Friends Helping Friends: the Evolution of Warsaw's Music Scene

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It’s a warm evening in Warsaw, Poland. A group of artfully dressed 20-somethings are sprawled on the lawn at Niedorzeczni, one of the area’s many summer-only outdoor venues. They sit, in the shadow of the basket-like National Stadium, placidly swatting mosquitoes carried in from the nearby Vistula River. On stage, two local bands, Lilly Hates Roses and Nathalie and the Loners, perform melodic rock that sits somewhere between Bowerbirds and The Cranberries. In short, it’s a bucolic night out, the kind of pleasant diversion that can be found in most major cities across the globe. But until about eight years ago that wasn’t the case for Poland’s capital city.

As described by Micha? Borkiewicz, change took time. The owner of Plan B, one of the first of four clubs in an area near the center of town known as Savior Square, Borkiewicz says that people weren’t necessarily open to the idea of left of center entertainment when he first opened the establishment eight years ago.

“We really wanted to create a friendly place in the center of Warsaw,” he recounts. “A very open-minded place for open-minded people. We started with a very unpopular program. Avant-garde jazz and this kind of thing. In the middle of the city in a very expensive place. We were very afraid that it’s impossible to survive. But it became very popular and trendy. We took a risk. Now it’s a place for hanging out. It’s still the place where everyone wants to go after a big concert. It’s a place for artists and people around artists. It’s still an open-minded place. It’s a dive bar.”

Plan B’s initial heavy slate of performances (sometimes happening almost every night) included Polish musicians across the spectrum. Since its opening, the live shows have been moved to Borkiewicz’s other venues: Powi?kszenie, Playground, and water side club BarKA. But Tobiasz Bili?ski, who writes and performs orchestral folk as Coldair, fondly recalls his first performances in the venue with previous band, Kyst.

We’re seated in the smoking room of Plan B. Despite the late morning sun, little light gets through the room’s sloped windows, leaving its graffiti-covered walls in shadow. He points out the castoff collection of couches and lamps, lovingly assembled by Borkiewicz from friends, secondhand stores and dumps.

“I tend to forget about it, that I played here, in this room,” Bili?ski recalls, sipping on his coffee, his first of many that day. “It was nice. It was our first show outside of our hometown. We met our producer here. He came to the show and said he wanted to producer our next record. It was like the American Dream thing.” He pauses, before laughing at his choice of words.

The club, in all its DIY glory, was a harbinger of change in the Warsaw music and arts community. Its success as a klubokawiarnia (a Polish word meaning part club, part coffee house), proved that such a venture could work on a financial level. Today, Borkiewicz estimates that more than 50 like-minded venues exist in the city.

With more places to meet and ply their trades, the creative community began to multiply in numbers. The change was evident, even to those not fully immersed in the music scene. Magdalena Jensen, owner of Chimes consulting and promotion, remembers the first time she visited Poland for an extended period as an 18-year-old. During her initial stint in the city, the American masters student-turned-creative director founded a DJ and party promotion collective.

“I could see in the year that I lived here that, new things were opening, there was a fresh energy in Warsaw,” Jensen recounts. “There was all this energy to do things in so many different areas. And you could just see it. That is what made me come back to Poland after I finished my studies in the U.S. I really wanted to live here. Nothing had been done here yet! You could come up with an idea and do it.”

PARDON TU TU is another one of those ideas come to life. Located just near the city center, the venue functions as a coffee shop by day, its back wall painted bright red and filled with band names, hinting at its strong music bent. At night, live music takes over, shows rotating from improvisational jazz, to electronic, to pop on a four-month loop. Owner Daniel Radtke prides himself on being able to read the cultural landscape and booking a diverse range of shows to assure repeat visitors.

However, the adept businessman admits he isn’t exempt from passion projects. Scratching the head of his dog—who has become the café’s de facto mascot—he points to a wall of records for sale. Despite Warsaw’s overwhelming appetite for downloading versus buying physical albums, it’s a part of his shop he’s not willing to give up.

“I signed a contract with a distribution company in Germany,” Radtke says proudly. “CDs are sold in some clubs. But vinyl? No. It’s expensive.”

The idea of doing a little bit of everything—even if it’s just for fun—extends to the musicians themselves. Nearly all the bands in the city are seemingly joined at the hip. Paula i Karol’s drummer Christoph Thun-Hohenstein does double duty with Modest Mouse-influenced outfit, Eric Shoves Them in His Pockets, and Queer Resource Center. The band’s bassist also marks time with post-Led Zeppelin heavy rock outfit Magnificent Muttley. Lena, one of the founding members of garage pop outfit Dog Whistle, also makes music as Lustra.

Meanwhile, former members of alt-rock outfit très.b (Think PJ Harvey with a pinch of Sonic Youth) perform as Olivier Heim, FFRANCIS, and Misia Ff.

The interconnectivity has bred a scene where genre lines are constantly being blurred and sounds are being redefined. If you ask Rafa? Grobel, founder of Poland’s Record Store Day, this willingness to step outside of sonic comfort zones is embedded in Poland’s history.

“During the communist times, if someone wanted to get into something, if someone wanted to get into movies or good music, they had to dig a lot,” he reasons. “If you wanted The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, you couldn’t get it. You had to ship it from Sweden, or get it from Western Germany. You couldn’t do it at all, so you had to ask a friend who works there or lives there to send it in a package. It took a really big effort to gain knowledge about culture. To get any contact with the Western culture. I think it stayed. Obviously a huge part of society sticks to the mainstream media and what it offers. But there’s this strong feeling of searching where a lot of people can never get enough from mainstream media.”

“There’s a huge diversity of music,” echoes Lukasz Kaminski. As a journalist for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest daily newspaper and a lifelong resident of Warsaw, Kaminski has watched music culture in his hometown flourish from its constricted roots during communism to the vibrant scene it is today.

“There’s so much going on, when you check out different kinds of music, it’s hard to stay in one genre. You see the same faces at an electronic fest and a hip-hop concert. I think that’s because we never had an overflow. If you were into alternative music, you couldn’t go into a niche of only Pavement and Sonic Youth. In the states you had a whole range to choose from. Here you had two or three. So that would make you need to listen to something else just for the hygiene of your brain and ears. Not just to get stuck with five records. I think that’s stayed with the young people a lot.”

For many Warsaw scene stalwarts, that idea of eclecticism has been fully realized in local label, Lado ABC. Encompassing everything from avant garde jazz, to noise rock, to folk pop, the label’s only consistency is artistic passion. Even Monika Brodka (stage name: Brodka), who won Polish Pop Idol in 2004 before evolving into an experimentalist herself, names Lado when trying to describe the city’s signature sound.

“For me, the Warsaw music scene sounds like Mitch & Mitch and Paula i Karol and BAABA,” she says, singling out a few of the label’s flagship artists. “These people for me are connected to Warsaw. You never know what to expect. [Label owner Maciej Moru?] can take the instruments of his daughter, the small drum set and small guitar, and make a concert with all his friends playing only on the instruments for kids. He has really funny ideas.”

Moru?, however, sees the 10-year-old Lado ABC as more than just an exercise in “everything and the kitchen sink” music. Declining to name a particular style that he’s attracted to releasing, he instead calls the label a “documentary” project.

“We have several people recording stuff, and we try to capture it and document it, and just release it the way it was meant to be released,” he says modestly. Fresh from a session practicing with his band Mitch & Mitch, the musician is in an upbeat mood, punctuating his statements with easy smiles.

“We don’t have the money, we don’t make money,” he continues. “It’s based on relationships. It’s not that the label is releasing albums because they’re so great and the people in the band are assholes. It would never work. The music has to be good and the guys have to be nice.”

It’s a running theme to Warsaw that many people mention: the idea of friends helping friends. Ma?gorzata Penkalla, frontwoman for dream folk trio Enchanted Hunters, puts an even finer point on it. With so many musicians working second jobs, she reasons, there’s no need to cut someone down in the name of scrapping by.

“Every other band member is at another band member’s concert,” she says. “It’s not a competition because there’s nothing to compete for. It’s totally independent and nobody is making big money. It’s a network. Everybody is helping each other with everything. Equipment, instruments, guests on CDs.”

While Poland has yet to have a break-out artist on the international scene similar to Björk and Sigur Rós in Iceland or Phoenix and Daft Punk in France, community building seems to be what’s on most musicians’ minds—from meet-ups at the city’s best stocked music store Side One Records, to specialty DJ nights, to collaborations. The world, they figure, will come calling soon enough.

“We grew up here; we want Warsaw to be a cool place,” says Thun-Hohenstein. “We want a cool place to hang out. When our friends from anywhere come to visit we want to show them cool venues and get good shows.”

“Warsaw is rough and Poland is still rough,” says Brodka. Originally from ?ywiec, a town in southern Poland, the singer’s newest EP LAX contains an ode to her adopted hometown called “Varsovie.”

“I found it really interesting that a lot of foreigners decide to move to Warsaw,” she says. “They find something really mystical and something melancholic in the city and they decide to live their lives here. This love is not really easy and can be tricky. It’s hard to love the city, but at the same time it’s really magical and beautiful.”

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