How do bands end up in your orbit? How do they become part of your own story? Normally it’s a long and winding process, involving a lot of other people and places, chance meetings or inadvertent promises that eventually mean your total immersion in someone else’s music.
This is certainly true of the brilliant Serbian rock band Repetitor, whose place in my life is also a story of how underground musicians and organisations operate in Europe. When composing this interview with the band I couldn’t help but remember all the times I’d hung out with the three of them or seen them in action. Just transcribing questions from my chat with singer Boris Vlastelica felt inadequate, and gives only a small inkling of what makes a band who play upwards of 50 shows a year on the wider European circuit’s ground level, tick.
My story with them began back in the summer of 2010, when I got a call from Subroutine records’ co-founder Koen ter Heegde, inviting me to an alternative festival he’d helped to stage: Balkan Streets. One of the shows was at Studio K in Amsterdam, with some Dutch bands I really liked, Green Hornet and Lost Bear. The festival was something to do with an organisation called Platform Spartak, a Dutch-based cultural set-up for young creatives in Europe. Koen’s mind had been blown by the amount and quality of the bands in the Balkans region and wanted me to see some of the acts that made the trip to the Netherlands. My memory of the night is extremely hazy as it involved bootleg rakia by the bucketload. I do remember seeing the brilliant Belgrade act Petrol play, and a little later that week at Leiden’s much-missed SUB071. Sadly, I don’t remember Blla Blla Blla but that’s my problem… But I also remember hearing that there were more such acts coming, and that I should keep my ear to the ground.
Koen’s enthusiasm eventually saw him organising fairly regular Balkan tours; with the likes of Groningen’s much-missed noiseniks WOLVON and Neon Rainbows a couple of years later. He met Repetitor in Belgrade in 2012 at a WOLVON show courtesy of Petrol’s Ilija Duni, one of the movers and shakers of that city’s underground music scene. Things clicked and later that year a band who were revered by their peers in Belgrade were on their way to the Netherlands for a short tour. Their black humour and their own sense of mission was captured in a remarkable promo video.
What’s On in the White City
The show in SUB071 was incredible; singer and guitarist Boris scuffing his battered chorus pedal around the concrete floor, looking to charge through the tiny place headfirst at any opportunity. Milena Milutinović and Ana-Marija Cupin locked into a mutual rhythm, acting out a sense-pounding counterpoint to their frontman’s histrionics. When I say tiny I mean it: the SUB was really tiny, you could at a stretch get 50 people in there. I think there were about 20 people on that night, all of us shocked by the noise and the utter intensity of the show. It was if we were peering into the mouth of a blast furnace. And being informed about a totally different state of mind; which was confirmed afterwards when we chatted on to them. They turned out to be voluble, expressive and direct souls with a great deal of experiences to draw on from their home city, despite their youth. The trio’s love of Belgrade – coated in a wry acceptance of the shittiness of things – has never changed. Despite their wide travels and a sense that they are a pan-European band in spirit, talking to Repetitor means at some point talking about what’s going on in their city. Which, inevitably we did when we hooked up with Boris in December 2019…
LTW: Boris, how is Belgrade doing?
Boris Vlastelica: Always hanging in there. It’s a big place with about 2 million people, so it’s tough to make generalisations but there is, or was before this pandemic, a place for anyone and everyone in Belgrade. The city is kind of a mixed bag and it’s rarely boring, there was always something open, somewhere you could go. Again not now with this shitty virus, but otherwise. As far as music there is a rich scene in almost all genres. And I’m serious, there are even a few Irish folk bands, everything you can think of. The rock scene is doing very well creatively, against all odds. There is an awesome scene of young bands brewing for some time. I’m going to forget someone good, but let me try to recommend them by name, Gazorpazorp, Proto tip, Klotljudi, Koikoi, Vizelj, Sitzpinker, Johanbrauer, Šajzerbiterlemon, Sveta Pseta, Tipon… Shit I forgot someone.
LTW: What is so special about these bands? I think I have seen Šajzerbiterlemon, they are a really young punk band are they not?
Boris: They are. They are all young bands, it’s a whole scene of Belgrade rock and post punk youth. The scene calls itself Hali Gali, there’s a compilation by that name from last year [which is great! – Ed]. Most of them are in their early twenties, with one or no albums out, yet they fill the clubs in town, as they are really good, fearless and fun to watch. And there is a certain carelessness for the rock identity, which Repetitor also shares, and which creates a gap with the older generations of rockers from the 80s and the 90s, when youth was more divided by genres and dress codes. The Internet really changed it, now you shift from one kind of music to another in a split second so your bond to find something else you like.
…I think we were one of the first local bands to embrace this along the way, that if you play rock you don’t have to be a priest in the church of rock, and spread the good word of Dylan, The Stones and other rock greats and myths, you don’t need to embrace that same old identity moulded decades ago. Rock and roll is a gesture, a sound, a way of expressing yourself, communicating. It’s not a cult, a church, religion or ideology. And I think that realisation is in the core of this young scene and one of the reasons rock survived in youth culture. Rock and roll is dead, long live rock and roll. I love that approach.
(Repetitor live, somewhere in Belgrade. Note the WOLVON teeshirt!)
LTW: Is this your sermon from the Mount, Boris?
Boris: Yes! The only danger is that if bands are not fanatical about their style of sound, they tend to follow or even chase trends, and that is a slippery slope, it can accelerate your success but also make you a passing fad. So it’s important to find that balance.
Flashback: Rotterdam, April 2017. The band have just crushed the arty in-crowd at WORM with a show that was akin to being caught up in a breaker wave. Even the likes of Cocaine Piss and WOLVON (also on the bill) couldn’t summon the decibels or the to compete with the assault generated by the Belgrade trio. After the show a visibly euphoric Milena, seemingly not at all tired from her cataclysmic display of skin bashing, invites me to immediately go to Belgrade to visit her bar which apparently is the best bar in Belgrade. Her partner agrees; why not come back with the band? I’ve often wanted to visit, just because a bar run by Milena would be the ultimate in bars. Or so I’d imagine anyway.
LTW: By the way has Milena still got that bar?
Boris: No man, she was lucky, and closed the bar in February, just before the pandemic hit Serbia…
Guts and Passion, Those Things You Aren’t…
It sounds like the worst sort of cliche, the sort of thing best reserved for marketing brochures, but Repetitor are passionate people. Seen on stage, their passion can be electrifying, unifying. That passion led John Robb to write that they were the twenty-first century Nirvana, the best rock band in Europe, immediately after a show at Ljubljana’s MENT festival in 2016 that left both of us open-mouthed in awe. Seen up close it can also be (temporarily) unnerving. At one impromptu show set up in the WW my local Leiden pub in April 2017, the laid back barman narrowly avoided being cuffed by Boris and Milena for not being as quick on the uptake as he should have been in terms of set-up and sorting out a pre gig beer or two. It was a classic tableaux, the immovable object meeting two manifestations of the irresistible force.
LTW: You are passionate. Is it fair to think that you are also an angry band?
Boris: I would say passionate. Anger is just a part of it and it’s not anger for the sake of anger. We’re not rebels without a cause or something like that, we are just three very impulsive and passionate people who have something to say, like to play hard and don’t hold back on the instruments. I think it’s the mentality of ours and our surrounding, the city of Belgrade.
LTW: I remember seeing that impulsiveness in the Netherlands when you toured. And I remember apologising to me, when we were in your tour van going to WORM, apologising for your “constant” black humour! But it’s very articulate anger, or impatience it’s not spoilt behaviour is it. It’s anger at situations. And black humour as its meditative side. Is that fair?
Boris: Sure, but it’s more hot blood and compulsiveness than anger. All three of us are very social, and absolutely have no poker face, we carry our hearts on our sleeves, whether it’s anger, or any other emotion. So it’s not cynicism or being snotty, it’s not like we’re above the situation, it’s just making light of things. And I think you understand that as you are compulsive and passionate yourself, Richard. That’s why “we like you so much…” [laughs].
There’s me warned…
Space is the Place
The band has just released their fourth LP, Prazan prostor među nama koji može i da ne postoji which means “an empty space between us which could also not exist”; their third on hip Slovenian label, Moonlee Records. Their records work on a number of levels; as social comment (if you understand Serbo-Croat), sets of punk-as-fuck burn outs played for kicks, or as masterful examples of the use of tension and release in rock music. You can take your pick. For all their sound’s seeming obviousness, listening to any of Repetitor’s releases creates a headspace and an agency in the listener to discover more, to find out what makes these seemingly simple songs so powerful. Repetitor have bottled a powerful spirit and use it to drive their music and message. There is also always something to uncover in their pronouncements which seem to enjoy hiding in plain sight. This time the new LP’s title struck me, and a song title; ‘Roba s Greškom’, which means damaged goods.
LTW: Why the LP title ‘An Empty Space Between Us Which Could Also Not Exist’? Is that a comment on your moods, or a wider state of things?
Boris: It’s about a yearning for connection. That line has been in my head in different situations before I wrote it down. It can be that feeling when you are with someone close, maybe even the closest, who is physically there right next to you, but you feel miles of emptiness in between. And just one move, one word, one gesture, so easy, but at that moment perhaps the most difficult, can change everything and bridge that gap. It can also be a simple wish to be physically close to someone, a loved one, a friend on a bender or as a band closer to the audience. Then, when the pandemic started, it became an urge to just feel emotionally closer to the people you should not meet or hug or kiss, to keep them and yourself safe.
LTW: It’s also the feeling I get from your shows, that there will be an inevitable coming together of Repetitor and your audience (I think it’s very appropriate that the cover of the new LP shows a moshpit). You catch your audiences up in these big emotional “loops” of noise…
Boris: Yes that’s what I mean when I say closer to the audience. It’s a call to become one.
LTW: One of the song titles is ‘Damaged Goods’. A phrase which, I believe, can be used to represent the postwar generations of Balkan youth. Can you further explain what this phrase actually means, to you, in Serbia?
Boris: The song is about growing up in inequality and social destruction of capitalism. Having little to no chance, being stuck in your preordained social position.
LTW: I really like the last two tracks, ‘Danima’ (For Days) and ‘Noćima’ (Nights) the way they dovetail. You’ve had one or two quieter tracks before (that last track on your 2012 album, Dobrodošli Na Okean, for instance), but these two feel like you want to say something different. Daily life? Boredom? Unless putting the garbage out is a metaphor for something else…
Boris: Haha not a metaphor, it’s quite literal. ‘Danima’ is about isolation, not leaving your house for days, not even to throw away the garbage, but rather piling it on the balcony. About having thoughts that feel like they are not yours, lying to yourself that you’re fine and hoping that a certain person will call or come and stop that vicious cycle. It was made during lockdown in spring. ‘Noćima’ is a very simple love song, “I’m looking for you everywhere for nights and days on end but you’re not there.” As simple as it gets.
LTW: What traditions or ideas were you drawing on for these two tracks, as they seem to be a bit more chanson, samizdat protest songs…
Boris: Yeah for Noćima, Milena took the bass after practice and played some chords and we were mocking a chanson over it but then we liked it. Otherwise we make music impulsively, Danima was lockdown depression coming out. No premature thoughts.
LTW: More of your impulsive passions?
Boris: Hahaha, yep.
The Personal Is Political
Even with mounting hand-wringing around the current tax crisis and unease about Thierry Baudet’s more (ahem) questionable believers in his “Boreal World”, The Netherlands is not noted for its political upheavals. Politics can be abstract here; a round of discussions that seem to have little relevance to everyday life. Repetitor once crashed into the smug world of politics NL style, at a festival called Cultuur? Barbaar!, one part-hosted by some PhD students from Leiden University. There to act out the part of the barbarians (along with Blackpool’s post-punk Furies, The Membranes), Repetitor smash out an iron-hard set to an enthralled audience of local squatters and punks, as well as selfie-taking academics and artists who are out slumming it for a night, squealing with delight at the cold water toilets. The accumulations of noise and rhythm create an almost abstract atmosphere at the set’s midpoint, with Zvonne, the band’s then-soundman, building up loops and loops of Boris and Ana-Marije’s feedback that slowly engulfs the crazed revellers, like a wave. Afterwards the band retire to an actual hotel, paid for by the benellovent if bemused university authorities. The contrast doesn’t escape me: a coming together of two worlds; a sealed off academia that happily appoints itself judge and jury when projecting and solving somewhat abstract problems around justice and fairness, and a young band who howl their disgust at the state of their home nation and all it’s put itself through.
The band is political, how can they not be?
LTW: Just picking up on what you said before: how do you see capitalism socially destroying your country, and why won’t it let go? I know you Boris, you’re a thoughtful and intelligent guy. With your own well-thought out grasp on things. I’m sure you have more to say here.
Boris: To try to keep a very long story short, when Milošević was toppled some 20 years ago people literally thought Serbia would develop to become like the West or something. But it turns out that was never the plan, neither of the Western imperial overlords or of the domestic governments they rotated. Inequality skyrocketed with privatisation, which was basically a legalised robbery and deindustrialisation. Class divisions are reverting to the time before WWII, unemployment and debt are growing and growing for decades and social mobility is becoming a distant memory from socialist times. The problem is Western capital is interested in Serbian lithium, gold, silver, steel, coal and some other ore, in cheap and qualified labour, and keeping Serbia away from Russia, its old ally, or recently, from China. Any further development of the people’s standard of living would just hinder their interests. So even if the government wasn’t corrupt, even if it had some real intentions of any real progress or independence, it would stand no chance against such a powerful enemy. This is just the position that is reserved for Serbia in the Western Empire.
Flashback: A packed OCCII, Amsterdam some time in the twenty-tens, mainly full of Amsterdam’s large and young Balkan population. Koen ter Heegde, still booking their Dutch shows, is sweating a bit as the band is late. Very late. Suddenly the band is there, wading through the crowd, laughing, instruments in hand, and straight onto the stage. Later, after a typically blasting show they pack up and hang out, selling their merch. One band you never have to fear about turning up late, hungry and with no soundcheck is Repetitor.
Tough as houses. That road trip-ready stuff that made bands like Butthole Surfers so great to watch, back in the Jurassic age, is what this Belgrade band also trades in. I think you need to see this band, to make full emotional sense of their records, however brilliant they are. A Repetitor show is an incredible reveal. And this Corona time must feel like they’ve had their life-support cut off.
LTW: You’re a ferocious live band, and- to me at any rate – you are basically one body onstage. What has that been like, playing very little, when you normally play around 50 shows a year?
Boris: We moved back from being a band always on the road to being home in Belgrade and that felt good for a while, or so we convinced ourselves. It was nice to wake up and know where you are! But now we dream about concerts, literally. During the summer of 2020 we recorded and released our fourth album, as you know, which is our personal favourite so far. Also I got married; so there were plenty of nice things happening! On the other side we were left completely and suddenly with almost no income, as the huge majority of it came from live shows.
LTW: tell me about your dreams of concerts. Are they stress dreams or fantasies? Are you all having them?
Boris: Oh man is there anything more boring then when people talk about their literal dreams!? No one cares, but if you wanna know they are adrenalin dreams, of me playing wild concerts. My heart is pounding when I have them.
LTW: And no income. Do we need to set up a fighting fund for you?
Boris: Nah, we’ll survive. I even think that its good for the music to be broke as fuck. Now we hustle in any way we can. When enough people get vaccinated and this shit is over we are back on the road, making dough.
(All photos courtesy of the band and Moonlee Records.)