Belgrade in the 1980s was a hotbed for new wave, electronic and synth pop sounds. It wasn’t so unusual to know a rock musician or someone who played in a new wave band. With so much music being produced, not just in Belgrade but across all major cities of former Yugoslavia, it was inevitable that after the political breakup of the 90s, some of this rich musical legacy was either overlooked or lost. It’s thanks to the dedication of Luka Novaković and Vanja Todorović, the brains behind indie label Discom, that unknown records from late 70s and 80s Yugoslavia are finding a new audience.
We caught up with the husband-wife duo to chat about everything from Yugoslavia’s musical heritage to the emergence of jazz, space-themed electronica, and the best place to go record digging in Belgrade today. They were also kind enough to compile a mix of vintage treasures from their back catalogue and treat us to an exclusive sneak peak of future releases.
Let’s go back to the start: what prompted you to start Discom?
The reasons are both personal and professional. It is very hard to describe to someone who doesn’t live in Serbia the feeling caused by the total destruction of values after the breakup of Yugoslavia. We wanted to show that this vast geographical territory had a lot of cultural values, including a love for good music. It is not a question of nostalgia or escapism from everyday reality, it’s about recovering a lost cultural identity.
After finishing our education in late 2000s, we were both unable to find jobs with our MA degrees [Vanja studied Philology and Cultural Studies and Luka holds a degree in Business Administation] and were forced to take various freelance jobs over for years. In war-devastated, post-communist Serbia with its omnipresent corruption, it is almost impossible to build a career in the profession you have been training for. It seemed natural to incorporate our love for music, our knowledge and expertise from the years spent collecting records, into a venture like this. That said, we would never have imagined that we would be in such a position — it was incredible to think that one day we would be a married couple with our own independent label.
How do you discover the unreleased records and lesser-known music on your label?
Most of the music we find in artists’ archives. Since we focus on music from the past, mainly pioneers from the former Yugoslavia, that circle of people is pretty small and one artist will recommend the next. We’ve managed to build a good reputation with artists over the years by working endlessly to promote their music and offering fair royalties, when a majority of labels in the country don’t pay any royalties at all.
In some cases, it’s a result of countless hours of record digging and friends and strangers bringing us lost tapes, cassettes, etc. Then we contact the original artists with an idea to make a record. The main problem is sound restoration — many of these records are not preserved well and we have to go to great lengths to bring them to life.
However, finding music is just one step and every bit of the process is essential: apart from the initial concept and compilation, there’s also legal protection, artwork, design, restoration, mastering, lacquer cutting, record pressing, promotion, distribution, retail. Most of these we do on our own, except mastering, lacquer cutting and record pressing, where we work with some world-class associates.
Discom’s compilations: Yugoslavian Space Program LP (due for release in April 2018); Could You Find Your Analog Mind? by DATA (reissued in 2017)
What have been some unforgettable discoveries for you both?
Some our favourite discoveries would have to include unpublished material by Max Vincent and the DATA group.
Max was a really amazing artist, one of the biggest sampling innovators in eastern Europe and a pioneer of electronic music in former Yugoslavia. Most people know him from the 80s electronic band Max&Intro, but his finest solo work remains unknown. Sadly, he died very young at the age of 37, and apart from Max&Intro’s We Design The Future 7” SP from 1985, he didn’t release any other music. It was so unfortunate, considering the fact that his music was so ahead of its time. Besides that, Max was a pretty fascinating person with a controversial personality — amusing yet scary, gentle yet cruel, religious yet wicked, artistic and criminal, gifted but miserable. In one word: extreme. Max lived through his art. He was the unsung hero of 80s Belgrade who is remembered through his music. We owe a great deal to Max’s mother, Slobodanka Popović, who allowed us into his world, stored away in dusty boxes packed with cassettes, tapes, papers, drawings, lyrics, scripts.
From the archive: Max Vincent in 1985; AEG Telefunken 21R used for master tapes restoration
DATA also deserve an honourable mention. The band was founded by Zoran Jevtić and Zoran Vračević, who are more familiar as the group Šizike (in particular their 1984 album U Zemlji Čuda, or In the Land of Miracles) and The Master Scratch Band (Dégout, also released in 1984, was the first ever hip-hop album produced in the former Yugoslavia). In 2016, we managed to release Šizike's U Zemlji Čuda with lost DATA tracks, an LP which contains the official reissue of six songs from their original 1984 album, and an official edition of six previously unreleased songs by DATA from 1981-1984. At the time, we thought we'd exhausted all our options to ensure DATA’s unknown music was heard.
Luckily, we met Nikolaj Bezek, an important contributor to the whole wondrous 80s Belgrade scene, in whose home studio Max&Intro, Šizike, DATA, Master Scratch Band made their first recordings. For more than 30 years, he’d kept DATA's unreleased master tapes. Thanks to him, last year we released Could You Find Your Analog Mind?, an LP compilation which contains the first ever remixes (no MIDI, no PC) and the first ever synth-pop songs made in the former Yugoslavia under the influence of Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra.
From the archive: DATA in 1984
What genres of music were popular in the former Yugoslavia and which do you represent on the label?
People in Serbia would probably argue that folk music was the most popular genre. That is not the whole truth. Folk music was popular, but it wasn’t supported by the communist regime. Each of Yugoslavia’s six republics had their own folk music but it was easier for the communists to repress than nurture the differences [between them]. Genres inherited from the West such as jazz and rock music, though suppressed in the beginning, were encouraged by the regime. During the 70s, the biggest jazz names played in Yugoslavia, and the domestic prog rock scene was very interesting. This reached its peak at the beginning of the 80s when Tito died and the new feel of freedom and energy appeared. We had a very strong new wave scene, not that far behind the likes of the UK and Germany.
Our label is oriented towards genres which were not so popular in the former Yugoslavia, such as early analog electronica, synthpop, EBM, space-themed electronica, funk, soul, jazz fusion and many more. We try to spotlight music that many people know nothing about: sounds which were created or brought to the country between the late 70s and 80s.
Discom’s LPs: U Zemlji Cuda with lost DATA tracks by Šizike; Beograd by Max Vincent (due for release in April 2018)
Can you tell us about some of the tracks or artists featured on this mixtape for The Calvert Journal?
The mixtape is made exclusively of Yugoslav music. There are some lesser-known songs that we found during our digging adventures, but the biggest part of the mix is made from our back catalogue: the present, the past and the future. Five of the tracks featured appear for the first time and will be released later in the year or at the beginning of 2019.
We were very much inspired by the recent Kraftwerk concert in Belgrade, and included Yugoslavian artists who were influenced by them. However, we did not rely solely on this influence, and tried to present a wide spectrum of Yugoslav electronica: from space electronic and techno pop to Japanese synthpop, EDM and industrial. As for the period, most of the songs are from the late 70s and 80s. There are a few contemporary songs, but they are all made with vintage analogue equipment, without the use of commercial samples and drum loops.
For someone coming to Belgrade for the first time, what are the musical spots you would recommend?
First of all, we would recommend the Cetinjska district, since there are lots of clubs, venues, and cafés where you are bound to hear good live music: from jazz, rock and blues to electronic genres. It is a new underground art district developed around an abandoned brewery in the city center. There you can find a famous vinyl haunt, the Yugovinyl Record Shop. As for other musical spots, we would definitely recommend Klub 20/44, one of the best clubs in Europe lauded by The Guardian in 2014, and Drugstore, the city’s famous venue for electronic dance music.
Discom’s LPs: Sidarta by 37°C; The Future Has Designed Us by Max Vincent
What are your plans and hopes for the rest of 2018?
We are always looking for new ways to promote the music we release. This year, Discom was the first record label from the former Yugoslavia to participate in the world’s largest independent record fair: the Independent Label Market in Brussels. That’s serious recognition for us. Everything we have achieved so far has been down to our enthusiasm. We’ve never had any support from any institutions. We hope that we will continue our work in the future and that we will present more unknown music from Yugoslavia’s overlooked musical heritage.