyrics for Leb i Sol (in the beginning) and you two worked on several other projects. This year he accepted as a member of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences.
VS: This collaboration during the beginning of Leb i Sol's career, when it came to writing lyrics was really intensive. At the time, i really harassed him to write those lyrics for me, and while he was raising small children he would write them as I needed them badly. He wrote many of Leb i Sol's lyrics and I'm grateful to my brother for that. Now he lives far away, in Canterbury, England and I have learned how to do that by myself and i don't bother him anymore with that. Still, as a brother he is very important to me. Goran is someone who can help you solve any kind of problems you might have at any time and is someone who you can emotionally rely on.
AAJ: You are someone who has developed his career cautiously i.e. compared to many of today's quasi musicians you have built your career on hard work and high quality releases.
VS: Actually, I'm someone who has made many compromises in my lifetime. When it comes to my work I could have been more radical and stylistically more consistent. But, at certain point i know i have to do those compromises so the whole thing can go onward, otherwise it will stop. At the time, we had problems with the cover sleeves for the first Leb i Sol album. We had our own ideas and the record company (PGP) would not agree with us. They had their own solution which we were shocked by when we saw it. The cover sleeves for the second album were printed wrong. The front cover was put on the back side and the back picture was put at the front.
Can you imagine how we felt? It was a shocking experience and i have survived many of them. In those cases, I could have said that I don't want this to be released and to sit comfortably for 3 years and not to give permission for anything to be published. At a certain moment one has to swallow hard in order not to stop the whole thing. Otherwise, I could have had far better photographs in the press, far better and well chosen interviews, even to have far better produced records and cover sleeves. I would like to be a greater perfectionist, but unfortunately I'm not, since my character isn't such. I'm invested in a certain thing until it interests me. I lose my interest for certain things very quickly and when i get bored by working on an album I would say, yes this is it, this is the end since I don't want to have anything with it anymore.
If I was a perfectionist like some people who release albums every ten years and who are very careful about each word, tone and each collaborator, I could have been more polished and pure as an author. But I know that the world we live in is imperfect and therefore I give myself room for mistakes. Brian Eno has said "Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention." Only God is perfect and only he has the right to perfection. Human beings are imperfect and our perfection lies in our quest for perfection. If I will never reach this stadium of perfection then let's not bother with unnecessities. Leb i Sol's first album is fantastic and successful regardless of the cover sleeves. It's a masterpiece of the production technology of the time. The cover sleeve is a disaster but it was destined to be. Mistakes and occurrences such as these will always happen and will burden you, but one has to reconcile and keep on going. People come and leave bands and one has to make a compromise in order to substitute a member of the band. At certain point you have to break the band as it doesn't have any strength, energy and enthusiasm. Anything can be done and replaced, but enthusiasm is irreplaceable.
Everyone is putting pressure on us, asking when shall we get together and work again. The enthusiasm we had on the first three albums can not be repeated. Now someone else has to do what we did. The enthusiasm is a driving force and is an energy that surpasses all others. You know what they say "The sum of all parts is larger than the parts themselves." That band was bigger than the sum of its parts. The sum of the energy was enormous and it lasted while it lasted. But why should we force certain things? The enthusiasm is a catalyst for the chemical process to start. The music is a chemistry and there has to be a chemical reaction within the band. If there is no fire, everything is futile.
This is something that distinguishes musicians: how much passion one has inside or how passionate is someone for what he does. There is a category of people that are playing their instruments perfectly, but the category of passion and enthusiasm is also very important. When i see musicians playing, at least the real ones, i sense those emotions and i can tell you that they are not famous for no reason. No one succeeds by accident. Behind each successful individual, there is something intangible.
AAJ: What are some of the unique aspects of Leb i Sol?
VS: That band, with some of its songs, has set a manifesto for how, what today is known as ethnic music should be done. Leb i Sol was a band that at the time was superior when it came to its playing capabilities. We laid the foundations for what in the Balkans is known as ethnic or world music. We approached the folklore in a very spontaneous and brave manner, while retaining our image of a rock'n'roll band. Although we had an image like that still the music was totally different, authentic and pure.
AAJ:Where did the idea and the inspiration for covering folk tunes with Leb i Sol come from?
VS: Intuitively, it was a totally unconscious decision and we had no idea that it will be given such enormous importance. I think that's a healthy approach towards the tradition i.e. one must not be entrapped by it nor one should be afraid of it. One has to use what is given to him, without any stress or fear that he might make a mistake. Off course, the responsibility is enormous when it comes to dealing with Macedonian folklore as it is very rich, colorful and precise and one should not play too much with it. I have a very laid back approach towards that folklore. I know it as much as I know it and i don't know it as much as i don't. I hope to get to know it more every day.
For St. Nicholas (their family saint), we had a family reunion and believe me for 3 hours people sang songs that I never heard before. I just stood there listening to songs that are archaic and totally forgotten. But some of my relatives knew these songs. That's incredible, and all of this is passed on to our children.
AAJ: The last thing that Leb i Sol ever published was Anthology. Do you think a compilation such as this will give a right presentation of the band's work during the twenty years of their existence?
VS:Well, we worked together a lot and twenty years is not a short period of time. That period was very fruitful. It is a difficult and daunting task to make a selection of what is good and what is not. But some things you know, as things have cleared out and you can tell which songs are anthological and which are not.
AAJ: Twenty years of hard work with this band carries a lot of luggage and expectations. How do you deal with those things?
VS: I can't meet everyone's expectations. There is a thing called memorabilia, i.e. collecting relics from the past and i don't want to do that. Recently, I even find it difficult to have my photograph taken with fans. It seems that everyone these days has a digital camera. I have to admit that I really hate those flash lights as I think my eyeballs will explode. How important are those photographies if you haven't spoken at least 3 words with that person. That's it; I cannot meet everyone's expectations. I can't publish that kind of releases that people think I should do. I can only do what I think it should be done.
AAJ: People remember Leb i Sol as a concert/live attraction, just as much as the band you are now playing with. Why are there so little official live recordings by this band? Why not publishing something from the archives?
VS: The reason for that is because Leb i Sol never had real management and no one to initiate those things. All the record companies that we worked with took the liberty to re-release some of our albums and to make their own compilations without asking us, since they have the right to do that. These are ungrateful and nasty things that I really despise.
AAJ: Your music is an inspiration to many but what were some of your influences when you first started?
VS: When I was a kid my biggest inspiration were the Beatles. It was my brother who listened to them and with him i started listening to them too. They started a revolution in my world and they left their imprint on me. For eg., the first time i listened to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band I thought what sort of magical world is this? Beside the Beatles i began to mess with my brother's LP's and I got hooked on the music he listened at the time. I was lucky to have an older brother who listened the right music at the right time: John Mayall, Cream, Free, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, everything that was related to the Woodstock generation, Joni Mitchell, Ten Years After, Santana, etc.
I must point Joni Mitchell as an enormous inspiration. She is a sort of a renaissance artist. You can't tell what she does best, whether she is a better singer, a better painter or a poet. She is a genius and she had a huge influence on me. I think if I was influenced by someone else but Joni Mitchell I think i might have been a more commercial author. I'm always looking for oblique strategies or different roads to thread which often leads me through thorny roads. I don't follow what is happening in the mainstream i.e. I'm not like a bulldozer that knows only to move in one direction. I can easily compare my music to watercolor paintings and insofar as i'm always searching for new colors, shades and landscapes that haven't been painted yet. Joni Mitchell is also an inspiration because of her taste relation to Van Gogh, who is also a great inspiration when it comes to painting. I had an opportunity to see an exhibition of his paintings in Amsterdam. Since I was a kid he was an inspiration to me.
I remember at our house we had all kinds of art books that I went through with great interest. During that period i was really delighted by Leonardo Da Vinci both as a scientist, painter, physician, philosopher i.e. a man with a renaissance spirit. Joni Mitchell has a technique that pretty much resembles Van Gogh's. Actually, she paints exactly like him i.e. she has the same movements, technique, lights. Because of that, i can relate to her quite well. One of my unfulfilled desires is to play a guitar on any of her songs. She played with some of the greatestPat Metheny, Jaco Pastorious, Mingus, Wayne Shorter. The woman is a genius. The album Hejira had an enormous impact on me. Jaco also plays bass there and to me that record is perfect for traveling. Actually, that record is some sort of inner pilgrimage for her.
Later, when my playing affinities started to surface, i got interested in other types of music. It's then that i discovered Yes, Focus, ELP, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chic Corea and i began listening to fusion and sympho-rock stuff that is attractive to players. I was lucky to see performances by John McLaughlin and Shakti, Weather Report, Billy Cobham Band and all kinds of bands. My greatest role models among the guitarists were Allan Holdsworth and Jan Akerman who played fast and I myself went into that direction.
AAJ: You even announced Allan Holdsworth before his performance at the Skopje's Jazz Festival in 1997.
VS:I did that with the utmost pleasure! Still, i find inspiration in anything, i.e. a bit of everything. Reading, listening to music, going to concerts. That can be a great inspiration especially when I see that someone is really good in what he is doing and that can be very fulfilling. I find inspiration in everything and all of the things that are happening around me, starting from reading newspapers, watching TV, talking with people and the greatest inspiration and the best school can be the direct communication with people.
To have a cup of coffee with a great artist means much more than four years spent at college. I was lucky to have an opportunity to have a cup of coffee with Blaze Konevski, Dushan Vukotic (an Oscar winner for an animated feature) or to have an opportunity to hang out with actors such as Miki Manojlovich, Rade Sherbedzhija, Mira Furlan. I was lucky enough to meet directors such as Slobodan Unkovski, Ljubisa Ristic, Rajko Grlic, Stole Popov, Jeshim Nostaugu. One learns most by communicating with top artists. It's very important to have good associates and to be lucky to meet extraordinary people.
AAJ: Quite early in your career, you had the opportunity to perform in front of 100,000 people at Hajduchka Chesma. What's the difference between performing in front of an audience such as the one at Hajduchka Chesma and club performances?
VS: I find it easier to play in front of big audiences as I can easily abstract them and see them as a group. Because of that there is no need to feel afraid or to have stage fright. As for club performances just by seeing a pair of evil eyes would be enough for you to feel uncomfortable. But then again there aren't any specific rules about it. One must not allow his concentration to wander around nor to allow losing the thrill of the performance.
If you loose control just for a second you'll be in a lot of trouble. In any case, one should gather enough strength and concentration so he can function in front of an audience as big as that one. In those circumstances your music must not reach a distance of 3 meters in front of your amplifiers but much further. It's a special technique that cannot be described with words. You have to meet the demands of 100.000 people or to generate energy for 100.000 people, if you want to go home happy and satisfied.
AAJ: During your solo career despite the numerous concerts you have done you have only one live album (Live in Belgrade with Miroslav Tadic). Do you plan to release a live recording with your current band in near future?
VS: We plan to do that. I already have a nice collection of live recordings from performances in Netherlands, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany and other places. I have to go through those recordings since i often tape my performances. What matters is that the performance must be good and the quality of the recording should also be technically good. I think there might be a live recording coming out soon.
AAJ: What is the relationship with your audiences like? What sort of emotions or reaction do you hope is provoked in your listeners?
VS: You can say that I delve for them through emotions and I delve deep. When I play something i know exactly what i'm doing. I'm doing that for them. I have taken that task to entertain them but a bit differently compared to those who play different type of music. I strive to touch their hearts and to give them emotions that they already have and which they are ready to receive. The music I make comes from my deepest feelings. Each of us has those feelings. Someone has locked those feelings in a safe box or has fenced his feelings with a Chinese wall. There are different types of people, but still, more or less, we are all much the same. With my music I'm trying to help them to reach out to themselves. Or as Rambo Amadeus (Montenegrin avant-garde musician) has said that this is a mass psycho therapy. All those big concerts are just mass psycho therapies, i.e one big moment of discharging and cleansing. On the other hand, I'll be glad if I can show to younger generations that you can work for a living by playing music.
AAJ:As one of the most active Macedonian musicians, how do you balance between an active music career and having a family?
VS: It's not easy. I'm trying to balance and compensate i.e. when i'm home I try to be of use to my family. When i'm out there I'm also trying to be useful to them as this is my job and this is how I earn for a living. None of these things are simple and i have to balance things as the family is a safe base you return to and from which you set off. I think I wouldn't have been that much productive without them. I think I would have spent more time in clubs and places and I might have led a more bohemian lifestyle, which doesn't necessarily has to mean alcohol and drugs. These are some of the misconceptions that are part of the public opinion that by definition every musician is a substance abuser. All of the musicians I know are normal people. There are people who do that, but, not everyone has the image of a Keith Richards, Ozzie Osborne and not everyone is like Kurt Cobain. There are different roads to thread and I have chosen this one. I live my life just the way I want to live it.
Visit Vlatko Stefanovski on the web.
Related reviews at AAJ
Vlatko Stefanovski and Miroslav Tadic featuring Teodosii Spasov, Treta Majka (Avalon Produkcija, 2004)
Zlatko Oridjanski Razbudi Se (Avalon Produkcija, 2004)
Project Zlust, Project Zlust Live (Chicken Madness, 2004)
DNO, Tishina (Chicken Madness, 2004)
Kaldrma, Macedonian Chalgia Music (Profundus, 2004)
Ollivier Samouillan & Project Zlust, How I Killed A Saint (Sisters and Brother Mitevski Production, 2005)
Concert review: Vlatko Stefanovski, Miroslav Tadic and Teodosii Spasov, Live in Novi Sad (April 26, 2005)