In the depths of Studio Faust Records in Prague is a sprawling live tracking space lovingly referred to as “The Basement of Hell”. The concrete labyrinth has a unique acoustic signature, as does studio founder Richard “Faust” Mader – a prominent guitarist on the Czech alternative scene under communism, with an enduring passion for vintage equipment and novel ideas. I joined him for a guided tour of the studio, immortalised in an album by the British post-punk band Killing Joke.
Over the past three decades, Studio Faust Records has been host to an eclectic array of international recording artists, from founding members of renowned bands such as Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, the Clash, Primal Scream and Sepultura, to new-rave band the Klaxons, Jamaican reggae fusion DJ Damian Marley, pop stars OneRepublic and rapper Ne-Yo.
A draw for many musicians is the state-of-the-art analog equipment on hand (including a collection of vintage mics, instruments and amps) – and what the studio bills as “some of the most vibey rooms in all of central and eastern Europe”.
“This is the so-called ‘Blue’ studio. It is not blue, but we call it that. Well, it has a blue floor. There’s a Steinway grand piano, a Hammond classical organ and such… We are based on vintage equipment.”
We begin the tour with a brief stop at one of four main studios, at that particular moment in use by an Australian sound engineer living in Prague, who has just arrived to start work on a project along with a visiting English musician.
Bidding them farewell, and with much jangling of keys, we progress through the underground labyrinth that is Studio Faust Records. Its halls are packed with vintage recording equipment, each with its story as to how it got there. After a peek at the two other studios, the “Green” and “Brown”, we reach the most fabled destination.
“So, we go to ‘Hell’ now.”
I’ve been sent there on one or two occasions, but actually never been...
“Well, it’s a large space, two-hundred metres, and great for recording drums. Or the whole band together can play here, in the two rooms. The acoustics are really very good for drums.
It’s about as sound-proof as you can get, down here.
“Yeah. And all of this space, we call ‘Hell’. The most famous band who recorded here was the British band Killing Joke, of Jaz Coleman. They were here for seven months doing their album ‘Hosannas from the Basements of Hell’. The title was named after this space. They loved it here! It’s all about this place – and the pubs around here.”
I’ll have to give it a listen…
I harbour thoughts of killing you
Pour petrol on you and then on me
But then I walk down the stairs
And Killing Joke waits for me there
Then we play - Go psycho!
– Killing Joke, Hosannas from the Basements of Hell
Richard “Faust” Mader is a computer scientist by education, having earned a degree in the late 1970s from the Czech Technical University (ČVUT), where he specialised in signal processing and computer simulation. His love of technology and music is evident as we wind up the tour, in a room at Studio Faust Records packed mainly with vintage synthesisers.
They include Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer “electric organs” – the grandfather of synthesizers – and some of the first portable analog synthesizers ever made, including a Minimoog, a Prophet-5 (an American model popular with Radiohead and Dr Dre), and a Soviet-made Polivox, favoured by acts such as Goldfrapp and Franz Ferdinand.
“This is another mastering studio for video editing and such. There are a lot of keyboards in here because a partner of ours, Robert Vašíček, a Czech-American who emigrated and is now back, Hammonds and some curious ones. So, it’s his stuff but we use. He imports them and repairs them.”
What are some of the instruments in the collection that are most interesting, most rare?
“The most rare … I have outside of Prague. But here are the ones we use regularly in the sutdio. Here’s the Prophet-5 – musicians love it. And these are the Russian Polivoxes. I have three here and one outside of Prague.”
And what makes these special?
“They were produced in the early Eighties in the Soviet Union as the answer to the Minimoog [the world’s first portable synthesizer]. The concept is practically the same, but the circuitry is completely different. It sounds very interesting and close to the Minimoog. It’s a similar concept, but the Russians always wanted to add something extra – in this case, you can use it as a two voice synthesizer. The Minimoog has only one voice.
“Yeah, it’s funny! This was made in a factory producing electronics for fighter jets. So, these knobs and switches and everything are the same as in old MiGs, the Russian fighters. And it’s very well built.”
So, where’s the ‘missile launch’ button?
“Yeah, exactly. They’re the same knobs as used in military equipment of in the eighties in Russia, or the Soviet Union.
“So, now what would you like to hear about? Our history, our plans?”
For starters, I’d like to hear about your own history...
Having read about the Czech alternative music scene of the 1790s and 1980s, I knew a little about “Faust” from his time in an avant-garde jazz-rock band called Combo FH. I also knew he had studied piano under Otta Sebastiani, the widow of an Austrian general, but shortly after her death, he took up the guitar: after winning a logarithm competition, “Faust” bought a Czechoslovak made Jolana “Alfa” and rarely looked back. What I was curious to find out was why, in 1969, he had returned to his occupied homeland from the United Kingdom.
“I was in Britain, or England, for nearly one year after the Russian occupation in 1968. At that time, I was 17. Returning was the hardest decision of my life, you know, whether to return or not. Already the regime was tough, Communistic, and there was a deadline at the end of September 1969, and anyone who didn’t come back before that date was officially criminal.
“I was 17, had my parents and brother here, all my relations. All our family was persecuted. If I stayed in England, they could maybe be arrested – I didn’t know what could happen. So, I came back. But when I got on the plane it was the hardest moment of my life. I could’ve stayed in England and studied there. Everything was ready. I had friends in the Czech department of the BBC in London, so they could have helped me. I finally decided, because of my parents and brother, to come back.”
Were you studying – or going to study – music there? Or did you get into that later?
“As a child, I had piano lessons, Otta Sebastiani, and I started to play guitar as a teenager, but really after I came back from England. When in England, I was lucky to be at this famous Hyde Park concert with the Rolling Stones in 1969. At the time, it was more like a party, but looking back it is a part of music history. King Crimson was there – which is my favourite band. I was very much influenced by that, so when I came back to this Socialistic system, I immediately formed a band and started to play rock and roll here.
“The first band was called Spectrum and later we formed Combo FH, and it became very well known. We worked together for ten years and recorded three EPs, and one LP, which was voted tops by a good musical journal not influenced by Communists at that time yet. It was an interesting time. That album was published by Recommended Records (RēR) in London.
“We didn’t use lyrics because any for any lyrics here, you needed to have the stamped permission to perform it. Our solution was to work do only instrumentals. But in the names of the songs – for example, ‘The Butcher Won’t Come Tomorrow’ (Řezník Zítra Nepřijede) – the people understood very well what we wanted to say, you know? So that was the way how in such a grey zone to play independently and not be arrested.”
After the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, Czechoslovak musicians who wanted to perform in public had to undergo requalification exams that included tests on their knowledge of Marxism-Leninism. A ban on English-language lyrics was also imposed. Still, Combo FH played regularly, including at festivals organised by the anti-establishment Jazz Section.
Combo FH certainly did invite scrutiny at times while still managing to put out albums. For example, they performed a song about six drowned women while standing up to their waists in the Sazava River. And one record included rhythmic sounds of slamming car doors – of a Tatra 603 (a luxury model used by the secret police, the StB) in combination with those of an ordinary Škoda – sending a specific, not altogether inscrutable, message.
Did you regret your decision to come back to Czechoslovakia, or is impossible to say, really?
“It is very difficult to say. If I was 17 and had decided to stay in England, God knows where I’d be. All of life would have been very different. Looking back, it was very interesting – but it was tough to be back in the system. When you are in opposition to the regime, the tension is everywhere, like in the US with the Vietnam War. On the other side, when you have to fight, you have more energy to do something. Otherwise, you can become lazy and boring.
“So, from this point of view, it was interesting, looking back, to be here. If the system didn’t change in 1990, it would have been really very sad. But for me, it was twenty years in Socialism and thirty years back. But we were an anti-communist family, so the family was persecuted. My grandfather had owned a factory and after 1948, he was a watchman there. My other grandfather had houses in Prague and had to work as a miner until his death in the Sixties.”
During the period of ‘Normalisation’, when the authorities really started to crack down on imports of Western music unless it was very non-political, how were you getting yours? Did you go to these bazaars in the woods and black markets at the top of Wenceslas Square and such places?
“It’s an interesting question because really I’m from that generation of musicians that started practically in the Sixties. It took some time until the regime took control of everything, and when I came back in ‘69, I could form a band and play around Prague, in pubs and so on, playing rock and roll and whatever we wanted with without limits. But slowly, after one year, the regime introduced controls, and by 1971 or ’72, it was already practically impossible to sing lyrics without permission. And so, we formed Combo FH in 1974.”
Czech Radio called Combo FH’s 1981 album Věci (Things) “among the most remarkable recordings in the history of Czech jazz-rock”. “Faust” left the band a few years later, when he felt they had become too mainstream. For his part, frontman and pianist Daniel Fikejz had this to said about his decade-long bandmate:
“Richard Mader is truly a unique guitarist. He’s not entirely a universal studio companion, but he sometimes plays beautifully bizarre things that other guitarists wouldn’t, that wouldn’t even occur to them. I remember him as always being quite distinctive.”
Faust went on to cut records with a number of other equally distinctive bands. At the same time, a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he got back into the computer field, as head of the Applied Cybernetics department at the Institute of Sports Medicine in Prague.
Two years after the regime fell, he returned to music full time, founding Studio Faust Records. And in that role, by all accounts, he is an ideal “studio companion”. The labour of love has also afforded him the opportunity to work with some of his idols. Among them is American guitarist Gary Lucas, a former member of Captain Beefheart, who has collaborated with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Nick Cave, and Lou Reed.
Back in 1996, Lucas and Faust’s band URfaust put out an album together called Pražská Strašidla (The Ghosts of Prague) on his label. They revived the project in 2013, under the name Gary Lucas & The Ghosts of Prague, adding, among others, Czech didgeridoo player Ondřej Smeykal and fabled British singer Pat Fulgoni, who spoke to BBC Radio about the collaboration:
“Together with a friend of mine, Richard Mader, who runs a great studio in Prague that Killing Joke and a lot of other big bands have used, we’ve got this project called ‘Ghosts of Prague’ – it’s quite Prog, actually – and every track has lyrics about a ghost story from Prague.
“It’s pretty nasty stuff, and I struggled with some of the lyrics that we ended up incorporating. I brought a demo of one of the tracks called ‘The Whore and Monk from Celetná Street’. Quite a nice topic, that. There’s lots of death on this album; lot’s of nasty stuff.”
The same year of that interview, in 2014, Faust Records released a vinyl LP called “Gary Lucas Plays Bohemian Classics”, on which the American guitarist takes on compositions by Dvořák, Janáček, Smetana as well as the underground Plastic People of the Universe.
It all fits into the greater ethos of Studio Faust Records to support interesting “alternative” projects. Asked how business is going at a time when so many artists are doing their mixing at home, and self-publishing on SoundCloud and the like, the ever-cheerful Faust had this to say:
“The advantage is that the building is my family’s property. Otherwise, I couldn’t pay the rent!”