20th Anniversary of “Mirta & Hot Acoustics” at the Blues Festival

20th Anniversary of “Mirta & Hot Acoustics” at the Blues Festival
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014
Kaspars Zaviļeiskis
The fifth edition of the annual Blues Festival will begin on the open-air stage of Sigulda Castle already this Saturday, the 26th of July. On the other hand, “Mirta & Hot Acoustics”, one of the front-liners of the festival, mark their twentieth anniversary this year. We meet the two key figures in the band – Mirta, often referred to as Latvia’s Janis Joplin, and her husband, guitarist Jevgēņijs Krupeņins shortly before the festival in Sigulda.

Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of your group!

Jevgēņijs Krupeņins: Thank you!

Mirta Krupeņina: Thanks, and right you are. The first time we performed together with “Mirta & Hot Acoustics” was at the autumn festival “Bildes” in 1994. This is when we started to play acoustic blues.

Where did the decision to play acoustic music come from?

J.K.: We first had the idea when we were playing with Jānis Vanadziņš (a notable Latvian guitarist also known as the father of Latvian blues – ed.) in the “Hot Dogs” band. That was an electric blues project, but we thought we should have a few acoustic numbers in our concerts so we would not tire the public. Many bands had done the same – “Led Zeppelin”, for example.

M.K.: And I firmly believed that the roots of the blues music were in acoustic music, and electric blues only came into being later. Guitarists, of course, love electric guitars, but I think that an acoustic instrument is rather meant for the soul, it is alive, it breathes. Harmonica, for instance, also has a very distinct, vivid sound. Whenever Saša (band member Aleksandrs Šlujevs – ed.) starts to play harmonica, he sends our hearts thumping.

J.K.: The band’s original make-up also included pianist Gints Žilinskis, who has by now become a great master able to play virtually anything. At the time he did struggle with the style a little bit at the beginning, and three months later Pits Andersons offered Žilinskis to join his band.

Indeed, Gints is now mostly known for playing retro music, especially boogie-woogie.

M.K.: Yes, he is definitely a master of style!

J.K.: Another original member, Saša Šlujevs also quit the band, and we were joined by Andrejs Jahimovičs, then President of the Riga Rock Club.

The Rock Club also organised the first blues festival in Latvia back in 1984. We participated, too, therefore you might say that this year we celebrate the 30th anniversary since we started to play blues music!

Back to the beginnings of “Mirta & Hot Acoustics” – so you decided that acoustic was the way to go. Have you ever considered changing something in your position?

M.K.: We have, and that is why we also have a parallel project – “Mirta &Co” where we play electric blues or blues rock. By the way, this is the project that we will present at the recreation park “Egle” in Riga on Sunday, the 27th of July.

Now you live in Bristol, England. Which means we don’t have the opportunity to see you very often in Latvia. So that’s a chance not to be missed.

M.K.: Yes, that’s about right, as we cannot fly here too often. We travel as a family: two tickets for us and two for the guitars. A bit too costly.

J.K.: So when we do perform here we cover the cost of the travel – at best.

The Bristol music scene is mostly associated with trip hop – “Massive Attack”, “Portishead”, Tricky. What is the blues scene like there?

M.K.: Blues is not as popular there.

J.K.: It was twenty years ago, but now times have changed. Contemporary music is much more popular, as Bristol is a city of youth. A student city.

M.K.: This means that students are not overly interested in the good old blues music, but there is public that loves and respects the traditional blues music. When we perform, the audiences are very responsive and surprised to hear songs that many have long forgotten.

So you play in Bristol clubs?

M.K.: Yes, on quite a regular basis. We try to become part of the local concert life. There are larger and smaller stages, we do some experiments to see how the English will react. The public is very special. If they like something, they will not hesitate to show it, but if not – you start to feel very uncomfortable.

J.K.: They listen VERY attentively. The public is very knowledgeable about music, they know classical rock music and much more. They have had the latest music playing on the radio since their childhood.

M.K.: They are very surprised at our performances, especially when they learn that we are from Latvia. They usually think we are from America since we play such stylistically pure blues. And so it happens that we popularise Latvia and our music, tell them about our country and the capital city.

What can we expect from you at the Sigulda concert? Will there be some special programme?

M.K.: We always prepare very thoroughly for every concert. A song we were singing a year ago will sound completely different today. It comes with experience. But mostly we play blues music from the early 20th century.

Do you ever play contemporary music retro-style?

M.K.: We perform a few Janis Joplin’s songs. The public always wants me to sing something from her repertoire – and I don’t mind.

J.K.: Mirta was initially upset at being always compared to her. But the voices are similar indeed, so we realised that we would not be able to get away from that.

Now people in Bristol say the same thing people in Latvia used to tell us – Mirta should sing something from Janis, it could be very close!

M.K.: Obviously people’s musical associations are the same here and over there. I believe that the culture of music in Latvia is at a very high level. And the middle class in Latvia is certainly much more cultural than in England. We are more emotional, more spiritual. They are more brutal. They live on an island.

How do you choose which compositions to play from the immense blues songbook? Do you simply try to listen to everything you can?

M.K.: We actually listen to all kinds of music. I practically do not listen to blues music at home, unless I have to for my job. I take nuances here and there for emotional inspiration. I like to play the old songs, albeit transforming them through my self, giving them new life. Polishing them so they would shine as bright as pearls.

J.K.: Good songs are actually not that easy to find. If I stumble onto something, I show it to Mirta at once – she listens, tries to sing to understand if it will suit her at all. Mirta will not sing anything just for the sake of making it sound pretty. Sometimes she refuses to sing a song because of the lyrics – also an important aspect. Sometimes there are even sexually vulgar songs in the old blues music!

M.K.: If I don’t feel the vibe of the song, I will not want to sing it.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues” is an excellent film that traces the roots of the blues music to West Africa, and finds that blues actually comes from there. Do you dig into the distant past too?

M.K.: No, we don’t do that. It is interesting, of course, to study the development of the blues music, but we don’t want to bring something particular from African music here because that would be artificial. At the same time, it is interesting to include some subtle nuances in a song, so you have a complete silence half-way through the concert, even if you’re playing in a British pub. Polishing those pearls for these very special moments is well worth it.

J.K.: I was briefly into Indian music in the 1980s. Together with guitarist Valērijs Beļinovs, who was Nora Bumbiere’s husband at the time, we played a kind of fusion of jazz and Indian music. Much like John McLaughlin and “Mahavishnu Orchestra” were doing. We even performed at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and had a meeting with the Indian Ambassador! It was as close as I could get to world music.

M.K.: But you can actually feel it – when Žeņa plays blues, he often incorporates something special in the song, something based on his experience. Something from “Opus”, too (Jevgēņijs also played the guitar in the popular rock band “Opus Pro” – ed.).

J.K.: I joined the band as Alex (Oļegs Andrejevs, the “Opus Pro” front man – ed.) was very impressed by my American sound when I played using a slide. Any new developments in music only enrich your life, which is why we go to a lot of concerts in England. Including country music and heavy metal!

Have you tried to compose own music in retro blues or some other style?

J.K.: We rather rearrange old songs to fit our style. We work according to a formula where the song has to have a very precise rhythm, and a beautiful melody on top of it so we would love to play it. I do compose now and then. When I hold a guitar and take three or four chords, I have a lot of ideas going through my head, but that is not a goal in and of itself.

M.K.: Because the diamonds and pearls we already have are at a very, very high level. We do not want to compose music to simply have our names on the CD. We don’t have such an ego.

J.K.: I was composing quite a lot during the Riga Rock Club period in the 1980s. This is when I also rearranged Paganini’s “Caprice” that went on to become a major hit to play at rock concerts for encores as we toured the Soviet Union. However, as we all well know, the public mostly want to hear popular hit songs in concerts. That’s the way it’s always been.

Well, then we’ll be looking forward to Janis Joplin’s return in Sigulda!

M.K.: Special for you, dear friends!

P.S.: If you are unable to attend the Blues Festival, visit riga2014.org again to see the concert aired live from 6 p.m.!


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