Few bands know the darkness as well as Trupa Trupa. After all, the experimental post-rock group hail from Gdańsk, the Polish city also historically known as Danzig. It is the city where the German invasion of Poland began in 1939 and where tens of thousands of people lost their lives in the Stutthof concentration camp. It is the city where master pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was born and where the progressive mayor Paweł Adamowicz was murdered last year during a benefit event. But just now the world is going through one of its biggest crises since World War II, foreman Grzegorz Kwiatkowski sees reason for confidence.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photo: Michal Szlaga
"I think we should be more optimistic than usual." The lockdown has just started when the digital connection between Utrecht and Gdańsk is being established in fits and starts. Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, a man of great thoughts and long answers, remains calm. If your music and poetry are generally about genocide or related forms of hatred and murder, even a pandemic won't shake you. “In times like these, the sense of community grows. People are less selfish and more supportive of each other. Such a global threat is shocking, especially for people who have not experienced war situations up close. But I think it can also bring about a spiritual awakening. I hope that people will start to think differently about their lives, and that they will value their family and friends more. Of course a lot of people will revert to their old behaviour patterns after this crisis, but I really think that social movements can also emerge that will survive this period.”
It is a particularly hopeful message for a man who regularly cites his fellow townsman Arthur Schopenhauer as a source of inspiration, the pessimistic philosopher who cared so much about human suffering that life became difficult for him. “I think that Schopenhauer fits in well with this time,” explains Kwiatkowski. “He was not only pessimistic, but also realistic: even without a pandemic, many people die every day, from hunger, from old age or from diseases. We don't always realize that, because we don't like to be confronted with it. But we just have to accept that this world is fucked up, from A to Z. Even before the pandemic, the world was already a nasty, confusing place. Everyone dies sooner or later.”
"Even before the pandemic, the world was already a nasty, confusing place."
Such is the first lesson of Schopenhauer, in the lecture of Kwiatkowski. But – as the latter emphasizes – there is a second lesson. Namely that art is important, that art is one of the things that ensures that we can empathize with each other. “In times of suffering, that is an essential skill. In fact, Schopenhauer gives us some sage advice on what to do with our time now, which is to take in art and try to become better people.”
Kwiatkowski is aware that the music world will look different when the corona crisis is over. And that we will probably listen to music differently, or already do so now. “When you feel your life is in danger, you listen to someone who has something to say, not someone who just wants to entertain. I can already see that people need more serious music, which is romantic or a bit nostalgic. I also think that good art is aware of pain and suffering. That's why I like Joy Divison, Bob Dylan and Fugazi, who constantly think about the dark sides of our existence. The music of such artists can be frightening, because it's not just about fun stuff, but also about existential stuff. I think Trupa Trupa's music is appropriate for this period of tragedy.”
The lingering post-rock of the Polish foursome, who have been around for more than ten years, is indeed no easy feat. On the recent EP I'll Find, the quartet deal in ominous (yet stunning) shoegaze, enchanting psychedelia and expansive post-rock. The title of their second album Jolly New Songs (2017) is undeniably ironic and Of the Sun, released last year, is certainly not a sunny affair. No, the members of Trupa Trupa, who are not only musicians but also a poet, a photographer, a director and a journalist, like to be inspired by the darkest periods of history. For Kwiatkowski - who emphasizes that Trupa Trupa is not a monolith in which one member can speak for the whole band - this mainly concerns the Second World War, a period that is intertwined with his own family history. His grandfather was one of more than 10,000 inmates at Stutthof, the concentration camp located about 20 miles outside Gdańsk, where an estimated sixty to eighty-five thousand people were killed by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. When the Stutthof was the last camp to be liberated by the Soviet army on May 9, 1945, Kwiatkowski's grandfather was still alive. But he was scarred for life.
The concentration camp is now a museum. Kwiatkowski doesn't like going there. In fact, he has been at odds with the museum for years. It has everything to do with a discovery he made in 2015, together with bandmate Rafał Wojczal. In the woods around the former concentration camp, the pair came across thousands of shoes that belonged to prisoners from other camps, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. In Stutthof, prisoners were forced to search the shoes for valuables and then repair them so that they could be used by the German population. Kwiatkowski and Wojzcal were of course shocked, but the worst was yet to come. The Stutthof Museum initially didn’t want to know anything about the shoes. “They found the garbage, just waste that a war produces,” says Kwiatkowski. “It was only after I harassed them for years that they moved some of the shoes to the museum. And now they want to bury the shoes there, so they're hidden again. I think that's a terrible idea. I also know that it costs a lot of money to keep such things, but this is a spiritual thing. It's not about those shoes, of course, but about the people who owned those shoes."
The struggle with the museum brings out an aversion to injustice in Kwiatkowski. A form of misunderstanding and anger that also surfaces in Trupa Trupa's spine-chilling 'Never Forget'. In that song – inspired by Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary Shoah (1985) – the singer addresses Holocaust deniers and sings that the voices of the deceased sound like a midnight choir. In the shoegaze-like 'Remainder', Kwiatkowski is less poetic, but instead opts for the repetitive, minimalist phrases with which he often sketches macabre situations: “It did not take place”, he sings, time and again.
“I am a son of my city,” says Kwiatkowski about his fascination with darkness. “The son of a city with a history full of terrible events.” Last year, that bloody history took on a new chapter when progressive mayor Paweł Adamowicz was stabbed to death at a benefit event. “That was a tragic event for all of Poland, but especially for Gdańsk, because the city had become very open-minded under his rule.” Gdańsk is an exception in Poland, where democracy has been severely eroded in recent years by far-right parties. For example, in December 2015, President Andrzej Duda of the conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) signed a law limiting the power and independence of the Constitutional Court. Since then, that court no longer functions as a control body of the government. A month later, Duda signed a controversial media law allowing his government to appoint and fire the director and editor-in-chief of the public broadcaster. Duda's party is also putting more and more pressure on the judiciary in Poland. “Adamowicz was eventually killed by someone with mental problems, but there has been a lot of hatred for him and his progressive policies from far-right parties for years,” said Kwiatkowski. “Many people in Poland are afraid of change. They are afraid of everyone.”
Several times, Kwiatkowski describes this character trait as a form of devastation. He describes how the Polish population has been so devastated by its own history that people have become cynical. More than ninety percent of the people call themselves Catholic, but they actually don't believe in anything anymore, according to Kwiatkowski. “People hardly accept each other and don't love each other. They are humble and are suspicious of your success, especially abroad. When a well-known journalist from the United States writes about us, they ask how much we paid him. And when I dedicated our shows at South By Southwest to our murdered mayor, people thought I was being sarcastic. We still have a lot to learn here.”
“Many people in Poland are afraid of change. They are afraid of everyone."
Kwiatkowski sees the acceptance of our own dark side as the main lesson. “If you can't see it, you won't be able to change. The dark side of humans remains to me one of the greatest mysteries of human existence. It seems as if we can't - or don't want to - see that side at all. Even people who kill entire nations think they are doing a great job.” He therefore emphasizes that Trupa Trupa's music is not exclusively about World War II, and that the group do not want to be known as 'that band who sing about World War II.' “In a much broader sense, our music deals with the human ability to hate and kill one another. It's true that almost all of my lyrics are about genocide and that I like to be inspired by documentaries and diaries, but it's not like I'm doing musical archeology, as some people claim. Especially in a dark period like this, it suddenly appears that our music is not only about the past, but also about the present. And above all, that our music is not about ourselves. That is my main goal: awareness of the potential evil in myself. I have to fight my inner Nazi and be aware that evil is not in bad people or some virus, but in myself. Art helps me with that. Art – Thomas Mann's books, Ingmar Bergman's films, Michael Haneke's films – makes me a better person. Or at least makes me try to be.”
“I think that is perhaps the most hopeful thought: beautiful things can arise from a cruel, dark situation. That is the second lesson I draw from the history of Gdańsk. As with Schopenhauer, there is also an optimistic side to the story.” Kwiatkowski talks extensively about Lech Wałęsa, who grew up when communism gripped Poland after World War II. He worked as an electrician at the so-called Lenin yard in Gdańsk and founded the independent trade union Solidarność (Solidarity) there in 1980. The organization would play an important role in the end of the communist regime in Poland and the Cold War as a whole. In 1990, Wałęsa, who had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize seven years earlier, became Poland's first democratically elected president. “He was a kind of Don Quixote, who barely knew what he was doing and set himself the seemingly impossible task of destroying communism. But in the end he succeeded. In a way I can relate to those Don Quixote-esque qualities. My ego is also big. If someone tells me I can't do something, I say, ‘Really? Well, pay attention then.' That's actually how it works within Trupa Trupa. We are not professional musicians. We don't really know how to play our instruments, or how to record. Our most beautiful music is always the result of mistakes. Maybe that's why we stand out, especially now.” Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.