Much like any other European city, and no doubt in large part due to Lithuania joining the European Union, the atmosphere feels cosmopolitan and buzzy in any given café to be found amidst the winding cobbled streets of the old town. They're populated by a well-dressed troupe of twenty-somethings tapping away on laptops, talking on the phone or meeting with friends.
As you might imagine then, the electronic music scene in Vilnius reflects the internet age. Where a particular movement is not constricted by geographical bounds, it can take root wherever someone is inspired by it, and so it is with recent developments in music. House and techno have always proliferated in Eastern Europe, and likewise there's a strong 4/4 presence in Vilnius, but unsurprisingly, dubstep has found yet another home for itself here, occupying a space where drum & bass was sometimes considered too edgy.
While the aforementioned genres might not be such a shock, it's interesting to note that one of the most energetic scenes both locally and internationally is that of the broader spectrum of beats. The explosion in hip-hop rooted rhythms playing off of dubstep club dynamics and headphone-listening experimentation has been well represented here, in no small part down to a duo that operate under the banner of Mondayjazz.
The duo of Tadas Quazar and Justas Fresh call Mondayjazz a freeform collective made up of mixtape contributors, visual artists, animators and musicians, all sharing a jazzy, eclectic approach to beat-driven music. Really, though, it's the two of them that have a hand in a large portion of the alternative electronic music events in Lithuania, bridging the gap between the local talent and international heavyweights and spurred on by a lack of representation for their own tastes.
"When I first started going to raves, I was always hearing techno and drum & bass, but I was never a big fan of that kind of music," explains Quazar. "I enjoyed hip-hop, soul and funk parties."
"There were few radio shows about fresh electronic music back then," adds Fresh, "but it was the main source of the information about the parties in Vilnius. My first party ever was this underground hardcore rave night in one of the smallest bars in Vilnius. People were wearing camouflage outfits, gas masks, everything that could possibly look weird or cool. It was an amazing experience for me back then."
It didn't take long for Mondayjazz to move beyond the DJ format and start the Mondayjazz Live! series in a bar called Woo. "Everyone was really bored of the shitty foreign acts that already surprised no one," Fresh claims. "We focused on getting fresh live acts that we felt the need to introduce, and so we invited Fulgeance for our first event in 2007. It didn't draw a big crowd, but as the party was fresh and new, in the second event we had people outside waiting for a chance to get in and see Dorian Concept."
Another event that has borne the Mondayjazz stamp is Midnight Picnic. Held on the cusp of summer and autumn in the backstage of a former Soviet amphitheatre, the multi-staged event provides a neat snapshot of the different sounds that make the clubs of Vilnius tick. The venue itself is perfect for the occasion, as neglected swathes of concrete and brick provide the urban grit that gives any city-based event its charm. The venue is in Vingio Parkas, out to the west of the city, and in late September the nights already spell out a long winter ahead. As such the outside stage was something of a tough gig for Âme this year, as a flimsy marquee provided little respite from the cold. However Frank Wiedemann playing a live set still managed to draw in a reasonable crowd, due to his frequency as a guest in Lithuania.
Back in the comparatively cosy confines of the building, Mondayjazz were hosting the first floor stage, and the bass was shuddering around the glass-fronted room as Dimlite rained down the latest evolution of his live set, replete with a drummer to bounce his juggernaut synth work off. Meanwhile downstairs the acrobatic larynx of Felix Zenger and his beat-box talents drew a rapturous audience before giving way to the technicolour stomp of Despotin Fam & The Big Bang Band. Taking their cue from the likes of Ozomatli, the 11-strong crew served up full-blooded party hip-hop with the kind of energy that can only come from playing to a home crowd.
In a lot of ways the Midnight Picnic event acted as a microcosm for the fragmented nature of the music scene in Vilnius, where small sects of clubbers form their own regular haunts and hang-outs. One man who has observed this clan mentality—and successfully infiltrated it—is British ex-pat and club promoter Mark Splinter. "People are very micro-tribal in Vilnius," Splinter states when pressed on how people engage with the nightlife. "I don't think that's because of the music, but more because they are looking to party where their close friends are partying. Venues come and go so fast that people have trouble developing a favourite place to go." One such club that bears the strain of this temporal nature is Gravity, which opened in 2001 and for a while enjoyed both commercial and critical success, and is still held in high regard by key protagonists of the scene today. "Gravity had a golden era swimming in sponsor money, with a good manager who balanced commercial needs with alternative styles," Splinter recalls wistfully, "but that's long gone to the dogs."
get lost on dance floors." -- Mark Splinter
Quazar likewise looks back fondly on a time when the mainstream clubbing standards were high. "In my opinion, big names and international acts could have been found mainly at club Gravity," he explains. "Being a rather curious person I sincerely tried to visit all of those parties because it was such an interesting period, with everything from house to hip-hop being represented."
"Before Gravity it was more popular to do one night parties in various places like bars and pubs," adds Fresh. "Most of them were illegal, but big raves were also popular."
At the height of its powers Gravity could be seen to draw on an understandable influence from Berlin, but there was also a strong following for the kind of trip-hop and electronica favoured by labels such as Warp and Ninja Tune, which paved the way for the scene as it stands today. "Because a lot of people were introduced to music by filesharing as opposed to in clubs," Splinter explains, "the depth of that more experimental music didn't get lost on dance floors. People were used to listening to it in their bedrooms instead."
This appreciation of less functional sounds provided the perfect springboard when Splinter set about introducing dubstep to Lithuania. As the first ripples of the music were being felt across the UK around 2004, he had a chance to experience FWD>> with a couple of Lithuanian friends. Upon returning to Vilnius he immediately set about bringing the music to the city. "I started dubstep [in Lithuania] in the tiny basement of a vegetarian restaurant called The White Elephants," Splinter proudly proclaims. "The main room normally fits about 50 people but with our soundsystem in there it only fitted about 35. About 200 people came and we played almost everywhere in town after that."
The key to the firm footing which dubstep now holds in Vilnius is in the cautious way Splinter introduced the music. It's safe to say any attempts to immediately replicate the likes of DMZ in a different city with a different history and culture would have failed fairly rapidly. A steady exchange of tracks with like-minded local DJs met with the diversification of the genre, giving Splinter the opportunity to tailor the kind of sound he was bringing to the city. "On trips back to the UK I would go to Black Market Records," he explains, "but basically my tastes were becoming more Lithuanian, so I promoted subgenres of dubstep specifically for the local audience, rather than just importing whatever was popular in London. Quite often, a UK DJ comes to Lithuania and plays a set that sounds totally out of context, because he doesn't know anything about Lithuania in advance."
Loud and direct rave music is obviously not the only order of the night in Vilnius, and there's a strong network of house-minded folk who work hard to bring deeper sounds to town. Many of the more adventurous 4/4 parties centre around Opium, an intimate club located in the basement of Thai restaurant Briusly. Production, promotion and DJ duo Downtown Party Network represent one of the more successful exports from this particular micro-scene, having scored releases for Eskimo, Compost and Bear Funk in their time. Likewise Mario & Vidis are a pair with a similar passion for disco-inflected grooves, and their services to the Vilnius party scene are ably demonstrated in Vidis' own recollection of their past guests.
"I was the one to introduce Lithuanian club goers and music fans to the names like Daniel Wang, Jazzanova, Prins Thomas, Ame, Dixon, Charles Webster, Gerd Janson and many others," Vidis proudly asserts. While there might be some impressive accolades attached to the house scene, both in terms of producers and international guests, the viewpoints of those involved makes it seem that the economic recession has affected this scene. "Nowadays it's getting harder," says Saulty, one half of Downtown Party Network. "A few years ago I was organising two party series every month with international artists. Nowadays people want to pay less or even not to pay for the entrance to the club."
As a natural consequence of the financial downturn, international artists coming to town has been on a downward slope. Once links had been forged with the rest of Europe, the '00s was a vibrant time for international artists coming to Vilnius and promoters leant on imported talent to fill their parties rather than supporting the locals.
Street Knowledge: Good places to eat and drink in Vilnius
A large bar and restaurant at the top of the bohemian Uzupis district rich with antiquated atmosphere, and boasting a picturesque terrace that looks out over the city. The food features an adventurous spread of dishes to cater for all tastes, although the prices are a bit more sizable.
Nestled in the heart of the old town, Cozy is a buzzy bar popular with the music scene, perhaps due to Dutch owner Bernie's roots in the nightlife of Vilnius. The food is modern, pan-continental grub for a friendly price, and you'll occasionally find DJs playing in there.
No European capital would be complete without somewhere to grab a high-grade pizza. Divino is a firm favourite with the locals as it ticks all the necessary boxes. Faux-roman décor, traditional thin-crust pizzas, 21 different varieties to choose from, and all set in the scenic Rotušės Square.
If you're looking for somewhere to try some traditional Lithuanian craft beers, Bamb Alyné is a perfect hidden gem. Nestled in a vaulted cellar in a quiet corner of the Old town, the recently opened shop-cum-bar features a pleasing sprawl of local brews, which you can enjoy in the homely ambience of the shop alongside some excellent Kepta Duonas (garlic-fried bread).
Balti Drambliai Kavine
Continuing the popular theme of vaulted cellars, Balti Drambliai is a must-see for anyone who enjoys Indian food. The restaurant is 100% vegetarian, but the adventurous menu will fool even the most die-hard of meat-eaters. The wallet-friendly prices and hippie atmosphere are appreciated, plus it's worth nipping round the corner to see the statue of Frank Zappa.
With the popularity of the DJ bar format in Vilnius, Brandy Lounge is rarely too quiet. This petite watering hole feels busy even with ten people inside, so you can imagine what it gets like when a local hip-hop spinner takes to the decks. As the name might suggest, if you like brandy (or any other spirit for that matter) this place is a good shout.
The smaller, more specialised clubs may be struggling in these times, but it's not all doom and gloom for clubs in Vilnius. "The warehouse venue Loftas is now the only decent venue in town for bigger concerts and raves," Splinter says, "and it has a much better programme than I expected, despite heavy commercial sponsorship." Recent Loftas guests such as Saul Williams, Jazzanova, Stanton Warriors and Caribou suggest that financial backing doesn't instantly have to mean a compromise on quality.
If there's one major drag about the clubbing scene in Vilnius, it's the inconsistency of the clubs. All the local DJs, artists and promoters sing the same tune of venues either changing hands or styles, or coming under political pressure, just when a suitable home for interesting sounds has been found. As mentioned before, Gravity was a prime example of this, and now a similar story has occurred with the Satta bar. "There are many other places in Vilnius where occasionally you can catch something interesting," Splinter explains, "but the only place with a strict policy of supporting alternative dance music was Satta. It looks like the inept town council has finally managed to close their bar after a long and ridiculous battle."
Despite the adversity, there is still optimism to be found with venues like the relatively new Soul Box opening. A sleek modern bar front hides the spacious dance floor around the back, and the booking policy remains, somewhat pragmatically, totally based around local DJs and live acts. "Most of the gigs I play are at Opium these days," explains Saulty, "but now Soul Box is also, I think, one of the best clubs in Vilnius."
If anything is to be garnered from the tribulations of economic crisis and unsupportive authorities, it's that the local talent has had to step up to fill in the vacant headline slots. "The crowd finally had a proper listen to their local acts and DJs," Mark proclaims, "and the latter had to reinvent themselves constantly to keep the interest of the crowd and clubs."
Certainly there's a healthy stream of names leading the way in Lithuania, and taking their wares overseas. Nolder knew he was onto a winner when he was snapped up by Mike Paradinas at Planet Mu, while Eleven Tigers and Brokenchord have both relocated to the UK after getting signed to Soul Motive and Black Acre respectively. "Sure, the credit crunch rearranged stuff for the musical scene," Quazar acknowledges. "Nowadays there are less international acts but more local, interesting acts. Either way, I find this situation exciting since it's been a hell of a lot of years since we found [so much] new talent here back home!"