Interview with Jurij Toni

by Giampaolo Banelli

LJUBLJANA - 18th of December 1996

When did you start working in music?
I arrived to Ljubljana University in the late seventies- I was previously living in the village of Piran, on the coast of the Adriatic sea- and started working as sound engineer in the Student Radio and, immediately after, in the Tivoli Studio, that - along with Akademik Studio - was the leading place for the biggest Yugoslavian musicians in Ljubljana and also for many artists from abroad. As I had previously studied music - french horn and double bass - it became natural after a while to contribute also on the artistic, not just on the technical part of the musical projects, and so I became a producer too. In nearly 20 years of work I have engineered and produced over 200 records.

Which are the ones that you remember more fondly?
In the late seventies and early eighties Yugoslavia had many interesting punk and new wave bands and I was behind the mixing desk with practically everyone of these groups. I think that bands from this period PANKRTI, PARAF  and especially ELEKTRICNI ORGAZAM  made some interesting records. In the eighties and nineties I have worked on many worthwhile projects and among them LAIBACH  and obviously DEVIL DOLL  have been the most challenging, even if I have been responsible to many other albums I`m also quite proud of.

Among the artists you named DEVIL DOLL  and Laibach are the most celebrated abroad...
My works with DEVIL DOLL  and Laibach have been undoubtedly the most ambitious and demanding, on every respect. Some people seems to appreciate both of them at the same time even if nothing can be as different as a DEVIL DOLL  creation or a Laibach product!

Let's start chronologically: what about your meeting with Laibach?
We knew each other for some time, but actually the first time I spoke with Dejan Knes (leader of Laibach and founder of N.S.K.) it was in Belgrade where we were both having military service. We had an interesting conversation and later we decided to work together. the studio...
Yes: they had a lot of experimental and interesting ideas, but they did not know how to transfer them in music as no one of Laibach has any musical training. So it was very challenging and creative experience for me... I bad to give musical life to these concepts (namely Dejan`s) through sampling, looping, editing, changing pitches, adding voices and sounds and 50 on. I think the result has been satisfying, in particular with NOVA AKROPOLA  that I still consider as their most artistically important record, no doubt.

What about the live dates?
I was responsible of Laibach`s sound also in the Yugoslavian concerts of those years: I sound engineered their early BIG gigs in Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Belgrade etc. 95% of the concert was pre-recorded: they were basically performing in playback. Apart from Milan's voice that was always live: the drums and percussions just double the pre- recorded track while bass and guitar were playing one note here one there to contribute to the visual impact.

>Did the fans know about it? And were audiences annoyed?
I think they knew about it: and they never showed any negative reaction to the pre- recordings. I remember in particular a great performance we did in Zagreb, it was around Christmas 1985 or 1986 - can`t remember precisely- and the sound - vocals/pre- recordings was really great. I taped the concert and sometimes listened again to it with pleasure: really perfect. Don't know where it is now...

Who was on- stage?
Three of them (Milan, Dejan and Erwin) on vocals and "visual" percussions: the others were just session- players. Same as now, by the way.

If I understand well Dejan was the mastermind behind the group...
Yes and no. Dejan created N.S.K. and Laibach along with Tomaz Hostnik, the first singer who tragically died in 1982, so everything basically would not exist without him. But for what I`m concerned I consider Milan by far the most important member of the group: not only live (after all he is the only one performing!), but also in the creation of the albums. Much more than he is credited. I consider Milan a great vocalist and his style has been copied by hundreds industrial/metal bands so far. In the beginning Dejan was definitely very important with his suggestions and musical "sense": he never studied music, but had some surprisingly good intuitions.

...And the other two members:
Erwin and Jani? Erwin has just the physical impact needed for Laibach's visuals (he was always successful as fashion model), but no musical importance. Jani was the manager of the group: he was responsible for the interviews. ...I mean... they NEVER gave a live interview with tape recorder as you are doing right now... They were always asking for written questions and Jani was responsible on writing back the answers... that were intentionally not answering at all... in a sort of "official diplomatic language". This is great part of the mystic that has made Laibach a cult band and in this sense the importance of Jani has immeasurably increased.

Why did you stop working with Laibach?
After they signed with Mute Records the mixing of the albums have been under direct control of the record company 50 they had to work out of Slovenia. And I must say that after I made BAPTISM  I lost somewhere interest in the whole project: the creative impetus of the early years was lowering and they were trying to be commercial to get a wider acceptance.

What do you think about Laibach's albums after your departure?
OPUS DEI is technically well recorded - a lot of energy, above all. But when you listen to it a couple of times you realise it is just a synthetic kind of energy hiding some very poor artistic ideas. The entrance of Slavko Avsenik - a pop composer/arranger that Laibach employed from OPUS DEI : he is responsible for most of the music and all the arrangements, orchestrations, playing on the records, choruses etc- is often too musica1. The geniality lying in the chaos of the old recordings is gone completely. The brutality and primitive charm of the early chaotic years is missing Laibach themselves, die in this moment. OPUS DEI, after all, does not hurt, at all. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL  and LET IT BE  ride the same horse: and the results are worse. The single ACROSS THE UNIVERSE  is the biggest attempt to gain international success: after OPUS DEI  beside Slavko Avsenik Laibach employed the very talented Iztok Turk, composer/producer and leader of a pop band called Videosex. The use of Anja Rupel, a well know Slovenian pop singer, instead of Milan is the final prove of complete sell out. These albums are a complete artistic disaster.

MACBETH!  and KAPITAL, in comparison, are very different ventures!
Regarding MACBETH: it is not a proper Laibach album. They had some tapes with samples and sketches used for some theatre and art performances of other N.S.K. people. It was a very cheap venture to collect them in a new album to cash in on the previous albums commercial success. KAPITAL  took much more time, was much more ambitious and much more expensive... but in one word, it was just... SHIT. They really wanted to be commercially successful leading the new 'techno' trend. It was really a challenge and they worked with all themselves to that album. They wanted to prove themselves as "composers" without all the arrangements and compositions of Slavko Ausenik. Unfortunately they really managed to prove what they are capable of Let's honestly say it:... nearly nothing.

So this explains the return to the Ausenik choruses and orchestrations, to the OPUS DEI  cliché
Yes. KAPITAL  should have been their commercial breakthrough and had been totally unsuccessful, so NATO  and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR  went back to the formula of OPUS DEI  with one difference: they are trying more openly to enter the lucrative market of 'dance music', using Iztok Turk's disco rhythms.

What would Jurij Toni suggest at this point to Laibach?
Now they should produce a devastating dark rock/metal album giving the chance to Milan to express himself as that great ROCK singer I think be can be. The pathetic attempt to have big success has spoiled the whole project for much too long and it is really time for a change. This should have been the logic, the honest progression of NOVA AKROPOLA, over a decade ago.

After your decision to leave Laibach...
I continued to work with a lot of bands... and in 1987 I had the chance to meet Mr. Doctor. I had been fascinated by the words of an advert He placed: "A MAN IS THE LESS LIKELY TO BECOME GREAT THE MORE HE IS DOMINATED BY REASON: FEW CAN ACHIEVE GREATNESS, AND NONE IN ART, IF THEY ARE NOT DOMINATED BY ILLUSION". He visited the Tivoli Studios and I offered my collaboration.

Were Devil Doll originally a Yugoslavian or an Italian group? Can you remember the very beginning of it all?
Of course. I can really say that they were 100% coming from Mr. Doctor's planet. And the two groups that followed, one in each country, were assembled also with my help: I introduced Sasha Olenjuk, Bor Zuljan, Davor Klaric, Jani Hace and two of the three drummers. All truly extraordinary musicians.

And... what about THE MAN, Mr. Doctor?
I found Him totally immersed in a world of His own, out of time and space I would say. I could not understand at first what was really in His mind and possibly I rated Him a bit of a madman with an overwhelming knowledge in Art. Reality goes however often far beyond imagination: when we recorded THE MARK OF THE BEAST, practically live in a few hours of studio time, I was so surprised... Mr. Doctor was like in a state of trance performing THAT unique "sprechgesang" in total darkness, and I was behind the mixing desk hearing His voices for the first time. Changing mood, colour, timbre, but retaining always the 'pure purity of absolute insanity' and transforming instantly in an angel, an old man, an unholy spirit or a child all trapped in the same body. And when it was finished, first take, no overdubs, no studio tricks, just this Presence torturing His strings, I was knocked out.

MARK OF THE BEAST  was never properly released, was it?
Correct. He released just one copy and I really could not understand the sense of it all and I was really furious to what seemed to me a masochistic commercial suicide. He answered with a certain surprise: 'This is a painting, not a graphic work'.". And this was all.

Was any part of MARK OF THE BEAST  ever re- used on other albums?
This is a good question. You know: in every album there is at least a little quotation from another.... a little bit like the cameo appearances of Hitchcock in his movies, I suppose.... For example the finale of the track MR. DOCTOR  with the accordion reappears in the middle of the 'Nightmare' BELIEVE! in the album SACRILEGIUM, or the same notes of the bolero that closes THE GIRL WHO WAS... DEATH  appears in completely different tempo played by violin solo in the middle of SACRILEGIUM.... Well: do you remember that section of THE GIRL WHO WAS... DEATH  that starts with an electric guitar arpeggio and leads to the singing part "A light? A star".... That instrumental "intro" is a quotation - without vocals- from a part of MARK OF THE BEAST!

Back to the one and only copy of THE MARK OF THE BEAST.

How the situation changed with the following albums?
A few weeks later Mr. Doctor came already with a second project that would have become THE GIRL WHO WAS... DEATH. The inspiration was Patrick McGoohan, one of the artists Mr. Doctor respected the most; I did not know anything about the Prisoner at the period, so I started to look at the first episode. Fact is that for the following 12 hours I continued to watch the whole 17 episodes and I was immediately stunned by the fact that McGoohan and Mr. Doctor behave in a very similar way (they share especially a very sharp humour). I accepted to dive myself into this second project, but on one condition: that be could have done "a painting for Himself and some graphic works for us", if you can follow what I mean.... GIRL was recorded practically all live and mixed very quickly in November 1988 with minimum budget as Mr. Doctor wanted to be ready for a live performance just before the end of the year. Of this and of all the following albums ten copies with completely different handmade artworks have been made on Mr. Doctor's request (they are boxed sets in wood and velvet weighting something like 5 kilos, with absolutely wonderful inserts: they have to be seen to be believed). Regarding GIRL... some pre- release tapes and 500 standard copies were also pressed, all of them with a different insert, some of them written in blood by Him. The members of the band got their copy and the record was given to the 70/80 people of the audience at a concert in Ljubljana's Kud France Preseren theatre in march '88. Mr. Doctor took the other copies and burnt them "because everybody interested got already his copy".

THE GIRL WHO WAS... DEATH  is on Hurdy Gurdy Records: when Devil Doll did sign for that company?
First of all also THE MARK OF THE BEAST  was on Hurdy Gurdy Records with Catalogue Number HG- 0 and always with the beautiful logo of the clown with the accordion. If you make any pressing you must have a company because of author's rights rules, so Mr. Doctor came up with this name, but there was really no record company at all in the beginning. In fact I was the only person who witnessed the transfer of BEAST and GIRL, both Yugoslavian only pressings. In 1989 some members of the Italian section of the sect created the DEVIL DOLL  Fan CIub and some others - with permission of Mr. Doctor, but no contract has been ever signed- started Hurdy Gurdy Records, and this was just before the beginning of the recordings of ELIOGABALUS.

ELIOGABALUS  is the only album with two different long tracks instead of just one, and the first to have a wider distribution...
It is not really correct. A few weeks after the release of GIRL, Mr. Doctor came to me with a new composition called THE BLACK HOLES OF THE MIND  (later re- titled MR. DOCTOR) that He was rehearsing with the Italian section for some time (the Slovenian section had been primarily responsible for GIRL). A few days before the beginning of the recordings Mr. Doctor came up with another album worth of material tentatively called ELIOGABALUS. The budget supplied by Hurdy Gurdy was unfortunately very limited, so halfway through the work it was really impossible to complete both albums. First of all only the Italian musicians were used (apart from Bor Zuljan on the first of the two albums) to save time and lower costs: secondly I had to cut the two albums to fill each one just on one side of a SINGLE album, so about 45 minutes have been criminally cut during the mixing and editing stage. A lot of problems haunted those recordings: Mr. Doctor practically lost faith with many of the companions and isolated Himself completely. I thought it was really the end of it all... on the contrary it was just the birth of DEVIL DOLL  as one and only group, located in Ljubljana.

This was happening in 1990, when the troops of Belgrade were invading Slovenia, war started and finally you got political independence...
In a way all these things helped DEVIL DOLL. SACRILEGIUM  came out of this atmosphere of destruction, of "no way out". After over ten years of sound engineering and record production I smelled dearly at last the flavour of an artistic MASTERPIECE. It was a wonderfully claustrophobic explosion of brilliant ideas: a truly dramatic experience for me and everybody involved, totally uncommercial and very demanding for any audience. A real punch in the stomach. I remember the absolute shock at the performing of the Believe- Obey- Fight section: UNFORGETTABLE. The band was musically superb, totally devoted to Mr. Doctor`s visions, often at the edge of nervous breakdown. Mr. Doctor started then a cinematic interest... Leading to THE SACRILEGE OF FATAL ARMS  movie and soundtrack, followed recently by the majestic THE DAY OF WRATH. Obviously the approach between a DEVIL DOLL  record and a Mr. Doctor's soundtrack is completely different. The record is completely free and so it is more poetic, base on "inductive" logic, while the film music is created FOR something else (the images) and so is definitely more "architectural". But I must admit that MYSELF, as an architect of sound, I love THE SACRILEGE OF FATAL ARMS  and THE DAY OF WRATH  soundtracks even more! The interest of Mr. Doctor in the expressive possibilities offered by cinema kept Him very busy in the last four years: He has kept for two years a course organized through the National Cinematheque (it was called Retrovizor) and wrote a few stunning articles in magazines. I know He has just been published here also a book on the music of Bernard Herrmann financed also by the National Cinematheque.

Is it easy to work with Mr. Doctor or there have been problems in all these years of collaboration?
The word "easy" is really the last you should use in a DEVIL DOLL  project. There is immense tension throughout any of the records with Him. Mr. Doctor is the most demanding person I know, requiring absolute dedication from everybody: we must always succeed in going beyond the limit of the limit of our limits. It is a thrilling experience, but it drives me to a complete psychic exhaustion as never happens with any other musical production.

The latest album DIES IRAE  is regarded as the absolute masterpiece of Mr. Doctor, DEVIL DOLL  and...
Jurij Toni: an album that brought you literally in Death's arms... I guess you are talking about the Tivoli studio fire.... That happened on the second day of mixing with just Mr. Doctor and me in the studio. We literally jumped out of Hell, but DIES IRAE  was completely destroyed: I had in my pocket only a DAT cassette with some instrumental parts. Mr. Doctor later wanted to have ten copies of THE LOST TAPES  released (it was an official Hurdy Gurdy release with Catalogue Number HG- 9!) in a luxury package with a big book and a great mask, as He thought DIES IRAE  was not going to be re- recorded. It would have been a criminal loss for all of us and for Art altogether: we did our best to convince Him to start it over again. I think we would have never succeeded without the help of hundreds, who wrote to Hurdy Gurdy begging for a re- recording.

By the way I noticed He refused Tivoli Studios as I noticed most of DIES IRAE  has been recorded in Ljubljana's Akademik Studio.
This has really nothing to do with the fire. The only reason is that the reconstructed Tivoli studio had lost the "magic" of the old one, despite its "Solid State" desk and excellent acoustics. There are a lot of studios with extremely good equipment, professional technicians etc., but missing those "vibrations" that are an essential help in creating a "work of Art", instead of "simply a good record".

What is your opinion on DIES IRAE?
From a sound engineer viewpoint DIES IRAE  is undoubtedly my proudest achievement ever. As a producer my opinion is that it is a sublime work of pure poetry and timeless musical genius played by truly fantastic musicians with a unique, outstanding vocalist (not just singer, as Mr. Doctor uses the Voice as the most expressive of the instruments). DIES IRAE  has so many brilliant ideas that anybody else would have diluted using them to make three or four albums! I honestly think that the greatness of what DEVIL DOLL  have done in music will be fully recognized only in ten, maybe twenty years. And I am honoured to have been chosen as sound engineer and co- producer by one of the very few outstanding personalities in the world of Art. If I am allowed to give a last little advice to anybody approaching the universe of DEVIL DOLL: let it to be the soundtrack to the free floating of your thoughts. Let it be the contagious catalyst of your creativeness. Close your eyes, reverse them to the inside and fly into your own imagination.

And start to make Art: