He believes road maintenance and repair professionals work with much more passion these days – that’s because they’ve spent a significant amount of time in the video game world. “Just look at them – it seems that they’re all holding joysticks in their hands,” grins Zan Hoffman, an artist from Louisville, Kentucky. He’s the mastermind behind three music projects and a proud owner of a tie collection that boasts more than 900 items. Zan only brought 30 of them to Kaunas – well, that’s for two or three months of outfits.
We bumped into Zan in the Kaunas Artists’ House (KAH), a classy interwar building meant to be the Embassy of Vatican. Today, KAH is one of the busiest culture institutions in Kaunas, offering a calendar full of concerts, exhibitions, performances, discussions, movie screenings etc. Zan first performed here in April with his new wave-loving project Bodycocktail. More recently, he spent a few weeks here as a resident artist, preparing Kaunastones, a performative tour of sidewalks, which is an extension of his sound exploration project Zanstones. The artist was kind enough to sit down with us and answer a few questions about his background, moving to Europe and his Kaunas-related insights. Make sure you say hi when you see Zan in town after he comes back from his summer tour (dates and locations below)!
What exactly happened 25 years ago when you decided to start Bodycocktail?
Well, I am a classically trained violinist. I discovered John Cage who just gave a green light and told us everything we do is going to be OK. So, my first works were a lot more experimental and sound gathering and collaborations. I started a cassette label back in 1984. In 1993, I got my very first piece of equipment - a keyboard. That was the start of Bodycocktail - I realised I didn’t have a dedicated music project. The name is adorable, it came from a Dutch advert someone sent me. It said, blah blah blah, bodycocktail. Oh, that's my next band name! My music is like a cocktail. After a few tracks, you realize that you're feeling good.
One girl said she hated me when she saw my first track. By the third song, she realized she wanted to be me. It takes a while for people to understand where I am coming from. They realize they can have fun. Bodycocktail channels my love of the new wave synthesizer era. I was growing up then, and the bands really meant a lot to me. At that time, studio equipment necessary to be in a group was way of our reach. The newest version of Garage Band on your iPhone is probably half a million dollars worth of 1980s studio equipment. Now I can be my heroes, and my stuff sounds super good because the technology is better. But I started with just whatever. I would even use toy instruments. Over the time, I made about 250 albums. Over 2300 songs! My label is very productive. I ran it for 27 years, and it did 1123 releases. Bodycocktail is just one of 3 projects. Those projects have continued since I have stopped the label. Zanstones is sound explorations. Zanoisect is noise control, where I take analogue techniques and control experimental noise. Bodycocktail is just out there to make you happy.
You first played in Lithuania last year, right?
Yes, I was invited to the Braille Satellite festival. Part of its idea is paying respect to the cassette culture. After the festival, I played at Yucatan in Vilnius and fell in love with the place. I just did a show in Palanga and will be going to Vilnius again. Latvia, too.
Why did you leave the States for Europe?
My very first tour in Europe was in Spain with my friend Francisco Lopez in 1993. I really wanted to play more, and we were looking at the map of Spain. After going through pretty much all parts of Spain, I pointed to Galicia. He said, no concerts, I thought to myself, that's an answer for you! Being extremely American, that's not an answer for me. 'No' to American means you didn't ask the right question to the right person. We do not give up easily when we are inspired to do what we want to do, so we'll just keep hitting.
It took me until 2008 through Myspace till I found a connection in Galicia. I played at a squat, and it was just incredible the way people were singing along to my songs that they didn't know yet. I had never been so loved in my entire life. Oh, I am coming back here, I told myself. I came back the following year, and so on for 10 years until I established myself as an artist that is known on the streets in Galicia. I found paradise. Galicia is an unknown quality to touring musicians, they don't see international artists a lot, so they support everyone who comes all the way from America and plays for them. Each time I finished my tour there, I realised I could do things better than I knew. So I'd go to the studio, do my better work, come back, improve again…
Galicia grew me as an artist. It was my field for development. I then decided, oh, I really need to spend the second half of my life in Europe. The Mayans have this notion that you have two lives - one until you're 50, and your second one after that. America's fine, but I am done with it. I don't have promoters, producers or agents. I am working at a level which I like. Nobody tells me what to do. I cut my artist fees to Galicia, Lithuania and Latvia because this is where I want to be. I could be making more money in Berlin, but they're not going to remember me the day I'm gone. The splash I made in Lithuania is incredible. People recognize me!
Did you set all the Lithuanian gigs yourself?
I ask friends - all the time. I am a networker. Asking for concerts is like asking a woman for a dance. Some can say no, but that's not going to end of your life. I am emboldened to go ahead and promote myself and to say good things about myself. It's a very non-European thing. It's not that I have this ego about myself - I am just super excited and proud I am finally this good.
I have played in Bonnaroo, one of the biggest festival in the States. 60 000 people didn't know me before my show. Not a single one of the other artists was ever seen at the festival while not playing. I did use the opportunity to introduce myself, and by the time I went to the stage, the audience just flocked: “OMG, it's THAT guy”.
We must ask! Do you always wear a tie?
Always. My mother, bless her heard, became a certified etiquette consultant. She had the most salient thing that she would say: You only have one chance to create a first impression. I have the opportunity to be the best-dressed man in the room, and I'm going to take advantage of that every time. I packed thirtysomething neckties to Lithuania. You won't see me in the same outfit.
I am my brand. My Facebook page is part of my brand. The way I look is part of my brand. This is not manipulative. We too as individuals have the opportunity to create our future by meticulously taking care of what people make of us. There is nothing rotten in this! A lot of my friends have never seen me without a necktie, and I am totally cool with that. I am comfortable being overdressed for every occasion - this means I will never have a problem with meeting the dresscode.
What inspired you to spend more time in Kaunas?
Galicia is not going anywhere, you know! I met a lot of nice people in Lithuania last year. I keep meeting them here in Kaunas. I just did my first poetry slam here in Kaunas. I made it to the finals - doing something in English. I brought one thing that no one else was bringing - a performance. I hope the kids will have a takeaway on this thing - the performance is part of the situation.
I want to give a really heartfelt compliment to this city. Kaunas is looked down upon from Vilnius I noticed that super quickly. People in Vilnius are surprised when I tell them I am staying in Kaunas. But the two main cities are on two different trajectories. When people ask me whether I like cats and dogs, I wonder can't I love both? I am a Gemini! I don't want to choose.
Vilnius is showing the Lithuanian face to Europe; it has a strong desire to be a European city. Kaunas, on the other hand, is busy being great, and it's doing a fantastic job. The push for Kaunas 2022 has started early, and the things it has given us already is impressive. The number of cultural events I have attended in one month here is unbelievable. My heart is in Kaunas because I love the second city of a country. I like a little smaller of a place that is more welcoming to people from the outside because it's excited someone came here. Also, I've been having the privilege of meeting the best people in their field in Lithuania. The greats are humble in Kaunas!
Which places have become your favourite?
To showcase that, I have started an Instagram page called Kaunas Vida - the life of Kaunas. I think one of the best gifts I can give any city is to show them themselves through an outsider's eyes. Ah, the Kaunas modernism! You have great pride in this for all the right reasons. It's amazing.
I have to plug the KAH because the amount of cultural offerings here and the variety and quality of them is stunning. Vilnius needs to be worried! They need to look at this place. The contemporary circus festival Cirkuliacija in July was terrific, too. I am super proud of their vision to take the festival out of downtown and put it in the sleeping district - Šilainiai.
Tell us more about the Kaunastones project that you did on August 4th as part of the RättBuss festival here in KAH?
My friend who I'm staying with was complaining that the sidewalks in Kaunas were being torn out as part of the renovation. It's such a chaotic situation, he said. An alarm bell started going off in my head because I am an experimental artist - this became the topic of my residency at KAH. Something being torn up is a dynamic situation - an artist is praying for a nihilistic moment so that the remaining elements are more interesting!
So, I did a project based on the sidewalks. For my Zanstones project, when I do my live shows, I gather all the sounds material the day I am playing in the city of my show, and I compose that stuff live. Being a resident artist, I could stretch this notion out for a couple of weeks. I decided to make an exhaustive study and understanding of what it all means. I gathered the sonic elements and went to the gallery upstairs, and played it back and recorded the playback, and kept doing it until the elements I used were washed out in the room ambience. I then did a musical piece of it, too. I have thought both intellectually and artistically about what the sidewalks actually imply. Curbstones, for example, are the stone versions of icebergs. Who knew?