Spoken word set to music is a lineage. You can trace its roots back to the 60s / 70s and the likes of The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Arguably, rap is also spoken word, but because it carved out its own lane along the way, maybe it’s more accurate to see the next evolutionary milestone in 90s poets such as Saul Williams, Mike Ladd, Ursula Rucker or Sarah Jones. The next quantum leap for the genre came courtesy of Space Ape (RIP), Roger Robinson, Kae Tempest and Rider Shafique. The latest addition to this bunch is Lukasz Polowczyk with his project AINT ABOUT ME, produced by composer / producer Jan Wagner.
Their self-titled debut record sounds like a poetic novel delivered in the form of a deep, resonant mantra. It’s hypnotic, foreboding, challenging, multiplex, full love, even brutal at times, but somewhat of a psychedelic painkiller, as well! Musically, it’s a wild concoction of styles, the type that normally would never share recorded space together: jazz, drone, soul and ambient. And if all of this wasn’t enough, the record was released as an illustrated book and a series of capsule tape collections, one of them hand painted with 24 Karat gold! (Everything is available at: aintaboutme.bandcamp.com)
To find out more about the project we sat down for interview with the voice of the project: Lukasz Polowczyk.
When did you realise that you were a poet?
This might sound kinda crazy, but this only occurred to me recently! However, I’ve also expanded the idea of poetry to include sound, visual expression and physical objects. What I realised is that everything I do is inter-related and has a similar aesthetic approach. There is a choppiness and a rhythm to how I write, which I also see in my collages. The textures and the type of dirt that I search for in my photos – and the level of abstraction that I’m after – I also hear this in my noise experiments. My writing is also very visual by design and very often concerned with things off-frame; omissions and hard cuts. I don’t really see a difference between any of these expressions anymore, and the common denominator between is pretty much the same for all of them. I’m also at a point in my life where I have this deep need to connect all the dots. I don’t want to edit myself down for anything or anyone anymore!
How did you get into the creative industry, in the first place?
Love of music and subculture! Since I was a little kid, I was always drawn to music that had a certain energy and an edge about it. Hip hop, punk, thrash metal, later rave culture and the vast world of electronica. All of these subcultures pursued – at least in their original iterations – this idea of a truthful expression of the moment. I always felt that! And chased this energy. I still do!
Additionally, the scenes that I got involved with also concerned themselves with the idea of creating autonomous spaces, ie. alternatives to mainstream, consumer-driven society. They were on this rather intuitive chase after some utopian vanishing point. I always felt free and alive in these spaces! And welcome. They also all called for your active participation. In hip hop, it was about mastering the elements: breaking, dj’ing, writing graff and rapping. In punk, it was about starting a band, editing a fanzine or throwing a show. With rave culture, it was about throwing parties and producing music. I had a creative streak in me, from the get-go, and these communities forced me to hone it.
Over the years, you’ve had many notable collaborations – you recorded with Robot Koch, Stereotyp, Al Haca, Milanese, Siriusmo etc. – how did they come about?
I was driven. I sacrificed everything I had for music. Like I lived it 24-7. I drove myself into poverty while pursuing it. I just smoked weed and wrote songs, relentlessly. And then, eventually, the stars sort of aligned for me. When I moved from NYC to Berlin, back in 2002, just a few weeks in, I went to the Sonar Kollektiv offices to drop off my demo. The meeting wasn’t really all that, but in the lobby I met this cat with the new Vadim record, this was Cee from Al Haca. We talked a bit about this record, exchanged numbers, and a couple of weeks later we cut our first tune together. Shortly after, we went on tour.
About the same time, I had this gruesome falling out with the lady with whom I had moved to Germany with. A couple of days before said fall out, a friend of a DJ with whom I performed with at this tiny festival told me that he had an extra room at his apartment, if I would ever happen to need one. I told him that I didn’t, and then, my girlfriend didn’t come home on this one particular night. Long story short, I moved in with him. It turned out that our neighbours upstairs were this band called Jahcoozi. We became friends. Robot Koch, who was producing the instrumentals for their debut record, was also working on this project called THE TAPE. He asked me to record an intro for him, and we ended up recording a entire LP. We played a few shows together and pretty much immediately got scooped up by Kitty Yo Records. And then, it just all snow-balled from there.
But then your career stopped for over a decade! Can you tell us what happened?
A classic burnout! The lifestyle, the creative choices that I made, the lack of sustainability of the whole thing – all of these things wore me out. I hit a wall creatively and spiritually. The RQM persona was starting to feel like an old suit. I was perfecting the sound and the song format, polishing up the vocal technique, but I lost the connection to the soul, and the purpose of it all. Social anxiety kicked in, and I stopped enjoying music! I had to take time off to think everything through, to allow myself to grow, and to heal. To find myself, basically! Up until that point, I lived a very dynamic and fragmented life – always and in every way. This burnout was the greatest thing that has happened to me! I can say this now, back then, I was in a lot of pain. What I learned from this is that the biggest lessons in life are assimilated through these type of crashes. Your biggest failures are your greatest teachers. Truly! You have to tear everything down to grow as a human being.
You started making music again, how did you find your way back?
It was a long process, I didn’t think I was going to make music again. But, life has its ways – everything for a reason, as my mom says. First, I was blessed with a family and a daughter, that gave me grounding. The love helped me heal. Then this little being taught me about beauty, spontaneity, presence... magick! She made it possible for me to make music again! Reminded me that your soul expresses itself naturally, and that it’s a part of your nature to create, just for the fuck of it – it’s like breathing. Along the way, I discovered John Cage and his whole idea of by-passing the ego in the creative process. I started to work with field recordings and noise, so I started to learn about pure sound. Then, the poetry, photography and the collages started coming. And, one day, I woke up with a feeling that there is a record stuck in me. I’ve never felt anything like this before! The feeling was so physical, visceral! I spoke to Jan (Wagner) about it, and he said why don’t we just start writing, and see what happens. In about four months, the record was done. It wrote itself! We just helped it along.
When one listens to your voice and this profound sound supporting it, it’s not difficult to get a sense of your soul. Is it hard to make art in such financially-challenging times and to be yourself in such a fake world?
At this point in my life, after all of these lessons were basically beat into me – reshaping my bones, realigning ms spine – I really can’t do anything else, but stay true to the moment and whatever a particular expression needs. It’s all about the pursuit of truth now, that’s it. It’s an intuitive process, and a full commitment. I can’t do it any other way, which is crazy! The mission now is to become a better channel. As per the financial aspect, well, at the moment I don’t have to pay bills with my art. I teach, I run a small consulting agency where I solve creative, visual identity and communication problems for other artists. These things are also dear to me, and they’re also creative, but in a different way.
You’ve recently released a new spoken word project called AINT ABOUT ME. The record was celebrated a few times on BBC 6 by Mary Anne Hobbs, Verity Sharp also played it on BBC 3 Late Junction. Can you tell us a bit about this record?
I call it hardcore spoken word, because its pure spoken word without any hooks or singing. The instrumentals are a fusion of jazz and ambient / drone soundscapes. Everything was recored off the meter, on natural feel. On most of the songs the words came first, then everyone played to the vocals. Jan Wagner wrote the main chunk of the music and produced the whole thing. I love him as a human being, and I really love his production style, which is fundamentally about capturing truth, that’s it! He just allows the music to happen.
We were blessed to have a lot of great musicians playing on this material. Simon Spiess aka Late Bloøm played reed instruments and reed instruments running through synths on several songs. The bass lines were thrown down by Petter Eldh, he also played some synths. Tobias Preisig played the violin parts. Benedikt Wieland dropped a bass line on the bonus song Micro Dose. And Rider Shafique dropped a punchline on one tune. And, because the record was released as a series of capsule products – like tapes, prints and a book – the father/daughter design/illustration duo: animisiewasz/rrrumburak, also blessed this project. Thanks to them the music gets to live through other types of media.
Is there a general theme running through the record?
There are a few. I mean, I’m still figuring this stuff out, as most of these songs were written on the fly, in a trance like state, a zone. There is a lot of material about death on it. Wrestling with the idea of mortality and how this notion of non-existence frames your life. There is a bit about depression and overcoming it. Lots about family. And, at the core, as the name of the project already implies, it’s about moving away from a self-centered existence and towards a more free and generous type of living. I’m still waiting to find out what others will discover. The most frequent reaction has been people breaking down and crying, after having heard it. The things they were holding in, were somehow released. And that’s a beautiful thing!
Did you expect that this project would have such a big impact?
I had no idea how this music was going to interact with the world, but I was centered in the fact that it’s pure and truthful. And that it has soul. It’s also the first thing that I made that I can fully stand behind. In that sense, it was already a win for me, from day one! Plus, I got to work with some of my favourite musicians and human beings.
Word is going around that AINT ABOUT ME will premiere its live show sometime in early 2021. Could you tell us what the idea for the show is, and how it feels to make this happen?
This is true! We want to make this happen! I don’t want to commit to any specific date nor any fixed idea, as what will be possible really depends on what life serves us. First of all, I hope that the planets align so that everyone who played on the record will be in the same space, to make this happen. The production value and the form will very much be dependent on how much time we’ll have to pull this off, and what resources we’ll be handed. If I had a budget for this, and a month to work on producing the event, I could come up with a fixed idea, but the reality isn’t such. Let’s just let it all play out naturally, like this record came to be. Wu-wei! (laughter)
In closing, can you share some inspirational quotes, ideas, songs, or any sort of inputs that you think could offer some positive energy for us in the upcoming months?
Meditation not only healed me, but makes for a truly beautiful and fulfilling life. It’s free medicine. It’s also a tool to keep your mind clear, to learn to understand yourself better, to de-program yourself from all the external influences. It increases your presence, here, and amplifies your perception so, if anything, I would recommend sitting! All you need is just a bit of time – and this you can scale as per what’s possible for you – and a sturdy pillow! My professor, back in college, used to say: meditation is not a means to an end, it’s the end in itself. Think about that!