Webster’s Dictionary defines scalpel as a small straight knife with a thin sharp blade used in surgery and dissection, associated with clinical precision. In this respect, Skalpel couldn’t be more aptly named. Their eponymous release on the enigmatic Ninja Tune label is a wonderful CD of cut up Polish Jazz, infused with a hiphop mentality. The cuts are so precise that sometimes you forget you are listening to a collage of tracks, and not some lost, original Eastern European jazz recording from the 60s.
Skalpel are Marcin Cichy and Igor Pudlo, from Wroclaw, Poland. Marcin Cichy, is the main speaker in our phone conversation, but Pudlo is in the background, confirming details, like their age (29 and 37 respectively). Knowing very little about Poland’s scene, I asked what it was like over there. “We can only say that it is very poor, that’s why we’re releasing our record outside of Poland,” Cichy says in a think accent. “There is no press for electronic music, and only two or three labels that deal with this kind of music. So if you want to make a living in Poland making music it is impossible because you can’t sell more than say a thousand electronic CDs, I think we do much more interviews for Australia than in Poland,” he laughs. Quite a tough gig, and it’s surprising that they got heard at all. But due to modern technology, they managed to get their tape to Ninjatune’s Solid Steel radio show, which attained them some notoriety.
Having interviewed DJ Vadim for one of the rare magazines that dealt with electronic music in Poland, the pair was soon discussing samples, obscure breaks and the Polish music scene with him. This led to combined tour with Vadim’s Russian Percussion, at which they presented an amazing 4-deck show all over the country. Later that year Skalpel released a demo, Polish Jazz, which not only received a lot of critical acclaim, but also led to the duo signing a contract with Ninja Tune, because of the quality of the music enclosed.
“We listen to different music,” Cichy says of Skalpel’s musical tastes. “We listen to old music, 60s, 70s. Igor is into the Beatles, the B52s, punk rock, and I listen to hiphop, warp records, funk and that. But for this record we’ve concentrated on the Eastern European sounds. We wanted to develop sampling this sound; we concentrated on records you don’t get to hear and sounds you haven’t heard before. We’re Polish, and we use Polish samples, this is our image and the way we do things,” he states.
Polish Jazz has had a rough time of it, having been outlawed by the communist government since the 50s right up until the 80s. “They didn’t like it because they connected Jazz with freedom, and it was something they didn’t want,” Cichy explains. “For example, we sampled one track from a Polish movie, which was called ‘All that Jazz’ (Byl jazz), and it is a film about the first Polish jazz band Melomani. The film was forbidden in Poland as well.” The film was made in 1981, 30 years after the group it was based on, but still seen as too risqué in its home country. As one would expect, this makes it hard to find records as well. “When it comes to vinyl it is really hard to find, because it wasn’t released in Poland, but now there have been some early jazz re-released on CD. Most of the good records went to Germany,” Cichy laments.
Through such things as Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it’s incorporation into the European Union, Poland has become a growing modern nation-state, and as such has had access to a wider range of technology. “It’s different than in the 70s or 80s now, you can get anything, it’s just a matter of money. When you live in Poland, you make very little money, and everything costs a lot more than in other countries,” Cichy says, and then explains its easier to go to Germany to buy sound equipment, simply because of the cost.
“The whole album was made at our house,” Cichy says of producing the album “We’d start at Igor’s house, talk about music and records, drink our cups of coffee of course, then come to my house and put stuff together. We don’t need a studio; we just need good computers with a good sound card, that’s all. It’s not music about hi-fidelity sound; we look for particular sounds that will represent the Skalpel sound, and we don’t remove noise from the records. We like it to sound a bit dirty,” he laughs. “We wanted to name it ‘From A Dusty Crate’, and we wanted to capture that old sound, so it sounds like those old records you found in your basement or somewheres.”
Totally intrigued by their sound, I had to know if there were any plans to tour outside of Europe. “If it comes to recreating the LP live, we don’t think that’s possible,” he says. “But we do our live thing, which is a 4 turntables thing with our VJ, and we create a different experience. We do ‘Adventures in Space’ which is based on spoken word from children’s records based on space, and we play abstract beats and our VJ plays visuals to that.” Which, of course, sounds even better, but it looks like we won’t get a chance to see that, as Skalpel will be busy promoting this record, and preparing for the next one. But that’s not too bad, for now we can listen to Skalpel’s debut on NinjaTune.