[Featurama] The Beats in Botanicula: An Interview with DVA
In a perfect world, the light-hearted point-and-click adventure game Botanicula will turn out to be a sleeper hit for developer Amanita Design. A game featuring a seemingly misanthropic cast of insects exploring their home tree probably won’t knock Diablo III off the charts, but the charming title is quickly finding its audience thanks to a strong debut in a recent Humble Bundle.
As anyone who’s played it will attest, Botanicula owes a great deal of its whimsicality to its soundtrack. Created by DVA, it blends acoustic sounds and percussion with remarkable melodies to great affect. I got a chance recently to interview Bara and Jan Kratochvil from the band, and they spoke about making the soundtrack, creating music for games, and how somehow it all changes if you live in the Czech Republic.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: How did you end up involved with Botanicula? Amanita Design has a very unique style — did you immediately know that this game was going to be a good fit for your band’s sound?
Bara: It was good luck that creator Jara Plachy found our music to be a good fit. We‘ve known each other for a few years and it was really natural to work together. He made a video for our song “Nunovo Tango,“ and we made music for a short animated video of his simply because we like his artwork and he likes our music. When he had plans for making a game, he asked us… and we liked it very much!
It’s pretty clear from your previous work (like “HU”) that this wasn’t too much of a departure for you — the sounds involved, the arrangements, and the melodies are all there. Did you have to think about songwriting differently for doing the soundtrack for Botanicula?
Jan: It’s a little bit different. During recording of the album “HU,“ we recorded whatever we wanted – there was no limit on what we could do. But in a game, it‘s necessary to support the atmosphere created by the pictures and animations. So the music had to be more atmospheric and more conceptual than “regular” songs. They must work together, because the pictures and animations are number one in the game. It‘s more similar to recording movie music.
Who would you say are your biggest musical influences?
Bara: Arvo Part and his work with voices, Bjork and her work with voices, Hungarian bands (Bela Agoston, Erzi Kiss, Bioberner…) and their language (which we don’t understand), Latvian and Lithuanian folk music and their language, and Estonian hip-hop from the radio. Also, we need Czech forests and nature as influence.
Jan: For the game it was compositions of Estonian composer Arvo Part. One song in level 2 is inspired by a song of LCD Soundsystem‘s, and Icelandic bands like Mum were also big influences. For level 6, it was compositions of Penderecki who did the soundtrack for the movie The Shining.
You’re from the Czech Republic — do you think your location in the world influences your unique sound, or do you think it’s more from your musical influences?
Bara: In the Czech Republic, you’ll frequently see bands imitating Western bands and using English, so they are losing something special from the Czech sound. We use our own fantasy language and only make music we like, and probably it‘s a unique Czech sound, or maybe it‘s a unique alien sound… we don‘t know. Most importantly it is fun for us, and then beyond that we only hope it is unique.
Jan: I think location is one of most important factors. For example, when we changed flats, we started recording some music in the new one – and we just heard, “Oh, it‘s a sort of Czech country music.” Two weeks later we found out that the old woman who lived there before us only listened to country music. It sounds odd, but it works like that. It also works with cities and countries. When we were on Reunion Island, we made music for a theatre – everything was a mix of reggae and Manu Chao style. We didn‘t want it, but it was not possible to do it in a different way.
Now, I’m in the United States. When I was growing up, the Czech Republic was always in the news for various political issues. Is the political situation something you need to worry about? Does it affect your touring?
Bara: It‘s not as bad as when it was more of a communist country, but we are very upset with this politic situation. It‘s more the people here who always vote for the same parties, and there are many cases of corruption. But it‘s different, and still better than in Russia or the Ukraine for example. People have everything they need (with small differences in some parts of Czechoslovakia), a good European standard… but it could be better of course. And we cannot complain, because we are touring a lot, and we are pure. When we go to the U.S., we have to pay for our visas, but nothing prevents us from touring around the world.
Jan: We are somewhere between the Ukraine and Germany. Actually, I think we are much closer to Germany than the Ukraine. Here, there are some problems with corruption in higher floor of the political building – but good news as of last week – one really big-boss politician mafioso is now in jail, so things are looking better! What is really good is that we have the least percentage of poor people in EU, and also least percentage of unemployed people less than 25 years of age in all of Europe. So some things are good, and some things are bad. But generally there is a standard democracy of Western style, with all the positives and negatives. There’s absolutely no political pressure on artists, like there is in some parts of Eastern Europe, for example.
How did you meet? Unless I read something wrong, you do most of the recording with just the two of you. Do you tour with a larger band?
Bara: We met in a small independent theatre group, Divadlo Dno. We were making music with this group, and there were maybe 20 students… but then they all have their own projects or schools, jobs, etc. We stayed in same city, just the two of us, and wanted to make music. So we needed Loop Station and nothing or anyone else. We tour sometimes with a VJ and sound engineer, but the music is just the two of us. The name DVA means “two” in most Slavic languages.
What’s a perfect record to you?
Bara: Everything that we do, that’s perfect! No, what we record we like, if we don‘t like it, we don‘t post it.
Jan: I agree with Bara. It‘s only the one criteria for our records or somebody else‘s. We like it or we don‘t. For me, the super-duper technical quality is not the most important thing.
If you had unlimited time and money, what would you like to do (in terms of recording) that you haven’t already done? Is there anyone — a musician, band, or producer — that you’d love to work with?
Bara: We would like to tour or work with Bjork, Caribou, or Animal Collective, or to record half a year in Norway or Finland on a bay of the Nordic Sea. Or just on an island, or buy a big house with a big forest in Norway or Finland and make a home studio there. Maybe have a show on the moon or on Mars.
Does being a household name interest you? Do you want to be ultra-mega-super-famous!?
Jan: Hehe. It‘s not our primary target. Of course, it‘s really the greatest job to do what we like and survive from it. And of course, it‘s definitely better to play a concert for a full club than for an empty one!
As people try to relate to your sound, would you prefer being thought of more like Tom Waits or more like Sigur Ros?
Bara: More like Sigur Ros.
Jan: Oh, I like both of them. What about Tom Ros and Sigur Waits!?
— — —
Note: This interview was conducted using e-mail only, and Jan and Bara were more than generous with their time – especially given their busy touring schedule, and considering that English is not their first language. Edits were approved through band management, used as sparingly as possible, and only performed to clarify statements for a largely English speaking audience. Every effort was made to preserve the original meaning (and charm) of their answers.