Interview with Bernd Joachim of Bright Eyes Germany

Until about two years ago I did not know that much about Milan Polak. We first got in touch when I reviewed his instrumental CD “Dreamscapes” that I was pleasantly fond of. A friendly e-mail correspondence followed which resulted in one of the coolest “Dreamscapes - In His Own Words” stories ever published on Bright Eyes. Next the CD “Guitar Odyssey” was released and two years later “Straight” featuring vocals, his own vocals! I gave it a phat 10 out of 13 and praised it a lot but Milan wasn’t quite happy with the comparisons to other bands and he made no secret of it. Since e-mail just can’t replace a personal dialog, it was about time to talk to the Austrian born musician to avoid misunderstandings. This led to a very interesting conversation but read for yourself:

Hey, you don’t really sound Austrian: Well, I did not really grow up in Austria. I was born there but very soon moved to various countries such as Kenya, Korea, Saudi-Arabia and a few others. So I guess, I haven’t really been influenced by any Austrian impacts too much…

As said before your “In His Own Words” was awesome. For sure many musicians before you have endeavored but with regards to depth, honesty, humor, esprit and enthusiasm none could even come close to you. This leads to the assumption that you are every inch a musician: Yes, definitely! I can tell you a true story to any of my songs. That wasn’t something just related to the songs of “Dreamscapes”. In the “Straight” songs you have lyrics anyway, so that’s pretty self-explanatory. With instrumental songs it’s a bit different. For me it’s always important that the song tells a story, even when there are no lyrics. I don’t like songs that sound constructed, then I miss the flow. Especially with a lot of instrumentals that is the case, unfortunately. A lot of times when people get too much into music theory and scales, etc. they start losing that musical sense. But take Steve Lukather (Toto) for instance, a great guy and awesome guitarist – he knows a lot about music & theory but when he plays, it’s just guts and feeling. And I think you can hear that. Well, some people prefer constructed stuff and some rather dig what comes from your heart & soul – and  I definitely prefer the latter. That’s kind of like a thread running through everything I do, no matter if instrumental or with lyrics. All my compositions have a story to tell because they origin from an emotional background not a rational one.

So are you self-taught or naturally gifted? Well, I don’t think that one contradicts the other but let me put it like this: In my opinion there is no such thing as natural born. I think that’s nonsense. You may be born with a talent but you still have to work hard. When I was 13 years old some grown-ups already asked me, “Hey what are you playing there?” and at 15 I already had my first studio jobs and band sessions. But it did not just happen like this… I just played my guitar all day long. I had this old record player with different rpm settings where I could slow down all my records and record the slow versions on tape. And that’s how I analyzed and transcribed my favorite players. I have very fast motor skills by nature and tend to learn repetitive movements faster than others. That’s how I also destroyed quite a few tape decks because I pushed the play-stop-rewind-stop-play buttons so quickly that it wore out the mechanics, and I have also managed to make one or two digital machines crash already… (laughs) But then again you may be blessed with fast motor skills but as a matter of fact you can teach motor skills to an ape, haha. So it’s nothing to be proud of, I feel. I like to compare this to racecar drivers like e.g. Michael Schumacher who is arguably one of the best drivers in F1 racing history. Maybe he has a few preconditions in his brain that make a few switchings work faster than with others but still, without training, practice and getting acquainted with the race track, he can never win a race. Talent simply isn’t everything…

And how many hours of practice does Mr. Polak still need these days? Actually, I don’t practice at all anymore. But there was a time when I did practice. When I began to teach at the American Institute of Music when I was around 20, I started to analyze and optimize the things I played because I simply could not get in front of a class and play without knowing what I was doing exactly. So, does that mean you change heart & soul into notes and theoretical rules? No, rather the other way around. I prefer adapting music theory to the fretboard. I always stuck with Charlie Parker’s quote, “Learn everything, forget it and play.” I personally am not familiar with Jazz music at all but that’s an interesting thesis. Well, it’s not so much about Jazz or the music style. This goes for any kind of music. I do not really label music or divide it into styles as you can also tell when listening to my instrumental CD’s. I see it like this: There are 12 notes in Western world’s music – some cultures have tones and therefore 24 notes – and you can deal with those in various different sounds, rhythms, musical styles and what not but they will always remain those 12 notes. So you can either use them to create trash or good music. And that again is left up to the eye of the beholder. That’s the big difference between music and sports (to stick with this comparison): If you run a mile in minimum time, you’re the best, you’ve won. Period. It’s not about taste or emotions. You can be a huge asshole or you can be the nicest guy in the world, you can be arrogant or down to earth, it doesn’t matter – if you run that mile in minimum time, you’re the king, you get your contracts, the big money, etc. and everyone loves you. With music it’s different, kind of like cooking. You can cook a meal and one person says it tastes great, the next one immediately asks for the salt shaker and the third one yells, “Hey, it’s got too much salt in it!” There is no “salted perfectly”. One person may think Eric Clapton is the best guitarist of all time because he’s got so much blues feel and another person may think that Yngwie Malmsteen is the best because he can play so fast and a third person will tell you that Keith Richards is the best because he wrote the most famous riffs. So who’s right? Me, of course because the best guitarist of all time is Rory Gallagher! See? There we go! And that’s the beauty about music & art – you can’t measure it.

That’s true - music is hard to measure. But if musicians and bands create complete crap even non-musicians can tell. I always say, “If you want to get a first impression about a country check out the government, the commercial ads on TV and the charts.” but on the other hand there is always the commercial aspect to music. So, after all what’s better – my new CD “Straight” or a stupid dance floor song made with samples and computers by guys that can’t play and know shit about music? Your average Joe will tell you that the latest smash hit performed by a boy band put together in a casting show and blown up by the media, who can’t even play an instrument properly, less write their own songs, is much better than my stuff. Most people think that whatever sells most is the best - something that I don’t agree with at all. That’s like saying, “McDonalds has the best food in the world.”…

Just like it is the case with Pop Idol, American Idol, DSDS in Germany and many others. What do you think about these kind of shows? I have written a song about this called “Superstar Mania” where I speak my mind. I used to assist the contestants of the Austrian equivalent called “Starmania” who stood there shivering with fear, most of the time not being able to sing a single note. Well, today one or two of them have become starlets and barely recognize me anymore… (laughs) But once in a while there is a real talent amongst the attendants, so I wouldn’t generally say these shows are bad.

Well, I did not mean to say that. I am sure that all the final contestants are good singers but what really pisses me off is that these guys become stars just like that without going through the school of rock (writing your own songs with your buddies in a stinky cellar rehearsal room, scraping together your money for studio recordings, playing live in lousy shit holes to get some recognition, all the blood, sweat & tears, etc…)! Hmmm, I don’t think that the all contestants in the final round are good singers. I make no bones about it. Most of them have the level of a karaoke bar. This whole karaoke thing is totally disrespectful towards real musicians. Some totally drunk guy trying to impress his girlfriend by bawling along some songs… spare me! Same goes for girls, btw. And I totally agree with you regarding your school of rock point. In my song “Superstar Mania” I say, “Come on have you paid your dues, it takes years of blood sweat and tears, till you can play the Blues“. Exactly what you just said. I mean, these little brats turn into superstars literally over night made by mass media and they just do not deserve it because to become someone you have to work hard and grow and go through different things & phases. And so they don’t really appreciate it. A research has proven that most people who win the lottery are broke after one year. If you just win the money and did not earn it with hard work, you don’t really appreciate it. You can’t handle it, you just don’t have the feel for it – easy come easy go. And let’s be honest: Where are all those superstar wannabes six months later? C’mon, you don’t even remember the names of most of them after a few months…

Exactly! Milan also added another interesting thought: The basic principle of this business is ingenious, though. You create a media platform with which you can gloriously fuck people over by letting them choose their superstar. Just give them the feeling that they are in control. Some doubters claim that the votes are being faked. No, I can confirm you that they are not being faked. Why should they? The principle is much simpler: YOU tell me who you want ME to sell to you. I offer you 10 people to choose from and you tell me, “Produce this guy or that girl!” and I know that you will buy his or her CD (which I wrote and produced) from me… All I need to do is create a platform for people where they can call and ask to be fucked over (fee required, of course – thank you for calling). A brilliant system but the aspiring “artist” is being left behind… Because then the record companies start calling the publishing companies and the publishing companies then call us song writers and ask us to compose songs in this or that style. There are exceptions to the rule but generally these casting show winners cannot play any instruments – and if you cannot play an instrument, you cannot write songs. And if you cannot write your own songs, you will always be dependent on others to compose for you. But the songs will never belong to you and they will never be a part of you. You will always be the puppet on a string dancing on stage like a jumping jack if the big boss pulls the strings in the background.

You might as well call it “prostitution”, I guess. Those girls & boys are basically the whores for the musically phlegmatic punters of our population. Exactly! See, the thing is we live in a world today that is full of desperate people who are willing to do anything for 15 minutes of fame. They appear on reality shows, perform in casting shows or make fools of themselves in any other way imaginable – doesn’t matter, just as long as they are on TV for 15 minutes. And then there are smart business people who offer platforms for this phenomenon and tell those profiling neurotic victims what to do. They say, “Jump!” - you say, “How high?”. These business men make money on those fools just like milking a cow. And if the cow stops giving milk, slaughter the cow and get the next one.

And knowing these tendencies it is somewhat consoling that there are still real musicians out there, just like Milan Polak, who keep the spirit of real music alive, work hard, sweat & bleed, even if they are not always in the spotlight. Another recent example would be REO Speedwagon who performed at the Sweden Rock Festival 2007: Old, grey-haired rockers who where rocking out so hard that even fans of Black Metal or Blues were amazed. That’s music celebrated with heart’s blood, expertise, conviction, joy, honesty and long lasting experiences of ups & downs! Yes, but the way I assess the current market situation there are these bands like REO Speedwagon, Journey, Police, etc. who have been around for 10, 20, even 30 years and built up a steady following. If you are new it’s quite impossible to get into that ring because times have changed. That’s also what A&R’s of record companies will tell you. If you took a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody” to a record company nowadays, it would be kicked out for sure, and I mean we’re talking about one of the biggest hits in music history. But there are still people like you and me who appreciate good quality music and are willing to spend money on it and also who can afford spending money on music. I find it real hard to understand the policy of record companies, who invest in acts whose target audience doesn’t even have pubic hair yet. For these kids it’s not cool anyway to buy CD’s! They find it much cooler to download illegally. And then record companies complain about their financial losses and the vicious download problem… But the real AC/DC or Van Halen fan will always buy the new CD just because it says Van Halen or AC/DC on the cover. He/she wants the original, the real booklet and is willing to pay 20 bucks for it. That’s a true fan base. Most of the new acts do not have such a fan base – it’s Justin Timberlake yesterday, Britney Spears today and Christina Aguilera tomorrow. Most of them are nine day wonders – even though I have to say that Christina is an amazing singer.

So, what is a musician like you doing to be successful despite these structures? What keeps your faith in real music alive? Well see, I don’t believe that my CD’s will be a huge success or anything like that. It will never happen, I am realistic about that. But I cannot change who I am. It’s about – as you mentioned before – prostituting yourself. I am probably the world’s worst liar and actor. I just can’t get on stage, jump around like a dance floor act and sing about how happy we all are and how great this world is – nobody would buy it. The only thing I can pull off authentically is what I am doing. If somebody else likes it or not is not the approach to why and how I am doing things. Of course, it’s a nice side effect if people like my songs. The music player on my MySpace profile for instance displays a total of 74.000 plays as we speak (Sept. 15, 2007) and that’s quite a bit, I’d say. I mean, I do not force anybody to go to my profile and listen to my songs - people do it voluntarily. I also have a few videos on YouTube and the word spreads slowly but steadily. That’s what I like about these platforms – you can do your own thing self-supporting kind of like a Guerilla in the underground.

Mr. Polak has both his own individual homepage and his MySpace profile and both have their justification. MySpace is everything at one glance, my official site is more in depth. I noticed that you only have your management displayed as a contact possibility. Why is that so? Well, I’m afraid I’ve had some really bad experiences with getting too personal. It seems like the more well known you get, the more you attract loonies and people with bad intentions. When I think of all the things that I have experienced so far it makes me wonder what happens to the really big stars… People suddenly appear out of nowhere claiming that I stole their songs. People just creep out of some hole, scent the big money and want a piece of the pie even before there is even a pie. And then there are also some crazy women stories… I have to say that I now do understand how women feel when they get sexually harassed by guys. Well, women are emancipated nowadays, so they claim their right to be sexist too and this can become irritating sometimes if it gets extreme.

Is “Psychobitch” related to such an experience? What’s the story? Well, as I said before all the stories in my songs have a real background, that goes for “Psychobitch” too. This song is about a woman I knew 2, 3 years ago. The message of the song is that a relationship always ends the same way it started. For example: If you meet a woman who is still in another relationship and she starts cheating on that guy with you, you can be pretty sure that one day you end up standing in this guy’s shoes. When I wrote the lyrics I was expecting to get one or the other angry e-mail from women. (laughs) The funny thing is, I get messages from women on MySpace almost every day saying that they love “Psychobitch” or they want to be my “Psychobitch”. Some girls even add the song to their profile.

At this point our interview had lasted for only 45 minutes and we kept going like this for at least another hour. If you wish to read a sequel to this interview please send me an e-mail (bernd@brighteyes.de) with subject “Milan Polak continued”.