Pushing the Folk Philosophy

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Sunday 24 January 2011 (Michael Bugeja - The Sunday Times of Malta)

It’s no secret that folk elements have made great inroads into the local popular music scene. Some will argue they have always been present, to some extent or other, and that traditional folk music still has a fairly loyal following.

While all of this is true, one must also admit that perhaps none of these managed to capture the younger generation’s attention quite as effectively or expansively as the customised folk of bands such as Nafra, Etnika, Brikkuni and Plato's Dream Machine has done in the past few years.

This revived interest is, of course, a blessing, given that Maltese musical traditions, bar a number of dedicated Għana gatherings held around the island and the much-anticipated annual Għana­fest, seemed to be fading into the background just 10 or so years ago. Also, it seems that more young people are delving into their Maltese roots to find inspiration augurs well for the survival of our island’s folk heritage.

Plato’s Dream Machine is one of the relatively newer names championing folk music locally, and the band’s current six-piece line-up is three times the size of its original set-up. In fact, back in February 2009, this occasional side-project started out as a two-piece operating under the name of Robert and Fre; a vehicle initially set up simply to work on some songs that vocalist and guitarist Robert Farrugia Flores had been working on. He called his old friend Fre to accompany him on bass, and the seeds of what would become Plato’s Dream Machine were sown.

Fre and Robert are no newcomers to the local music scene; in fact, quite interestingly, they both formed part of the underground core punk presence that had its base in the Marsa musical community and have played in various other bands since.

“We actually knew each other even before music entered our lives,” Robert explains. “Our friendship grew stronger when we both got involved in bands, but oddly, we never did play together until we eventually got together as Robert & Fre.”

Their post-punk years saw them drift off down separate paths. Robert formed experimental outfit A Fuchsia Sun Vessel and (later) Dominoes as well as pursuing his other love, painting. Meanwhile, Fre played with practically every band that would have him, among them The i-Skandal and Dripht, before settling in with his other current band, Brikkuni.

“I’m quite a spontaneous person; sometimes, perhaps, a little too much so, but I like to do a lot of things, and once I get involved in something I really give it my all. I love music and I’m not attached to any one genre either. I find it all quite liberating,” Fre admits.

With all this in mind, it seems that the origin of Plato’s Dream Machine was rather unexpected. Fre got a call from Robert one day, asking if he was interested in working with him on some songs he had written. They got together, played a handful of rehearsals and decided to try the songs out in public. “It was just a small, intimate gig, but there was a pretty good turnout,” Robert says. “Our friend Ryan Abela played drums on a couple of tracks; overall I think it went quite well.” Well enough, indeed, to prompt them to record a demo within a couple of weeks.

“It was a pretty DIY job, actually. It was recorded in Ryan’s bedroom...he has a basic home studio,” says Robert. That recording, a two-track demo featuring original composition Journeyman and a cover of Bob Dylan’s I Shall be Released, was the beginning of Plato’s Dream Machine.

And just where did the name Plato’s Dream Machine come from, then? “It’s a bit complicated, but it’s all to do with philosophy,” says Robert. “I’m very interested in the subject and, after art, it’s my favourite. The name is not necessarily related to Plato directly but is the combined result of various topics I had read about.” He attempts to explain these topics further, but having lost me a few minutes earlier, he concedes the actual story would probably take ages to explain, so we settle for the fact that the name has a certain ring, an appeal to it.

Given the stripped-down line-up that Plato’s Dream Machine started out with, it’s no surprise the sound is so organic. But what was it that triggered its dominant folk element? “In my case, I suppose folk was where I headed for after my punk years,” says Robert. “I was drawn to the genre thanks to Bob Dylan’s music primarily, moving on to discover other folk artists. “I still listen to other genres, but folk music is what really touches my soul. Perhaps it’s also a subliminal attempt to get away from electric instruments, who knows?”

Fre says folk is something he only discovered fairly recently. “I was into bands with a rebellious vein in their words and music, and these were the same elements I recognized in folk music. Add to that the fact that I’m open to any genre and the fact that we don’t only play gentle folk, but also upbeat stuff, so it wasn’t difficult for me to identify with it.”

Last year, the band followed up its two rough demos with a proper studio recording. The five-track EP, known as Tal-Qamħa, was recorded at Steve Lombardo’s Hell Next Door Studios, and featured all original songs, among them one, Fabbrika fuq l-Għolja, in Maltese. The songs on the EP are more developed and fuller than those the band used to do in the beginning, which was a natural progression as they brought in more musicians and instruments into the band. Their current line-up also features violinist Roberta, Mark Zizza on drums, Justin on flute and Brian on accordion; all of these gave a new dimension to the band’s collective sound.

Last year, Plato’s Dream Machine also participated in the L-Għanja tal-Poplu festival with another Maltese song, Lil Missirijietna. “I wasn’t sure about taking part at first, but we really enjoyed performing there,”says Fre. And does this mean we can expect more songs in Maltese from the band? “Strangely enough, I haven’t been writing in Maltese that long,” Robert replies. “I used to think English was much easier to express myself in, but after writing Fabbrika fuq l-Għolja, I find myself more and more inclined to write in Maltese. In fact, all of the new songs I’ve written so far are in Maltese.”

With 2010 having been a busy and pivotal year for Plato’s Dream Machine, including important gigs with UK band Moulettes and a slot alongside Brikkuni and Stalko at the Festival tal-Wirdien, new material is a welcome addition to the band’s progress, the results of which we will be able to hear first-hand on March 11 when Plato’s Dream Machine perform live at the Old Market in Valletta. “We’re looking forward to this gig – it’s going to have a mixture of art, music and food…and we’ve also got a big surprise planned for the summer, but more on that later.”

Plato's Dream Machine at MySpace