Hokr is one of the most interesting and original bands from Eastern Europe. They are active since late 70's, but for years, because of the regime, they had no opportunities to publish their music. However they did not lose heart and in the last years they have been working to recover the lost time publishing both the old and new material, always keeping a high level of quality. With great pleasure we had the opportunity to talk with some members of the band, extremely friendly and eager to tell their stories.
Hokr exists since 1979, but only in 1991 with "Skvrny" you were able to release your first album. Can you tell us the reason? Can you describe the Czech musical scene in that period?
In communist Czechoslovakia there were both official bands, which means those approved and authorised by the regime (or at least tolerated) and the others, having no public performance licence. Rock music, as a typical product of the alien Western culture, was frowned upon by the communists. If somebody wanted to perform it publicly, not only they had to take a humiliating examination before a committee, but they were under constant surveillance by censors. If the players did something at their concerts that the supervisors did not like, the activities of a band might be banned. For example, too long hair or inappropriate clothes were not permissible, lyrics were checked for any signs of anti-state and/or anti-establishment provocation – they were forbidden to contain overly pessimistic or even depressing parts. The same held true for the overall impression the music created and for its arrangement. One of the thousands of lies purported by the communists to be the truth, was that a citizen living in such a ‘great’ system had to be leading a happy life and if they weren’t, they should at least pretend to do so. Everything thus depended on the extent to which you were willing to comply with the rules of the game laid down by the Bolsheviks and on how much you wanted to bow and scrape. However, the typical communist perversion of it laid in the fact that many of such rules were unwritten, yet deeply rooted in most people’s minds through established practice. Anyone would wish to express themselves freely at all costs, then they had to bear the consequences of their actions. To be objective, though, it has to be admitted that there were a few bands that managed, with certain restrictions and the acceptance of various compromises, to slip through the nets and to play good music.
We did not want to bow and scrape, therefore being an unauthorised band, as a result of which we performed very rarely and at highly obscure venues. Our attitudes were not political in the first place, even though we hated the Bolsheviks and, in turn, the regime did not like people of our sort, but, as a matter of principle, we were bothered by the fact that our works and appearance should be in line with all those absurd rules. For us, there was only one important issue, which was our music alone, limited only by our skills as players.
As follows from the above-mentioned, nobody could release our records, for this was a privilege of the authorised bands. We did so only in 1991, this being relatively early after the (Velvet) Revolution.
I read that at the begin, in 1979, there were two simultaneous band: Hokr1 and Hokr2. Which were the differences between the two bands? Why did you make this choice? When this two bands finally joined into one?
The reasons for the existence of two parallel bands were, in principle, twofold – firstly, Hokr was formed by two brothers, one of whom was a keyboards player, author and arranger of most musical ideas, the other being a drummer. They had different friends, though. The keyboardist had a word with a former classmate of his, a bass guitar player, but the drummer knew a friend who was a bassist as well. Having two bassists seemed pointless to us, yet they both wanted to play with their friends. Consequently, two bands had been started, both featuring the same keyboardist and drummer, though with two different bassists.
Secondly, both of the bassists’ skills, focus and style were different. It had then been agreed that we, with the drummer’s bassist, a technically better player and supporter of a style commonly called as art-rock, would play somewhat more demanding music to listen to (Hokr 1). With the other bassist, we intended to play simpler and more digestible music (Hokr 2), to which you could caper and also to earn some money by this playing to get a decent sound system, as our was of scrapheap quality. So, our original and somewhat naďve intention was to become an ‘official’ band. However, it was clear to us that both the bands still needed a soloist, therefore Hokr 1, more or less by chance, accepted an excellent cellist, thus confirming the art-expression and Hokr 2 a singer, an absolute amateur. Oddly enough, we were not interested in having a guitarist, probably because we wanted, from the very beginning, to be an exception in comparison to other rock groups. In this way, our music had been developing side by side for about a year. Hokr 1 produced unusual and, for an amateur band, elaborate music, whose overall impression was something unique at the then music scene. Yet hardly anybody knew it, for the reasons mentioned above. Hokr 2 quickly abandoned the idea of becoming an entertainment band, partly under the influence of the newly acquired singer, who tended to like psychedelic music and whose distinct expression compensated for his initial artistic drawbacks. The keyboardist, as the author of most musical ideas and arrangements, had a great feeling for creating a space in which the strong points of all the players could be presented. His music had a very imaginative character and the singer, having become the author of lyrics by nature, made use of this fact; his often surrealistic turns of phrase fused with the music. The result of which was an impression as if a listener had become a real part of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
The following coupling of the two bands was not a planned decision. The bassist of Hokr 1 had left and the cellist of the same group had returned to classical music, leaving only Hokr 2 in existence, so there was no longer any need to use a number in its name.
After the release of ‘Skvrny’ you waited other 13 yeard to release another album, ‘Hokrova Vila’, containing old material written from 1979 till 1985. In 1999 the band also disbanded. Why this new long pause? Didn't you write any new material in that period (1991-2004)?
In 1985, something of primary importance happened – the emigration to the USA of the original and, in Hokr’s whole existence, the most talented drummer. Afterwards, the band was going through a period of numerous personnel changes, with only the bassist of the original version of Hokr 2 and the keyboardist – the founder and real ‘father’ of the group to the present day – remaining unaffected. The Skvrny album is the compilation of 1986-1991 works, including one old composition from Hokr’s beginnings. Naturally, more musical material continued to be produced later on, but people kept changing so frequently that the band still had not been completely ‘settled’. Also, to release a record at one’s own expense, as everybody knows, is no cheap business and to find a publisher of non-commercial music is virtually impossible. Think of Frank Zappa, who was so sick and tired by this ordeal that he founded his own Pumpkin Records.
Another reason for this long pause can be the fact that the band members were forced to devote a lot of time to eking out a living in the new social conditions.
Is there other unreleased material? If yes, are you going to release it as you did for “Hokrova Vila”?
The Hokr’s Villa (Hokrova vila in Czech) album is meant as the first of a series of retrospective compilation of compositions that date from the early and most inventive period. Originating from this era there is some material estimated to yield five or more record and, good health and circumstances permitting, we intend to release them.
Why did the band split up in 1999?
In this period, the band was experiencing a severe creativity crisis and also the band-mates’ spirit of friendliness, on which everything always used to depend, had vanished into thin air. As a result, the keyboardist, not wishing to needlessly prolong the agony, had disbanded Hokr, gathering other musicians and taking a different route, seemingly forever…
In 2004 the band decided to change the name in PocoLoco. With this new album ‘Zahřáté Brzdy Optimismu’ you came back to Hokr moniker again, Why?
Six years after the disintegration of Hokr, the keyboardist decided to reactivate it, for he probably felt the lack of possibility of composing within the widest range imaginable, without any genre restrictions, which the make-up of his then new group did not enable him to do. With the former singer, they gathered players and also made an offer to the ex-bassist of Hokr 1 from the turn of the 1970s and 1980s. He, being against using the name ‘Hokr’ because he did not in any way want to bring the past to life, suggested a different one: PocoLoco – albeit all too common a phrase, particularly in the Latin-speaking world, yet, linguistically, its meaning was fitting for what the band would like to produce. After the bassist’s departure in 2010, there was nothing more left that prevented the group from reverting to the old name, especially when this name, Hokr, had already had a certain kind of tradition and had earned a good reputation among some listeners too.
In ‘Zahřáté Brzdy Optimismu’ your music is still so fresh and full of vitality. After 35 years playing music, where do you find all these motivations?
Thank you for the compliment. If it appears like that, it can be due to the fact that we still enjoy music a lot. Also, we are not yet worn down mentally by endless tours of concerts, as is the case of bands that perform for a living and so far, we have been lucky enough to be in quite good shape physically. However, what we consider to be the greatest motivation for further works and performances is the effort to produce something that is far away from the imaginary mainstream, which means far away from something that has already been used millions of times. Should we ever come up with some rubbish, then nearly perfect in its monstrosity, but, even better, something that makes a listener think. The ideal situation would arise if they said to themselves: ‘They are absolute madmen if they try to get on with something like this’. Since there is no way of attaining the ideal, it is, in fact, a path ending in death, of which we are at the very beginning or thereabouts. Or it can lead to the situation in which the music we like and play will make stadiums full, but then it would become common again, thus in need of change. Vicious circle…
’Zahřáté Brzdy Optimismu’ starts with a very weird and amusing Hip Hop intro. How this idea come out?
The theme of this composition was conceived by chance, as happens with most of the others. In short, it was an on-the-spot idea of the composer while doing his piano improvisations, out of which the overwhelming majority of themes of our compositions simply grow up. The details are then finalised by all the musicians at rehearsals.
I knew there are several live album of concerts from early 80's. Are they going to be officially released?
The compilation of these things was created, in the first place, as a didactic aid for us to brush them up before a recording of the afore-mentioned records with the old material. The thing is that there is no score of the Hokr compositions. We do not consider releasing live albums.
Your music seems to have a strong dose of humour. I am curious: what do your lyrics talk about?
If you can sense humour in our music, then the goal has been achieved. Mostly, though, it is not humour that is kind, but (self)-mocking and sarcastic. Unfortunately, there is no space here to explain the lyrics. Also, they are often very difficult to translate because they contain a lot of figurative and symbolic meanings and Dadaistic phrases too. Once we played at some festival where a sign language interpreter was present to give the deaf an idea of what the bands were singing about, but, presumably, it was something of a prank, because why would a deaf person have gone to a concert – is that not so? Still, the interpreter did his best at our performance as well, but after ten seconds he ran out of his ‘words’, so he packed it in and went away to sit down.
Your singer, Vladimir Liška, has a very particular voice and his way of singing is very unusual, but the music you write perfectly fits with the vocal parts. Do you write the music or the vocal parts first?
So far there has always been the music first with the lyrics coming afterwards. To make music and lyrics work in harmony is the primary intention of the lyricist and if a fair number of assessors find it to be the case, it has probably worked out well.
Is there any bands or musicians who influenced you more?
We always attempt at originality in terms of expression, but you are bound to be influenced by the cultural environment in which you have lived for most of your life, while the courage to experiment mustn’t be missing there. The bands that have affected us are many, for instance Frank Zappa, early Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Atomic Rooster, Spooky Tooth, SBB, Marián Varga, Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Béla Bartók’s works, Janáček, too, knew how to kick out the jams and our current bassist, for example, was weaned on heavy metal…