Last week Albert Černý, former Charlie Straight frontman, brought his new band Lake Malawi to London for their first ever UK gig. They did not disappoint. CzechHarmonies profiles a transcendent indie-pop act with killer tunes and the world at its feet…
It is not Albert Černý’s first time in Britain, not by a long stretch. But then, if you were Upstairs@Highbury Garage on the evening of Thursday 13 November, you will almost certainly have detected this from the impeccable English accent of the Lake Malawi singer/ guitarist/ frontman/ songwriter-in-chief, as he won over a transfixed audience.
Indeed, if you didn’t know otherwise, you would have no idea that Albert Černý is not from these shores at all, but from a small village near Třinec, a steel town in the demographically nebulous region of Moravia/Silesia, near where the Czech, Slovak and Polish borders intersect, and from where his first band, Charlie Straight, emerged so triumphantly in the late 2000s to win three Anděl Awards (the Czech equivalent of the Brits or Grammies) and mark out a sizeable territorial claim on the Czech Republic’s musical landscape for half a decade.
Keeping quiet about his roots?
The strange thing is this. During Lake Malawi’s ecstatic nine-song set as support act to Nottingham grunge outfit Kagoule, Černý (pronounced ‘Chairny’) proudly informs the audience that “this is our first ever gig in London!”. In fact, he tells us this four times throughout the set, just to make sure it’s sunk in.
Which naturally prompts the question: so where are you from?
But at no point does he inform us of the band’s country of origin. This worries me. I’m here to champion the great music currently emerging from the Czech Republic…and I’m thinking, is this guy deliberately keeping quiet about his roots? If so, why? And will I have to keep quiet too? And how do I do that…writing a blog called CzechHarmonies???
“It’s not that we’re keeping quiet about where we’re from,” explains Černý post-gig, “it’s just that we don’t particularly want to mouth off about it. But if people ask us, of course we’ll tell them. We’re not trying to hide it.
“At the same time, we’re spending about twenty percent of the year over here – our base is in Holloway – and we want to be perceived as being London-based to show people we’re serious about being successful over here.”
Seagulls across the oceans
They’re certainly well on the way to being successful in their homeland. Although they have only one single under their belt (‘Always June’), Lake Malawi have been making some bigwigs sit up and take notice, and this summer secured a prestigious support slot with Thirty Seconds To Mars at Prague’s Tipsport Arena, followed in September by a breathtaking 12-song set at Czech Radio’s Studio 1 in Ostrava, streamed live over the internet. You can see this on YouTube (though the video seems to skip a bit in places). If your weakness is for swirling, perfectly crafted, head-in-the-clouds pop songs that inspire you to hitch a lift with the seagulls across the oceans to find your one true love, it is impossible not to fall for the four-piece band, which also includes Černý’s erstwhile Charlie Straight bandmate Pavel Pilch on drums, as well as Jeroným Šubrt (from Brno-based band Admiral Ackbar) on guitar/bass/keys and Patrick Karpentski (commandeered from Lenka Dusilová’s band Baromantika) on bass/guitar .
And while Černý sings in a uniquely hybrid English regional accent that seems to lie in some parallel universe with direct connections to Camden Market, the music has a quintessentially east-European emotional intensity that envelopes you in its measured rush, whilst also clearly rooted in the 1990s British pop tradition.
So, Albert, where did you learn to speak English so well, and what British music were you listening to at the time?
“I spent a month living in Gravesend, Kent, when I was 16. That’s when I really grasped the English language. At the time I was listening to stuff like Radiohead, Coldplay and Muse.”
And while while Britpop might also have been an inspiration back in his Charlie Straight days, Černý has certainly moved on from such influences: “I was only at primary school when Blur, Pulp and Oasis were at their height.” Bon Iver would be a more recent reference point, influence-wise: indeed, the name of the band comes from the line ‘So it’s storming on the lake’ in the song ‘Calgary’.
Freedom and emotional mobility
All these formative influences ultimately manifest themselves in the structural solidity of Černý’s compositions, if not in their overt sound and style. ‘Day For Finding Someone’, which formed the central nucleus of Lake Malawi’s Highbury Garage set, is a wonderfully accomplished pop dream, but what makes it soar is the astute use of insistent, unwavering atmospheric synth chords to accentuate throbbing bass and plaintive vocals.
And there is no let up in the creative ammunition anywhere else in the set. ‘Young Blood’ cranks up the tempo and the passion for a pulsating declaration of devotion (You could be my Juliet / Young blood in your veins / Age doesn’t matter anyway / Be my shelter from the rain), with strummed acoustic guitar bolstered by pummelling percussion and peppered with wisps of atmospheric electric guitar and a sustained single note on the synth.
On several songs, lyrically speaking, Černý seems to have a thing about birds and oceans as symbols of freedom and emotional mobility, and ‘I Swam The Sea’ is a case in point (I swam the sea / Swam the ocean / I set you free / Like a bird). With its infectiously danceable rhythm and poignantly jangling guitar riff, it’s a potential future hit single, but Lake Malawi are frankly spoilt for potential future hit singles.
The perfect indie-pop song mould
And vying for chartbusting status are ‘Chinese Trees’, which will definitely be the band’s second single at the beginning of December, along with – surely worthy of re-release when the band has gathered some unstoppable momentum – the aforementioned ‘Always June’, sporting that all-important sing-a-long chorus hook with which Černý gets the punters securely wrapped around his little finger. And further evidence of his undeniable stagecraft is the ease with which he persuades the Garage audience to shuffle forward halfway through the set to eliminate that awkward empty gap in front of the stage, not to mention a perfectly timed gymnastic leap from atop the electronic organ situated in front of Pavel’s drum kit. He also embarks on an enthusiastic foray down into the audience as far as the length of his jack lead will permit him.
Albert Černý may be no School of Rock soloing virtuoso on his purple-and-white Stratocaster, but his canny instinct for what you can and can’t pour into the perfect indie-pop song mould, as well as the heart-on-sleeve sincerity with which he tunefully yearns for that elusive personal utopia, is something you can’t teach.
And if you missed Lake Malawi’s Highbury gig, rest assured you’ll get your chance to experience their rarefied brand of euphoria next year, when their debut EP is released. Meantime visit their website http://www.lakemalawimusic.com/ for further announcements.
Lake Malawi’s new single ‘Chinese Trees’ is due out on 1st December 2014.
They are currently working on their debut EP due out in 2015.
You can visit Lake Malawi’s official website here.
The band’s 55-minute live set at Czech Radio’s Ostrava Studio 1 can be viewed here.