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“It’s Amusing to Us to Not Have a Synthesiser in Sight on Stage”: Jakuzi – Shacklewell Arms (Live Review and Interview)

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Istanbul trio, Jakuzi, arrived in London on June 1st for the last date of their debut European tour – a packed out night at the Shacklewell Arms. Despite having never played outside of their native Turkey before, the band (minus bassist and producer, Taner Yücel) have been steadily making a name for themselves over the past 2 years, culminating in the release of their debut album, Fantezi Müzik, back in March.

Vulture Hound’s Tom Watkins was there, and caught up with frontman, Kutay Soyocak, before the gig to talk about their approach to live performances, influences, and building audiences inside and out of Turkey…

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My heart tends to sink a bit when I see a drummer wearing headphones. In my experience it usually signals a band that are so obsessed with sounding just like their record that they’ve forgotten the importance of focusing on the performance, and dial in musically perfect but stiff and lacklustre performances. In the case of Istanbul’s Jakuzi, however, the use of backing tracks is done so brazenly that it seems less of a crutch, or even a means to an end, than a central aspect of their whole artistic statement.

“We wanted to tap into the aesthetics of karaoke culture”, explained singer Kutay Soyocak when I caught up with them before their show at the Shacklewell Arms, the last date of a European tour. “There can be an emotional intensity and vulnerability to karaoke that’s very different to the experience of watching a live band playing instruments. We’ve tried to combine the two in our setup. We also sound like a synthpop band, so it’s amusing to us to not have a synthesiser in sight on stage. It’s not irony exactly, but it’s something like it.”

The band’s stripped-down stage setup was even more threadbare tonight; bassist and producer Taner Yücel had had to return to Turkey due to visa restrictions, leaving Soyacak and live drummer Can Kalyoncu to perform as a duo.

Jakuzi's Kutay Soyocak
Jakuzi’s Kutay Soyocak (Photo by: Tunahan Emre Bilgin)

From a tentative start, the duo upped the intensity incrementally, loosely following the track listing of their acclaimed debut album Fantezi Müzik. The capacity crowd, a large percentage of whom seemed to be UK-based Turks who knew every word to every song, clearly didn’t care that it wasn’t ‘real’ live music they were watching; the energy was infectious, the soundscapes were immersive and the two musicians had ample stagecraft between them to carry it all off convincingly. The pseudo-Karaoke schtick worked very well for the most part, and was given full flight when, in third song ‘Bir Düşmanım Var’, Soyacak dropped his microphone to his side and turned respectfully away from the limelight, allowing a soaring, disembodied saxophone solo to rise out of the mix and take centre stage. Fixing his eyes on an imaginary horizon, Soyacak captured the kitsch melodrama of the softer songs perfectly, cutting through with bursts of aggression for the punkier moments later on. Only occasionally, such as during the extended instrumental passages of set closer ‘Yine Ayni Şeyi Yaptım’, did the absence of live musicians feel a little uncomfortable.

Jakuzi’s Can Kalyoncu (Photo by: Tunahan Emre Bilgin)

Fantezi Müzik is peppered with nods to classic synthpop, krautrock and post punk, sometimes in the phrasing of the vocals or lead lines, elsewhere in the textures of squelchy analogue synths, and in the title, which is an ironic conflation of the Turkish pop subgenre ‘fantezi’ and Roxy Music. This alone makes for a compelling listen; a kind of 43 minute, musical Where’s Wally, but it’s done so well that they always manage to stay on the right side of pastiche, sounding both familiar and new but never ripped off. I asked the band if this referencing in their songs was deliberate; “Not exactly”, Soyacak clarified, “I mean, we obviously love all those bands you mentioned (I namechecked Orange Juice, Neu!, OMD, Suicide, and others), but it’s not as deliberate as that. We work together on the songs and Taner produces the music in a way that he feels best reflects their meanings. I guess the influences come through, which is great, but it’s not calculated to evoke particular songs or bands.”

Jakuzi’s meticulous use of classic synth patches is refreshing at the current time, when so many bands seem to smother their songs in layer after layer of ‘big’-sounding presets, leaving their melodies with no space to breathe. By contrast, Jakuzi’s arrangements are tasteful and restrained, each layer of sound feeling like it’s been carefully chosen for its suitability. Topping the mix, Soyacak’s rich, cinematic baritone bears the trace of a number of classic crooners; a bit Elvis Presley, a bit Brian Ferry, a bit Frank Sinatra, a bit Ian Curtis.

jakuzi
Fantezi Müzik Artwork

In keeping with a long tradition in synth pop, Jakuzi employ a sexualised, queer aesthetic that juxtaposes starkly with mainstream Turkey’s conservative social mores and rigid gender norms. As a result, Fantezi Müzik (which features a bare-chested and gimp-masked man on the cover) has been effectively banned from retail in major record outlets in Turkey under censorship legislation. Given these restrictions, an increasing number of Turkish bands (such as the Away Days and the Ringo Jets), are focusing their attentions abroad. I wondered how far the band’s ambitions stretch in terms of breaking through at home. “That’s not a realistic possibility in Turkey for alternative acts”, the band’s manager, Ulaş, told me. “Bands like this can gain underground popularity among Western-leaning listeners, but they won’t get played on radio or TV, so they’re not going to get heard beyond those audiences. And in any case, traditional Turks wouldn’t listen to them anyway. It’s an alternative thing, and that’s what the band want. But they can hopefully gain popularity abroad.”

The band have been outspoken in support of Turkey’s LGBTQI+ population, who are routinely harassed at street level and often subject to restrictions by the state (Gay Pride marches have been banned in recent years, the government citing concern for ‘public order’). Strangely, however, despite this climate of persecution, Turkey has a long and seemingly contradictory history of celebrating singers who present their sexualities and genders in ambiguous terms, some of whom, such as megastar Bülent Ersoy, maintain an open trans identity and have undergone sex reassignment surgery. Where, I wonder, do these apparent double standards come from, and how/where do Jakuzi’s music and performances fit in this context? “It’s not like here in the UK or elsewhere in the West where alternative cultures like punk crossover with LGBT culture”, explained Soyacak. “In Turkey these cultures are separate really. Alternative music spaces aren’t popular with the LGBT community, and it’s not like we have a huge trans following at our gigs, for example. But we recognise their situation and we want to help them by showing solidarity. We hope they get to know us and that our messages of support get to them.”

I ask the band about the socio-political climate in Turkey at present, given a series of fraught elections, the coup of July 2016, successive terrorist attacks, and the divisions brought about by the recent the presidential referendum. How, I wonder, has this affected the lives of musicians and others engaged in alternative culture? “I can see why you might think that the cultural situation, and the conservative outlook in general, would make it harder for bands in Turkey”, Soyacak tells me. “It certainly creates some difficulties, but in some ways recent political developments have made it easier for us to get gigs and build audiences, because international acts have dropped Turkey from their tours, meaning promoters and venues have had to look for homegrown talent instead. So we’ve been able to play some high profile shows that we wouldn’t have been able to before. And in any case, difficult politics has never meant bad music. It’s usually the opposite in fact.”

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Fantezi Müzik is available out now via City Slang, and available to download via Bandcamp.