26th March 2010. I catch Negura Bunget in Madrid while they are just a week or so into their three month long tour schedule that will see them perform across most of Europe and, in the summer, at some festivals. I arrive at the excellent underground club La Boite and ask after Negru. Someone points at the stocky, familiar figure of a bearded man enveloped in darkness, looking attentively over. The handshake is firm and the smile kind and curious. As he finds us a cozy, quiet place where to sit out the interview, I come clean: I have been wanting a chat with him for ages but circumstances meant I had to wait this long… He nods silently and benignly, a noble gesture that I will quickly learn to associate with the great man s laid-back but entirely charismatic personality.
Given the notorious business with the line-up change, how did Negura Bunget approach the writing of the new album Virstele Pamintului, especially after the critical acclaim of its predecessor Om?
I think our approach was a very natural one. We always try to translate our ideas into music as closely as possible and so long as we were true to ourselves and to our music, then we would have been pleased with the outcome regardless. We never thought about achieving something that would be better than Om, this kind of approach would have produced something artificial. Of course there was some pressure on us for the two things you have mentioned, but we just focused on making the best music we could.
I heard a few sporadic voices saying that this is no longer the real Negura Bunget, because of the change in personnel?
Of course there will always be people who don t like the band and people who do. We never expected to make everyone happy: especially under the circumstances, there would have always been some complaints. Even with the same line-up there would have been some criticism, so you cannot worry about everybody You just try to do what you can, the best that you can and some people hopefully will enjoy it.
You strike me as a very philosophical kind of guy. I was wondering if, when you are abroad touring, you are able to relate easily with people or perhaps sometime you feel as if you came from a different world?
I think it depends, sometimes we meet people we can relate to musically, and sometimes we have no connection with the music but we just enjoy talking to each other, so it varies. But I think we are a bit different, coming from Rumania; maybe it s something I notice and others don t because they don t care that much. It is not like we are strange or anything Sometimes even within the same band there can be different personalities who don t get on all the time. We are all different inside and everybody connects differently.
But of course there are not many bands from Rumania that are known outside their own country. Do you feel like an ambassador for Rumania when you are abroad?
N: There are actually quite a lot of bands in Rumania but I don t quite know why they don t manage to get out of the underground. And yes, we do sometimes feel that we represent the country; wherever we play there are Rumanians who come and see us to try and reconnect with their country and its music. There are also foreign people who wish to approach the history of Rumania and ask us all sorts of questions, so in these circumstances we try to represent our country as truthfully as we can.
Going back to the new album, how do you view it: as a continuation from its predecessors or as a point of departure?
I think there is a strong element of natural evolution from the other albums, but at the same time it is more about regrouping, rethinking of everything, so for example it has a little bit more of traditional music in it. It is difficult for me to judge because every album feels very close But I think it is fair to say that in this album there are new and old Negura Bunget elements mixed together.
The album reviews have been extremely positive. What about the audience reaction to the new material so far into the tour?
Well we started to play some of the tracks from this new album pretty much from the very first concerts we did with the new line-up. The reaction has been very good so far but again, it is hard for me to judge because when I am on stage my mind completely drifts off into the music
I visited your webpage again recently and it has not been updated in a very long time. Since you mentioned having a re-think on the band as a whole, I was wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the Negura Bunget ideology as of today.
I think there are some key elements that are fundamental to Negura Bunget. There is the spiritual, esoteric element and the historical one; then within those there are further elements that come into play such as nature and folklore. So how all these elements come together is through music, the lyrics and the ideas that represent the band. I think a mixture between the two main elements represents what we call our ideology. We call it ideology because our music is a reflection of our ideas and not vice-versa: when we write an album we focus on what is important to us, which then goes to influence our music.
Ideology is a strong word!
Yeah but it has different meanings! We call it ideology because our music is a reflection of our ideas and not vice-versa: when we write an album we focus on what is important to us, and that goes to influence our music. People wrongly try to give us political overtones, but in our case the word ideology is purely suggestive of our ideas , because that s what is important to us.
Maybe you could call it a philosophy of life.
Yes, I guess you could. Again, these ideas are something we are naturally interested in, we are not really trying to create a philosophy of sorts, nothing like that.
So is the whole band into the same kind of thing?
Well, each of us can be more interested in one aspect of our ideology rather that the other, but all our ideas seem to converge when we play together. I can say that everybody is 100% into the band and what we stand for. Again, people are different and some may be interested more in the folkloric side of things; for example Corb, our new vocalist/ guitarist, makes our folk instruments and implements out of wood using traditional carving techniques and decorations.
Did he make all that?!… (Alex: I point at the stage where most of their fantastic wooden gear is set up)
Yeah (Alex: Negru laughs, looking extremely proud) We have the mike and the percussion stand, the other drum, the keyboard and the xylophone tables, the ropes across the drum kit… He does most of our woodwork.
It does feel like this is a complete way of life for you guys.
Well, yes, music is the most important thing in our lives, so We don t have normal jobs because to just do the band in our spare time would not be enough: you cannot operate like that. Of course we have 3-months tour now, which is something we could not do if we had steady 9 to 5 jobs.
So far you have toured across Europe a few times, would you like to go to the US?
We are actually looking to go there at the end of the year or beginning of the next.
Do you organize the tours yourselves?
Yes, most of the time. We work with different people who help us in different areas.
Do you know anything about the punk DIY ethos?
Yes, a little bit. I first got into punk when I started to listen to music, but not for too long as I went straight into the death metal scene. So yes, we do our own version of the Do It Yourself thing
OK, let s go back now to the Negura Bunget ideology, in which spirituality and tradition meet. I can tell you are a spiritual kind of guy. Are you a pagan or Wiccan by any chance?
Well, I don’t like to categorize spirituality. Personally I am more into the esoteric, the mystery of things There is a Rumanian philosopher and poet called Lucian Blaga (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucian_Blaga) who wrote an entire philosophy based on Mystery. According to him there are two ways of knowing things: the Paradisiac way, through which you get to know a lot of things through normal learning, and the Luciferian way, where you approach mystery. With the latter you don t actually get to unveil anything, because mystery is meant to remain hidden so that it can empower you. According to Blaga there is no way we can understand mystery So for me personally, there is not a specific philosophy or religion I am interested in, I just try to learn as much as I can with the awareness that we cannot know everything, because it is impossible.
Are you interested in science?
Yes, of course! I am especially interested in the new sciences that study the universe. A lot of these new ideas do seem to converge towards aspects of ancient spiritual theories
Like the Hindu cosmic view of the multiverses, for example!
Yeah, exactly. But if you go to the bottom of each of these scientific theories there is always an unsolved mystery! For example the structure of the atom according to quantum physics is mind-boggling: a particle can be here and there at the same time, but nobody understands why, so they start building more and more bizarre theories to justify nature s behavior
Do you know much about the new developments in neuroscience?
No, I cannot say I do. I don t read much; I do enjoy watching documentaries about the new discoveries.
According to the new studies on the human brain, we finally seem very close to actually explain the phenomenon of what we traditionally call soul . It does seem like it is the individual brain with its biochemical activity (which creates deep emotions) that gives each of us the illusion of harboring inside us something that goes beyond the physical body. Do you believe we have a soul?
Again, this is one of those mysteries I was talking about. Sometimes I do believe there is something and sometimes I don t. I know lots of theories on this subject, but I don t see myself as belonging to one as I find I think different things all the time. So when I talk about spirituality, what I mean is something all-inclusive. For me it doesn t matter if the soul is in the brain or in the heart: I may think there is something but I don t know what it is. So, to go back to your question, I think spirituality and science complement each other and are two faces of the same coin; in the past these two disciplines were not separate from one another like they are today.
Let s now talk about the other element in Negura Bunget s ideology, the interest in the history and traditions of your country. First of all, tell me about the influence of the Roman Empire on today’s Rumania, as it seems to still have somehow political relevance.
Well, according to traditional theories the Rumanians are the result of the mixing between the native Dacians and the Romans who conquered Dacia. And of course there are always some people who are trying to say that we are pure Dacians, but mainly that idea comes from the Communist regime that identified the Romans with the imperialists and the Dacians were the local working people being exploited. There are some associations today that promote the old Dacian ways, and I think it is somehow nice but there are some exaggerations. There are also other theories saying that the Romans killed all the Dacians so today we are pure Romans, which is also a bit extreme!
Naturally your language is Latin based.
Yes, it is. Unfortunately our pre-roman history is shrouded in mystery; the only written documents we have on Dacia are relatively late ones by Greek historian Herodotus, who is known for his biased views anyway, and by the Romans. During Roman occupation of course there were isolated tribes up in the mountains which did not mix, but down in the valleys all sorts was going on: our history is quite complex so we cannot say we know 100% how modern Rumania was formed. Still, history is very much present in our lives and people have strong believes based on both facts and theories.
Then of course Romania has had century-long problems with some of its neighboring countries, like Hungary. Where does that stem from?
It comes from a lot of wars Then again, we had a lot of wars against the Turks so I have never figured out why Rumanians do not dislike the Turks too! It s all very strange. We have part Hungarian-part Rumanian communities that live together and sometimes they get on but sometimes they don’t…
Timisoara, the city where you come from, is geographically close both the Hungarian and Serbian borders; how does this affect the place?
We have many ethnic groups living there, Serbs, Hungarians, Germans, and there has never been any trouble, but in Transylvania there are areas where Hungarians are the majority and that’s where the main problems are. They are trying to get autonomy, but it s a very weird situation: they feel strongly attached to their mother country , but the Hungarians from Hungary do not actually want them! It s all very odd
I love history and I know a little about the Dacians: they were mounted archers, very brave warriors and had a very sophisticated culture, as their goldsmith techniques were quite advanced for their time. Did they originate from the Thracians from the Greek peninsula?
No, no! The Dacians were indigenous people, they belonged to ancient populations going back much further into Neolithic times, of which the Thracians were also part. As I said there isn t much that we know about the Dacians, but we are for example sure that they believed in immortality. That’s why they were not afraid of dying in combat; in fact it was a great shame for them to be taken prisoner.
That was something that almost all pre-Christian cultures had in common: for the Vikings it was a matter of honor to die in combat too, and it was the same for the Mongols and the Huns, for example.
Yes, but I think the difference with the Huns for example is that they were more keen to conquer and kill, while it seems that the Dacians were peaceful people protecting their land.
That’s true, most ancient tribes were still nomadic while the Dacians, at least at the times of Emperor Traianus, were settled people and for this reason considered more civilized?
True, but things are never black and white; we know that the Dacians were attacking the Romans too. There were two wars between them, and apparently after the first one it was the Dacians who broke the peace treaty first. But who knows what really happened
So why do you think people develop such an attachment to their past, do you think it is a matter of pride?
I think a lot of people look back at their past so that they know who they are in the present. They see that their ancestors were brave warriors and take example and strength from them. If you have somebody to look up to it gives you an identity.
Is it important today to have an historical identity?
Well personally I don’t quite see it like that. For me it is not so much about the past but about who we are now. I don t know who my grand-grandfathers were so I prefer to find my own identity based on who I am today. I don t need to find strength and courage from someone who fought and lived in the past. But again, people think differently so.
Let s talk about your lyrics, which I would not have in any other way but in your native Rumanian because it is a beautiful-sounding language which confers a lot of mystery to the music. But I must confess I wish you were providing some translations!
I think we will, actually. Our language is very complex and it is not easy to transfer the exact meaning of a word into English, but we know people who can help us with the task of at least providing an approximate idea. I must say that not providing translations has sometimes meant that people interpreted our songs in a completely wrong way, but somehow I feel that even with the translations it won t be easy to understand our lyrics, so it will still be a matter of personal interpretation.
Who writes the lyrics and how does the composition process work?
Like with the music, we work together and we try to do something that represents everybody. We have the idea for a song and for us the most important thing is keeping true to that idea, so it really doesn t matter how the song turns out: we shape and re-shape the music and the lyrics making sure that we have achieved to represent that basic idea truthfully. It is quite a complex process; it is not like writing a piece of music then fitting a set of lyrics to it, or vice-versa.
I expect your lyrics to be like poems, am I far off the mark?
Yes, I guess they would be close to resembling a poem or a piece of old literature. We enjoy working on the sound of the words a lot, and we look for very specific, in-depth meanings too. We also spend a lot of time researching old, unused words from our archaic language to keep that feeling of authenticity to our work. That s why it is not easy to translate our lyrics into English.
I am sure the more people get to know your band the more requests for translations you will get! Have you ever considered singing in English?
Not really We have done a couple of experiments in English on our mini albums but, even though we ve always had people interested in the meaning of our songs, at the end of the day Negura Bunget is something else and singing in another language would put us in a different context completely.
So was it a surprise when people outside Rumania became interested in Negura Bunget?
When we started we wanted to do what felt natural to us. As we went further and deeper into it, things started to develop this way and of course it is very nice that people can find a connection.
I am fascinated by the reason why people have pride in their ancestors, which seems something primordial us humans have in common. Even the way Rumanians regard Transylvania is fascinating It has a huge place in European Romantic literature, of course, but what is Transylvania to you? Does it have an historical meaning the rest of Europe does not understand or know of?
It has a very important historical meaning for us. The Rumanian people never think of Transylvania like foreigners do, so there is no Dracula for us but there is Vlad Tepes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlad_III_the_Impaler) who was a King many people feel closely connected to. Yes, there are a lot of stereotypes about and quite a shallow understanding of Transylvania.
That s a shame! So how do I find out about the real Transylvania, do I have to come to Rumania?
N: Yes, I think that s always the best way to find out about a country, stay there and see how it is for yourself. I can guarantee that just by being there you will definitely take back something special with you.
Is it still a place of uncontaminated wilderness?
Yes, there are still a lot of areas that have little or no connection with the modern world even though, unfortunately, they are less and less. But of course you can still find people who live like centuries ago: there are tiny villages of about five people up in the mountains with no roads to connect them to civilization as we know it. But even in the more modern villages, there are still a lot of people following the old agricultural and herding traditions and do not depend entirely on modern commodities.
Are the Rumanian larger cities becoming increasingly consumerist like over here?
Were people happy to join the EU?
I think half and half. We thought we must join so that we can come out of poverty, but a year after we realized that nothing magic happened at all. It was the same with NATO, we joined and we got sent to Iraq and Afghanistan right away!
Never! No-one ever mentions the Rumanian troops
Well, we are very much present there with a lot of men assigned to one of the most dangerous areas. I guess that s the price we are paying for trying to gain political status!
Time for the bands to go for a bite, it seems. One last quick question: the drums are my favorite instrument. Who is your favorite drummer?
Hmmm, there are many, but if I had to choose one I’d go for Sean Reinert from the last Cynic album.
Sean’s idol and inspiration is Gary Husband, one of the greatest contemporary jazz drummers.
Sorry, I don’t know him, I do not follow jazz at all; besides, I try to create my own style.