Romania, land of Dracula, vampires, werewolves and Vlad the Impaler. Also, land of “punk music?”…. Yes, well lets just say, it’s getting there.
Not that long ago, Romania was a communist country where a pair of jeans could be traded for almost anything. Punk music was outlawed and just getting your hands on some rock-n-roll meant some serious under-the-table bartering. If you were a guy with long hair, the police could arrest you, give you a nice, short state-approved hair cut and then, maybe after a fine or stern lecture, they let you go… sans long hair of course. No hippies or individualism allowed.
Maybe that’s why of all the places I visited, it seemed in Bucharest, Romania I saw more male ponytails per capita than any other place, even some in the punk scene were sporting them. You know what, I get it. It’s the ultimate form of rebellion for a society where there was never a hippie movement or flower power or any of that stuff.
I decided against a 14 hour train trip with a sleeper car to Bucharest, Romania from Belgrade, Serbia partly out of my spoiled sense of comfort, partly because I found a really good last minute airfare and partly out of the fact this would be the only way I’d get to Bucharest in time to cover the Summer of Punk IV concert at the famed Underworld Club featuring “Just Another Lie”, “Nuggers”, “Raizing Hell” and Argentina band “The Argies”. (Big thanks to Casian, a punk promoter in nearby Timisoara who filled me in on the event and to Ati from Silvershine in Budapest for referring Casian).
Underworld has an upstairs bar and terrace cranking rock tunes and a downstairs underground live music venue in the basement with a stage and state of the art sound system. It has become THE go to place for any type of underground music the last few years it’s been open and for good reason.
Underworld is owned and run by Gabby, the former sound guy for many years at the famed NYC punk club CBGB’s up until it’s final years and lead singer of the legendary NYC hardcore / punk band (and one of my personal new favorite “old” bands) “Molotov Cocktail”.
Underworld quite fittingly is a DIY club and when I first met Gabby he was too busy doing sound check and getting ready for the show to speak to me. But later in the week, when things had calmed down a hair, I finally got a chance to sit down with Gabby and get his impression of the punk scene in Romania which he described as slightly confused and small but making strides.
I got that sense too. Not quiet like a toddler making it’s first tentative steps, more like an adolescent going through puberty and figuring out if it should shave or grow that faint mustache. There are classic Romanian bands like Zob, which are Green Day-ish and have been around since the late 80s communism was losing it’s grip. Like Green Day, Zob inspires debate about whether they are “punk enough” or not.
For Gabby, there is no such debate. He is perhaps the epitome of punk. My man has run around with GG Allin and other legends of punk while growing up in the “2nd wave” of NYC punk. Gabby is a fascinating character and I could have talked to him all day, but he’s quiet a busy chap.
Gabby escaped communist Romania with his parents as a child and eventually moved to NYC’s lower east side where he spent most all of his adult life, spending some time in C Squat in Alphabet city. He moved back to Romania in 2010 because he said he needed a change but he’s been associated with Underworld since day 1, even before moving back.
Gabby still gets back to NYC and we both be-moaned the scattered punk scene there thanks in part to the closing of places like CBGBs, but he keeps his fingers on the pulse of the punk & hardcore scene with his buds Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law and of course his pals in Molotov Cocktail (who are celebrating over 20 years together and getting ready to drop a 20 year anniversary CD).
On this sweltering Romanian Saturday night, Summer of Punk IV was set to begin at 8pm and I arrived a little early so I could interview a couple of the bands recommended by Casian (turns out concerts here start more or less on time… go figure).
My first interview was with “Raizing Hell” a self described horror punk band somewhat new on the scene (2010). They cite a variety of influences including Motorhead, Misfits, Plasmatics plus some in the psychobilly genre like Horrorpops, Meteors and Demented Are Go as well as any horror b-movies as obvious influences.
The band is fronted by Liv Decay (vocals/guitar), a talented and eloquent fearless female (yet another in Eastern Europe!) and bandmates Vlad (guitar, backing vocals), Vlash (bass guitar,backing vocals) and Oly “Sinnister” Sinn – (drums).
The guys filled me in on what it was like to grow up in communist Romania compared to a Romania that has embraced capitalism today. My favorite quote was from Oly that went something like and I’m paraphrasing here “I’m glad to live in a democracy, even a fake democracy is better than a communist Romania where I couldn’t wear jeans or long hair”. When Oly mentions “fake democracy” he was referring to the rampant corruption and political strife in Romanian politics that I can’t even begin to touch on, so I won’t.
The guys indicated their lyrics, similar to psychobilly, don’t focus on government corruption (which they readily admitted could be scarier than a vampire… hmmm, I’ll resist the temptation at a ‘sucking’ reference here) or social issues, but they do focus on “other things that scare people”. You know things that go bump in the night. This seems fitting given were in the land of Dracula tales, monsters, werewolves, zombies and the sort.
Of course one of the “technical” things that separate “horror punk” from Phsychobilly is the fact that “Raizing Hell” doesn’t play with a stand up bass, which is maybe why Raizing Hell’s set felt like a good old fashioned punk show or if you’ve ever taken in a Rob Zombie show without the pyrotechnics.
I got the sense that while Raizing Hell dances on the fringes of pyschobilly, I felt I was watching an old fashioned, straight up rock-n-roll band at work. Raizing Hell sings in English which they said felt exposed them to bigger audiences outside of Romania (English is pretty much the international language of Eastern Europe and how many communicate between countries as close in proximity, but divergent as say, Hungary and Romania) and allows easier access to touring in other countries.
While Raizing Hell typically avoid overt socially conscious themes, this was made up for by a band that seemed a mix between NOFX and the Me First and the Gimme Gimme’s, “Just Another Lie”. These very likable guys came out in full beach gear, complete with life vest, swim trunks and flip flops (it was hot as hell in Bucharest by the way).
JAL sing in Romanian which I later found out in our interview after the show, was because they felt this was the best way to communicate their subtle messages to the Romanian people. That and humor of course. One of their themes for example was tolerance and gay rights and rather than preach in some heavy way for people in Romania to be more tolerant, they feel humor and a light touch is more effective. I agree.
Now because my Romanian is nil, I didn’t get a chance to really decipher their lyrics, but I can tell you they play both slow (with a reggae/ska-ish rhythm and influence) AND fast (with a Blink 182ish or NOFX) sound with the bass guitar thumping loudly and aggressively.
I think they are right. Humor is a much more powerful tool to get messages across. Just ask NOFX, it’s worked pretty well for them. I mean I like it all, the screaming for justice approach of Anti-Flag and my good buddies from Trinidad, Anti-Everything, but there are many ways to get an intelligent point across and band members George (vocals/guitar), Marius (bass/backing vocals/drinking/faping & other useless shit), Cretzu (drums) are poised to get several of them across. George is an on air radio guy for his day job and they all have the intelligence, talent and personalities to make it happen.
And let me tell you, like in many countries they have their work cut out. I had an impromptu conversation with a “philosopher” in a Romanian subway who didn’t like Obama because he was black (though he had nothing against black people) and a Freemason (what?!), and said the Jews (though he had nothing against the Jews either) caused the global financial meltdown.
I politely suggested he research a bit more before jumping to such strong opinions and we parted ways, but I remember thinking how ignorance, willful ignorance at that, is a worldwide phenomena, not just limited to my own home country the U.S. which I so often rave about here.
I digress (as I often do). In all of my interviews in Romania and Eastern Europe, the ones with Gabby, Raizing Hell and Just Another Lie were some of the best I’ve ever conducted. They provided fascinating insights into Romanian life before and after communism and while the punk scene is definitely not big, at least in Bucharest, the bands and venues repping the scene are doing a splendid job of nurturing it.
I heard the cradle of the scene was in nearby Timisoara which might be explained by the fact that it is closer to the border with Serbia, which enjoyed more freedom back in communist days (hence more jeans and music.. and maybe even more long hair) than Bucharest. Probably not coincidentally, Timasoara is also where the Romanian revolution began to overthrow communism, so who knows what punk’s underlying influence can be on Romanian’s modern day “fake democracy”.
I didn’t get to interview the other two bands of the evening but a quick thought about the local garage, punk band “Nuggers”. The singer conversed in Spanish, English and Romanian so I knew it was a band with a lot of geographical influences (a band after my own heart) and their music reflected this as well. They played a very diverse set list of different kinds of music. Their more up- tempo punk songs really resonated with me and their very enthusiastic crowd. Like many of the bands on this evening they have only been together a short while, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for the Nuggers and give them a listen if you can. (Couldn’t find any links guys… sorry).
On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of longetivity are “The Argies” which have been playing since 1984. They’ve got out a bunch of CDs and just to be able to visit Eastern Europe all the way from Argentina points to their ability to organize such a tour and their seasoned status.
Because they are from Argentina (the land of protest and strikes… often for good reason I might add), their songs are tinged with political and social themes (their shirts were emblazoned with the slogan “Know Your Rights”) and their influences stem from 70’s British punk.
By the time they played, it was pretty late and the crowd had thinned slightly but the Argies played a long set that would have put Springsteen to shame. They even did a rocking version of the Spanish classic “One Guantanamera” as a punk rock diddy! It sounded damn good!
The only down side, and it really was a funny side, at least to me observing was one overly intoxicated fan who insisted on being on stage, moving the microphone stand, sticking his enthusiastic index finger in the singer’s face and in general making a drunken nuisance of himself to the band. That’s when Liv from “Raizing Hell” kicked into gear with an apparent mission to try and help save her fellow musicians from this hard-to- deal-with task and preoccupied the intoxicated gent with some good old fashioned slam dancing in a makeshift wrecking pit. It worked…for about 3 minutes then he was at it again, but all in good fun, nobody lost their temper (this was a punk show no doubt) and all in all the Argies and the venue handled it as you’d expect.. heckle him a bit, but in the end live and let live and do the best you can for the show must go on.
The next night I was faced with a dilemma as I often am when traveling: 1) be a tourist and hit the final night of the BestFest, Bucharest’s BIG 3 day music festival or 2) be a true punk and head back to Underworld for punk/folk treat from Joey Briggs, of The Briggs, who was rolling through town. Man at times like these I sure wish there were two of me.
My new Romanian buddy Dan who rented me his apartment where I was staying (about a 15 minute walk from Underworld) is THE man in Romania when it comes to nightlife with his web site Bucharest Tonight and he graciously offered to take me to BestFest and even secured a heavily discounted ticket for me.
In the end, I decided it was best to see a music festival while traveling Eastern Europe. I had so many near misses (I missed the famous Exit Festival in Novi Sad, Serbia by less than a week), and I thought it would be a shame not to hit at least one.
So Dan and his girlfriend Doini (who is from Transylvania but not scary at all, in fact she’s quiet lovely) picked me up in a taxi and we headed to the outskirts of town for the festival. There were multiple stages with all types of music and almost none of it punk. We had just missed the only punkish style of music on the docket that night, a band called Pipes and Pints which combines punk with bagpipes… a natural fusion if I ever heard one!
There were PLENTY of metal and hardcore acts, most of which I’d never heard of, but I did enjoy opening myself up to a new kind of experience and especially enjoyed the Romanian Mici, a classic meat sausage and grilled treat.
So my first time in Romania wasn’t so spooky. No elderly gypsy lady put a curse on me (that’s an old stereotype by the way… but one perhaps based on a kernel of truth), no one asked to suck my blood, or to suck anything for that matter.. (well, I don’t count the street walker in front of my apartment my 1st night. She asked in Romanian, at least I think that is what she said. I declined in English)… no robberies or near robberies, no edge of your seat thrills or exciting stories to tell… just a good, punk show at a good punk venue, with some cool people in a country that’s trying to change and evolve and move into the 21st century with it’s very, very old soul in tact.
Thanks Romania. I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain says I think your pretty cool! I can’t wait to go back.
NEXT UP: We head to Ukraine. And we’ll try to post some more videos from Summer of Punk IV as well. If you want to see more pics from our Romanian adventure click HERE.