Eastern European panel block romanticism, scam letters, monks: An interview with Dorota

Dorota was founded in 2009 by three Hungarian musicians, Áron Porteleki, Dániel Makkai and David Somló. Dorota’s creative method always builds around a mystical fictional space. “If we were to imagine the band’s recordings as landscapes, the first album was a North American road trip, our second album, Frik, moved between a Nigerian internet cafe and a foggy mountain, and the home of our third album, Solar The Monk, is somewhere out of existence on the Georgian-Iranian-Mongolian border. Solar The Monk is a retreat, a reflection, the exploration of new ways and forms of existence in a world rushing to its end. Following the practice of free improvisation in earlier records, Dorota’s new album blends raw and powerful punk rock sounds with Sufi, Berber, Mongolian and Buddhist influences. We caught up with Aron and David on a peaceful March evening in the centre of Budapest, days before the city was brought to a standstill by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dorota was created in 2009. It’s a girl’s name, but the band has only boys in it. Is there a story behind that?

DS: When we created Dorota, we had a favourite book we were reading at that time. It was Snow White and Russian Red by Dorota Masłowska; look it up. We couldn’t decide on our name, and Áron’s girlfriend at the time – who originally gave us the book – came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t you call the band Dorota?’ Funnily enough, three years later we went on our only European tour and we had like six gigs in three weeks or something like that, and in Warsaw, someone contacted Masłowska and she came to our concert. Her partner insisted that we should go to their place and not sleep in a squat. I don’t think Dorota was very keen to have drunken Hungarian musicians in her place, but anyway, we wound up there. We ended up drinking raspberry vodka until 4am in their kitchen, and we totally ruined her IKEA couch while trying to make it into a double bed. We woke up the next day when Dorota Masłowska was getting her daughter ready for school. She was like ‘I can’t believe this.’

AP: It was also funny that once, when we got in touch with her, she sent us a text message saying “Oh, it’s really amazing you’re called Dorota, because I’m just writing a book with three main characters called David, Daniel and Aron.” We were flabbergasted, but she was joking, of course.

The band has a tendency to build a whole world around each album. How did that evolve?

DS: We had a lot of creative ideas around the music from the beginning, but we hadn’t had much experience in putting them into an understandable form for the audience. This issue really came out regarding our second creation, the overly ambitious Frik, which involved three albums, two movies and an interactive website. It was a fully fledged fiction, about 10 hours of content – imagine the weirdness of the third season of Twin Peaks. One needs complete devotion to absorb it and to understand the contextual elements. For example, there’s one part which is a text composed around the recurring rhythms of the songs, explained with medieval numerical theories, Dogon (Malian tribe) mythology, and details from Nigerian scam letters.

Now, with the new album, we have kept everything rather simple in terms of form. We made four music videos for the vocal songs on the album.

AP: To further challenge ourselves, we stopped playing songs. At concerts we improvised with themes, using a large palette of experimental approaches, from free improvisation to quadraphonic soundscapes. It was a very deep process, which is perhaps not audience friendly, but it still had a strength and intensity.

DS: This whole creation period was so painful that when we finished it, I tattooed the symbol of the album – a mountain – on myself to remember that I should never do that kind of thing ever again. (laughs) The band went into hibernation for two years as a result of this impossible creation.

How did you decide to go on and record your new album, Solar the Monk, in 2019?

AP: Dávid Pap, an important figure in the Budapest improvised scene, was launching his label and we decided to do a fundraiser gig for him and also play our first concert there after two years of silence. It was a very strong and warm feeling to be together and to be with an audience again, so we decided to give it another go. We applied to the National Cultural Fund to make a new album and we said: if we get it we’ll make it, if not, then not. We ended up getting the money and making the album.

DS: An interesting thing is that we had the title of the album before we wrote any music. I was travelling one time with my other band and someone read aloud an article from a petrol station magazine we had picked up. At the end, she said the name of the author: Szollár Domokos – who is the communications manager of the petrol company – which I misunderstood as Solar the Monkos (in Hungarian that means something like ‘Solar the Monk’). I thought, OK, that is a great title for an album.

Did you send the album to Szollár Domokos once it was done?

DS: I sent it to him on Facebook, but he didn’t respond. Maybe I should try again and tell him that people like this album and the title comes from his name.

But apparently, you had some thoughts about the topic that the misheard title suggests.

DS: Yes. Monkhood is something that I’m connected with in my daily life, because I practise Zen Buddhism and I meet monks every week.

AP: The word ‘solar’ reminded me of the concept of the Anthropocene, which I was into at that time. I was the mythology guy on Frik as well, making up my own myth about the marriages of solar systems, and so on…

DS: Generally, we use a lot of associations in our creations. When we recorded the album, we were intentionally watching films that inspired the process. An important film was the experimental documentation of the performance artist Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (Outdoor Piece), when he stayed outdoors in New York for a whole year. He basically lived as a homeless person. The text of the song ‘Solar the Monk’ was heavily influenced by this work.

The next big influence arrived after we finished the first recording session: my friend from England sent me a scene from an Iranian movie in which an old dervish is dancing in the desert in a trance state. I was like: “Wait a second, what if I match it with the song ‘Solar the Monk’?” Of course it fitted perfectly, it was quite magical. Later, we wrote to the director to ask if we could use the footage but he was very unhappy with the idea, so in the end, we recorded our own version, an homage to the original scene. By the way, the movie is called The Stone Garden and it is by Parviz Kimiavi. We also played with this title, and used the story of the film in the lyrics of ‘Solar the Monk II.’

You work a lot with mythical, fictional spaces.

DS: We have always been very much inspired by other parts of the world. When we recorded the first album, it was a mix of Eastern European panel block romanticism and American moods. The second album was based on all sorts of African influences, from their music to odd DIY aesthetics.

AP: It was not so much about us wanting to travel to Africa and play tribal music. It was reflecting on the controversial cultural exchange.

DS: We heard about this anthropological phenomenon called ‘cargo cult’, when tribes imitated the things they saw from the colonisers. Similarly, we tried to imitate what we saw from the Africans. So it’s a reverse cargo cult in a way and that’s why we called the album Frik – which is Afrika without the two ‘a’s. Solar the Monk has Middle Eastern influences. For example, the Sufi dance called Zikr was a strong starting point. In this dance, a compact group of men run around in circles to the accompaniment of very simple singing and clapping.

AP: During the rehearsals of Solar the Monk it was really good to play simple riffs and rhythms after years of experimental music making. It’s still experimental in terms of how we were creating, but what you hear is closer to the form of songs. In our perspective, it was more about dancing together through the instruments and not really creating rock songs.

Do you also reflect your local cultures?

AP: It’s not that direct. On Frik, we spoke about romanticism in every way, also reflecting on our ‘national’ culture. I was brought up in a family that was involved in folk music, I have also played it on the viola since I was a child. As a band, we never really played any Hungarian folk songs or wanted to reflect them. I had a problem with romanticising cultures or cultural tones by using parts of them without any context. It was not Dorota’s focus. Though David wrote a really interesting pseudo folk song ‘Szavadivi’ (the last track of Frik), where he created his own authenticity.

DS: I think that song is really hauntological. Many people are wondering which folk song it is.

There is this romanticism in the band. There are also these faraway places.

DS: It’s about longing and imagination. In this way we are romantics of other cultures. Daniel and Aron studied anthropology and I studied sociology, then we started the band. So it was a built-in feature of the vehicle.

What are your current plans?

DS: After eight years of playing music for seated, deep-listening audiences, now we are discovering how to create a concert where we want to get people into a full body trance. So, in a lot of ways, we are a beginner band now.

Our plans mostly depend on the coronavirus, but we are going to Russia at the end of March, Yerevan at the beginning of May, then we go to France, maybe northern Italy at the end of June. (interview recorded in early March). For us it will be very exciting to see what it will do to people in other places.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyova

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