Music is not like a 100-metre dash – interview with Charlie Horváth

Hungarian musician Charlie Horváth published an album called Mindenen túl (Over Everything) last year. It won the Fonogram prize and its creator the life work award of the Petőfi Music Prize. He will give an online concert in the Müpa as part of the Bartók Spring International Art Weeks, which gave us a good occasion to talk to him.

CHARLIE – Online Concert – 19th May 2021, 8 pm

You published this album after a 14-year break, even though you used to be quite active before. What happened?

I haven’t even noticed the flow of time. Many things happened, a lot of my beloved ones died: my mum, my dad, my wife. Meanwhile I worked a lot, I became a grandfather, my car was stolen, so there was always something to do, and the creation of a new album was no priority. Some years ago I even pondered whether it makes any sense to record a new album.

How did you get over that crisis?

After concerts, I always find time to meet my fans, sign things, talk to them. They kept asking me about albums. I don’t even know all about the older ones: some are sold out, some were republished, but I don’t get money from them and to be honest, I don’t really care anymore who gets rich from my music. And then, in the early summer of 2019, we were on the way home in the bus, and then I suddenly said: OK guys, let’s record an album, people expect it to come. We started in my own studio, but my servers went wrong, so I discussed with my long-term cooperator Peti Dorozsmai to work in his studio from January on. I was a bit afraid of this album as I was, for the first time, the producer of the whole process, but it succeeded! 14 songs with a cooperation of 50 musicians can be heard.

In the past, it was Attila Horváth who wrote most of the lyrics to your songs. Now he only wrote one. 

Attila received the music, and I kept asking him how the lyrics are, as we had little time. I remember that around the third such phone call, he told me he was sorry to quit but he cannot deliver the text on time. He had a hectic time in his life. So I called Attila Valla who was happy to jump in. A friend of my said recently: Charlie, this is your album.” But I love to work with Attila Horváth, so we will need to cooperate on the next one! His lyrics are true poems. If you read them without the music, without Charlie, it sounds like the best of Hungarian poetry.

Since your first album, your constant guitarist, musical director and creator is Attila László. How did you start working with him?

I was a singer of the Tátrai Band for many years when I got the commission for a solo album in 1993 and started to recruit helpers for it. I have been a huge collector of records, so I took two cassettes and created a collection of songs that depicted the musical world I imagined for the album. Complicated things have always fascinated me: I was thinking of a fusion of jazz, blues and rock. I went to clubs again and realised how much they changed ever since I left for abroad: I listened to every handsome long-haired guitarist lad, and then I suddenly heard that the László Attila Band is supposed to play in the Moulin Rouge. I knew him already, my son had wanted him as a guitar teacher some years earlier, but it didn’t work out due to some hand injury at that time. When his band took a break during the concert, I told them that I want them on my album. Apart from Attila László, Pisti Lerch also joined, and then I combined them with Jani Halász, Andris Póta and Peti Csiszár from the Pannonia Express. My instrumental band was ready.

What did you look for in the musicians?

I wanted people who are so skilled that they can do great things in many genres, and who have the true musician blood: they can improvise, they can read musical notes, and they can write properly orchestrated songs. This is how Attila László and Pista Lerch are. We have been together since 1993. And with the other half, since the 1980s, so this is a 40-year-old family. I have always had great partners. In the band Olympia early in my career, I had the best drummer, guitarist and pianist. That was a different era, of course. Not everyone was allowed to record albums, and we were the unlucky ones, we were banned. Even though we had so many original songs with Hungarian lyrics that could have made it to two albums, we were never allowed to record it. At one point we could make two radio records, but they weren’t archived for the radio to edit in the programme. We had no protection.

On 19 May, you will play at the Bartók Spring. What will happen there?

Our guest singer will be Eszter Váczi who will cooperate on four Charlie songs. Attila László and myself have picked 15 songs for this concert, but it’s a good question how much time we will have for them. We are in good form, we just had another successful online concert recently. It was great, fellow musicians congratulated us a lot.

Will you play new songs, too?

Only one. It would be too complicated to play the whole album material. I dream of a tour for the album next year where we play around 10 songs apart from the obligatory oldies, and I want everyone to be present who cooperated, but that would be very expensive. If we won’t be able to get funding for it, then I will stick to the current method: to sing one or the other new song at concerts.

Charlie Band and Tátrai Band will also play together, for the first time this year.

This was an idea by poor old Marci Brády (director of the concert agency Showtime who died this March – editor’s note). I will play a double show: a Charlie and a Tátrai gig. Both bands can play well and the audience loves them – this is a reason to live for! And not only fans appreciate them but the professional experts, too. I’m so glad to have received these prizes because I don’t have any influential friends. It was really my professional level that was awarded, which was both a surprise and a huge joy. So there is still some acknowledgment from the professional side.

You have said in many interviews that you are not happy with the situation of current Hungarian pop/rock music.

There is an abundance of talented people, but we do not see them too much. Media has a huge responsibility in it: there are such crappy things on the radio and on TV all the time, convincing people that this is “good stuff”, otherwise why would the media play them? I also don’t like talent shows. I would never go to any.

Why not?

Music cannot be judged this way, it is not like a 100-metre dash. Maybe a professional jury could decide, but then the audience should be left out of it. But usually, juries are also not the best. Also, I don’t want to be the one who ruins a child’s life, telling them that they failed. A musician should rather get more and more chances to be on stage day and night and play as many songs as possible. This is how to find out what speaks to you the most! Not like having 2-3 songs written for you for a few years, and then that was it. See how we started! We practiced on an excess of foreign songs, I have sung more than 5000 of them, until I could finally find out who I am.

Interview: László Sallai

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek