Polish punk has a long and impressive history, emerging under totalitarian Communism in the 1980s and seen as a threat by the government, it learnt to survive in hostile conditions. The end of State Communism made things easier for Polish punks but it was still viewed with suspicion by many and being a Polish punk in the 90s wasn’t an easy option, as Marek Stepien of Radioactive Rats commented about that time “a lot of people would like to hit you for looking different!”. However despite official and unofficial opposition Polish punk thrived in the 80s and 90s producing bands like Dezerter, Homomilitia, Siekiera and Apatia.
In 2003 a bunch of young punks formed Potluczony Kaloryfer (Smashed Radiator) in the Polish town of Namyslow, fast forward to 2013 and the assorted Smashed Radiators, now living in the UK, decided to reconstitute the band and give it another go, playing their first British gigs in 2014. After a couple of gigs their audiences’ struggles with Polish pronunciation made a change of name seem like a good idea and Potluczony Kaloryfer became Radioactive Rats, a name chosen as “Rats are very cute and very smart but disliked and seen as a threat… a little bit like punk rockers!” according to lead singer Ewa Zablocka. The next three years saw the band out and gigging-they played 14 shows in 2017- their danceable riff laden sound becoming harder and heavier, developing into an all encompassing experience as the twin guitarists wander into the crowd and the music infuses you with a sense of exhilaration, anger, hope and frustration. Which raise lots of questions as most of the lyrics are in Polish! How does the communication of those universal experiences and emotions work across language (and culture)? The intonation of a voice? The structure/key of the music?
Over that time they’ve also been writing and recording and in December 2017 self released a mighty 8 track CD Nigdy się nie damy! (We Will Never Give Up!)– consisting of 5 self penned tracks and 3 covers.
I caught up with Ewa and Marek to find out more about Radioactive Rats and how a Polish language hardcore band is now a firmly established part of Nottingham’s punk scene !
Could you tell us about the origins of Radioactive Rats? Some of you were in a band together in Poland weren’t you?
Ewa: All the members of the first Radioactive Rats lineup came from the same town in Poland – Namyslow so most of us had met before in different bands or shared a stage.
In 2003 when I was only 15 years old with Kubczak (Zablocki) we created Potluczony Kaloryfer (which means Smashed Radiator). Later I also started to sing in an anarcho punk band called ZMT (Zgwalcili Mi Tate – They Have Raped My Dad) where I meet Joseph (Borach) who was a guitarist in ZMT. In 2010 I started to sing in folk ska punk band Taumaturgia where I met and played with Jimmy our previous drummer. In 2013 we all ended up in UK and decided to reactivate PK. We changed the name to Radioactive Rats after the first two gigs in UK in October 2014. In 2015 Marek, who in Poland played in Snowball Ambush with other guys from Namyslow, so we knew him from there, jumped on the second guitar. And, until very recently, we had Bartek on drums when Jimmy decided to leave.
What made you decide to restart the band? Did it feel like a new start?
Ewa: To be honest it was like it was re-born. We had a few years break from playing together, so it was nice to see each other after a few years and play old songs.
How did you get into punk?
Ewa: I grew up listening to punk rock music (Polish and English) so punk rock was always in my veins. When you are a kid or a teenager and you open your eyes to the world you look around and see things that do not seem right to you, you want to talk about it or even scream. You want to express yourself. And it suits my character – I always wanted to change the world into a better place – and I found a way to express that in punk.
Is punk very established in Poland?
Ewa: Punk is not very popular in Poland now. It was most popular in 80’s. Then we had a very strong punk rock scene. Now it’s more commercial than riot/rebel.
You are also a tattooist, aren’t you? That’s a very interesting job! How did you get into it?
Ewa: I became interested in tattoos when I was a 15 or 16. Kubczak made some tattoos on himself using a homemade tattoo machine and I wanted to get some tattoos as well but I had to wait till 18. So on my 18th birthday I got my first tattoo… and that’s how it started. After a few years, when I gained some knowledge, I bought all the tattoo stuff needed for tattooing and started doing it. Now I’m still doing some tattoos for my friends from time to time but now this is only my hobby not my job. Now I’m the manager in Inkland Tattoo shop.
Has your sound changed since you first started in 2003? In what ways?
Ewa: Of course it changed. We rearranged some of our old songs and our new material will be slightly different. When we started our songs were really simple, now we’re trying to be more creative because musically we’ve grown up a little bit hopefully. Our new material will probably be a little bit heavier, more hard core or even some metal, but the punk rock spirit will be kept.
Marek: Technically we changed the tuning on our guitars a little bit lower to have a little bit heavier sound and now with two guitars in the band we can do more things, with one playing rhythm the second one can play solos and stuff like that. So there is more space for different sounds.
Who does most of the songwriting in RR? Is it all of you or one main person?
Ewa: Some old PK songs were written by Kubczak. A few of the songs that we are playing in the concerts are from other bands in which we played. All new songs have my lyrics and music written by RR.
Have the things you sing about changed over time?
Ewa: I don’t thinks so. I think that ‘the system’ or ‘people in power’ or other things that we are singing about just changed names or methods of brainwashing people over time but it is still the same old shit. They can not trick us. We have our eyes wide open all the time.
When you write your songs what inspiration do you draw on, personal experiences, books, films?
Ewa: All the world around me, my feelings, my thoughts, some situations that happened to me or what I saw. Everything can be inspiration – there are no rules.
And how is the punk scene doing around Nottingham? I know Eagle puts on the ‘Punk 4 the Homeless’ gigs, are there lots of other opportunities to play?
Ewa: Yes, Eagle is doing a great job with at least one gig every month! In general the punk scene is not bad in Nottingham so if you want you can always find some good gigs on during weekends. There are opportunities to play small gigs, small venues or even completely DIY gigs and we are always happy to play but as we all working in different places with different working hours sometimes we struggle to find dates that suits us all.
You have just released an 8 track CD Nigdy się nie damy! (We Will Never Give Up!) can you run us through the songs, what the titles mean and the subjects they engage with?
Ewa: The tracks ‘Nigdy sie nie damy’ (‘We Will Never Give Up’), ‘Sprzeciw’ (Protest) and ‘Do Bolu’ (Till It Hurts) are all political(ish) about the system, politicians, corruption, lies, etc and that we do not agree with all that shit.
‘Pojebany’ (Fucked) is about a fake person who pretends to be the part of punk culture and ‘Bog’ (God) is about religion, that you don’t need any gods to prove yourself, to understand that you are your own god.
We had a (drunken) chat once about the twin themes of hope and frustration running through Radioactive Rats lyrics and that I could sense that despite not speaking Polish-are they emotions you feel strongly when singing these songs?
Ewa: Yes, as per our conversation, I don’t think you need to understand all the lyrics to understand the meanings and feelings. In our music and lyrics there is a lot of anger, but it’s hard to say whether I feel anger on the stage. It’s more that I just feel the music and energy. Even if I didn’t write most of these songs, I do feel connection with most of them. All these old songs like ‘Pojebany’ or ‘Nigdy sie nie damy’ reminds me of when I was 15 and we started to play as a Potluczony Kaloryfer ‘angry, untalented kids against the world’. ‘Sprzeciw’ and ‘Do Bólu’ reminds me about a very important part of my life when I started gigging with ZMT and growing up as a person and a vocalist. ‘Cyrk’ or ‘Zero’ are the songs of my favourite band from my hometown, Terra, Joseph’s and Jimmy’s (original RR drummer) previous band. I shared the stage or travelled with them numerous times (and would highly recommend their two CD’s on their Bandcamp page).
But to be honest most of my energy comes from the music itself and people around me during the gigs.
You included three covers on the CD by Zielone Zabki, Homomilitia, and Apatia, are they songs that are special to you, were they part of your growing up in Poland, are they important songs in Polish punk? I noticed when you covered the Apatia song in London-the place went wild!
Ewa: Zielone Zabki, Apatia and Homomilitia are good, old, punk/hc punk Polish bands. I think everyone knows them. We started to play ‘Młodzi faszyści’ and ‘Policja’ because of the lyrics… ‘So2’ we chose because it’s very simple to play and it’s nice to sway for a change Also it was nice to drink some cheap wine before a gig when we were teenagers and the lyrics are about love to cheap wine!
Marek, could you let us in on how you managed to deliver tracks that sound like a five piece punk band in full flow when it was all recorded in your living room! Did your academic background come in handy?
Marek: Yes, I have MEng in Electronics and Telecommunications majoring in Acoustics and my Master’s thesis was about Home Recording. Having a theoretical basis and already some experience in home recording (the demo of my previous band was recorded in the same way) helped a lot. Basically we used USB audio interface to connect guitars or microphone to a computer and recorded tracks through Reaper software. All the tracks were recorded as a DI (before signal is compressed or distorted) to re-amp it later (the raw tracks sounded very funny). It was all done in my living room. With guitars it was easy because everything was recorded quietly on headphones, but always when recording vocals I was worried that one of my neighbours would call the police reporting domestic violence as Ewa (or Joseph or Kuba when doing backing vocals) had to really scream to reflect the energy we hope we are showing live!
Then I had to choose the best shots, cut, move, time-align etc. Because recording drums is most time consuming and costly we decided to program MIDI drums and process in drum software afterwards. After that we sent all the tracks to my friend Lotnik from sound-online.pl (I cannot recommend him highly enough!) to do the aforementioned re-amping, drums processing and final Mix and Mastering. Because with DI tracks you can change sound almost ‘in the fly’ he sent us a few samples of guitar and drum sounds, we chose the ones we liked the most and ‘Voila!’
How do you feel about the CD being out, what has the response been like?
Marek: To be honest I feel a kind of relief that we managed to record these songs and we’ve also just released on our Bandcamp 14 tracks recorded live at BSV Studios in Nottingham in 2013 (Tribute). In some sense this closes the chapter titled ‘Potluczony Kalofyfer’. Hopefully now we can concentrate fully on writing new material – 100% Radioactive Rats! The response for ‘Nigdy sie nie damy’ is very positive. We were praised for the sound (all credit to Lotnik), recreating our live energy (to some extent), and even selection of cover songs, so ‘so far so good’! And all of that motivates us to work even harder on new stuff and give 110% on each gig…
If you can get hold of a copy of Nigdy sie nie damy do or check out Tribute on their Bandcamp page and I’d be surprised if you don’t end up at the front of one of their gigs in 2018!
Nigdy sie nie damy can be heard here: https://radioactiverats.bandcamp.com/
Tribute can be heard here: https://radioactiverats.bandcamp.com/album/tribute-live
Photos courtesy of Rafal Pietka Photography. http://www.pietka.co.uk/ and
Referenced: Hutchcraft, J. (2017) ‘There’s a Polish Punk Scene in London and it’s Thriving’. https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/d7e89x/polish-punk-scene-london-anti-fascism