The keys to success
Republic of Two's Mikoláš Růžička does his own thing with the atmospheric Piano project
Posted: February 27, 2013
At a recent concert at Palác Akropolis, the local outfit Piano came across as assured and well-drilled as if just at the end of a lengthy tour. The sound was compelling and the visuals - smart waistcoats and ties, slick light show - put them ahead of most of the competition. In fact, the gig, held to launch Piano's debut CD, was only the third in the four-piece's short existence.
Piano's apparent instant maturity may well be down to the experience of the group's leader, Mikoláš Růžička. He has hitherto been known as one half of Republic of Two, an acclaimed indie-pop band that in 2011 collected the Best Newcomer statuette at the Anděl awards, the Czech music industry's annual bash.
It was while performing with Republic of Two at the Czech Republic's official welcome center at last summer's London Olympics that Růžička hit upon a moniker for the new project he was beginning to piece together.
"The guys and I were walking down the street in Camden, and I saw a musical instrument shop simply named Piano and I said, 'That's it!' " recalls the soft-spoken frontman, who points to the word's various connotations: The musical term means quietly, but in Italian piano has multiple meanings, including plan and slow.
Růžička is unconcerned that the name will make Piano as tricky to Google as groups like Real Estate or The Internet. Anybody who's interested, he says with a smile, will just have to try that tiny bit harder.
Unsurprisingly, though some songs first took shape on guitar, the piano is central to the group's atmospheric, mostly downbeat and captivating eponymous debut. Růžička has a Czech-made Petrof - alongside a vintage harmonium and a pair of synths - in the cheap Prague 7 apartment he describes as "punk."
In fact, the LP was recorded at his pad in a bid to keep the cost low and the sound "dirty." Listen closely, the 34-year-old promises, and you can hear cars, people on the street outside and neighbors. Not that the electronic-meets-acoustic "Piano" could be considered lo-fi: To these ears, it sounds polished and eminently radio-friendly.
Among the tracks that make an immediate impression are the Radiohead-esque "Land" - Růžička cites the English glitch-rockers as an influence, along with the Berlin electronic artist Apparat - the melancholy "Cold Outside," and the rousing closer, "It Won't Destroy Me," which brings to mind an early Badly Drawn Boy tune.
The first exposure many listeners have had to Piano has been the Vimeo video for the mesmerizing "Waste of Time." It sees a lightly dressed and lost-looking Růžička evidently trying to connect with a woman in bridal wear (portrayed by the palely beautiful Terézia Mia of the Prague Burlesque troupe) - and traipsing around a wooded area barefoot in the snow. "It was painful. It even hurt when my feet were warming up again," he says. "I had the flu afterward."
A few days sipping Coldrex was no doubt a price worth paying for the classy promo, which came about when Růžička asked the hip photographer Bet Orten to select any track from Piano and come up with a treatment. Frankly, his own handsome designer-stubble looks are also a factor in the video's success. (A female music critic told me several women in her office have crushes on him.)
The frozen landscape of the "Waste of Time" video appears to form part of a theme; the LP's cover art captures distant figures against a wintry sky, while other titles include "Cold Outside" and "Queen of My Snow Empire." Růžička says he actually has a strong affinity with the balmy climes of Spain or Portugal, and suggests Piano's icy veneer may be in part down to the fact it was mainly written and recorded in the wee small hours.
By day, Růžička - a visual artist by training - is employed as a teaching assistant at Academy of Fine Arts, introducing students to traditional graphic techniques such as line etching, aquatint, dry point, lithography and linocut. Some of the equipment he uses in the studio is 200 years old.
"For me drawing and doing music are almost the same," he says. "I don't see the border: They're very similar. You're just using different media."
The singer-songwriter's visual art background also informs the considered approach to image in the output of both Piano and Republic of Two. "The whole design of the bands is really important. It doesn't have to involve suits, but it must be stylish," he says, adding (though refusing to name names) that many local bands have a marked flair deficit. "The visual aspect is really important: the lights, projections if you've got them, stage design."
While Piano started out as a solo project, it has since blossomed into a full band featuring Růžička's kid brother Štěpán on bass (another sibling, Aleš, has in the past done improvised paintings onstage during Mikoláš's shows), the guitarist Timon Svoboda and the powerhouse Jan Janečka on percussion.
Růžička says he and partner Jiří Burian are planning to reconvene to produce a third Republic of Two record later this year and that there is no master plan for Piano. Nevertheless, there is already talk of festival dates in the summer. In the meantime, they are in the frame to tour soon with the popular guitar pop outfit Charlie Straight and will support Denmark's Efterklang in Prague in May.
Ian Willoughby can be reached at