The Pioneers of Polish Rock are Celebrated by Thrash Kings Metallica
Words: TK Smith
I first became aware of iconic Polish blues rock band Dżem (“Jam Session” in English) in the late nineties when the internet began to spread around the globe. Already a fan of British electric blues, I was struck by Dżem fearless guitar sound and vocalist Ryszard Riedal whose whisky-soaked baritone was often compared to Jack Bruce (Cream), Greg Allman and Free/Bad Company front man Paul Rodgers. From their first recording Cegla in 1985 the five-six piece provided a gracious tribute to 70’s American and British artists while embracing their Polish roots in a unique and intoxicating cultural blend. Brothers Adam (guitar) and Benedykt "Beno" Otreba (bass guitar) along with lead guitarist Jerzy Styczynski are the three founding members still touring with the group today. Joined by drummer Zbigniew Szczerbinski, keyboardist Janusz Borzucki and vocalist Maciej Balcar, they have continued writing and recording. Though their last studio record Muza was released in 2010 the band keep an active tour schedule of 50-plus shows a year.
This past spring, Bay-area thrash band Metallica surprised a sold-out Kraków audience with their rendition of the Dżem classic “Wehikul Czasu” (Time Machine). The ripple effect caught the group off guard as social media lit up immortalizing the 30-year old tune. With over two dozen records to their name, Dżem have become one of Poland’s treasured music ambassadors. Adding to their list of accomplishments was being asked to be Eric Clapton’s back-up band for his concert in Gdynia in 2008. A long list of songs continues to make the group’s numerous compilations including “Czerwony jak cegła” (Red as a Brick), “Whisky”, “Harley mój” (My Harley) and personal favorite “Ostatnie Widzenie”. Their rhythm section and conservative blues guitar style lay the foundation for their soulful delivery. We caught up with the band this summer on their festival circuit through Poland to fully appreciate their extraordinary live show and get some added insight into the group’s 40-year career.
The Electric Beard: Did it surprise you when Metallica did a cover of “Wehikul Czasu” at their April concert in Krakow? What was the reaction by the member of Dzem? It has over a million views online. That’s incredible!
Beno Otręba: My friends and colleagues, who were at the concert, sent me recordings by phone, where the whole Tauron Arena stadium (and there were quite a lot people there) sang “The Time Vehicle” (Wehikuł Czasu) together with Robert Trujillo (Metallica bassist). It gave me the shivers. Later, I watched it on the official Metallica YouTube channel. It was a shock and at the same time, an incredibly cool moment.
TEB: It has been almost 40 years since you started as a band, in your opinion, what keeps the fans coming back year after year? What is it about your music that resonates with such a wide audience?
Beno: We play a lot of concerts through the year and are glad that we have a dedicated audience. Our music reaches a wide range of people. We are very happy that we can “keep” fans entertained all night. They listen to us with interest which means together, we all enjoy the concert. Our music has so much passion. Listening to and playing music is the most important thing in our lives and we are lucky enough to be able to make our living in this way.
TEB: There is a lot of British influence in your music Free, Cream and some Deep Purple. Is your influence more about the British bands or the blues masters that they emulated?
Beno: At the beginning it was just as you say: The Cream, Free and Deep Purple [smile] and, of course, Jimi Hendrix, who, despite being an American, lived in Europe. Later, thanks to Channel 3 on Polish Radio and a few presenters who were blues geeks, we heard many great black bluesmen. We started collecting their records. The first one was The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions, recorded with Eric Clapton and the rhythm section of The Rolling Stones. Also, Peter Green with Fleetwood Mac in Chicago 1969. So, in this way, through the white bluesmen we reached their influences. It was a great way to learn about the original blues because, in Poland, we weren't familiar with that kind of music. To this day, we listen equally to British and American blues including The Allman Brothers Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
TEB: Were there any Polish bands from the 1970s (or earlier) that you would also consider influences?
Beno: Yes, in the ‘60s it was undoubtedly Polanie, the first Polish R&B band. They performed in the Netherlands for a long time, where they met Eric Burdon and started listening to completely different music. Later, of course, it was Breakout (earlier called Blackout), featuring blues great Tadeusz Nalepa, with whom we had the opportunity and pleasure to play with. These were the bands that we listened to very carefully and learned a lot from. We also listened to various Polish music, which was interesting too. There were bands like: Dżamble or Klan, that preferred to play more rocky pieces. Dżamble were set in Rhythm & Blues and Klan were more psychedelic rock.
TEB: A large part of your early sound was, in part, the vocals of Ryszard Riedel. Was it difficult to carry on after his passing? What was it about Jacek Dewodzki that made him right for the next generation of the band?
Beno: Rysiek's death was a shock to us, even though we knew he had been in a serious condition. Drugs had already taken their toll abundantly and we were afraid that was going to happen to him. We hoped, however, that everything would end up well, even though Rysiek was suspended from the band in order to get help. That was what the doctors advised us. It came as a shock that he died, and the world collapsed for us. However, we had already had some material prepared with Rysiek for a new album and decided to keep on working on it. The result was the first album with Jacek, “Kilka zdartych płyt”. It was supposed to be rockier, more sharp by definition (as agreed with Rysiek). Such criteria were used in the competition for a new vocalist. Jacek won the competition because he had a rock voice and we did not want him to resemble Rysiek. He was the first one to take it on his shoulders. He was not our fan and only knew “Whiskey” and did not know what Dżem's popularity was about.
TEB: Today you have Maciej Balcar as the singer. He is very powerful and reminds me of Johnny Van Zant (Lynyrd Skynyrd). What is the writing relationship like between the singer, the rhythm section and the guitar players?
Beno: We listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers a lot, to this day, I like to listen to the whole discography. In general, I listen to music a lot and often come back to our root influences because I really love this period in music. As to the process of creation itself, when someone from the band brings an idea, it is obvious that they already have the harmony and the melody that they can hum or keep it somewhere in their head. Then the vocalist interprets it in his own way (it was similar with Rysiek), but the whole band works on arranging the piece, hence the continuity of sound that makes it ours.
TEB: As far as I know, the last album of new material was the excellent Muza (2010). Do you have plans for another studio recording?
Beno: We always think about the future and about a new album. Everyone has some ideas. This winter we will have a little more time to think and work a little, so maybe we will be able to release something for our 40th birthday anniversary next year, but let it remain a surprise [smile].
TEB: I was living in a Polish neighborhood of Chicago in the early eighties. I was exposed to much of the news regarding Solidarity and Martial Law in Poland at the time. What effect did that have on the early days of the band?
Beno: We lived through that period and each of us was interested in it and supported it. We even wrote the piece “The Hard Year 81” (Ciężki rok 81). It was the beginning of our career and we worked hard on our material because we wanted to play our own original stuff. Those difficult times made us write stories about life, about people’s drama and the difficulty of everyday living. You may not imagine it now but for Christmas holiday, there was a lack of our traditional Polish carp.
TEB: Looking over your touring itinerary the band is incredibly busy on the road. Are you surprised by the longevity of the band? Did you think the band would still be playing together 40 years later?
Beno: We have never had any far-reaching plans. At the most, we were planning a year ahead or some important event, like now with the 40th anniversary of the band approaching. We had to think how to play it out, how to organize it. Maybe that is why we have survived so long, because we played from year to year and that time somehow went by [laughter]. We have always been passionate about playing and we do it for the love of it. “That's why we have such a dedicated audience, I guess. We have one life, not one life and one job, so we cannot imagine life without playing.
TEB: My favorite Dzem records are Zemsta Nietoperzy and Detox. Are there any plans to re-issue vinyl versions of your earlier LPs?
Beno: We are releasing re-edited albums on analog vinyl at the moment. We do it according to the scheme: the first and the last one, until they meet somewhere “in the middle”. As for ‘Zemsta Nietoperzy’ and ‘Detox’, they are my favorite albums too, but not only these, because all children are loved equally [laughter]. These two albums were particularly memorable for us, because during the recording of ‘Zemsta Nietoperzy’ we replaced the drummer. We recorded the album with Krzysztof Przybyłowicz, who had played in the jazz band String Connection. After the release of the album, drummer Marek Kapłon started playing with us and Michael Giercuszkiewicz left the band. ‘Detox’, on the other hand, was also specific because the drummer of the SBB band, Jerzy Piotrowski, played with us on that record. This was our first album to be released 100% from our own funds, so as part of the so-called savings, we recorded the whole album within 36 hours. Maybe this is why it sounds so energetic [laughter].
TEB: What do the symbols associated with your logo represent (arrow and cross)?
Beno: They are the symbols of a man and a woman, which we came across when we were in Switzerland in the mid-1980s. A circle with the cross pointing down was the symbol of the female sex, and with an arrow at an angle upwards, of the male. We were afraid that we would mess it up and we would enter a wrong toilet [laughter].
In the name, there is everything that happens between the man and the woman, that is the whole life and the story connected with it. There is no hidden meaning in our logo, despite the fact that some people are trying to find it [smile].
TEB: Where do you see yourselves in the pantheon of Polish music?
Beno: We do not think in such terms because we constantly think about playing and we do love it. Of course, we are aware that in some way we are creating history, we are creating something that we hope will remain in people's memories. However, as we have no influence on how it will be assessed and classified afterwards, we do not think about it.
Dzem’s live shows are an exhilarating experience. Packed with energy and an encouraging audience, the band will play an average of two hours a night and feature some 18 songs. With a career spanning 40 years, the band have much to choose from but largely all the hits are there from “Gorszy Dzien” and “Mamy forse, many czas to “Harley Mój” “Wehikul Czasu” and “Whiskey”. A special thanks to Benedykt “Beno” Otręba and Blazej Otręba for making this interview happen. Cheers!