“Squeezed in by Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, we Istrians pass much better as chameleons”

Luka Šipetić is from Pula, a city on the northern coast of Croatia renowned for its festivals of electronic music held in old Habsburg fortresses. He is the man behind “Tarot Funk”, one of Bandcamp’s hottest  albums in 2019. Predominantly an instrumental work that invites listeners to create their own story based on the laying of Tarot cards (the listener might recognize the spirit of Chilean director Jodorowsky, who also dealt with Tarot cards), it  is an intimate guide to ’70s Anatolian rock, Thai funk, ‘60s Cambodian psych-rock, dub and Afro-funk. 

The project’s name nemanja— arcane for most Western listeners — refers to a condition of not having something, derived from Croatian verb ‘nemati‘. It is also a popular male name in Serbia. Mixing self-reflexive irony with a rich palette of musical styles under the aegis  of tightly knit pop and psychedelia, it is a departure from Šipetić’s previous forays with the band, NLV ( standing  for Nikol, Luka, Vedran), an indie-rock quartet whose roots go all the way back to his childhood. 

Since releasing their debut album in 2011, the band largely toured in “the Region”, as Yugos prefer to call the successive countries of the Western Balkan motherland, including much of Italy, Austria, Slovenia, and Hungary.

“My pops was in music,” says Šipetić,  “had different bands throughout his whole life; he would even play with the Gipsy Kings for a while. My earliest memories of him are related to him either playing or rehearsing…When I initially showed interest in playing, my father showed me the first few chords and then just let me do my own thing.”

Pula is the center of Istria, an India-shaped peninsula in the northern Adriatic. Squeezed between continental Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, it is home to punk- and alternative-rock-festivals Monte Paradiso and Art & Music, as well as festivals that brought Grace Jones and Kamasi Washington to the city. It is famous  for its ancient Roman Amphitheatre — Croatia’s most-prestigious concert venue under the stars. 

As he has been  fishing in all sorts of waters — troubled and calm — I was wondering whether Pula was for Luka a boring place, or a place that inspired him in his various projects. 

“The festivals, Outlook and Dimensions have had a distinct influence,” he says. “ Much more money has been  invested in productions that appeal to people in their twenties. Hence, more and more people are involved in DJ-ing and house/trap, than are involved in  “the scene” that play, rehearse and record with bands like us. We are merely what’s left of the past. People from Istria can’t get into bands from Zagreb; they are much better as chameleons.”  

One important step for Šipetićwas meeting Dino Santaleza, a self-taught Istrian guitarist and a founder of psych-pop band Pridjevi, represented by a US-based label Trouble in Mind. Stating that he quit university upon hearing the music of John Coltrane, Santaleza says he has  a soft spot in his heart for the legacy of the Brasilian 60s tropicalismo movement. The two guitarists would soon start informal house sessions — and the idea of Para Lele — a psychedelic world pop band from Istria — took root. A debut album followed in the early days of 2018, was dubbed as  “afronostalgic”. Actually, it was a traditional Istrian tune “Trajnaninaninena” escalating into something smacking strongly  of tropicalia on acid. 

In 2015, the two were invited to produce a track entitled  “10645 Brač” for Valentino Bošković’s second sortie, “Marsovska Listina”. The name of this  joyous indie-pop duo from Brač, an island opposite Split, refers to the  imaginary figure of Valentino Bošković, the isle’s very own pre-space-age astronaut,  who allegedly flew to Mars in 1646.Since an old monastery on the island had one of the most powerful telescopes in Habsburg Monarchy, the idea was that astronauts might well have belonged to the island’s folklore — especially if you had grown up listening to Ziggy Stardust. 

With “Marskovska Listina”, the band never gave a live concert — but announced one for 2046. The band also  performs in Brački dialect, which is a specific dialect not found on other islands. Croatia is full of such small, hermetic idioms and the band achieved  a small victory by making music in this local dialect, as not many people understand it.  

“Valentino sent us a track  ‘post marked from Mars’, and asked us if we could add something up to it. Since we are all fans of such music, it was finished in just an hour or so. While still ripe, we put  the rest of our energy into the video for the track,” he recollects. 

Tarot Funk followed Nemanja’s debut album, released back in 2015. The  idea was based upon music he personally liked to listen to. It is, basically, an instrumental world-pop album that he was searching for but couldn’t find anywhere.

 “So I just recorded it,” says Šipetić. “The structure of the pieces from Tarot Funk is pop, although they don’t have lyrics and are rather conceptual. It demands  input from the listener and an ability to decode and play with the Tarot’s fixed meanings. It is up to the listener to twist it and play with it. They might also completely abstain from lyrics.  Honestly, I did not intend to publish the record at all. I only had this spring-cleaning moment when I decided to throw everything  out of the hidden places of my spirit.”

Creative mind that he is, Šipetić has also published his new project, Pastele, with Zagreb-based musicians. It bears the suggestive title of “The Shape of Lounge to Come” —  a tongue in cheek wink to ground-breaking albums of other different genres, for instance Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come”, and The Refused, “The Shape of Punk to Come.”

A work of experimental electronica, equally rooted in krautrock as in so-called ‘beats’, it was a joint project involving academic musicians who studied in Vienna and Graz, Luka Ćapeta on guitar and Jerko Jurin on drums.

 “Pastele started as an idea of a live-trap band… But it soon evolved into us leaving our particular safe-zones where we could rest on our creative potentials. The Zagreb connection is natural for me, as I have studied there. Hence I had Leo Beslać for keys and Matej Perić for drums in mind from the start, while Laura Matijašević popped up as the first and only suggestion for a bass-player that I could even think of,” he says smiling.

Casting his net widely with a number of projects, Šipetić finds his own identity as a pop-musician. In his own words, pop is a subversive element of music, as one is able to play with and destroy  the concepts of what people think it ought to be about. 

“Where do I find this music? I got no clue. I am an introvert who sits at home, digs in the internet for everything I can  put my hands on, and then plays with it to kill time until the next day. And then doing it again and again until the end”, muses Šipetić. 

 Vid Jeraj is Vienna-based writer and musician, a member of Croatian Composers Society, and an editor of Glazba protiv Vetrenjača at Radio Orange.