Singer-songwriter Albert Černý is well-known to local guitar pop fans thanks to his former group, Charlie Straight. Indeed, their 2009 UK-inspired debut She’s A Good Swimmer won the Czech equivalent of a Grammy for album of the year. Now the rangy and charismatic frontman is back with a new band, Lake Malawi, who are just about to play their first live shows around the Czech Republic. On the eve of those shows, I spoke to Černý at our studios. Our conversation started with where it all started: his hometown of Třinec, one of the country’s most easterly spots.
“Třinec is completely lovely and mysterious. A bit grey and brown. A city that when you visit it and arrive by train, you get out of the train and you are surrounded by a huge factory, steaming and, you know, flames all around you. And you feel like you’re in hell.
“But then when you see through the first layer of that amazing industrial scenery, you can see beautiful mountains in the background. Those are the Beskydy [mountains] – and that’s where I feel at home.”
Tell us Albert, when did you first get into music? Or what were the first bands or artists that made an impact on you as a listener?
“When I was 14 my parents sent me to Malta to learn English. When I came back I said, Malta was good, but I’d like to go somewhere where they speak English better – so, possibly, England.
“They sent me to Brighton the following year, and in Brighton I discovered Coldplay. I started listening to their records and then later Oasis, Travis, Radiohead and Muse.
“I remember a moment when I went to my cousin’s place. We used to get pizza – my mother wouldn’t let me have them at home but my aunt did.
“So we used to get a pizza and then he would always play something. And once he played The Scientist…”
“Yeah. I was blown away. And I said, that’s just, you know… I really want to have a band. That’s what I’d really like it to be like – I want to be in that band!”
At that stage you hadn’t written songs or anything?
“Maybe a few songs. Experimental ones. When I started writing songs they were always… momentary inspirations, or… especially with my sister, we used to write songs when I was 13 and she was eight, or something like that.
“We used to write them just to have fun. When we were in the mountains at the weekend in our little wooden house, we used to have goats from our neighbours… and we used to write songs about them. And about deer, and forests and flowers and stuff like that! [laughs]
“I still think it’s a great thing to do – because you don’t always write songs for the radio, or for the big gig at Glastonbury. You might as well write a song for yourself…”
Or your cow or your goat or whatever.
Obviously you have fantastic English. But I know people always say that Czech bands can’t be successful here if they sing in English. There’ve been very few examples that have been successful, such as Support Lesbiens, who are very much the exception. Did you ever consider singing in Czech?
“I never considered singing in Czech. Because since the Coldplay moment I’ve always known that I’d like to go abroad and I’d like to broaden our horizons geographically as well.”
I was reading on your Wikipedia entry that you are studying interpreting at university in Olomouc. Is that true? Are you a student?
“[Laughs] I’m not any more. I was studying for three years and I’ve got a bachelor’s degree. I enjoyed it, a lot. But then I asked my parents if I could make music only, and give up the master’s degree. They were all right with it, so I went for music.”
Třinec is a long way from Prague and the centre of the Czech music industry. Did that impact your early stages as a band, being so far from the centre?
“I think the impact was good. Being so far away from the centre of the world makes you much more motivated and much more determined to try.”
How did you do it? How did you go from four guys I guess playing in a bedroom or a garage in Třinec to being nationally known?
“But then he decided not to employ a secretary and made a rehearsal room out of the office that she was supposed to be in. Which was a nice thing, for a start.
“Then my father helped us a lot by buying a mixing desk for the rehearsal room. And of course they gave us some money or lent us some money at the start, which was very important.
“Then it was Bandzone.cz, which is like a Czech Bandcamp, where we were discovered by Michal Novák, and we made the first record with him.”
When you became really popular, was there a single moment where you thought, this is it, we’re famous now?
“Yes, it was the three Czech Grammys. But I never really got to the point where I thought, or where we thought in Charlie Straight, this is it, we’re famous now.
“Because we never really became as popular or famous as, for example, Tomáš Klus or Vojta Dyk or Richard Krajčo…”
These are very mainstream pop stars.
“Yeah. It’s always been much more indie and DIY.”
I know you went to Iceland to record with Markéta Irglová, who lives there now. She had to get used to being famous. Did she give you guys any career advice or anything like that?
“Yes, she did [laughs]. She actually gave us a lot of advice by not saying anything. She was just sitting there studying Icelandic, with her learner’s book.
“She’s such a lovely person. She’s so silently self-assured. She’s listening to her own instincts and, like, angels inside her. If one day they tell her to go somewhere else, she’ll just pack her stuff and go.”
“We split up because I’d been dealing with this for over a year and in June, July and August of last year, I really felt like there’s something wrong.
“When I woke up in the morning, I kind of felt like I was going to a workplace that I don’t want to go to.
“I find it hard sometimes to accept criticism and the fact that I can’t cope with it that well, or I couldn’t, especially two or three years ago, made it really hard for me to continue.”
Why have you chosen to continue with a new band, Lake Malawi, instead of going solo? You wrote all the songs for Charlie Straight and I presume it’s the same with Lake Malawi – why didn’t you just go under your own name?
“I’ve always wanted to be in a band, since the first moment, since I was 15. And I hate solo careers. I mean, not that I hate solo careers like Beyonce or Justin Timberlake, or even Bruno Mars. I think some of their stuff is amazing.
“But I like the collective jokes and fun and travelling in a van…”
The camaraderie of being together on tour in a group?
“Yeah. And more and more these days I like backing vocals. Because Patrik, the guitarist, and Jeroným, the bass player, they sing really well.”
I saw on your website that you were recording in London, at Dean St. Studios. How did you end up recording there?
“I went to London at the end of October and I met quite a few different producers. And then I realised that it’s probably not a good idea who you’re going to work with on the basis of their CV as much as on the basis of your inner feeling.
“So I said, these guys from Dean St. are really cool. They started by playing me some of their favourite songs, that I happened to love! And that I happened to have in my own iPod.
“I said, well, I should probably work with them. They recorded [debut single] Always June with us partially in Prague and partially in London, at Dean St., and they mixed it there.”
Are you planning to release an album in the UK or outside the Czech Republic? What’s the plan for Lake Malawi, the master plan?
“The master plan [laughs]? The master plan, hmm, I always have a plan. It’s something that I have become famous for in music industry circles. Like, that’s the guy from Czechoslovakia, they say, that has a plan.”
And what is your plan? You’ve got to tell us.
“We’re just going to play as hard and as well as we can, for now, in the Czech Republic. We’re going on tour. We’re playing in Prague on February 26, we’re playing Brno, Plzeň, Pardubice, it’s all on our website.
“But that’s not the master plan really. I’d like to wait until the songs are finished and record some demoes now. And see if we can find a nice label that could believe in the music, the way that we do, in the UK.”