Interview: Djordje Stijepovic, Fishtank Ensemble

He is probably one of the best slap-bass players around. From jamming with street musicians on the pavements of New Orleans to trading licks with Slim Jim Phantom of Stray Cats and Lemmy of Motorhead, he has performed and toured around the world more than most musicians nowadays. His latest project, the gypsy quartet Fishtank Ensemble is something out of the box, one of those bands you have to see live to fully appreciate

Photo: © Dragan Stankovic

Your musical roots are very unusual. Tell us a bit about how you got into rockabilly and Balkan ethno sound and how you managed to bridge the two.

I became interested in music when I was about 10 years old. That’s when I heard some early recordings of Elvis Presley and the Stray Cats. The rawness of those records was something that you couldn’t find on the radio in those days. I remember that most of the kids back then were into some watered down MTV rap. In Serbia that was also the period that was the start of the Frankenstein product called turbo folk. Either way everything was so overproduced that it was totally tasteless. I needed that bite that I could find only in rock’n’roll music.

Since then I always look for that edge in any genre I play. I got into traditional Balkan music a little bit later. I was probably about 18 or so. I got invited to join Balkan Music Club, an already established band that is nowadays considered as one of the first of the 1990’s revival bands of the so-called ethno music in Serbia. We were all very young and excited to play “something different”. After that, Balkan, and in general World Music, become one of the main paths in my career. I’m proud I played in some of the best bands in Serbia like Marsya, Shira Utfila, Kal and in the last 5 years Fishtank Ensemble in the US. To be honest I never felt I had to bridge any styles. I see music as one, rather than divided into many different individual parts.

Most of Balkan expats, especially newcomers, find the western interest in Balkan music surprising, to say the least. Did your perception on how Balkan ethno music is understood in the west differ before and after you came to US?

Maybe a little bit, but not much. I think that people in the west are also sick of the corporate music that is served by the music industry today. Balkan music is exciting, danceable and lively, which makes it a natural alternative choice for many. With all Kusturica and Tony Gatlif movies it’s not that underground either and it’s fairly easy to discover it. What surprised me is how bellydance is big in the US. Before moving to the States I was completely unaware of this scene, which might be the biggest in the world. With Tribal Fusion style, American girls brought the whole thing to such a high level. I had a chance to perform with some of my favorite dancers like Rachel Brice and Mira Betz. I love performing with bellydancers either solo or with the band. I’m mentioning all this because bellydance and Balkan scenes are very close to each other specially in the Bay Area, where I’ve lived for 7 years.

What is that people like the most in this kind of treatment of Balkan music? I’ve seen the US audience going crazy at your concerts. What’s the secret?

I think it’s a lot about the energy we put into our shows. Fishtank Ensemble have more of a rock’n’roll “take no prisoners” approach than many folk dance bands that are just trying to emulate the “exotic” sounds of Balkans. We’re not afraid to play with it and to put our own stamp on it. We also have a very unique sound that is built on many different music traditions. We’re not trying to copy anyone and because of that it’s hard to pigeon-hole the band into any music genre. People often brand us as a Gypsy group, because we play many Romani styles like Gypsy Jazz, Romanian Sirba, Flamenco etc., but there’s much more in our sound than that.

We also have a decent amount of originals, traditional jazz, Serbian, Greek, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Turkish and sometimes we even play some Classical and Japanese tunes! Most of the people really appreciate this, but it’s not always easy. From time to time we come across some purists that are preaching us how we should change and do things differently. I don’t think there’s a right way and a wrong way in music. Our goal is to enjoy playing music we love and to make people happy. As long we see smiling faces on the dancers at our shows, we know we’re doing something right.

I recently heard a description from a fan of ours that our concert reminded him of V-formation of geese. One is leading and everyone else is supporting him to sound the best possible, then we switch around and it’s time for someone else to take the lead. That’s pretty much how we feel when we perform.

Your journey in US as a professional musician is quite interesting. What are your most memorable moments?

There are way too many to mention. I moved to the States in 2004 and I’ve been constantly on the road since 2006. It took me about two years to figure out how to survive in the music business here. My first US tour with Deke Dickerson & the Ecco-Fonics is definitely something I’ll always remember. On that trip I had a chance to visit over 30 states of this beautiful country and to play with many of my teenage heroes and rock’n’roll originators including DJ Fontana, Scotty Moore band, Joe Clay, Eddie Bond… Rockabilly guitar legend Danny B Harvey saw one of Deke’s shows in Hollywood, and invited me to join the Head Cat where I played with Lemmy from Motorhead and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats.

Touring with those guys was something special as well. I mean I still have posters of their bands on the walls in my small apartment in Belgrade! Besides these guys I had a chance to play with many other amazing and legendary musicians Billy Boy Arnold, Jody Williams, Wanda Jackson, Tommy Emmanuel etc. Every one of these experiences is very memorable. And of course, touring all over the world with my band Fishtank Ensemble always brings something special. I might have to choose our 2011 tour in Tamaulipas in Mexico as the one that stands out. It was really amazing and satisfying that our music was so well received in a culture that doesn’t have so many ties with that type of heritage.

What are your favorite bands playing Balkan and Gypsy-related music?

It’s a little bit hard for me to talk about bands in this style. In Balkan and Gypsy music I mostly enjoy beautiful songs and individual musicianship. I love artists like Aleksandar Sisic, Saban Bajramovic, Ferus Mustafov, Yuri Yunakov, Boban Markovic etc, but I often dislike their bands. They are usually great musicians, but they often don’t play together before the recording, so the result is that you can hear some genius solo playing backed by musicians without much individuality. I rarely find bands that have their unique sound and that are gathered around the same idea like I can find in rock’n’roll.

One band that stands out the most for me is Taraf de Haidouks. I fell in love with their sound when I heard them in the mid 1990’s. Later on I became friends with some of the musicians and had a chance to show them around San Francisco when they were in the States last time. Another great band with unusual sound is Lala Kovacev’s Balkan Impressions. Those guys were primarily jazz musicians and one of the first ones that were fusing Balkan music back in the early 1980’s. My bass professor and one of my biggest influences Vojin Draskoci was a part of that band. Nedim Nalbantoglu and Robert de Brasov trio put out one of my favorite albums L’Odeur du Vent. Amazing Serbian pianist and composer Bojan Zulfikarpasic uses Balkan music as a base for many of his compositions. At the end, I’d choose an American band that mastered Balkan, especially Bulgarian, music – Toids. My great friend and one of my favorite composers Dan Cantrell was a part of this group. They were even writing original compositions in the style and had their own group sound, which impressed me the most.

Photo © Jason Savvy

Fishtank Ensemble is your main focus these days. What are the plans for the rest of 2012?

We just finished our third European tour. We played France, Italy, Slovenia and Sziget festival in Budapest in Hungary. We’re back in US and we have East Coast and Midwest tours till early October. We will play mostly in California till November when we plan to record a new album as well. We’ve been so busy touring that we didn’t have time to put out a new record since 2010. Besides Fishtank I also plan to finish the second album of my rockabilly band Atomic Sunset. I’m also constantly working on my Art of Slap Bass project. I’m promoting the slap bass style and different players on the w-site The next step are instructional books and DVDs. I’ve been traveling all over, researching the style, filming many bass players and I’m doing my best to present it the best I can.

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