The Guardian rated their new album «Kullakarva» as four points out of five and predicted that these traditional musicians, who enjoy a rock star status at home, will become the band of the summer. The prestigious fRoots asks whether Estonia (and bagpipes) is poised to conquer the world. London Jazz considers their music powerful, invigorating, flighty and irresistibly infectious. Shetland News adds that they have all it takes to be an unforgettable festival band.
This year they spend more nights abroad than at home, since there are more than 60 performances in foreign countries. Estonians can hear them playing only twice in 2017 – once in the courtyard of Telliskivi Creative Block this Friday (June 30) and on the meadow of Treski Barn in Seto county on August 26. They are Sandra Vabarna, Jalmar Vabarna and Tõnu Tubli or Trad.Attack!.
The second album of Trad.Attack!, «Kullakarva», was released in the end of May and this led to the idea on December 30, 2016, to hold a couple of mighty concerts in order to present the album (as its release was known in advance). Concerts held in untraditional places with thousands of listeners, with a huge stage and effective visuals. The idea was born and since the summer, especially the upcoming weekend, is full of events, the stages and equipment were booked the very next day.
They believe that first of all one needs sufficiently good music to create excitement. Secondly the cause. Thirdly a bar set high enough. Since the band would not stay long in Estonia, it was immediately decided that there would not be any summer tour. It would be better to take risks and do less but something unprecedented.
«Idea is the most important thing in contemporary music. Since we organize our concerts on our own instead of selling our existence to organizers, it took courage to undertake it independently. Courage comes when you have some past, say three concerts in Kultuurikatel all sold out,» says Jalmar Vabarna. «We want to be a great band and boost the ratings of ourselves and the Estonian music world. The time is ideal for that and if we shall do something at all, then we shall do it big.»
«Producing such a concert is expensive and it cannot be held in just any place. The setting up of the stage and the lighting and sound equipment will begin two days before the show,» Sandra Vabarna says. «We are doing it the way a big show should be done, even if we have to make loss.» Fortunately, several thousand tickets have already been booked.
The budget of Friday’s concert is approximately 50,000 euros. This sum, huge for an ordinary citizen, covers the cost of the stage, the equipment, the lighting, the gates, the security team and all other arrangements. «It is our own fault that we hold the show in a place without any support structure. It usually happens that one has to work harder in exciting venues,» Jalmar says.
«We do not want to offer the public a cake, which is empty inside, we want them to like the cake and want some more next time,» Tõnu Tubli adds. «Moreover, our foreign agents are happy if we do something great at home.»
The musicians, who enjoy the sweet taste of international success do not hide that they have often played just for money. «But life is too short for such gigs. Instead of earning money it is more important for us to set some goals which make us happy,» Sandra Vabarna says.
She recalls that information about the grand concert at the Viljandi Folk Festival reached abroad. This proved the promoters there that an original band from small country can do it and is capable of holding a large show. «We are a niche band, but fortunately we can afford such a show here. The point is not to offer the public just music, but an all-round experience,» Jalmar Vabarna adds.
Tubli admits that the band is raising the bar regarding quality all the time. «We are not mountaineers, but we are all the time looking for new ways to reach higher than before. We came to the public with authentic archive music, photographs made in cold water, digging earth and freezing in snow.»
They do not want a narrow stage flanked by cars with the sponsors’ logos, which the public has to see through the show. Nor do they want weak equipment and modest lighting. «We do not want the taste of marketing, we want quality,» Sandra declares.
You have to dream big
Finnish performers sell out a stadium’s worth of tickets within hours at home. Estonian musicians cannot even dream of success like that.
«It is true that our music culture is in a complicated situation. Our well-known bands play almost every weekend and the public is used to quick and easy access to local performers. This is why they do not rush to buy tickets and we cannot dream of stadium concerts. It is different with foreign performers, their concerts are sold out here as well,» Jalmar says. «What we are doing right now aims at achieving that the Estonian public would not remain at the summer tour level, that they would be willing to spend some more and receive much better quality and experience. This is educating the audience. And it is also a matter of the bands that they would be willing to perform less frequently and dream bigger. Then we would see more special concert.»
Sandra says that it is the performers’ fault that they play everywhere and saturate the market. «We have rejected many proposals, we do not want to play just anywhere. Yes, you can say that this is creating an artificial shortage, but fortunately we can afford it now, since we spend most of the time abroad and or priority is to build up an international career.»
The three musicians admit that they have had much luck. The beginning was all about blood, sweat and tears. The first show during Tallinn Music Week had been meant just as a one-time nice project for fun. They did not think about sustainability at that time. But the first piece became a hit all over Estonia to the musicians’ great surprise. The reception was so positive that they had to begin working hard.
They decided at once that there should be no limits to their effort. They even made loan to have quality music videos made.
The band has now several international agents, but the most important one, the “mother agent”, found them at that first ever show.
«The agent contacted us only half a year later, having watched us to see what we would do. Since we were very active, he decided to try. But he warned that there would probably be nothing for a couple of years, since presenting and negotiating takes time,» Sandra recalls.
Yet it happened the other way, since they were invited to play at the first foreign festival within a few months, that was followed by a presentation tour in the USA and the rest is history. Shows abroad have boosted the interest of the local audience as well. Besides the younger folk fans the musicians already know by face there are middle-aged and older listeners and those, ho apparently used to like only pop music. This is quite normal as a band becomes better known.
«This makes people interested to come and her for themselves. I think that this is excellent. This is also a fine example for young musicians,» Sandra assures. She cites the case of one of her talented pupils, who played bagpipes, but decided to study economics, believing that the musician’s profession would not earn enough money. «Now he has returned to music. There is no more the sense of dead-end. There is much more hope. We, as well as Maarja Nuut and Curly Strings, have proven to the younger generation of traditional music that one can achieve something with this.»
Tubli adds that the general confusion in the world makes one want to dig his feet into the ground as roots. «To say that this is mine, this is where I come from. This makes us special abroad, attractive. And it seems that children, the future audience, like our music.»
Not too arrogant
In the folk scene terms they are quite attractive figures: professionally and artistically high-class music videos, high-quality promotion photos, a homepage providing fresh information and active social media traffic.
«Some foreign PR person told me that if he is looking for new music and finds a homepage, where nothing has happened for the past three months, he never listens to their music. One has to be up-to-date. If there is no news, one has to create something,» says Sandra, who is responsible for the band’s social media. With the release of the new album the band has hired PR and marketing agents for the UK and Germany.
«I can send my materials to some foreign music magazine, but they never reach anywhere, no one would even open the envelope. But if people send it to acquaintances, something will happen. After the publication of a positive review of «Kullakarva», an editor-in-chief wondered why he had never before heard of us. He never noticed that a brief review of our first record had been published in that very magazine,» Sandra says.
But this does not mean that Trad.Attack! has become arrogant and can be certain of international success.
Our life abroad is fine, but we are not yet famous there. We go to festivals, because this is the way in our genre to reach the market. This is our daily work. We no longer can take vacation at the time we would like to, we really have to work hard every day, we are busy all the time. As we go to bed in a hotel we know that it all begins again early next morning,» Jalmar tells about their actual life. «In that sense building up a band and ensuring a long career is a brutal and stressful work.»
Sandra adds that attracting attention and becoming famous is easy. «But staying is another matter. This is very hard. Thanks to the good reviews of the new album we have become a bit more known and that is making things easier.»
They have not become rich either, instead they are in the red. The business does move hundreds of thousands of euros, but that money is circulating. The few they have saved must be used for new investments.
«We have ambitious ideas, but we lack money»; Tubli says. «We recently wanted a 3D music video and the specialists recommended adding some zeros to the budget.»
The band is grateful to the Estonian state for support. But they have not received help easily, they have been found “suitable”, which in turn meant proving themselves. «Simply speaking, our project met all the criteria. Then the economic indicators turned out to be better than we had forecast at the launching of the project.» Additional money must be earned by selling records and band-related memorabilia, playing at private shows, while sponsors have helped as well.
While the presentation festivals are free, they take money for playing at other concerts.
Travel is no easy life. The drummer Tubli usually cannot bring his own instruments, since that would be too costly. Therefore he must use what the concert organizer provides – which could be the drum kit of dreams or vice versa.
He also lists all the things which may happen during travel. «A flight is late o cancelled, you have to wait in the airport, this is uncomfortable and boring, food and drinks are expensive and tasteless, then you land, the transfer is late, the driver is racing on bad roads with a bus with no seat belts, on arrival you hear that there are no drums and they offer some random boxes, which the organizer thinks should do, or your luggage gets lost or the hotel is bad or they forget to book it; there is a lot of confusion and you have to wait, the festival organizer is a tyrant, here are language barriers, the hall is unsuitable and the sound team is unprofessional.»
But the musicians have already grown a thick skin. They can adjust quickly, do not lose their temper over insignificant matters and do their best to put on a great show. «You have to get over situations. If anything happens you take it as a new experience, which refreshes you,» Tubli says.
«We cannot stay there stomping and demanding what is ours but must find a solution,» Sandra adds. «Even if something is wrong, we are actually living an ideal life. We can play the music we like and we can do it abroad.»
«Success is when people appreciate you and wait for you. We want to be the name which attracts attention. If that should happen, we would actually have our success. The secret is good relations, a fine team, hard work and a large bucketful of luck,» Jalmar says.