When I first meet Artur Rojek, the festival founder, he is wearing a "Loser" hat recently acquired at the Sub Pop Silver Jubilee in Seattle. His first visit to the Sub Pop store was in 1997, when it was still impossible to find records by foreign artists in Poland. "A trip abroad was like a journey to paradise," says Rojek, who grew up in a small mining town called Mysłowice before forming his own popular Polish band, Myslovitz, inspired by UK bands like Ride and Stone Roses. "Just standing in front of the Sub Pop sign was so overwhelming that I was nervous about even going in." Rojek considers Sub Pop maybe the most important record label in the world, though he admits he couldn't get into grunge during its heyday as he was an orthodox follower of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Creation Records at the time.
Across the board, Polish artists I speak with say labels in the country are split between very tiny ones and majors, without mid-level "indies" like Sub Pop. An exception comes with the collectively-run Warsaw label Lado ABC, which I'm told is one of Poland's most respected and eclectic labels, founded in 2004 to foster community and document experimental strains of punk, hip hop, metal, hardcore, jazz, and more. One of its founders is Macio Moretti of the Zappa-esque ensemble Mitch & Mitch. At OFF, they performed with Zbigniew Wodecki, a Polish baroque pop composer famous for singing a children's cartoon theme, but also with a cult following among music fans. His 1976 self-titled album was rejected by critics at the time, but he performed it at OFF, with Mitch & Mitch, for the first time, a celebrated performance.
Moretti says Lado ABC originally looked to Dischord and Ipecac as genre-less, D.I.Y. labels dedicated to a local scene, curated by artists. The six individuals who run Lado ABC don't earn money from the label, but most do music full-time. Moretti says the Polish scene's visibility has been growing; he mentions a letter Lado ABC recently received from a prominent German zinester. "He said getting our compilation was like discovering a parallel universe," Moretti wrote, "rich and completely unknown." Semantik Punk
One Lado ABC roster act is Semantik Punk, an experimental punk band who traveled to L.A. to recorded their 2012 LP. They cite heavy avant-garde Polish groups from the 1990s like Kinsky and Kobong as inspiring for how they experimented with poly rhythms, harmonies, and language. Working on the recent record with Ross Robinson-- who produced one of Semantik Punk's favorite albums, Glassjaw's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence-- they titled it abcdefghijklmnoprstuwxyz
, a commentary on language in how it's both universally understood and seemingly meaningless. The band's singer Adam Adamczyk is also a poet and his lyrics are Polish-sung-- "abstract, really Dada, beyond language"-- which I'm told is rare, though more people do it today. "We are a small country, we have a lot of complexes," Karol Ludew, the band's drummer, says. "We feel smaller than others, but we are finding our roots. Now is a time people are not ashamed to say that they are from Poland."
It's still popular for Polish bands to sing in English because it's easier to make melodies-- there are more vowels-- but the most exciting sets I see at OFF are sung in Polish. The glammy, reunited Super Girl & Romantic Boys (who are much better than their name suggests) are a late 1990s/early 2000s synth pop act comprising members of various Polish punk and hardcore bands. Despite their 1980s New Romantic stylings, I learn from Teenagers' Daria Bogdańska that they're "classic for punks in Poland" who "know their songs by heart." In very broken English, the band explains to me they began playing their galactic pop in squats, and until this year, with the Miłość Z Tamtych Lat compilation, they'd never had an official release.