Said the Guests: Arcade Fire (Will Butler)
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


The first time I saw Will Butler was at an Arcade Fire gig at Win and Brendan's apartment. They had stuck branches all around the ceiling, with apples hanging from twine. Win had the picture of an apple taped onto his guitar and Regine was handing out apples in the crowd. Lots of apples. And Win's brother was there, the famous brother, the kid from Chicago who had a spark in his eye and was playing his heart out on clarinet. Then he was yelling his heart out through a pylon, using it like a megaphone. There was something daring in him, this was certain. And although we hadn't yet exchanged even a word, I felt like I knew the guy. Like I knew the song "William Pierce Butler". Later I said hi, I said good show. Something like that. And he shook my hand.

Eighteen months ago, I asked Said the Gramophone readers for suggestions of Scandinavian and Eastern European music. Will said I should look out for Psi Vojaci and Iva Bittova. I did. I also followed his later suggestions: I ate sweet dumplings from the children's menu at Prague's Imperial Cafe. I visited the ossuary in Kutna Hora. And then months later, I think on the streets of Amsterdam, I made a suggestion to Will: please, please write something for us.

And now he has.

Will: all my thanks. The rest of you: enjoy! -- Sean

Rock and roll has been bizarrely important in Czech history. Here’s a little bullet pointed list to sum things up:

  • 1964: Beatlemania hits the world. Even the Communist world. Kids start playing in rock and roll bands. It’s exactly like the rest of the world. As the ‘60s progress, it’s also exactly like the rest of the world. Kids start wearing bell bottoms and mouthing off to their parents. They smoke pot and listen to the Doors.

  • 1968: The Prague Spring. President Dubcek tries to lighten things up in the Ole’ Czechoslovakia: some reforms here and there, and the Soviets send in tanks to make the regime more oppressive again. The hippies and the kids into psychedelic music get really bummed. From this point on, crazy hippie music and the like becomes illegal. Well, sort of. Here’s a brief explanation of Communist legality:
    Some things are ‘legal’. Some things are ‘illegal’. And everything else is merely not ‘legal’ a.k.a. ‘We didn’t say you couldn’t do it, but we didn’t say you could do it. So you know, go ahead and do it if you want. Because it’s not illegal. Heaven forbid. We’d be a bunch of crazy bastards to make something like weird rock and roll music illegal. But we will arrest you for playing it. Maybe. I mean, maybe we won’t. Because it isn’t technically illegal, mind you. But we’ll look at you funny. I mean, sure it’s fine if you own like three or four Velvet Underground records. Be our guest. But your neighbors will rat on you. And then... well, we probably won’t arrest you. But if you do anything else... we might arrest you. And then again, we might not. Because it’s not technically illegal... mind you...’
    Just after the tanks roll in, this group called ‘The Plastic People of the Universe’ form. They start as a Velvet Underground cover band. They also play Frank Zappa songs and put on weird psychedelic art shows.

  • 1976: The Plastic People of the Universe are arrested for "Organized Disturbance of the Peace". This is how it happened: as their brand of music was not ‘legal', they couldn’t get licenses to perform (you need a license for everything in damn Communist Czechoslovakia). So they would pull tricks like, ‘Oh, this is our friends wedding, and we’re just a bunch of friends playing music - we’re not putting on a show'. Or ‘This is just a simple fireman’s ball — not open to the public. It’s not a rock and roll show. Just a private party. Everything seems to be in order, right?’ And this weird little method worked pretty well, until 1976.

  • 1977: Friend of the Plastic People, future first President of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), and then absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel raises a ruckus about the arrest. He organizes various intellectuals and artists around ‘Charter 77’ - basically a document calling for human rights.

  • And now everything else: The Charter 77 group goes on to form the core of the intellectual resistance to the Communist government, which is ultimately toppled by student demonstrations snowballing into everyone demonstrations in 1989. They call the revolution "The Velvet Revolution" because it’s non-violent and everything goes so smoothly. And also because the leaders of the opposition were really into the Velvet Underground. I’m not kidding. Absurdist playwright Vaclav Havel becomes president and in his first month invites Frank Zappa to the presidential castle as a guest of state (US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black (yes, that Shirley Temple) meets him at the airport and asks him how his daughter Moon Unit is doing). Later on in the year he has Lou Reed come as an official state visitor and play songs with the Plastic People of the Universe, who are totally stoked about it.

So here’s some Czech rock and roll. Perhaps you’d like to hear the Plastic People of the Universe. Well, I don’t know them that well, and what I do know, I don’t like that much. I mean it’s fine and interesting and all, but just isn’t my cup of tea. So you can find that on your own, if you’d like.

Here’s the underground Czech rock and roll I like best: Psi Vojaci (Psee Voh-yahtzee).

Psi Vojaci (Dog Soldiers, in translation) formed in 1979, and opened for the Plastic People of the Universe (out of prison by that point) at various illegal shows. They weren’t allowed a license to perform until 1986 - at which point really angry punk rock and roll was getting popular. The government figured it’d better cut its losses and allow weird music that wasn’t expressly anti-government—anything to distract the kids.

That reminds me — The Plastic People and Psi Vojaci and most of these bands didn’t really give a crap about politics. I mean, they weren’t singing diatribes against communism or against the government or anything. They just played dark, weird music. And that’s all they wanted to do. But the government only really approved of bland pop music or upbeat adult contemporary music. Not that the other music was illegal, mind you.

But here’s the music:

Psi Vojaci - "Psi Vojaci"

This is from Psi Vojaci’s first illegal album from 1980- Psi a vojaci. It was distributed by cassette tape - people making copies for their friends, etc. The lead singer and piano player Filip Topol is 14 in this recording. He sounds like he means what he’s saying, whatever it is that he’s saying.

Psi Vojaci - "Ziletky"

This is from their album Narod Psych Vojaku (Nation of Dog Soldiers). This recording is from the 1990s - Psi Vojaci went into a proper studio and recorded songs they hadn’t been able to record under the Communist regime and also re-recorded songs that they hadn’t really done justice to before (if you listed to the first song "Psi Vojaci," you can understand that they’d like to up the sound quality). "Ziletky" is pronounced "Zhiletky" and means "razors". "Zhiletky" comes from the word, wait for it - Gillette. The best a man can get. Truly the world's languages are a marvelous thing.

Filip Topol and Agon Orchestra - "Ziletky"

In 2000 the lead singer of Psi Vojaci worked with the Agon Orchestra (a fairly well respected Czech avant-garde orchestra) on orchestral versions of Psi Vojaci songs. This is a beautiful album. You can hear the clarinetist breathing. And you can hear his playing get ragged towards the end. These Czechs mean what they mean when they play music. This song "Ziletky" is the best stuff of Czech rock and roll. It’s really catchy, but not in a dancey way. The clarinet part isn’t that far off from "Take On Me" - but it’s melancholy and orchestral and Eastern European. And Filip Topol still sounds like he really means what he’s singing. Whatever it is that he’s singing.

Ex Orchest - "Kokend Asfalt"

And here’s a bonus piece of music: Since we’re dealing with avant-garde orchestral versions of European rock and roll songs featuring lead singers yelling their vocals and sounding like they mean it, here’s the Ex Orchest with "Kokend Asfalt" (A version of The Ex’s song "State of Shock" performed by The Ex along with a bunch of loud instrument people).

Have a safe and happy new year.

[more info on Psi Vojaci, and store links]

[Will Butler plays guitar, glockenspiel, synthesiser, clarinet, loudhailer, crash helmet, broken cymbal, and many other things with the band Arcade Fire. While studying at Northwestern, Will was program director at WNUR, which Spin in 2003 declared the best college station in the USA. He hosted a rock'n'roll show as well as The Lit Show, because he likes books. Arcade Fire released their debut LP, Funeral, in 2004. They are currently working on their follow-up with the help of a man from Seattle.]

(Previous guest-blogs, in and out of the Said the Guests series: Al Kratina, Eugene Mirman, artist Dave Bailey, Agent Simple, artist Keith Andrew Shore, Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone), artist Kit Malo with Alden Penner (The Unicorns) 1 2, artist Rachell Sumpter, artist Katy Horan 1 2, David Barclay (The Diskettes), artist Drew Heffron, Carl Wilson, artist Tim Moore, Michael Nau (Page France), Devin Davis, Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Edward Droste (Grizzly Bear), Hello Saferide, Damon Krukowski (Damon & Naomi), Brian Michael Roff, Howard Bilerman (producer: Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, etc.). There are many more to come.)

Posted by Sean at May 24, 2006 3:00 AM

Fantastically interesting entry - the music, the language, the history. Great! Thanks.

Posted by Sam at May 24, 2006 12:14 AM

wow! that was an earful to listen to, good stuff though, can't wait for the next arcade fire album

Posted by Alex at May 24, 2006 12:20 AM

Awesome post, awesome music.

Posted by Tuwa at May 24, 2006 12:58 AM

Oh man, synchronicity. The velvet revolution and Vaclav Havel is being discussed in my college class right now, (and because it's a hippie liberal arts college, in a context where all kinds of crap is being discussed) but The Velvet Underground has not been mentioned. Thanks for this, it's fascinating.

Posted by Anonymous at May 24, 2006 3:24 AM

Wow, Will and Sean! Thanks for the pointers.
I suppose the old cliche about every person that bought the VU's first album startin a band goes for eastern Europe as well.

Posted by Matthew in London at May 24, 2006 5:01 AM

Another great Czech rock band is Dunaj -- think AC/DC meets Philip Glass.

Posted by Michael Grant at May 24, 2006 10:08 AM

There's this band from old East Germany called the Klaus Renft Combo, who are a bit Stones-ish, and made a recording of the DDR official telling them that they are illegal, that they no longer exist. You can hear it on their Best Of.

Posted by shane at May 24, 2006 10:31 AM

thanks so much for this post! i'd like to see more stuff like this. maybe will butler could do a part ii?

Posted by e at May 24, 2006 11:54 AM

Everyone would be better off for czeching (ha ha) out Uz Jsme Doma as well. And is home to a lot of amazing current underground Czech bands.

Posted by aaron at May 24, 2006 3:58 PM

amazing post sean! and will! thanks very much!

Posted by matt at May 24, 2006 11:21 PM

Thanks , Sean, and Thanks!, Will.
Posts like this are part, a large part, of why I keep STG at the top o' my list of music blogs.
Good writing, good info,and even a pronunciation guide !!
But besides all the writerly things above, good music !! from a band I didn't know previously.
Thanks again.
And Will --did you mean it when you once said you'd (The AF) come back to the places you played in the fall of '05? 'Cos that small upstairs room in Ithaca was a great night for this old man and his high school daughter! I'd love to think I might see the Fire again someday, in another poorly publicised small room! thanks again.

Posted by J at May 24, 2006 11:24 PM

This is very cool stuff! And, am I hallucinating, or is the Arcade Fire in the direct line of descent from this?

Posted by Akio at May 25, 2006 3:57 AM

I like tata boys, cechomor (much helped by Jaz Coleman), Hypnotix (the lead singer is a childhood friend of mine from Canada), ecstasy of saint teresa, the list goes on and on.

Posted by philip polivka at May 25, 2006 4:27 PM

really love the arcade fire
cannot wait for the next album
but i literally Just started a blog, and im just trying to get the word out

Posted by Andrew at May 25, 2006 5:30 PM

i'm blown away by this post. thank you so much for sharing this music with us. do you have any other great eastern european music to share? let us know. thank you.

Posted by tim+ at May 26, 2006 12:59 PM

Let's not forget:

June 12th - World Cup - US vs Czech Republic

Thanks for the music.

Posted by Murf at May 26, 2006 3:25 PM

There's a song called "Barbara" by a band called "Umela Hmota" that is amazing. Well, the first half is amazing. The second half is about as bad as can get--an extended flute solo. But the first half is great. There're a lot of bad flute/sax solos in Czech rock.

I forgot to mention, also, that at you can listen to/buy just about any eastern european music you'd ever care to.


Posted by Will at May 26, 2006 3:51 PM

i was at that show at the apartment as well. my friend erin put those trees in for them. it was a real nice set up when no one was there. and i actually have the whole show recorded on a dictaphone that i had in my pocket. i had no idea they were gong to be so big.

Posted by paul at May 27, 2006 9:56 AM

so many of these pre-velvet revolution bands are bland copyists with their hearts in the right place, unfortunately there's few that actually make a worthwhile contribution to music... ducks and runs for cover... but where Czech Music really sings is in it's gypsy roots, Iva Bittova, Ida Kelarova, Vera Bila especially sing into your soul with a thousand years of sorrow and are well worth checking out. Check out Ida Kelarova's Romano Rat, literally anything by Iva bittova (except the collaborations with Javas, which are musically bland) and Bila Inferno by Vera Bila....

Stunning stuff.

but avoid the czech rock... it'll bore the pants off you after you've forgotten the harrowing back-story...

Czechchap and

Posted by Robin at May 27, 2006 12:34 PM

I think most musicians at all times everywhere are bland copyists with their hearts in the right place--unfortunately there's few that actually make a worthwhile contribution to music.

What's nice about pre-revolution Czech rock is that, thanks to communist repression, there are so few bands to deal with. So there's a lot less crap. There's also less good maybe--but the ratio of good to bad is exactly the same as present day North America, or Brazil in the '60s or Germany in the '70s or the UK in the '80s or Austria in the 17th century.

I also find it comforting that pre-revolution bands, no matter how shitty, actually wanted to make music--were willing to defy the semi-law in order to do so. These days, I think there are a good number of musicians who make music because they're bored in their bedrooms. It's like how smart people, if they can't find a job, will say, "Well, I guess I'll teach"--and then go on to become shitty teachers. These days I think artsy people who aren't particularly good anything say, "Well, I guess I'll make music, 'cause it's easy and what else am I gonna do?"

But yes, Iva Bittova is great.

Posted by Will at May 27, 2006 2:01 PM

And dag nab it, Bile Inferno is by Iva Bittova, not the other lady.

Posted by Will at May 27, 2006 2:27 PM

Kokend Asfalt has been one of my 'home alone turn it up to 11' tracks for a couple of years now- a very good call, sir.

Posted by Robert P at May 30, 2006 7:53 PM

Behind Czech regular scene there are couple of hidden talents like or and others

Posted by Petr at June 3, 2006 6:23 AM


Great stuff. Where was all of this when I had to write a paper for my Eastern European politics class on the Velvet Divorce? (I thought it was named for the love of Mel Torme).

Did you come across any music related to the current movements in Belarus and the Urkaine? How does Drum Ecstasy fit into all of this?

Drop me a line at (mylastname)

- Matt Hardigree

Posted by matth at June 7, 2006 6:00 PM

yeah, czech rock is unbelieavable! lubor

Posted by lubor at August 26, 2006 12:22 PM

For everyone interested in Czech music, I have started an MP3 blog called Funky Czech-In:
As the title says, it's more about the funky "thide of sings".

Posted by Lou Kash at October 2, 2006 8:32 AM

cool, ive always been looking for this kind of music but it never really worked out

Posted by mike at May 28, 2007 6:58 AM

Hello Sean! I stumbled across this site whilst searching for a suitable mailing address to use for Arcade Fire. I actually wanted to send Will something- they're my favorite band and it was his birthday last week. You said you were at their apartment? Obviously I'll understand if you don't want to share their address with me, but do you know of anywhere I could send a card for Will? Thanks. My email is

Posted by Rachel at October 13, 2007 2:29 PM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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