As soon as we sit down for cup of tea in Vilnius’ Shakespeare Hotel, Andrius Mamontovas begins to give his advice about how Lithuania could produce an internationally recognised music act.
Dressed in a hoodie and a pair of jeans, with short and spikey salt-and-pepper coloured hair, the 48-year-old frontman of Lithuania’s most successful rock-band, Foje, tells Music Export Fund: “I think Lithuanian musicians are still trying to break through because nobody has really succeeded yet.” Mamontovas points to Ten Walls – a Lithuanian electronic musician and producer – who “destroyed his own career by not keeping his mouth shut”; a reference to when Ten Walls publicly equated homosexuality to paedophilia on his Facebook account in June 2015.
Prior to the controversy, Ten Walls’ song ‘Walking With Elephants’ peaked at #6 on the UK Singles Chart. “He was actually our biggest musical achievement so far, so it was really sad that it ended like that.”
“Let’s look at Iceland,” Mamontovas says, referring to a country even smaller than Lithuania. “For example, after the successes of the Sugarcubes and Björk, a lot of Icelandic music made its way out of the country. I guess Lithuania needs one big act to break through.” While Mamontovas has over 30 years of musical experience as part of Foje and as a solo artist, he admits he “doesn’t know” what he would do were he a young Lithuanian musician in 2016.The founder of Lithuania’s rock scene discourages the country’s new generation to not “copy Western music” and urges them to draw on originality.
“I already have my audience and people know my songs, so it’s a bit easier for me,” he concedes. In 1997, Foje played to 60,000 people in the capital city, Vilnius. “Lithuanians who live abroad usually have some sort of memory associated to my music because they were listening to it before and they always want to hear that – it’s partly nostalgia, and maybe some of them are homesick and want to re-experience these memories.“It’s why I travel a lot. I’ve been to pretty much every Lithuanian community abroad! I even played in Shanghai and Beijing. There were about 50 Lithuanians living in Shanghai and they all came to my concert, so that was a very interesting experience.”
Mamontovas feels current Lithuanian bands “have to do something that gets people’s attention – something original and with interesting music.
“Many bands [here] just copy Western music and some of them do it quite well, but to be internationally interesting, you need to do something that makes you unique.” Yet again, he refers to Iceland as being a good example of music export. “Again, if we look at Icelandic music, it has its own unique sounds; it doesn’t matter if it’s pop or rock, it has its own unique colours and singing methods. If you listen to Sigur Rós or whoever, you will say “oh, that’s from Iceland” while here in Lithuania, we are still developing.”
Mamontovas’ words could be interpreted as suggesting there is a level of musical stagnation within Lithuania, but he is keen to stress that the second Soviet occupation of the country from 1944 to 1991 seriously harmed the cultural sphere due to censorship from the authorities.
“Remember that we were isolated from the world for decades,” he smiles. “We’re still in this phase in which we are still trying to do something that has already been done. I guess the time will come when we develop our own style.”
Defining the “Lithuanian sound” is an easy task for Mamontovas and he believes electronica has the best chance to become the country’s first international success. In his view, electronica is most compatible with the “introverted” Lithuanian national character.
“I guess that electronic music is in the strongest position, because it is an introverted thing and Lithuania is a country of introverts; we are very good at sitting alone, not speaking to anyone and doing something by ourselves,” he continues – a valid point to remember when trying to understand Lithuania and the Lithuanians. Between sips of tea, Mamontovas then draws a parallel with the electronica genre and the Lithuanian-specific folk genre of sutartinės, which is based on loops and beats. “Electronica music is very natural for us, because it’s based on the same principles as sutartinės.”
After encouraging musicians to draw on Lithuania’s historical and cultural traditions, he begins discussing the country’s current rock movement – something he and Foje were largely responsible for during the perestroika-era Soviet Union. His desire for artists to be independent and free in their creativity and career choices becomes evident.
Mamontovas points to 20-year-old Benas Aleksandravičius – the front man of the alternative rock act, ba. – and describes him as “the face of Lithuanian rock right now and an incredible young person.”Speaking about Aleksandravičius, it seems appropriate to ask about the “scandal” of 2016; an event in which Aleksandravičius took his shirt off at the National Lithuanian Music Awards (Lithuanian: M.A.M.A.).
Imagine, a talented 20-year-old musician taking advantage of the seas of free alcohol on offer. It’s not like that’s never happened before, is it?The pictures of a half-naked Aleksandravičius made the headlines. A number of Lithuanian national journalists accused him of “having too much fun.” It might sound funny, but it had a similar impact to The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones referring to BBC presenter Bill Grundy as “a dirty sod” and “a dirty f**ker”, or Jarvis Cocker waving his a**e at Michael Jackson.
“About the press and their reaction?” asks Mamontovas rhetorically with a laugh and a broad smile. “F**k ‘em. They need to get a sense of humour or a sense of irony. They usually write seriously about stupid things and stupidly about serious things. Come on – they need to learn what entertainment is, and where the serious matters are. They’ve got it mixed up somehow.”
I let him continue about Aleksandravičius and the M.A.M.A incident; it’s clear he feels a connection to the young musician, and there is almost a feeling that Mamontovas – the father of Lithuanian rock – has an arm around Aleksandravičius – the country’s next big rock hope.
“I think what Benas did was fantastic and he reminded me of myself in my younger days!” he enthuses. “I met him last year and he gave me his debut album ‘RASTI/PASIKLYSTI’ and I liked it a lot. It’s a very interesting type of alternative music and there’s something really shamanic about it and it doesn’t matter if the lyrics are in Lithuanian.
“He creates a specific atmosphere and a feeling that I like a lot, and I couldn’t stop listening to his album for weeks. In fact, I think it was the best album of 2015, so that’s why I gave him an award!”
The “award” he is speaking about is a “Mamontovas Award”; something he created out of his own initiative as a reaction to M.A.M.A. He gave one of these to a clearly surprised and excited Aleksandravičius at the Muzikos Salė event in Vilnius at the end of February this year.Despite almost 30 years having passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, Mamonotovas is still fighting the establishment and what he perceives as injustice. “We have these M.A.M.A. awards, you know, and I asked them to not include me because they seem kind of wrong.”
His statement could be perceived as extreme, but he’s not alone. The awards have also come under criticism from journalists and other musicians for a lack of transparency. “It’s wrong because the people who decide on these awards – both on the committee and the jury – are also musicians or producers. We have a population of just under three million people, and this country is too small to award people in that way.”
Not content with criticising M.A.M.A for its perceived bias, he describes the awards as a “silly game”, which he is “tired of playing”. “So,” he continues, “that’s why I thought that I should maybe start my own type of awards with just me as the jury.”
He explains that the awards he gives to musicians are recycled Bravo awards; the now discontinued Lithuanian equivalent of a Grammy. “Back in the 1990s me and Foje received a lot of awards for best song, best act, best whatever! So, I’ve got a lot of these small statues and awards at home and they’re just sitting in my attic.”
Despite having a fanbase demographic of 25-55, Mamontovas’ next sentence confirms the underlying concept of rock music: to him, age doesn’t matter, it transcends borders, it isn’t about how many awards are in your trophy cabinet. It’s about not playing by the rules; it’s about getting a message across.“Why do I need these?” he says about his trophy collection. “Seriously, there are like 20 or 30 of them and I probably need only one or two for my kids, so I decided to give them to musicians I like. If I like someone or something, I take one of those old awards, take it to the manufacturer, put a pentagram or devil-horns on top, and then give it to the artist!”
Mamontovas’ questioning of awards and “the old guard” also extends to questioning LATGA, the Lithuanian organisation that manages artists’ copyrights and distributes their royalties. Seeking more transparency, Mamontovas left LATGA in 2012 to manage his own copyright and finances.
“I left LATGA because you never know what they do with any of the money,” he sighs. “If you try and find where your money goes, well, the radio station gets money, and the money goes to LATGA. However, when you try and find out, you will never get a straight answer about how they pay musicians and authors because they’re strong enough to protect themselves. Sure, I lost some income by leaving, but since I left, my nerves haven’t been frayed. I’ve been really happy for four years.”
Mamontovas does not go as far to admit that he would discourage Lithuanian musicians to join LATGA. “You know, it depends.” he begins. “Sometimes I organise my own concerts, and if I do a concert at a big arena, it’s better for me to not be part of LATGA because I can make more money that way. I win, because now I administer all the income from my music myself.Mamontovas also says that he was blacklisted by LATGA following his decision to leave. This meant his music could not be played on the radio or used in advertising. Despite informing a number of stations and ad-agencies that he was in charge of his music and they were able to “play it for free”, some radio stations still continued with the “ban”.
When asked whether a lack of transparency is a hangover from the Soviet period, he quickly responds: “Absolutely. LATGA has long hands, so they control everything. I travel around a lot and each time I come back to Lithuania, it has improved a little more. If you came here 25 years ago, you wouldn’t recognise it. It’s changed so much and for the better. However, mentalities take longer to change…”[Editor’s note: The European Union is taking steps to improve transparency in the collective management of music licensing – see here for more information].
With the past and the future of Lithuanian music export covered, it seems appropriate to turn the dictaphone off. As I do, Mamontovas pours another cup of tea, turns to me and asks: “So, you – what are you doing here?” I smile.
Thank you, Andrius and have a happy Independence Day.
In 2015, Mamontovas released his latest album ‘Degančios akus’. On March 26, he start its supporting tour in Palanga, Lithuania. April 26 he will perform in Vilnius, and May 26 he will play in London. Two further locations of the tour are in New York and Chicago.