Interview: Dan Bárta

The acclaimed Illustratosphere frontman talks best and worst gigs and works his Sting connection

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 14.04.2014 16:44:19 (updated on 14.04.2014) Reading time: 5 minutes

His distinctive voice and ecclectic rock, jazz, and funk compositions have won Czech vocalist Dan Bárta mutiple awards and scores of fans. A few of his English-language tracks have even found success outside of the Czech Republic. We spoke with the charismatic Bárta who is currently promoting a new album and spring 2014 tour with his band Illustratosphere.

You are one of the few Czech singers who has his official website in both Czech and English. Which albums and tapes helped you learn English before ’89?

I used to listen mostly to AC/DC, YES, Foreigner, and Iron Maiden. And then Jesus Christ Superstar. I enjoyed spending my youth running through the forests but I had a friend who had a grandma in West Germany and he smuggled vinyl here.

Your song “On My Head” (song of the year in 2004) was broadcast so widely that even me, an American who had just arrived in Prague, had to find out who was behind that tune. Was working on a film soundtrack more restrictive creatively than recording with your band Illustratosphere?

It always binds you a bit trying to fit into the ideas of your co-workers. It’s like glueing a plastic model according to the assembly instructions but also creating and incorporating your own ideas. Working on commerical stuff [can actually be] less painful and stress-free since your ego has to be pushed back.

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Your career path is much less narrow than many other performers, going from rock to musicals to your current mix of funk, rap, and jazz. Stylistically, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I don’t care about style at all anymore. I want to enjoy playing, with skilled musicians or friends, something real and something sincere. I hope I can keep my reasons for playing and composing without the need to bow to anyone or anything.

Your spring schedule is packed. Do you tour for long periods outside of Prague without going home? You’re not twenty anymore…

I don’t have to return to Prague for the night but I have to get some sleep otherwise it affects my voice, the music, my psychological well being. I used to be a night owl but I have kids and tons of other work. When I have a few free consecutive days, when the only errands are to get some rohlíky across the street, I become a night owl immediatley. I don’t like to get up and I don’t like going to bed.

When you were headlining Jesus Christ Superstar (which has played an unbelievable 1,288 reprises to date), was it nothing but fun or did you feel like you were churning out the same show every day?

In general, I don’t like gigs; just standing on the stage and singing that’s the best time and I love it even more and more. Jesus, well, when the friends and good musicians played that night it was a ride, but there were days when someone’s performance wasn’t that good and then the whole show kind of flails.

Do you get to play abroad? Where are the most far away, obscure places you have performed?

In Russia there was a gig that was both crazy and underground equipment-wise and with no technical backup but it still didn’t stop people from enjoying that. My worst gig was also abroad, in Manchester, but on the other hand I met my wife there. The most far-away gig was in Chicago and the most exotic was in New Guinea with native singers and me on a one-string guitar.

How long does it typically take you to compose a song?

“Kontrabásník” or “Za Poryvů” were in progress for years, but the new track “Maratonika”, which is the name of the current tour, I finished in less than a day. “One Player Game”, a newer song which was ordered for a film was basically a couple of hours in the making. “On My Head” didn’t take more than a day or two. I still have a few ideas from 10 years ago that I don’t know how to develop.

Bobby McFerrin is probably the most well-known foreign singer you have worked with. Other notable collaborations?

Hiram Bullock. Glenn Hughes, Little Dragon with Yukimi Nagano, WB3…I also opened for Mr. Big.

Who is your dream guest or band? Will you send your demos to Sting via Dominic Miller (Sting’s guitarist) who you will perform with in May?

To experience playing with the world’s best rhythm section that’s enough, otherwise I’m not dreaming, whatever will come will come. The concert of my band with Dominic Miller is one of those gifts which happens to me. Of course, Dominic and the others are going to get my CDs.

Do you get airplay abroad?

Actually yes, for example, Argentina and recently China, some CDs have also been sold in Japan, Romania, and Germany.

I assume you live in Prague, do you live in the center or are you hiding out in the suburbs?

I live right in the center. I just wouldn’t feel like commuting and I also don’t feel like having a mortgage. When we need to get out and go to a quiet place there is such a place. I like to work at home, I just wish I had a studio a floor above my apartment but I’m a few major hits, actually big international hits, away from that!

Where do you go for a beer in Prague?

Probably on my street or at the venue after a gig, but I don’t go to the pub for a beer often.

Which Prague venues are the best for live music?

Sometimes there would be an interesting band at Lucerna Music Bar, but I don’t go to gigs often.

What is your restaurant or cafe of choice here?

Well, I don’t know, I don’t care, I actually don’t go to restaurants to eat often.

When you want to go to the theater or an exhibit where do you go?

Oh sorry, I kind of don’t go to theater or exhibits all that often.

What are you currently reading?

I can finally make you happy! I am currently reading Marc Chagall, Ma Vie, the autobiography of my favorite painter, Paul Johnson Art: A New History, Richard B. Primack A Primer of Conservation Biology, André Glucksmann A Child’s Rage, Umberto Eco The Prague Cemetery, and Nick Lane Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life. I like ending our interview with “mitochondria”. It’s very stylish.

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Catch Dan Bárta and Illustratosphere on tour this spring! 

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