Sonja Krohn (La petite Sonja): “My boyfriend is my muse”
I met Sonja Krohn in January 2007 at the 3rd White Trash Fast Food venue in Berlin. She had just performed with her band Moimir Papalescu & The Nihilists and was introduced to my as the icon of Prague´s electro/clash music scene.
Electroclash was a big thing in Berlin back then. Alexander Hacke and I had started organizing shows at the Big Eden in 2003, one of the oldest discotheques in Berlin, founded by the legendary playboy Rolf Eden, and our idea was to put together unusual bands and sounds to see what would happen.
We had Conway Savage from the Bad Seeds share the stage with Babazula from Istanbul after Michelle Carr from the L.A. Velvet Hammer performed the first burlesque show ever in Berlin. We also presented Das Kreuzberger Nasenflöten Orchester together with the Hans Martin Slayer Band and a techno ensemble from South America.
The evenings were always accompanied by visuals, rotating DJs and international friends visiting, wearing costumes and drinking until the early morning hours. It was one of those magical moments in music history because electronic music was simultaneously re-discovering early eighties-sounds, rhythms and instruments and young bands were experimenting with new ways of integrating a dirty retro sound that clashed with the clean and commercialized techno music of the late 90ies.
This was then called Electroclash. Alexander and I enjoyed these new bands called Electrocute, Peaches, The Boy from Brazil, Mignon and Nomash (amongst others) very much and started presenting and hyping as many as possible in our program. Wally Potts, the owner of the White Trash, recognized the potential of this new music style as well, fitting perfectly into his venue which was loved by ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones or Metallica and was originally set in a former Chinese Restaurant. It specialized in outrageous, decadent parties, decorations by the Canadian Artist Laura Kikauka and eclectic music. So we decided to organize parties with shuttles going to and from the Big Eden to the White Trash until the Electro-hype caught on and spread through the city for a couple of years.
As many of the Electroclash musicians Sonja was and is a mesmerizing performer and besides looking like a beautiful, unearthly fairy queen she is an incredibly talented musician.
After the Nihilists broke up she founded the psychedelic-garage band Kill The Dandies!, which is more guitar and keyboard oriented, with her husband Hank Manchini. Known for her particular keyboard and organ sound she also writes solo music besides being a dedicated mother.
I love the melancholic mystery of Prague, which always includes a touch of hallucinogenic madness, and Sonja is like a vision borne out of an intoxicating, inebriating dream. It is always a pleasure to see her on stage or behind so I am very happy to introduce her here today.
Danielle de Picciotto: When did you start working as a musician? What interests you in music?
Sonja Krohn: Nature mainly inspires me. I find singing and composing songs easy and to be honest I mainly write the songs for myself. Music and live gigs give me a chance of getting to know and accept myself.
I have worked with many different bands, but only started being the front-woman with Moimir Papalescu and The Nihilists. We were two singers on stage, which made me more courageous, as I have always been a little shy. When my friends turned twenty they already had their own bands, but I was still hesitant. Then my mother became sick and I took care of her until she died.
A little later I met Moimir and Hank and we started the band The Nihilists. It was during this time that I realized showing people my fear; rage and despair on stage made me feel better.
The Nihilists were the first electroclash known band in Prague – as far I know. It was basically because Moimir was into electronic music and Hank and I wanted to break the electronic purity with dirty guitars and rock and roll. Since we all loved mixing different styles, the first electroclash combination invented itself. Then we discovered the Berlin scene where the electroclash wave was very hip in the early 2000´s so we started organizing events called “Manipulation night” and would invite bands from Berlin (The Scandals, Mignon, Warren Suicide, Namosh etc.). During those times we had a huge audience in Prague, so we could afford to pay the bands from our entrance fee.
After four years the Nihilists broke up. So Hank and I started to build a psychedelic-garage scene here, which had never existed before either. With the band “Kill The Dandies! “I learned how to enjoy the freedom and joy of performing.
How did you learn to make music? Did you study music or teach yourself?
I took piano lessons from the age of 6 to 14. My father was very strict and I had to practice an hour a day, regardless of holidays, Saturdays or Sundays. So whenever we had a holiday without a piano, I was super happy. My teacher thought she was preparing me for a music conservatory, but I was just waiting for my father to let me stop. He gave in when I was 14 and after that I didn’t touch the piano for many years. But I wrote songs on my guitar. I have always preferred composing my own songs to performing them in front of strangers, even with the piano. And I always preferred singing and writing lyrics to playing an instrument.
Is the music scene in Prague very interactive – do you all know each other? Is there any official support for musicians?
Most of us know each other in the experimental scene. I appreciate the musicians and we try to stay in contact on a regular basis. Nobody gets official support. We all have side jobs that feed us, because even if you are successful in this sector, it usually means only 200 max 400 people will come to your gig. Prague is a very small city. If you live in the center as we do, you can walk to most clubs and be everywhere within 20 minutes by subway.
When I performed with my previous band Moimir Papalescu & The Nihilists, we surprisingly became very successful and in Prague, we would sell out clubs for a thousand people. But I think they would come to our show because we were trendy not necessarily because they understood our music.
What Czech bands do you think are interesting?
There are a lot of great bands at the moment. Here is a short list of my current favorites:
– Madhouse Express
– Thee Lazy Eyes
– Rány těla (Hank‘s side project / the band was a legend in 90s and they made a new album 2019)
– The maggie’s marshmallows
– Metronome Blues
– Old Folks House
– NBDy electronic noise
Do you feel that female musicians in Prague are supported or discriminated?
I feel privileged that my social surrounding is liberal but have no idea how it works in the mainstream. I have not personally experienced gender injustice, but of course, I hear what happens to women all over the world. I try to make a difference mainly in how I raise my daughter. It is important to be strong as a woman and to be able to protect yourself and not allow anyone to hurt you.
Kill the Dandies is a band, which is special because there are two singers. A male and female one. How did this come about? How did you start working together?
Are the lyrics and themes different depending if you sing or Hank?
My boyfriend is my muse. I´ve always had boyfriends in my bands. I met Hank because I made an animated website for him years ago. So we started working and then started a band together.
Concerning the lyrics: I write my lyrics in my songs and Hank writes his for his songs. Each of us want to say something different.
My lyrics are very personal: my nightmares, dreams, and things I usually don‘t speak about with friends. Things I am afraid of, demons, God, angels …even very secret private things. That‘s why I usually don‘t explain my lyrics.
Hanks are more surreal drawings. He chooses the words he likes and puts them together as color patterns. In fact, it helps him that English (in which he writes his lyrics) is not his native language. He only uses it as another color. He actually perceives music as colors.
I usually start with the lyrics and then I add the music. Hank is the opposite.
You have a long musical history collaborating with different musicians. In 2017 you released your first solo Album “Musa Somnambula”. All off these projects mix different influences.
What instruments are you mainly interested in? Do you work with electronic sounds?
I love mixing unusual styles to create something “new”. When music creates an odd physical feeling, I like it. Usually I look for styles that irritate me, that are old-fashioned, out dated. I love finding inspiration in kitschy and mainstream music. If I really hate a style then it’s a welcoming challenge because it means I do not understand it. And when you use something you don’t like in your own music and it suddenly starts working it is really exciting!
Besides the piano I cannot really play any instrument properly, it either serves my idea or it doesn´t. I just use whatever I need. But musicians that are masters of their instruments surround me so together it becomes beautiful.
You perform together with your husband, with whom you also have a daughter. Does your music start at home or do you separate the music part of your life from home life? Does your daughter play an instrument?
I love speaking to Hank about music, but in everyday life there is hardly any time. Fortunately, we have a lot of similar tastes; so we do not have to explain things a lot. Leontynka is very musical, she has been inventing songs every since she started speaking. We’ll see what she will do in the future but we are not putting any pressure on her.
Is it difficult to be a mother and work on your career at the same time?
Yes it is! Not only because of time issues, but sometimes when I am composing songs I go into my artist mode and Leontýnka obviously doesn‘t like that 🙂
What music are you working on momentarily? Do you have specific themes for each album?
Releasing a new Kill The Dandies! album. In general we don’t have any specific themes, we only suggest ideas and then work on them together. The boys like long discussions, I prefer to play.
After this I will start working on my second solo project. It is important for my ego, to present something that I do not have to argue with anyone about and over which I have complete control.
You have always been a Prague fashion icon and you have a very eclectic taste in clothes. One of your side projects is creating unusual handbags. How did this start and how does it flow together with your music? What interests you in fashion?
My relationship to fashion is similar to that of music although I do not understand the world of fashion business. But I love making small things (diorama) and started making handbags on the side to create small worlds in which small beings can come to life. I make handbags with altars. My fashion label is called Vita Occulta – The Secret Life inside Your Bag. Usually I do custom-made handbags. They contain objects that have a special meaning for the customer and which are related to her/him.
What are you planning for the future?
The Kill The Dandies! Album. My solo record. Vita Occulta bags. New Altarpieces. A lot of creative work for the Vita Occulta promotion and working together with Hank on “Drug Me” festival, a small alternative festival, no grants but pure joy. I also want to survive as long as I can to raise our daughter properly. That’s my main plan momentarily.