It’s fair to suppose the UK’s perception of Hungarian music has more in keeping with classical composers such as Liszt and Bartk than pop groups.
But would you even call the Unbending Trees a pop group? As they gathered ahead of a sold out gig at Kilburn’s Luminaire, singer and lyricist Kristof Hajos and pianist Balázs Havasi are ready to help us find out.
The fact they are still awake was impressive in itself. “We travelled over this morning,” confirms Kristof. “We woke up at 2 o’clock English time, and I’ve been up since then. So we’re spaced out, basically!”
Spaced out – but cheerful with it, as they contemplate a rare event for the band. “We are not really playing much live”, says Hajos, “As we have very special requirements since we have a pianist” – he motions to Havasi – “and we wouldn’t consider playing with a synthesizer or a keyboard, so first of all we need a piano, and also we are not a very loud band, and that requires very special settings. In Hungary for instance we have to select suitable venues, which are mainly very small theatres where we can play.
“The other thing is that this is ‘Side B’ for everybody, this project, as the other two are professional musicians and I am an HR manager. We’ve got all our businesses to run.” He thinks briefly. “Actually I should say all three, as from today on we are not a trio but a quartet. Andor (their new drummer) just said yes to our proposal, so it’s an exciting time!”
Is the Luminaire their ideal venue? Hajos nods. “It is, somewhere where they tell the audience to shut up!” Havasi laughs. “I took a picture of that sign, as I think it tells lots of things about the culture of how people listen to music here.”
Hajos has less happy memories of a previous appearance in the Kilburn club, mind. “It was in February 2008, we were opening and it sucked. It does at 8 o’clock though, when the venue is half full and people keep coming in, it’s not ideal really. Our music requires more attention.” Havasi backs him up. “Our music I think requires the right crowd, and if it doesn’t have that it can be a disaster. They come out because they like this kind of music usually.”
The band is bigger in the UK than Hungary at the moment, and that looks set to continue. “The funny thing,” says Hajos, “is they started off MTV in Hungary more than a year ago, and they decided to make it a bit more like MTV2 is here. But now there has been some change in the editorship and they are going back to mainstream, so I don’t think we will be on there much more.”
Havasi also sees that. “All the comments on my MySpace page were that people didn’t think we were Hungarian, and that’s a funny thing as in a way that’s an advantage in our country.” Presumably they weren’t aware of Overture, Hajos’ collaboration with Everything But The Girl‘s Tracey Thorn? “I don’t think people are aware of that in Hungary”, says Havasi.
The collaboration had great meaning for Hajos. “It’s this lovely story really. We had already handed the master to the label, and then I was going home one day from work, and somebody called me and told me that Tracey was blogging about us and giving us complements. It was after our third concert here, about April or May, and we were already signed and had completed the album. I called our bass guitarist and said she was writing about us and loves us and he said ‘write some lyrics, record a demo and send it to her’ and I said ‘I’m too scared’.”
He sips his beer and continues. “I needed some fuel to record, shall we say, and I over fuelled a little bit and got too much courage! So I sent it off to her on email, and then when I got sober I was terrified about what I had done. Three weeks later she wrote back and said ‘of course I will sing it with you’, and I was very emotional about that.”
Havasi adds, “When I was younger I saw her on MTV a lot, but I think in Hungary people didn’t recognise it as a very big thing.” Hajos intervenes. “I think we have to add that while Ben (Watt, the other half of Everything But The Girl and now Strange Feeling label boss) and Tracey do communicate they don’t influence each other musically so basically it was Tracey’s decision, I went to her directly and not through Ben.”
Yet Ben it was who got in touch over MySpace. Kristof smiles. “It was a freaky moment, because I had just set up this page and was adding musicians as friends who I really liked a couple of years before that, and I sent Ben a message to ask where I should start getting into his DJing music as I really liked Everything But The Girl. To my surprise he answered and said ‘you have a wonderful voice’”.
“He was the first person that told you that,” says Havasi, “as you hadn’t really had any reactions.” Hajos nods in agreement. “At that time I wasn’t supposed to become a singer, I was supposed to become a perfectly normal person with a 9 to 5 job, two cats, a car and a flat. So this was how it all started!”
All three band members were in different places – geographically – when the album was being made. So do they know each other properly now? “Which one is Peter?” laughs Havasi. “I think we’re starting to get used to each other”, says Hajos, “we had our first fights after recording the album.” “We had two rehearsals and it was interesting”, says Havasi. “Because we are not the same type, we are totally different kind of people. I’m exhibitory, where Kristof is more like ‘save the soul’”.
And who takes charge on the stage? “Musical direction is in the hands of Peter”, confirms Hajos, “because he is the sound engineer as well. He’s always there at the sound checks, so he’s the technical hub of the whole thing.” Does that not present a problem, for the singer to be at his bequest, so to speak? “Yes, it should be all me me me,” he deadpans. “I don’t mind, as I don’t consider myself a musician. Basically the music is produced by either Balázs or Peter.”
He continues. “Even though I studied music I am not a trained singer. I can only play the cello a little bit. Hopefully I’m going to play the cello later on stage, though it’ll take another year while I learn to sing and play cello at the same time.” With the musical element less integrated, does it make the subject matter more human when Hajos sings? “I don’t know, to be honest” he says. “When we started the whole project I was supposed to record the demos, but then it was suggested I should sing them. I attend vocal classes every now and then so I don’t fuck up my vocal chords, because I want to use my voice.”
Havasi wonders at his singer’s denouement when performing. “Kristof changed totally on stage. It’s a gift to him as he should be dying on stage of fear or fright, because he hasn’t got the routine.” “I must say I’m scared out of my wits though!” adds Hajos. “He’s a real pro”, continues Havasi, “and I don’t know why! So we’ll just wait and see at the concert.”
Hajos smiles beatifically. “See in this concert I am going to make a complete arse of myself. We have these professional musicians and here I am in the firing line!”
Hajos it is who was once a friar – so does anybody else from the Unbending Trees have a past they would like to confess? “Well none of them were friars or anything like that”, confirms Hajos. “It’s a good point from the point of view of promotion, and I appreciate how it can be interesting for people, but it doesn’t really have much to do with our music, and only some things to do with the lyrics perhaps. I did write some lyrics while I was in the monastery, and the songs do have the romanticism of the monastery at times.”
Certainly they have a starkness which is all too evident when the band plays live. But, as Hajos confirms, “It’s always the music which is first in our case. I wouldn’t make any hastened conclusions from me being a friar. We all know that my voice would never work with any other backing.” Does he anticipate a change to their dynamic with the addition of drums? “It’s not a permanent thing, but we’ll see. I cannot say. The album is just out so we’ll see what happens. We’ll need to learn to sing loud!”
Havasi admits his writing isn’t necessarily done with Hajos in mind. “No, I’m just composing instrumental tracks – I don’t care about the lyrics” (“he doesn’t care about me!” interjects the singer) “and after I finish I give them all to him. Peter composes songs very consciously; he’s more of a pop song writer.
We move on to discuss Hajos’ lyrics. “I’m trying to be as genderless as possible,” he states, “partly because all the band members are straight, and because I always enjoyed singing along to genderless songs. It’s for anybody who likes it. Alfreds Love Song, though, is about my boyfriend. And there is a double reference to La Traviata. We’re going to play a new song tonight though, Angel’s Secret, that considers if mothers knew at conception if their child was going to be gay, would they have an abortion?” He elaborates. “The title is a reference to a Hungarian phrase, as an Angel Factory is basically an abortionist, but the song leaves the end open. Though it’s not good to explain songs or lyrics, I don’t think.”
And with that the stage is calling and the pair head off. Hajos and Havasi between them have the drive and energy to see their project through, it seems, though rather than ‘Plan B’ it looks, from the reaction of the crowd, as though this could be at the top of their agenda for some time.