But that’s what happened to me in late 2013 when I was living in Paris and, having recently graduated, I was trying to earn some extra money by teaching Croatian and French, when a certain Bill Gould of Faith No More fame reached out. He’d decided to attempt Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian for the sake of work – his production company works with Dubioza kolektiv, a Bosnian group – but also for friendship. “To be able to communicate with people from the region I have many friends in”, he said.
Four years later, I sat down with Bill (virtually, by Skype from his Parisian home where he spends at least a month a year) to discuss what it’s like to do business in the Balkans, what challenges he encounters through his work, and how he chooses the bands he works with.
So Bill, let’s start from the very beginning – how did you end up in the Balkans for the first time?
Originally, I played in Faith no More, and I’d say that Europe was probably where we have been the most successful than anywhere else in the world, and it’s because of that we toured there the most. From 1988 to 1996 we were coming to Europe all the time. We played in Berlin the night the wall fell, we went to places like Prague in early days [after the fall of communism], and really early on we went to Ljubljana – we got to be in that part of the world as the things were changing. The war was happening there, within Yugoslavia, and it was my first experience with this region. Nobody knew where things were going, and how the things were going to work. That got me interested. I came back three years later. What I learnt back then made me want to learn more, and I just kept coming back. I started learning from people who put up shows in the area, made a lot of contacts there, made tours there. The more I knew about the region, the more I become involved.
Ever since, you’ve spent a lot of time in the Balkans, privately and professionally, since your company Koolarrow Records produces Dubioza Kolektiv. Is there anything specific to the region in relation to the ways people do business around here?
I think there are some cultural differences. There is a reputation of the Balkans being a place in which you can’t do business, but I don’t know why – in my experience the people have been completely trustworthy. I haven’t had a single bad experience in 15 years, and that says a lot. I actually haven’t had any bad experiences, where I was ripped off or when things weren’t done as promised. Making the effort to go there, I think money can be a little less, but tends to be a great time.
And, having toured a lot in both Europe and the US, what can you tell me about the differences in the musical business in these two parts of the world?
One really interesting thing about the business in Europe are the festivals that happen here. A lot of them are organised in co-operation with local cities and towns, so that they can put up interesting line-ups – very diverse – whereas in the States these don’t happen as much. Festivals tend to be completely privately run and done through sponsors. It really affects the quality in terms of what happens and what gets played. I think there is a really big difference. It is of course expensive for a band to tour in Europe if they come from overseas, from the United States. But I think, in general, it is much more easier to do things here than in the States. I think that in the States it is much more difficult to be a musician.
You are not only a musician however – you have been running your own production company for a while. You’ve witnessed all sorts of changes in the industry. What’s the biggest change and the biggest challenges for you now in the production business?
There’s no money, that’s the biggest challenge! I would have expected that, as the money goes down in the business, the content would improve, because you would be getting more people who would work for the love of the art, rather than because of getting rich. But what seems to be happening is that the industry actually becomes more conservative. The money’s getting tight, and people want to work with something that they know is going to sell for sure. So actually the environment has become much more conservative. Also, the industry becomes more about the marketing, and less about the content itself. The costs haven’t changed much since 20 years ago, so if you want to hire a PR person in Germany, it wouldn’ cost you much more money, but the sales are much, much less. You can’t look at it in a way to make money anymore, you have to look at it as the way of being part of the system that helps musicians. You are really a PR person for musicians yourself.
How do you chose musicians you want to work with. The bands under your label are very different in style?
When FNM split up in 1997, I wanted to keep working with music, and the big thing that was inspiring me is what I was learning from other places. So a label seemed like a way where I can do something that I was going to do anyway. I thought I could help bands out to try to build their profile, be a pipeline to the US for them, and also have an excuse to travel and get to learn new cultural things.
Choosing bands I work with is very subjective. From a marketing perspective it is probably not very smart because it is harder to define what my label does, in the musical sense, but as a musician if I see that a band has something that would be lost, and I can help them with what they have, that is what kind of gets me involved. For example, when I first met the guys from Dubioza Kolektiv, they were frustrated about things. They had a really good thing going on in their country, but then there was this glass ceiling, they couldn’t get out of Bosnia. When I see that a band has the potential, but there are all these walls around them, that makes me want to roll up my sleeves and fight with them. And, of course, the music had to kind of interest me as well, being a musician. These are the two main things.
When I think of FNM, I think that it never aimed to be an ‘easy’ band, or, better said, not a band aiming at easy success. Do the bands you are producing follow this pattern? Is there a pattern?
There is for me, because I believe there is a bigger pay-off to do something that’s not typical, to do something interesting and make it work. It is much more work, but the reward is much better. In my band, it was definitely that, and I like to find bands that are doing things a little bit different, and that have the potential to make an impact in non-conventional ways.
We are talking about cultural expression, and as an artist, to make an impact on the culture means sometimes to bring in different energies instead of typical energies, and creating a dissonance that wakes things up. I think that with pop culture there is a tendency to reinforce things that work, because it helps the distribution business, it makes the message easier, and it makes money.
There is a problem I have with this, because this way, you are training people to think the same. And I don’t think that the human species goes forward with staying with familiar formulas and thinking the same. I think that it is always important to introduce new elements, create dissonance. This is how the things move forward.
You played with/met with some engaged artists in your career. You’re also interested in civic activism in a way, or at least there is an awareness… how important is the political message that a band might spread? Would you consider producing a band just because of a strong political message they have, or for their activism?
My activism is a cultural activism. It is something that rubs a little differently than [how] most things are going. But I think that if something was directly, really politically active, it would really depend on who were the people – I would have to know the people, I would have to believe in the people to produce them.
In Faith No More’s music there were many different influences. You produce Kultur Shock and Dubioza Kolektiv now, two bands playing with folkloric elements, music elements traditionally specific the Balkans. Is this exotic, folkloric element important to you, is it something you advise bands to emphasise?
I don’t. I tend to see what their vision is, and how to understand what they are doing, and encourage it. Sometimes the bands say, ʺwe are going to do this in Englishʺ, and I tell them “you don’t have to do it in English, do it in the way that works for you”. I try to respect the context, but I don’t try to exaggerate it, and definitely don’t want to over-romanticise it. It is like cooking food, and how much spice you use really depends on the dish you are making. The music is very much like that. The balance has to do with the context of what you’re actually working with. But I do like ‘outside’ spices, I like different spices to bring into something new, and elevate the perspective.
So you’re saying a band is more marketable if they sing in English?
You are, absolutely. But it doesn’t mean you should do it. The most important thing is, to go with your gut feeling, it tends to have more power in music than trying to do what you think is going to work. Always go with the gut feeling, even if it seems to be contradictory in the marketing perspective. Don’t pay attention to what marketing perspective is. You kind of have to be imperious about that, because this power translates.