Srdjan Brankovic of the melodic-prog band AlogiA tells of surviving in war-torn Serbia, swears allegiance to Helloween and Dream Theater, and denounces all false metal.
Somehow I ended up listening to this Serbian metal band AlogiA. It's supposed to be the best band from its country, and recently it released the English-language Secret Spheres of Art to show the rest of the world what we're missing. With limited knowledge of both Serbia and metal, I can't back up the critics' claim of superiority, but the band's blend of prog, classical, and folk influences into a fast, aggressive style reminds me of Dream Theater. Nonetheless, the group marks out its own territory by coaxing emotion out of their technically precise playing.
With a passing knowledge of recent Balkan history derived from daily newspapers and Matthew Collin's Guerrilla Radio: Rock 'n' Roll Radio and Serbia's Underground Resistance, I thought I was up to the task of interviewing AlogiA. What a great story, I thought. A band from a war-torn country making music that crosses borders. It was interesting, exotic, foreign. Guitarist/guitar-synth player Srdjan Brankovic agreed to answer questions by email, but in our exchange it quickly became apparent that I had no idea what I was talking about. I don't know anything about European history or foreign affairs, let alone the Serbian civil war. Brankovic stayed congenial throughout -- he's prone to Dioesque bursts of positivity like this: "Thank you very much for choosing to interview us, and of course, I'd like to send some hellos to our metal brothers from America. Listen to the melody of your heart and think positive!" And he proved willing to openly discussed unpleasant topics, whether these were war, his country's international reputation, or simply pernicious nü-metal.
PopMatters: Now that you've got an English-language album out, how is your music being received in North America?
Srdjan Brankovic: I really don't know. Maybe you know that better than me. We got some e-mails from America from some of the people who heard our music (or wrote some reviews) and they were all surprised to hear stuff from Serbia. I was really satisfied, because I never expected these songs to be heard outside of Serbia. And reaction seems great especially when you consider that these songs are old -- they are from our first Serbian-language album (2002). All of the songs from Secret Spheres were composed back in 1999/2000, and at the time we had a lot of bad things happening here. We wanted to make it all work and tried to carry on. Nobody was thinking about making a world career -- we tried to keep the band in life in the middle of the war. Finally, we recorded these songs back in 2000. It was a success in Serbia, and we were asked to do an English version of the album. And now, after all these years, we have that album out in Europe and America.. We had done another Serbian album named Price o Zivotu back in 2004, and believe me, if you liked Secret Spheres of Art you'll surely like this one twice better! We'll do it in English very soon. If you are interested, you can download some of our latest music from www.alogia.org.yu.
PM: You've said before that "secret spheres" refers to the idea that Serbian art is so little known to the West. Is this changing?
SB: We are trying to change it, but it's not so easy for us to go out as artists when we can't even go out as tourists! Serbia is not the part of European Union, and it costs us a lot of pain. We need visas for every country we want to enter and there are problems even if you just want to travel abroad. We have a lot of talented and great artists here, but most of things they do -- it all stays inside of the country. But it's for sure that we have a lot to tell and we hope that some day we'll erase the line and break all these limits that separate thousands and thousands of similar souls. It's funny sometimes to see that most people know completely nothing about Serbia. A lot of them come here with expectations to meet some savages or cannibals. They are all surprised to see we're normal -- plus our beautiful girls. They are, believe me.
PM: There are some gorgeous Middle Eastern-influenced moments on the album. I'm thinking especially of the break in "Falling Asleep" and "Mystica Aegyptiorum." What inspired this style?
SB: It's our roots. Serbia was the part of the Turkish kingdom for five centuries, and it left a great mark on our culture, including Serbian ethnic music, which you can find in the music of AlogiA.
PM: Should we look for more of it on your future work?
SB: The latest music that we have done appeared on Price o Zivotu in 2004. Now, we are planning to do an English version of the album by the end of the year, and I'm really impatient to hear the reactions. We had some great success with the album here in Serbia, and I hope it will be the same with the rest of the world. We changed our style a little bit, so now we are more prog-oriented. A month ago we had a live promotion for Price o Zivotu in the legendary Serbian concert hall SKC and it was really, really awesome. The atmosphere was great, the crowd was too, we recorded it all, and soon we'll put out our first DVD and double live album! Also we were honored to play with some very special guests there, some of the most important persons from old Yugoslavian R'n'R scene: Zele Lipovaca (Divlje Jagode-Wild Strawberries), Dzindzer and Vicko (Riblja Corba), Gale (Kerber) and Urosh (Osvajaci). I'll use this chance to say thanks and hello to them. Another interesting thing about the show: It all happened on May 13th, the birth date of metal legend Chuck Schuldiner, and we dedicate all the music we played that night to the memory of that great man. Right now I'm finishing my works for another band/project that I started this year, and it's named EXPEDITION: DELTA. I feel so refreshed while making these songs; it seems like it will be the most emotional record I have ever done.
PM: Nikola Mijic, your vocalist, won the 3K Dur singing contest. How is this comparable to Pop Idol, American Idol, or Euro-Vision?
SB: Well, it's something like that. It was the greatest singers competition organized by Serbian national TV. We wanted to start a melodic heavy metal band but we had that problem in finding an appropriate vocalist. After a couple of years we saw Nikola singing "Hold the Line" and "Immigrant Song" on 3K Dur and it sounded amazing. We contacted him, and he was surprised to hear our demos. "Hey man, I can't believe that you're from here. This is exactly what I'd like to sing!" he said. And although he had a lot of different offers from many different bands, even some of them that were very, very popular here in Serbia, he chose AlogiA. We also worked with some other guys who took the part in the same contest. We had the voices of Ivica Laush and Bojan Milovanovic on our first Serbian album together with Nikola's. But Nikola seemed to be the best guy for our type of band and he continued working as the main and only singer.
PM: Has it been difficult for him to make the transition from a Toto-singing TV champion to a metal vocalist?
SB: No, because he was 100 percent into metal at the time. And he is that type of vocalist who can do a lot of different singing styles, from pop to metal. He is studying voice at the Budapest Jazz Academy, and I think that he is going to finish it this year and then he'll become a teacher himself. However, of all the styles his favorites are still metal and jazz.
PM: You come from a country with a history frequently misunderstood by Americans. How does your music's relate to that history?
SB: Our standards in Serbia were much higher back in the 1970s or 1980s. Our music scene had made very promising progress by the end of 1980s, but it all stopped when war started. That miserable war ruined us all. And the most tragic thing is that innocent people are those who pay the price. Now many see Serbia as ''killer nation". But that's wrong. I was taught to love, not to hate, and the same is true with 99 percent of the people who live here. It's all meaningless. I remember so many ordinary people who left and never came back and I remember them as good people. They just had no choice. We were all the slaves of the lunatic political minds who put the seeds of hate into the nation. They just couldn't find a better way to finish that "old Yugoslavia" era. Their choice was war, but not ours. And now we are all the victims no matter where we are from. Croats, Muslims or Serbs -- it doesn't matter, it's all the same. We are all the same!
PM: You play many concerts in Serbia. Have you played in any of the other former Yugoslavian countries? If so, how has that gone?
SB: Yes, we played in Trebinje in Herzegovina, and it was excellent. We had some offers to play in Croatia but it hasn't happened yet. We're going to play this summer on Rock in Izola Fest in Slovenia and open for Saxon and Iggy Pop. We are in the mood to play anywhere where it is possible, and we really don't care about that political shit that happened to all of us who live here. That's all behind us, and we must go on and try to escape the same mistakes in the future. All these bad things and wars that happened, that has nothing to do with the nature of Serbian, Croatian or Slovenian people. You can be smart or stupid, mad or normal, good or bad, and it has nothing with the land you are coming from. I can't believe that it's 2005 and the world still has religion and so-called patriot problems. Couldn't we just live our lives easy and try to enjoy it the best we can? Shouldn't we do that? The only way is to break the barriers of hate and open our hearts! I'm sure that you can understand me. You surely remember that goddamn September 11th. And then some say that we are living in a free world.
PM: What was creating and performing music like during the more difficult parts of the last few years? Did you find yourself caught in splits between various political factions, and did that affect what you were able to do, legally and mentally?
SB: We really had a lot of difficult periods during our career. It all started back in the beginning of the 1990s when we formed our mother band, Psychoparadox. At the time, we had total chaos in the land, the breaking of old Yugoslavia that resulted the beginning of war. Every corner of our lives was filled with misery, poverty, and fear. Nobody was prepared. Somehow the band survived it all, and after the war, Psychoparadox was still alive. In 1995 we recorded our first demo. It was the year of a new hope born. We believed that war was gone forever. But soon we had to face another problem: Kosovo. Every day I was listening to TV reports telling of the Serbian refugees land, news and documentary movies about the misdeeds that Albanian terrorists were committing. The Serbian government sent police control down there and after some time we were again at the beginning of more shit happening. NATO threatened that if we didn't pull out our police, they would zap us. The bombing started on March 24, 1999. Needless to say, it affected us all terribly. We were all tired. We couldn't believe that it's happening again. We just started to progress but it knocked us down to the floor. After a couple of months spent in the shelters, we were again at the new beginning. Finally, in October 2000, Milosevic was removed and the tension started to fade. Of course it was very difficult to work throughout all those unhappy years. We could hardly practice because of the electric energy cut-offs. A lot of people just left Serbia during the wars because of the bad financial situation and there were a lot of artists or scientists among them. We are still here, and I think that we are the first Serbian metal band that got that kind of record deal.
PM: What role, if any, did pirate radio station B92 play in your lives?
SB: They are not rock-oriented. They are more into techno, drum 'n' bass, and they don't stay for our kind of music. We never worked with them. I remember them doing some anti-metal documentary movies, talking about metal as some kind of "Satan religion." It was so miserable and irritating.
PM: Has your military experience influenced your playing and your lyrics?
SB: Our bass player, Ivan Vasic, my brother Miroslav and I joined the army in December 2002 and we finished it in August 2003. During that time all of our bands stopped working, but when we came back we continued our work by making the songs for the second Serbian AlogiA album. We have no influences from that period of our lives.
PM: Are you sick of interviewers asking you about bombs yet?
SB: Well, no. I think that it's a kind of natural thing. I understand that most people are interested in what happened here. And it's interesting to hear it from my mouth, the guy who lives in Serbia.
PM: Back to the music, who are some of your major influences, both within Serbia and abroad?
SB: We have a lot of different musical influences. Speaking of Serbian and Yugoslavian bands, I must mention a couple of bands we were listening since we were kids: Kerber, Osmi Putnik (from Split, Croatia), Divlje Jagode, Alisa, Riblja Corba. Nowadays we are into many different types of music. Our music is a mixture of melodic hard rock and modern progressive and power metal. Every comparison to Dream Theater makes me so happy, because I truly enjoy their music. Especially their melodic, Rush-colored period. Americans should be proud of all these great bands they have, like Shadow Gallery and Symphony X and not of that shitty nü-metal stuff coming from your land.
PM: What are your objectives in creating your albums?
SB: We don't have special objectives. The only aim is to do what we like, what we are and not what is trendy. That's the best and the only way to express yourself as an artist -- to forget about what people want to hear from you and just follow what you love. I liked Helloween back in 1991 and I like them now the same way. A lot of people who were the fans at the beginning of the decade aren't anymore these days, because European power metal is not trendy anymore. Should I listen to those who were into Nirvana at the beginning of 1990s, then into Rhapsody at the end of 1990s and finally they are into new-metal now? Every day I hear some "original" band that sounds like shit! They are not original, but some idiots think that they are. So what is the point? To support that crap and not traditional heavy metal? No way, never! Look, I'm into playing, simply, because I enjoy it. I love the music I make, and that's the only reason for doing this all.
PM: Will we see you tour the US any time soon?
SB: Well, I don't think so. I told you that it's hard for us to go traveling Europe, even America. But we'd really like to. Actually, it would be some kind of dream come true for me, touring around the world. Sounds great!
PM: How, in general, have you used the Internet to try to spread your music to a wider audience?
SB: We did it by making our official web page. A lot of people all around the world heard of us by downloading some promo songs and videos. Also we had a lot of reviews on the Internet when Secret Spheres came out, and I think that it helped a lot, too.
PM: Has downloading, legal or illegal, had any effect on your career?
SB: It has its good and bad side. The good side is that all the people who get interested for the band by reading this interview can go now to download our music and find out how we really sound. Sometimes the words are not enough. Everyday I read a couple of extremely bad reviews for extremely good bands -- or good reviews for bad bands -- so the fact is that I can only believe my ears! If people like the music they download, they can go to buy a CD and that's good. But if they don't buy it, if they just continue listening to MP3s, that's bad. Because that's what makes the music industry weaker day by day. Someday we'll all stop buying music and get sick from the MP3 disease and then it will all just go to hell. But one thing is for sure -- no matter what, I will always buy a new Dream Theater album!