Pioneering music, artfully delivered
Cai Trefor
22:30 5th April 2019

How many chess-themed bands do you know? Yeah, thought so. None. Well, your life is about to change because here we have Karpov Not Kasparov – a band who’ve been gaining a lot of attention in mainland Europe having played in 38 European countries but have only ever played in the UK once in their ten year existence. This ought to change.

Their sound – an amalgamation of acoustic drums, synth, vocal and phone memos – is assured in its creative vision. They produce goosebump-inducing electronic pop music with a flair which reflects their multi-ethnic Romanian roots and so far it's limited to a selection of EPs and a debut album titled Soundtrack To A Game Of Chess and Soundtrack To a Game Of Chess (Vocal Edits). Throughout their oeuvre, we hear their kinship with 80s dancefloor music as well as Eastern infused melodies. 

As for the chess theme in Karpov Not Kasparov’s output, it manifests in the name, the song-titles, their live performance (they often project live chess games as they play) and in the way they view their creative process. It’s an idea that stems from singer Valerius’ realisation that in a lot of the music they were making, it mirrored the genesis of chess. He asserts their Orient meets Occident music has paralells with the Eastern game that found success in the West. Their first track of this hybrid nature was ‘Mechanical Turk’, first released in 2011.

In addition to being the seed for a great theme for a band, the idea Karpov had in weaving formerly disparate musical worlds was prophetic of a larger shift about to happen in electronic music Romania: Oriental sounds have become much more ubiquitous in electronic music in the country since they adopted the style.  

Given the band's pioneering history, it's a pure honour to meet Karpov Not Kasparov – whose music does go beyond this blend and is characterised by a rich variety of style, for the record – in their hometown of Bucharest.

The band are fresh from having spent last night performing at MMB (Mastering the Music Business) in Bucharest. It’s a festival, in its fourth year, which sifted through over 500 applications from top European bands down to just a handful who could play in front of esteemed delegate list. It’s a festival that’s working miracles for internationalising its promising homegrown bands, so it speaks volumes of how much esteem the Romanians hold Karpov Not Kasparov that they were given one of the top spots on the line-up.

We sit at a posh dinner table in the restaurant the floor above where the conference arm of MMB has been taking place all day and ask the duo – long-bearded Valerius Borcos and his drummer Eduard Gabia – some questions about their concept, the Romanian revolution, new Romanian music, and new album plans. Without further ado, here's the inimitable Karpov Not Kasparov:

Hi, it’s nice to meet you. Great to see you play last night, it feels like things are on the up and you’ve been relatively successful on the European scene. Why do you think fans are drawn to your music?

Valerius Borcos: It's this combination of electronic and analog. Some people say it's a happy nostalgia. It's very playful but also has this part that's sad or retrospective. I definitely feel like there's a sad seed in there somewhere.

When you started Karpov, what was the intention?

VB: We tried to follow the genesis of chess. It originates in the Orient but found its modern glory in the Occident.

I hear that in the music; there’s a definite Oriental flavour in there. Did that stem from travelling a lot?

VB: You don’t need to travel because you have it in your blood as a Romanian – it’s a confluence. There’s the Balkan part, Oriental influence from being under Turkish influence for centuries, and Russian influence.

And it's funny because in the 17th century when we were under Turkish influence,  anyone who was a king of Romania - or a ruler of Romania - was obliged to send their children to Istanbul so they could be kept prisoner. It was to ensure they would obey the empire. One of these children was Dimitrie Cantemir and he grew up very smart there. During the renaissance he was exchanging with the likes of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Leibniz and he was the guy who established the academic study of music in Turkey. For what’s now recognised as Turkish music - both religious and popular - this Romanian wrote books and manuals and theorized it. He composed a lot and was a huge influence.

Your forthcoming tour dates with Turkish band Altin Gun make for a natural synergy then don’t you think? 

VB: Yes.

When are these tour dates happening?

VB: It's probably going to happen in autumn, we played with them already at MENT in Slovenia and we will try to find venues for them in Romania and play together. Maybe we’ll go to Holland too. It was a nice energy from their tracks.

Lyrically, there are many references to chess in your music. Can you describe one example?

VB: We have a song that is named after chess player Bobby Fischer's last words: ‘Nothing Is As Healing As The Human Touch’. He was dying of cancer and would only use alternative medicine but it wasn’t effective for him. It’s not about medicine but perhaps says something about humanity.

Why did you pick this band name?

VB: When we realised that our process of making music is very similar to playing chess, the next thing that came in mind were these two Russian players: Karpov and Kasparov. The irony is we prefer Kasparov to Karpov.

For obvious reasons…

VB: Yes, Kasparov is a free thinker opposing the regime in Russia. And Kasparov was better at chess.

Where in Romania are you both from?

Eduard Gabia: I lived in Odorheiu Secuiesc until I was four. My parents were industrial architects and working on a factory. We moved to Bucharest after that.

VB: I was born in Craiova but have lived in Bucharest all my adult life.

I believe you gave up different careers when Karpov started going well? What did you do?

VB: Yes I was in journalism and advertising.

EG: I was in performance arts, choreography. I still do some.

What’s the story behind you getting into drums? I really admire your style of playing, it brings so much to the stage.

EG: I didn’t pick them up until I was 33. I had invited a friend to come dance and I asked him to bring a snare and I was playing a snare and he was dancing. I had this snare I was hitting it and I liked it. Perhaps ballet helped with stamina and discipline and I was able to learn by myself through Youtube tutorials.

I heard a rumour that you are well known actor in Italy?

EG: I played the lead role Cover Boy… Last Revolution. The first director [Carmine Amoroso] saw me in a performance and cast me. He had the story about a Romanian guy coming to Italy. It’s about the Romanian revolution.

VB: We are the last revolution in Europe and the bloodiest.

Why was it bloody?

VB: It was manipulation really. It was bloody because in order to quash the spontaneous revolt in 1989, the communist wing led by Ceausescu ordered fire. After this, one communist wing of the party [Iliescu] decided it was time to throw out Ceausescu so he fled and Illiescu auto-proclaimed power. But soon after people stipulated that no ex-communist should be present in the newly formed government. Suddenly Iliescu invents this ‘terrorist’ group that would kill people to revenge Ceausescu (in reality he needed a diversion so he could capture the power despite people rejecting him as ex-communist). So Iliescu created this general confusion, gave guns to civilians, sent contradictory orders to different army legions so they would shoot each other. This was the perfect scenario for Iliescu to capture power without opposition and also to quickly execute Ceausescu (without a proper trial). So on top of these bloody events, Iliescu appeared as a saviour and won the elections by 85%.

Sounds intense. Glad it’s calm right now.

VB: Right now it’s kind of friendly. Since 2016, Iliescu is under trial for crimes against humanity but it is very slow advance in the process so most probably he will die before conviction, he’s almost 90.

Let’s go back to talking about the band. I noticed after seeing you live last night at the MMB showcase you’re really immersed in what you're doing. How do you get to an effective state of mind to play live?

VB: I think it has something to do with meditation and self-discipline. It's actually a paradox because it's a contradiction between a need to relate and the need to be isolated. You have to negotiate these two. You have to be present there to look people in the eyes but you need to also be in your creative circle to be able to gain strength from the power and transmit.

Great point. How did you get a record deal for your debut album by the way? 

VB: I wrote to about 30 different labels and this Berlin label [PolychromeSounds]  were the first to make a chess move.

When’s the next album coming?

VB: It’s all recorded we’re just trying to find a record label and had some good feedback from some good labels. Hopefully it's going to happen with Multi Culti who are known for ethnic oriental, and more dance, club music.

In what way does it differs sonically from the first album?

VB: This new album we used more synths. The first one we just used one synth, a cheap underestimated synth.

Your band is one of few DIY acts to do really well outside of Romania, do you see many other acts set to follow in your footsteps?

VB: It's already happening. There is a new wave of Romanian acts. There are some DJ's, producers - live bands as well. This Romanian minimal wave is doing well.

Any acts in particular our readers should check out?

VB: The Future Nuggets is a nice label started in Romania and they push out a lot of bands. Really interesting and original oriental and electronic music.

Sounds exciting. Look forward to hearing more from you and from Romanian producers and bands in general. Thanks very much for your time.

Karpov Not Kasparov's album is streaming now here

Grab your copy of the Gigwise print magazine here.

Photo: Press