The pandemic taught me: it makes no sense to burn ourselves out – interview with Barna Szőke from The Qualitons

“The pure power of music remains”

Last year, The Qualitions was the first Hungarian band to play in the US cult radio, KEXP, and then they created a cover album of songs of the legendary Hungarian band KEX. Then the lockdown came. Now they come back to stage on 24th July in the Müpa drive-in cinema. We asked guitarist Barna Szőke about that and many other things.

As you mentioned in a post, you prepare for a “weird concert in any case” in the Müpa. You will play for the audience, but they will follow the concert from the parking lot. What do you think about this concept, how did you react when you heard about this idea?

I personally was happy about it. It surely will be strange to play in front of empty rows and not seeing the immediate reactions of the audience. I’m especially curious about the end of the songs, after the last sound is over – what will happen then? Usually applause, in the best case ovation. Now we won’t have that, so I guess we will applaud ourselves and our dear audience.

How do you prepare for the event? How can you evoke energies that you usually receive from the audience?

Fortunately we were in a similar situation already, like in the case of live radio broadcasts, so it won’t need a specific preparation. We are still excited, as this will be our first concert for long months. I think our inner energies while playing music won’t be different, because we are quite introverted in the sense of not shouting between songs: “put your hands uuuup” and such. Of course, we communicate with the audience, but now we won’t have the chance. So the simple, pure power of music remains.

What will be the concert about? What does “oriental journey” mean?

Each member chose a song to play it together. They somehow are connected to Oriental sounds, but it is still a very diverse programme. Like, for instance, I chose an Indian disco-funk. Two good friends of ours and great co-musicians will come to join the band. Péter Bede will play the saxophone, the flute and a lot of other intriguing aerophones, and Szabolcs Tóth plays the sitar.

How do you decide on playing songs of old bands? What is your attitude for work?

If all five of us can identify with the song, we take it. We might have individual favourites, but if not everyone likes it from the band, then those songs fall out of our repertoire. Our processes are also quite organic. We leave a lot of time for everything to mature, and we are all quite perfectionist, so we don’t rush with the records or the postprocessions. I like when things are spinning and don’t have anything against publishing half-made things, but my band members are not like that, so I have to abide by their rules.

How would you introduce your band to someone who doesn’t know you?

I always have to reflect on that question. Bands are usually defined by genres, but we have gone through such a journey within the last 11 years that I couldn’t define our genre. That’s not my task. I would say that Qualitons is a band where music is created together. We have room for experiments and having fun without limitations.

Last year, you were in the press very often. The invitation to KEXP, the cover of KEX songs… How did you experience the sudden lockdown after such an active time?

For me it was horrible without concerts, as I love concerts, to be on stage. But I guess everyone from the band experienced it more or less negatively. Fortunately, also good things happened during this time. Our families were happy to be with us, as we were travelling a lot during last season. This was an important time for me, I could focus on myself more than ever, and I’ll return the stage in my renewed self. This pandemic made me realise, and I guess not only me, that it makes no sense to rush and burn yourself out, but we have to learn to live a bit in the moment, for the moment. All that forced planning, building a career, living in the future all the time, planning what will be next year, two years later, and so on: that burns us out. I think the pandemic gave birth to two types of people: those who slowed down, calmed down, and those who were frightened by it, and now is rushing and burning even on a higher level than before. I think I’m the first type. I accept myself, the situation, my environment, and I’m not nervous about the future, as I’m not the one anymore who controls it. No rush, no pondering about how to be better, how to do more… I try to be thankful, as many of us aren’t, we always strive for the peaks, we always want to control our environment, our life, but now I see that it’s not the right way. We cannot always be the best, the richest, and so on, because then we haven’t lived a real moment, we were simply puppets of our will and desires for our whole life, and it can make us captives very easily.

After the KEXP show, how many doors opened in the direction of abroad, and how hard it is now to keep those doors open?

Unfortunately this is a very complex topic. KEXP helped a lot, but no radio show is enough for miracles. We have been to many showcases from New York to the Netherlands, and people usually loved what we do, many of them were curious, there was even some hype, but it didn’t break the ice. Sadly, this is not how it works. There might be a recipe for success, but it changes so rapidly that we can’t prepare for that consciously. We need a lot of luck apart from being persistent. You have to be at that one moment with the coolest guys at the coolest places, and that changes constantly as well, with more and more new faces. of course, we are very thankful for getting to such places, and sometimes we were even joking among ourselves: well, that was it. And then another foreign request came, another surprise, which made us work further and be present. Many people believe that we are approved at least, that we did it. I say: no, we weren’t approved from one day to another, we’re just doing our job since 11 years and now it finally is a bit more visible. The band is almost 12 years old, already 12 if you count it differently. We experienced a lot, worked a lot, and this is what became visible last year. I don’t know what would happen to our career abroad after the pandemic. Now, international live music seems to be frozen, every festival is cancelled. We would have gone to festivals in Norway and Poland, but now these won’t happen anymore. I guess some parts will come back, but it won’t be the same anymore, and the wheel of luck will turn once again.

What are the rest of your plans for this year?

We will have a two-day-long extended away day for the band only. It was very hard to organise as many of us have children, other works and thousands of other stuff. Maybe we will reinvent ourselves there. Maybe we will “simply” write some new good songs. There will be a few more concerts and we are waiting for them very much, as we love concerts and especially love our dear audience.

Interview: Anikó Magócsi

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek