Trupa Trupa and the Hidden Treasures of Szeged
It so happens that fate took me to Szeged. I’m not complaining, but I did feel at first that the city was a bit of a backwater. Now I know that, beneath its sleepy façade, there’s plenty to discover here.
Trupa Trupa. Photo by Rafał Wojczal.
A week or so ago, I was startled to discover that Polish band Trupa Trupa was playing at the Grand Café in Szeged, a venue I had no idea existed. Never having heard Trupa Trupa, what piqued my interest were salutations to their music from rock gods Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins.
After a little more digging online, I discovered Trupa Trupa had received positive reviews from journalists at big name publications. Pitchfork, for example, described their most recent album “Of the Sun” as “a potent fusion of post-hardcore and shoegaze.” I’m not quite sure what they meant but it sounds good.
How had a Polish band playing in Szeged managed to get themselves heard by such colossi of the music industry? Curious to find out, I exchanged emails with Gregzorgz Kwiatkowski (lead singer, guitarist and a published poet) and arranged to interview him when the band played at Grand Café.
Apart from Kwiatkowski, the band is Wojtek Juchniewicz (vocals, guitar), Rafał Wojczal (keyboard, guitar), and Tomek Pawluczuk (drums). They formed in Gdańsk and are aged between 30 and 40. Although they were later to tell me that the band’s name can mean anything one likes, Trupa Trupa translates roughly into English as “a troupe of corpses.”
It was with 2017’s “Jolly New Songs” album that things really took off internationally. It was one of Newsweek’s “11 Great Overlooked Albums from 2017.”
“Of the Sun”, the latest album, was released on perpetually hip label Sub Pop, for whom Nirvana recorded in the early days. Music obsessives’ bible Mojo magazine described this as a “gripping and energetic record.” Only one of several superlative-draped reviews.
In the days leading up to the interview, I listened to Trupa Trupa music. It’s certainly atmospheric; spacey, with hypnotic repetition that recalls early psychedelic Pink Floyd as well as post-punk bands like Joy Division. Kwiatkowski favors a minimalist approach to lyrics, repeating phrases like “Never forget” or “No-one and no-one and nowhere to go.” His singing often sounds perfectly English.
The band often uses a lovely melody as a Trojan horse to smuggle in disturbing sentiments. “Here and Then” revolves around the simple phrase “Here you’ve got (insert family member) and then you see their grave” which, given Kwiatkowski’s stated fascination with the Holocaust, is pretty unnerving.
If you do visit Szeged and decide to spend the night, you should definitely check out the Grand Café. It’s a long, low-ceilinged bar that runs above a section of the recently restored Belvárosi Mozi (Downtown Cinema) on Deák Ferenc utca in the center of the city. The clientele shoots for a bohemian look in a way I can’t help but think of as particularly Hungarian: berets, round glasses and plenty of trips outside to smoke.
Kwiatkowski too wears thick-lensed round glasses and takes his smoking seriously. When our interview was over, we stood outside the Grand Café and chatted about our lives. Unlike most of the musicians I’ve interviewed, he came across as genuinely interested in me.
But there’s also something genuinely and satisfyingly odd about Kwiatkowski. He told me that he always wears the same clothes. As his outfit included a pair of skinny black jeans accessorized with gold tassels around the pockets and across the rear, I found this hard to believe. Until I later read another journalist’s description of spending time with Kwiatkowski, who described the same gold tassels.
This writer, Amos Barshad, wrote that Kwiatkowski arrived at his strange Beatles meets early Justin Bieber bowl cut as the result of telling his barber he wants to “look like a f*****g stupid kid.”
This kind of sums up Trupa Trupa’s wry humor and smartly self-deprecatory approach to their music and trajectory through the industry so far. Everything is presented as a sort of accident.
(Mind you, don’t all bands do this? It’s far cooler than admitting to a Machiavellian game plan.)
So, when I asked about the comparison to early Pink Floyd, Kwiatkowski explained that a journalist writing for the Los Angeles Times has said that, on their album “Headache”, he sounded like Syd Barrett of the Floyd. “Then,” Kwiatkowski said, “I listened to Syd Barrett.”
The band stresses their difference from the rest of modern music. Kwiatkowski calls them people “who, in some natural, intuitive way shouldn’t play together. We’re a strange kind of mistake on this rock and roll planet. But we’ll be successful spiritually as long as we do everything in this broken rock and roll spirit.”
He then comes up with a beautiful soundbite. “We’re really stupid, f****d up Don Quixotes, from the A to the Z. As long as we’re Don Quixotes, it’ll be a cool story.” So, who’s Sancho Panza? “We have many of them,” answers guitarist Rafał Wojczal. It looks like they do.
With that, Trupa Trupa wandered onto the stage. Before they did so, Kwiatkowski took off his thick glasses and stared at the ceiling a lot. This, coupled with what looked like complete absorption in the music and klutzy, spasmodic leg kicks, made him look demented. Which, of course, meant I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Szeged is only 90 minutes’ drive from Budapest (175 km southeast of the capital, just follow the M5 motorway and the signs). It’s a little over two hours by train. There are several good hotels in the center of the city. Perhaps you could say the same about Debrecen, just to pick a name out of the air. I’m looking forward to finding out.
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