Vilnius’s shishi are a great act, full of brio and intelligence. They make people’s pop music out of a wide range of sonic parts, and are a knockout live band to boot. The trio are on the point of releasing their new LP later this year, after a set of single / video releases. Vilnius has a very interesting alternative scene to boot, one that gets undeservedly overlooked. Setting that record straight – we hope we asked bassist Victoria and guitarist Maria Rosa some questions about life, various loves and Lithuania.
LTW: Tell me about shishi, how it came about and – most importantly of course, why!
Victoria: We were all part of different bands, as singers, in Vilnius. And time was flying and we were singing… Anyway, me and our ex-drummer Francesca, we’ve got this amazing rehearsal space in an old wood workshop. We made it really nice – and we started playing around, what with all the instruments in there. I guess what came next was natural. We thought, maybe it’s not a bad idea to start a new band, and we will, at last, use these instruments ourselves. At the beginning it was me (trying to figure out how does a bass work) and Francesca. She was determinedly figuring out how to multitask while playing the drums. After a short while, it was clear – we must have a guitar. You know, keep it classy; bass, guitar, drums and voices. We started sniffing around – one friend suggested I talk to Maria Rosa. So we met, we talked, ate soup, and later we hooked up in the studio. We handed a guitar to her, she seemed to be a little surprised, but didn’t really mind. And since then we are playing and learning non stop.
Why did we start shishi? Haha, unintentionally I think. Out of curiosity, for the sake of playing. After we’ve tasted the fun of creating everything by ourselves and literally from scratch (considering our instrument knowledge) it became addictive and we couldn’t stop. And I hope we never will. But life’s a bitch sometimes…
Maria Rosa: Dominyka is right: my version of the story is almost the same! After my last project, a swing-jazz duo fell apart, I was sad and a bit lost, thinking that I love music but really not knowing how to express that love properly. But I knew I wanted a girl band straight away, because all my life I loved vocal harmonies very much; in my teenage years I was obsessed with acapella jazz bands, so… And finding singing girls in Vilnius is much easier than finding singing boys. One more thing to add; I never thought I would play an instrument! (Laughs). I actually thought playing guitar is boring, as everybody plays it, I won’t be any better, so why bother? I was sharing a studio with several alternative bands before, there were plenty of guitars everywhere, but I never even thought of picking one up and trying to play around. So when I met Victoria for soup, I was still sure I would only sing: well, maybe play keys… But then in the studio, the girls suggested I try guitar. It wasn’t that bad and with my twisted, “skewed” hands I even could play a few chords. So shishi began.
LTW: Why is it easier to find singing girls in Vilnius than singing boys?
Victoria: I wouldn’t say there are less singing boys. There are more boy bands, and they all sing! Beautifully!
…I guess Lithuanians are a singing nation.
Maria Rosa: Boys and girls..well at a young age we all sing. I just think it’s a question of the image we get while we are growing up – a girl with a microphone, standing in the front of the band, normally, without an instrument, just singing. While boys have their bass, guitar, drum players’ images everywhere. That’s how I grew up, but luckily it’s changing bit by bit.
LTW: And the other bands you play with – your respective musical backgrounds – tell us about all of that.
Victoria: Well, since I was little my mum took me to traditional Lithuanian music scene events. I participated in that for a long while, and I am still keen on world and traditional music. When I was a teenager I was fascinated with ska, reggae and jazz. Luckily I met some people who were in a ska-jazz band, so I did that. But it was really scary. I had an almost surreal lack of self confidence; so every concert we played was an outpouring of joyful feelings but also my biggest nightmare. In 2009 I joined a reggae/dub band called Ministry of Echology, where we first played together with Francesca and we still are playing together. My god, 10 years! I can’t believe it. I’ve met a lot of my band buddies from a small bunch round school. The other band I play in – Homechestra – (ex Rok&Dom) is with the bass player from MoE, and with two other friends. We’re releasing and album this year too. Can’t wait, be sure to check it out!
Around 2012 I was playing in this crazy mathematical-ethno-folk-punk- crazy shizzle band Banda Dzeta (the group’s leader is one of the most clever people, musically, that I know). After a Banda Dzeta concert in Sejny, Poland, I started playing in a Polish/Lithuanian project, Babadag. We combining Lithuanian and Polish folk music with all sorts of other music genres. I’m sorry if it’s too much information! (Laughs.)
Maria Rosa: All my childhood I was singing in different ensembles and choirs, and Lithuanian folk songs with my grandfather at home. In my teenage years I finally told myself – ok I love music, I want to know more about it, so I went to music school. Somehow I got into classical singing class. Fun fact: I was always the oldest student in the class, seven or more years older than everybody else, sitting in the back of the classroom so my little classmates could see the teacher better. Also, just like Victoria, very much scared of being on stage. Very much. But in this school I met a friend, also older than the rest of the world there, and a few years later we formed a band, Elle G. It was crazily, unbelievably, completely different from shishi; the two of us were playing ukulele and small toy instruments, dressing in vintage dresses and singing soft swing-era music, Lithuanian interwar period songs and later, our own music. To my own surprise we did very well. We spent some time in Germany, and even toured the USA three times. Even though our music was soft and girlish I have always been interested in music in a wider way. Naming different styles or genres aren’t really good ways to fully describe music. So I took this change completely naturally. Now, being quarantined, I am locked in with my friend and we’re working with some new ideas, trying to connect old Lithuanian old music with surf and electronic sounds. We’ll see what comes out of it once we’re free again!
You have a very distinctive approach: it’s very playful, poppy and direct. You draw on specifics: pop, trash, surf, lots of harmonics and a dance beat. You’re a lot of fun as a live band, too; lots of onstage witticisms and asides. But your Bandcamp statement, “Playing what we like the way we want to” sounds like a threat!
Victoria: People nowadays are so indecisive, don’t you think? So this statement makes me feel more calm than threatened. It’s just us being honest, not only do we play what we like and the way we want to, it’s the only way we know how to (laughs). As we’re in a constant process of learning that’s how it’s going to be, I think.
It’s interesting how on stage we become these characters – playful, poppy, funny… lalala… because in real life we’re way more reserved and tranquil. I love how the stage and music transforms you into different things.
Maria Rosa: Haha. Never thought about it, but yeah. It can sound like a threat if you don’t know us. Though for me, “Playing what we like the way we want to” is playing what I know and can play in this particular moment and -at the same time – playing it the way that I could still enjoy. As long as it makes me happy, I really don’t care.
LTW: What comes through in your music – and what you’ve told me – is a love of harmonics, and of singing. Is singing a big part of Lithuanian life, in general? Is this something from the church tradition? I know Estonia has its singing festival…
Maria Rosa: Oh yes! We also have this enormous singing festival. Every four years Lithuanians from all over the planet gather in Vilnius and sing and dance together. A lot of singing in one big stadium! And everyone knows the lyrics and the audience sometimes joins in and sings. During the festival there is a singers’ parade which leads to the stadium. These singing festivals are one of the best memories from my choir years. I think I know more people who participated in this Lithuanian singing festival than those who didn’t. I guess it comes from the family traditions. At least, not from the Church. As for me, I was lucky to have this funky grandpa who taught me singing at home, even forced us to make singing celebrations, for example, the “apple blossoming in the garden“ where all the family was forced to play and sing, even if they really couldn’t (laughs). I think singing still is a big part of our culture, I hope so.
Victoria: Maria Rosa explained this pretty well. But about the church – I’m not sure. Certainly our traditional folk music scene is alive and treasured; this might be one of the points too. And there is this term “singing revolution”, it’s all the movements from 87-91 when the Baltics were trying to get out of the Soviet Union. This was a way for people to protest, give their opinion with a song, in unity.
LTW: My limited knowledge of Vilnius’s music scene (Sheep Got Waxed, you, Garbanotas) suggests things are poppy playful and experimental. Is that fair?
Maria Rosa: Yeah, our alternative music scene is beautiful and vibrant. The nice thing about a small town; it’s much easier to be heard with your new experiments and projects, because all the people gather at the same places, are friends and get their information from the same sources. There are a lot of concerts going on here and there, many times you have to choose where to go… unless you are Hermione Granger.
Victoria: Yes, yes! The Lithuanian alternative scene is amazing in my opinion. We’ve got so much going on: Egomasina, Domas Strupinskas, Brokenchord, Timid Kooky, Planeta Polar, Arklio Galia, Daujotas, Keymono, Kabloonak – and I forgot to mention a bunch I’m sure. But yeah, we’re really rich in terms of acts. I’m very happy to be a part of the Lithuanian music kiddos crew.
What’s Vilnius like? Again, my limited time there gave the impression of a self-contained city (loads of churches, that crazy bar on the old station) with a fairly independent spirit.
Maria Rosa: We still keep that Eastern European toughness and diligence but want to be very much Western so we keep chasing technologies and trends very fast. Although we have some issues with Vilnius’s old town, which is being vacuumed and licked clean for tourists, sometimes in a radical way, Vilnius is still a very green, cosy, lovely capital to live in. Voila, come to Vilnius everybody, once you can, which is sadly somewhere far away in the future (laughs).
Victoria: For starters – Vilnius is very small. This is an advantage and a disadvantage all at once. Everybody knows each other, the same familiar places… you’re never alone somehow. It gives a cosy vibe, sure, but sometimes you get tired and lazy. Sometimes wandering around on the streets and meeting no one you know is a really great way to relax. And that’s nearly impossible. Vilnius is also full of forests. You can be walking in the middle of the city centre, following the river for a bit, turn left, climb a little hill – and boom you’re in a jungle! Narnia! Amazing. Although I think they’ll cut everything down soon, I don’t know what’s the logic of this. Also the “ugly” sleeping neighbourhoods: I find them very soothing (laughs). Maybe it’s because I grew up in one. Just the concept of these neighbourhoods “this is a neighbourhood where everyone is going to sleep or taking a rest”… wild.
LTW: What do you mean by “ugly sleeping neighbourhoods”? I’m intrigued..
Maria Rosa: Maybe Victoria should speak more, because in a way her neighbourhood was uglier (laughs). But yeah, me too, I grew up in this kinda ugly, greyish neighbourhood with lots of blocks of flats everywhere. At that time my favourite song was ‘Jenny from the Block’ (laughs). Now these districts have this nostalgic feeling of the frozen past, hanging in the air. Foreigners can feel it too. We recently had the ‘Chernobyl’ TV series shooting scenes in one of these neighbourhoods.
Victoria: The neighbourhood where I grew up is called Pašilaičiai (“near the pine forest” is the literal translation) in what used to be a village back in the day. Now it’s a huge sleeping neighbourhood with these grey ugly buildings. And they’re trying to fix them to make them nicer. And I think they’re failing badly. Ugly is more beautiful than what they consider to be beautiful. But that’s me, OK? (laughs). I admire the evenings there, when everyone is at home the buildings light up, with these square windows and you can sit and wonder – in those boxes – so many heads, in those heads so many thoughts and ideas, sorrows, happy moments, horrible moments, whatever. I don’t know, it relaxes me.
It used to be spooky too, when I was a teenager, we had “gangs” from the neighbourhoods around, and they would come and beat up people just because they had nothing better to do.
…I love Vilnius actually, we’ve got rivers, forests (under attack at the moment by crazy people), and parks. And you can drive for 15 minutes and you can reach a lake, and reach another one further on, and so on. Lithuania is really pretty!
LTW: I’d like to ask you what you feel the differences are with this new record, Mafitishei and your last, NAx80?
Victoria: For starters, this album is hardcore sad. We somehow had a really hard time in personal lives, so all the songs are fucking sorrowy ( sorrow+y=sorrowy). Goodbyes, lies, cries, lonely vibes, depressed hours… it was a sad, grey time. Interesting too, of course, but man, I’m so glad this phase is over. Despite the sadness, this album is also different; in how we play and what we play. I guess we’ve learnt some new tricks playing our instruments, so the style changed a bit too. So, mostly experiments and juggling with what we knew and the new knowledge we’ve got.
Maria Rosa: I wouldn’t say the new album is very sad. We had a quiet, sad year and our songs happened to become the reflections of that. But they are full of life, splashing and vibrating, even more than those in the first album. It’s three survivors singing and playing their own experiences! (Laughs.) Also we paid more attention to the quality of our work, such as recording and all the rest. I hope it’s visible and audible to the listener.
LTW: I loved the last LP so much by the way, what should I expect with the new one?
Victoria: Thank you, I love it too! (Laughs.) You shouldn’t expect anything, because expectations are serial killers, life-burdening bitches.
Maria Rosa: You should expect to have a great time listening to great songs AND, sorry for this, remembering your traumatic experiences and sad moments thanks to shishi (laughs). You shouldn’t expect it will change your life, you will lose some weight or you won’t need to walk your dog anymore.
LTW: Why are you knocking out this set of videos? Just a way of getting people’s attention (well, of course there is that, always), or are you trying to show something else about shishi?
Victoria: Now we’re working together with the state51 label (a bunch of great people). So they told us – ok, choose a ‘somebody’ who does animation, illustration or something, and that’s how ABran appeared. Check him out! We described every song, the story behind it. And kaboom, the videos are interpretations of what we’ve told. Every piece is hilarious. I think it very well reflects our mindset. Yes, life is a mess, yes, shit’s going on, but let’s notice the funky side of it and giggle a little. It might get better, it might not get better. But it will be until it’s no more (laughs).
LTW: Have you certifiable evidence there is Human – Plant Communication?
Victoria: Certifiable; I’ve never heard this word in my life. Hard to pronounce. I won’t lie, And I don’t, maybe Giedrė does. But it is true that when you feel shitty, you plant a seed, or go to the forest – and suddenly – the shittiness becomes smaller. I also found this…
Maria Rosa: The title came from the art installation of Latvian artists Rasa Šmite, Raitis Šmits and Mārtiņš Ratniks who did this crazy project about finding the words that beans wish to hear to help them grow. You could leave an anonymous encouraging message for the bean plants online to grow. Later the artists collected the data; so I guess evidence is in their hands. But even without them it’s visible ! In Lithuania some forest paths look like highways these days!