Decked out in robes and war paint, Atilla howls with profound fury and joy while whipping himself into a shamanistic frenzy. Comparatively speaking, his shamanic punk band VHK makes Gogol Bordello seem about as intense as a middle-school production of...
Hungarian polymath Atilla Grandpierre is a freethinking genius in an increasingly conformist world. An eight-year hiatus notwithstanding, he’s been fronting the psychedelic-punk powerhouse VHK since 1975. The name is short for Vágtázó Halottkémek, which translates from the mother tongue as “Galloping Coroners.” Banned for nearly a decade during the communist era, the group's ritualistic improvisations, eastern folk digressions, and thundering double percussionists—including a guy bashing away at a gigantic set of pagan tympani dubbed "cattle drums"—conjure up the charge of a thousand celestial barbarians.
The title of Júlia Nagy's recent documentary about the band, Akik Móresre Tanították a Halált ("The Ones Who Taught Death a Lesson"), is uncannily accurate: At 62, Atilla exhibits the vigor of a performer half his age. Decked out in robes and war paint, he howls with profound fury and joy while whipping himself into a shamanistic frenzy. Comparatively speaking, something like Gogol Bordello seems about as intense as a middle-school production of Fiddler on the Roof.
In addition to leading a second ensemble, the neotraditional Vágtázó Csodaszarvas ("Galloping Wonder Stag"), Atilla makes his living as a respected astrophysicist, academic, and historian. He's the author of numerous books and essays detailing weighty subjects such as "The Nature of the Universe and the Ultimate Organizational Principal." Cineastes might recognize his face as well, thanks to a turn in Gábor Bódy's final film, 1983's Kutya Éji Dala ("Dog's Night Song"), an allegory concerning a priest who disturbs the order of a Magyar village.
Equally impressive is the vitality of Veled Haraptat Csillagot! ("Bite the Stars!"), VHK's first all-new LP since 1999. Licensed for wider release through Finland's Ektro Records, the album intersperses apocalyptic stomps with sensuous mood pieces and Central European melancholia, the latter presumably sown by the sudden demise of longtime member Endre "Boli" Balatoni in 2012. Following a summer crammed full of musical and intellectual pursuits, I spoke to Atilla in Budapest to chat about rock, existence, and the cosmos.
VICE: First off, VHK doesn’t play political songs, so I’m confused—why did the Hungarian Communists ban you guys?
Atilla Grandpierre: Sometimes policemen told me that our lyrics were so positive that they made people uncontrollable. My lyrics and movements onstage presented a powerful alternative to the official ideology: How to feel and behave freely in an era of repression. We had our first rehearsals in 1975 and our first concert in 1976. After 20 minutes, the concert was interrupted by the organizers—they were afraid we were emanating uncontrollable energies into the audience. We had our second concert, which was already a big event at a countryside level, in 1978. Again, after 20 minutes, the concert was interrupted because the organizers were afraid about the allegedly "violent consequences." After that, the party leader of the university who permitted our concert was fired. I think from that time on, we were forbidden. It lasted until 1986, the time of perestroika.
What was the wildest VHK gig?
It is very hard to say. Once in 1993, on the main stage of the Budapest Sziget Festival, our band received an unfavorable afternoon slot and a short set time of 30 minutes. After our concert, the 10,000 people in our audience did not want to hear the next band. The audience liked us so much that anything afterwards wouldn't have made sense. The organizers tried to reason with the audience repeatedly, but the atmosphere was so heated that they were afraid they'd suffer injuries; people were throwing objects towards them. The mood and shouting of the name "VHK! VHK!" was like a revolution and it lasted for 60 minutes! Another occasion occurred after a performance in Munich. The audience was clapping continuously; they could not stop. After 10 or 20 minutes, they started to separate the wooden floorboards of the stage and make rhythmic noises with them, hitting the remaining parts of the podium. Overwhelmed, they experienced stronger and stronger phases of ecstasy. Parts of chairs were flying in the air. The shouting of the thousand people there became like a hurricane. They started to peel the wallpaper from the walls and throw pieces of it into the crowd. It became so dense, like rain or snow. Somebody directed the wind machine into this whirling crowd full of paper. The girls were screaming, the boys were on the rampage. The hall was largely destroyed by the Bavarian youth who were celebrating in ecstatic, wild waves of joy.
How did VHK get back together?
I never wanted to stop playing music with VHK. Moreover, the decades-old friendship between most members has remained. After VHK disbanded in 2000, I created the group of my childhood dreams, Vágtázó Csodaszarvas, with ten virtuosos playing the wildly magical music of eternity on ancient acoustic instruments. This band is equally important for me, enjoying the same status as VHK. Yet the atmosphere, style, and friendship of VHK urged me to reunite the band as soon as it was possible. We found a suitable new drummer in 2008 and started again. Playing with VHK, I realized that these friends and this music are much more valuable than I thought in the 1990s. Suffering badly and missing them transformed my attitude profoundly, and I came out stronger and clearer from those trouble-filled years. When we reunited, we returned to the eternal, fresh energies that characterized VHK in the early 80s. VHK has a surplus of common experiences and spiritual coherence of inspirations that makes playing together a shockingly liberating experience. I feel as if we are enjoying a rebirth. I think we are now closer to the fire than at the end of 90s. Everybody's eyes are shining brightly when we meet in the rehearsal room.
Was there some impulse to play aggressive rock music again?
According to my opinion, we never played "aggressive rock music." What we played is, I think, one of the wildest, most genuine and original music of the world, sometimes categorized as "shaman punk." Actually, this music is born instinctively, from the deepest, creative, cosmic instinct of collective unconsciousness or genetic memories. It comes from the depths of our inner universe, where musical inspirations live and wait for interested people's attention—from the world of truth-seeking, beauty-seeking intuition and from the intuitive perception of the dynamic and creative forces of the living universe. When I was 17, in 1968, my classmates and I tried to make a kind of avant-garde musical experience at a friend's flat. After two hours of trying in vain, suddenly I felt a need to stand up from my chair and run full-speed ahead. I ran into a big cupboard and started to hit its wooden doors more and more forcefully until I became so excited that I lost my consciousness of the outer environment. The inner world became stronger and brighter, and a strange music erupted from me. After I "returned" to the room, my friends told me that they didn't know that a muezzin lives inside of me. Me neither. The song was something like an Eastern prayer to immortality, to the stars. I was completely surprised. I would never think that such a music could come out from me. It is true that our music has a hypnotizing, elementary power. It is because it accesses the power of nature existing in the life of the cosmos.
Do you consider yourself a mystic or a shaman?
No. I try to become a healthy human being, in the full sense—to discover human nature, to discover life and its meaning. All such things, I think, are very normal. Actually, music is an enormously valuable experience in exploring life's potential and full blossoming, therefore I am in a kind of metamorphosis when I am onstage, transforming myself into a more complete form of life.
Is improvisation still important to VHK?
Improvisation is not the correct word to describe our music. At our best, we are in touch with life-completing, primordial powers and our attempt is to hand over the control of our musical activities to these powers. Fortunately, this wonder happens at almost every one of our concerts since we are open and ready and filled with galvanizing enthusiasm for such a music. I do not want to leave the stage without such a transmutation of my life; therefore, I mobilize all my hidden, stored energies. In everyday life, these are generally used in cases of extreme danger. But most of my daily activities are in line with these cosmic spiritual powers: writing books, articles, presenting talks, performing concerts, trying to live the most wonderful life I am able to. And this goal leads towards the abode where the highest and fullest life lives: to the living universe.
You changed the spelling of your name from "Attila" to "Atilla." Why?
Hungarian is a phonetic language, written the way it sounds. In Hungary, we say "Atilla," with a short "t" and a long "l." The officially preferred version is the other spelling, with a double "t," which is never pronounced like that. I realized this only in 2007, when an ancient Fifth Century coin was found with Greek inscriptions of the name of Attila the Hun, which was written by the Greeks as "Atilla." I realized that this writing is the correct one. I returned to that spelling in my unofficial life. As an astrophysicist, I retained the Latin version in order to keep consistent with my earlier research. My name is important to me; it is something personal and it has continuity with Attila the Hun. Actually, I wrote a book about the Huns in light of the most recent archeological, genetic, anthropological, musicological, and scientific evidence about them. It sheds new light on their ancient cosmology, their worldview, and their motivations for deciding how to shape history and why. It seems that very few researchers were concerned with real facts. The spirit of ecstatic, full-hearted Hun music was so overwhelming that in ancient China, it was forbidden. The Chinese authorities were afraid all Chinese people would, in their souls, become Huns. New computer-based research indicates the fundamental, reviving, and inspiring effects of Hun music on Chinese folk music. All these new facts argue strongly that the heavily pondered dogmas about the barbarian Attila and the Huns require serious revision.
Does your professional life influence VHK?
I am working at the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as a senior research fellow. Remarkably, my research led me to discover the creative powers of solar activity, to study theoretical biology and astrobiology, and to explore the creative aspects of the living cosmos that is the basis of my music. I recently published a new theory about the origin of life on Earth, proving that the first cell did not develop from inanimate matter but from a more inclusive cosmic life form, mediated by the quantum vacuum. In this respect, my Book of the Living Universe is of profound importance to mankind. One of my daily activities is to find a suitable translator and to publish it in English. My work is the first to connect theoretical biology with quantum physics. I am convinced that the next big scientific revolution will extend theoretical physics, in a suitably generalized form, into theoretical biology. My research indicates that the universe has a deeper layer beyond the quantum physical one, and that life starts from that deeper layer of reality. In my scientific work, one of the main and overarching results is that the universe as a whole has a fundamentally biological nature. We know that all's well that ends well. This means that I have wonderful news for you: The whole gigantic universe is a living being.