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Feature Thu Oct 16 2008
(photo by Andrew Martin)
The duo Aleks and the Drummer is comprised of Aleksandra Tomaszewska (vocals/keyboards) and Deric Criss (drums). They released their debut EP, May a Lightning Bolt Caress You, earlier this year. The album is a dark carnival of melodic organ synthesized tracks punctuated by Criss' stampede percussion and Tomaszewska's lyrical eerie operatic voice. It's difficult to describe what Aleks and the Drummer sound like exactly, but singer Tomaszewskas doesn't keep her music influences a secret. Between the band's ensemble compositions Tomaszewska threads in a dark and lyrical cover of "Co mi Panie Dasz," an early '80s hit from a Polish pop band, Bajm.
Bajm and Maanam were among the first Polish bands to make the switch from strictly acoustic to electronic sound. In fact, experimental and electronic music came to Poland much later than the rest of Europe. Even as late as the 1970s when Germany and France were experimenting with synthesizers, Poles tuned in on "Piwnica Pod Baranami", a cabaret founded by Piotr Skrzynecki located in the basements of a palace in Krakow.
Sung poetry and strong female vocalists like Ewa Demarczyk (who sang both in Russian and Polish) are symbolic of era. It was only later, that pioneers of Piwinica Pod Baranami, musicians like Czeslaw Niemen introduced a more experimental sound, tinkering with layering and the synthesizers. The introduction to psychedelic rock enraged the Socialist authorities with its Western influence, but Polish experimental bands like Gudonis Komendarek came to the light and there was no stopping them in the early '80s when bands like Maanam and Bajm took the plunge into electronic music.
Aleks and the Drummer's Tomaszewska invited me to peek at her record collection and reminiscence about the early days of Polish '80s bands. She sifted through the records at her apartment, pulling out classics like Maanam, Bajm, synthesizer experimentalists like Klaus Mitffoch, Kora Pudelski, synth-organ players like Gudonis Komendarek, and bands like Madam or 1984, packaged in the standard dull socialist cardboard slip that many Tanpress records sported at the time. This is Polish music at its best, she tells me, before the melodic synth riffs fill the room. Tomaszewska has been tracking these records for years. "I found old Polish mix tapes that my mom had been erasing over with English lessons when we immigrated here from Poland." Tomaszewska explains, "the cassettes had band names penciled in on the label." She searched them out in record stores in Krakow and London.
May a Lightning Bolt Caress You (photo by Aleksandra Tomaszewska, drawing by Nathaniel Murphy)
"I always wanted to play music," Tomaszewska answers when I ask about her background. "When I was really young I used to hide in the closet with the blanket over my head and record myself singing but then listened to it and erased it right away." Her first break came in 2005 when she performed at "Polonia Star," (a Polish version of the American idol organized by Polvision TV). She was hesitant at first, but her cover of solo "Do Lezki Lezka" won her a second place for best voice. "It was a good experience to get out in front of a large audience," she explains, "I had to train my voice in a way I hadn't before; I won a ticket to Poland and the prize money I ended up spending on a PA system for the band."
"My initial idea for the first album, was to do covers of Polish bands, it was a good place to start from. I was rehearsing with a band, we didn't have a name, and only a few unfinished songs, people come and went and took what songs we had with them. I had to move for a job to San Francisco for a few months and realized that if I had my own songs at least I could take those with me. Polish covers gave me a good place to start from and a base of listeners who I knew would be interested in what I was doing."
Tomaszewska kept close to her roots and her vision. It's only been four months since the release of their debut EP, but Tomaszewska is already planning for their next two albums. Her plan she says is to confirm the sound they've been working on, but also bring in more layers to the music. She elaborates jumping into an inspired array of visuals, "I always imagine different things when I hear music. I used to love the Beethoven tape I got from my father. I heard the trumpet and thought 'Here is when the queen enters. '"
"On our last album," she explains, "we worked with New York producer Dave Sitek who's also known for working with bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I'm interested in experimenting more with the process, working in the studio and bringing in more sounds," Tomaszewska adds, "like the sound of a dog barking". She jokes, "and I want to bring in a French horn with a steady synthesizer base." Then with a smirk after a moment of contemplation, "I want to find that Polish construction worker with incredible accordion skills who's floating around Chicago somewhere. I met him. He showed me his hands and said, 'see how rough they're getting?'"[mp3] Aleks and the Drummer - "I Want to Melt His Eyes" from May a Lightning Bolt Caress You
Aleks and the Drummer perform at the Empty Bottle (1035 N. Western) as part of the Underground Film Festival's 9th annual Jukebox of the Dead featuring on October 31st at 9:30pm. Tickets are $12 adv. $15 day of show. Also appearing are Detholz! and The Hood Internet.
About the Author:
Beatrice Smigasiewicz moved to the States in the '90s. She studied art in Berlin and Krakow but is now happy to be in Chicago, working on a Soviet documentary archive.