People of Prague
The Invention of Kapitán Demo
Musician and producer Jiří Burian is the manpower behind the larger-than-life rapper
Jiří Burian was born to be a musician.
The son of pianist and TV presenter Jan Burian, grandson of composer and theater director Emil František Burian, and great-nephew of world-renowned opera singer Karl Burian, Jiří never really considered anything else. He was writing music by age 8 and he played drums with his father and brother before starting his first band, Southpaw, as a teenager.
“I was always meant to do this,” Burian said. “Music was more important than history or geography or science; music was my everything as I was growing up.”
The connection to Burian’s musical history is present in the myriad music he composes and produces out of his Prague studio, Alpha Studios. Next to the computer, drum machine and guitars is a 100-year-old old Förster piano that once belonged to his grandfather Emil.
“The piano’s got a lot of spirit in it,” Burian said. “I still use it in my studio every day when I compose. When the melody comes to my head, I play it on the piano first and then I record it.”
That includes the music for Kapitán Demo, an outrageous Czech rapper that has brought Burian, 41, the success he struggled to find with his indie projects.
Growing up idolizing The Smiths – Alma Matters, a phrase that’s also tattooed on his right forearm, is a 1997 single by Morrissey – Burian spent his early career making alternative music. Through his 20s and 30s, that usually wasn’t enough to pay the bills, so he had a series of odd jobs, including selling fossils by Prague Castle, teaching English to kids and bartending.
“I’m probably still fast behind the bar,” Burian jokes.
Those days are now behind him. Partly inspired by comedian Andy Kaufman, Burian created an over-the-top alter ego who jokes about the things and people that he thinks deserve to be mocked.
Kapitán Demo’s fourth album, released in 2018, included the single, “Zlatíčka”, which translates to sweetheart and samples the 1979 hit “I’m in the Mood for Dancing”. The music video has nearly eight million views on YouTube and Kapitán Demo now has nearly 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.
The melody for “Zlatíčka” is light and bouncy while the lyrics say that everyone deserves love, even the ex-secret police and murderers who turned themselves into celebrities. Through the character, Burian can say and do pretty much anything he wants these days.
“Every time I put the costume on, my personality changes,” Burian said. “And when I take it off, I’m back.”
The musical family history won’t stop with Jiří, either. His wife and manager, Darina Burianová, directed two of his most successful music videos – “Zlatíčka” and “Man Power” – and his sons Adam, 8, and Alvin, 4, will appear on multiple tracks of an upcoming Demo album for kids, “Tell Your Mom to Buy You a Bentley”.
We sat down with Burian to discuss his career and the character he created:
PR: You have a lot of different projects, including solo work, Demo and your bands Southpaw and Republic of Two. What are you focusing on these days?
JB: My priority at this time is Demo, because it’s really like a factory now. There are so many people involved and it’s making a really big impact so I have to keep it No. 1. But still, it’s the most difficult thing for me to do, to write for Demo, because to write something that’s funny and not stupid at the same time, and still up-to-date is very hard for me. It’s the hardest thing.
PR: You also produce and compose for musicians like Emma Smetana, Jordan Haj and Givi Kross. Do you keep regular hours in the studio?
JB: I have to. Because there are so many things that I’m working on so I have to fit everyone in. I’m basically something like a dentist because I have a tight time schedule. During the week I’m in my studio, also doing meetings and interviews or stuff like that. And on the weekends I have gigs, mostly with Demo.
Sometimes I also just have to let go and make music for myself, not knowing where it’s going to go. When I’m composing for someone else I have to connect with him somehow and just try to write as if I was him or her. But sometimes it leads me to some other project or some other song, maybe for myself or for Demo. If I do something that’s really, really so good I just can’t give it to somebody else, I just keep it (laughs). Being an asshole isn’t bad.
PR: How do you talk about Demo?
I approach it as an actor talking about a character. It’s the same thing. If I was sitting here as Demo, that would be different, of course. That would be the character speaking. It’s just fun. It’s just the power, which is fun. Playing the almighty and the powerful. You really can do anything that you want and people just go for it, which is nice therapy (laughs).
Some people really think that Demo is real, and some people don’t even recognize me. I’ve had to fight with people to convince them I’m Demo.
PR: How did the 1999 movie “Man on the Moon” influence you?
JB: That was really something that was life-changing for me. I like director Miloš Forman, of course, and Jim Carrey. Andy Kaufman was a huge thing for me, because I felt like there was somebody like my blood in a way, somebody who showed me the way that we can change things. We can make things in a different way. And the alter ego thing, with Tony Clifton and Andy Kaufman, I really wanted to do something that would be in a way similar but different, which is Demo.
PR: Are you surprised that, of all your projects, it was Demo that really broke through?
JB: Three years ago it started getting really big, in this country I mean. Yeah, I thought OK, that might work. At the same time I think it’s the irony of fate or something, because for myself I always find different projects much more important and valuable in an artistic way than Demo. For me, Demo is just for fun. But after some time I realized the importance of it. It’s not only the humor, it’s also changing the rules of society and of show business, and that’s important so I dealt with it and I accepted it.
PR: Who is Demo’s music meant for?
JB: The target group is ages 4 to 74; it’s really different. And the people are open-minded and they trust me so much. I think people just want to have fun and feel the freedom in themselves, and that’s why they love Demo so much. He has the power to do anything he wants, and they want that power too. They want to feel like they can be playful again even if they’re 40 and work at an office job. They can do things in a different way, and that’s why I think Demo is so successful apart from the songs and the humor itself.
PR: Part of Demo’s appeal is the look: gold chains, colorful oversized clothes, sneering confidence. How did you come up with his style?
JB: We just wanted to do everything properly, like a package. We love the image, we love fashion and all kinds of stuff that comes together for a good product. We like to change it all the time and find new ways and new ideas, like the Ikea bag costume (for the “Trendsetter” music video). It’s all about connecting with the right people. The good artist is the one who surrounds himself with great people. That’s the hardest part, because the people make it, the team. It’s very interesting for us to see how it can develop and the way fashion can go. We were also thinking about making Kapitán slim, but I didn’t want it. It would lose the majestic feeling.
PR: Demo’s look has changed a bit over the years. How did it go from the inflatable Sumo suit to what you have now?
JB: Two years ago we came up with this special thing, which is a different kind of costume that people use in films. It’s a special fabric that holds the shape, and it’s really comfortable actually. It’s great, because you have air in it so you don’t feel warm and sweaty. You have a lot of space in it. It’s comfy.
You can move really fast, which people in the fat suit can’t, and it’s light. Sometimes it was better before because the cold air was still blowing, so when we were performing in really hot weather it was comfortable. It was air conditioning. Now, when we had the Forum Karlin show, we had a huge oversized gold jacket, and that was hardcore because it was so fucking heavy. It was so hard for me to do it. But, it looked so nice that I didn’t have a choice.
JB: You played Forum Karlin in December. Is the goal to keep moving to bigger and bigger venues?
It’s step-by-step. But that’s the classic thing, that’s what everybody does. We want to do different things. For example, we’re working on a concept now with an orchestra show, but at times the orchestra might be out of tune and strange things might happen during the show, like people killing each other. It would be this huge concept like a comedy show with an orchestra. We’re also thinking about releasing the best hits but with opera singers.
PR: Some of the songs that have done the best are about everyday annoyances, like semis slowly passing each other on the highway or someone parking over two spaces. Why do you think those have struck a chord with the audience?
JB: If something is really bugging you, it gets under your skin so much that you make a song out of it, and suddenly you remove the problem, you remove the negativity of it. Because the next time you’re in the situation you think of the song and you laugh at it. When you see two trucks, it was always a pain in the ass before. And now you see it you think of the song and you laugh. Or someone’s parking like an idiot, and it’s kind of cool because of the song (Macho Parking). Those things are great. You can remove the negativity of the problems and make it a positive thing, which is a great thing. That’s what’s really driving me on, because it’s something I couldn’t do with an indie, melancholic band. It wouldn’t be that powerful, so that’s why I like it so much.
PR: Demo is a party character – during a show at Roxy you had hostesses walking around with fake lines of coke on a gold platter – but you perform him sober. How has meditation changed your creative process?
JB: We grew up on drugs, actually. All of us. I’m from the generation where we, it was the 90s, and in our youth we started to discover all of those things like ecstasy, weed, LSD, coke and everything. We grew up in that scene and it was very hard for us to stay sober. It was hard for me, but I was lucky because I never got addicted to anything. I was lucky to have my stepfather who pushed me into sports a lot, so I always stayed healthy and strong and did sports.
Then, when I stopped smoking weed, because I used to create on weed a lot – so many albums on weed – so when I stopped I started looking for something else, something that doesn’t destroy your psychology and your body that much. Which, of course, was meditation or endorphins from training. It’s the only way. Meditation saved my life, actually, and still it’s in my life and it’s changing. I used to do a lot of zen, qigong meditation, and then it changed to transcendental meditation, which is the thing I’m doing now. I’m not saying I’m holy; sometimes I get filthy in a club. But it has to be balanced all the time. I’m interested in different ways now; I’m looking for different challenges in my life so I could feel the same vibe that drugs give us.
PR: Most people wouldn’t think of Demo as an artist for kids, and yet there’s an appeal there that has led you to making a kids› album. How different will that be from other Demo records?
JB: We don’t want to sound like preachers and shit; we don’t want to change our characters. So it has to be a little bit naughty, it has to be funny, it has to be shocking in a way and it has to be stylish. That’s what we were thinking about, and the sound has changed a lot. It’s not trap anymore, it’s more like dance music.
The concept of the album is for everybody who still thinks he’s a kid inside. It might be kids, it might be grown-ups; it’s for everybody, basically. There are no rude words in it, but it’s still pretty hardcore. It’s about divorce, it’s about money, it’s about what your parents do when you’re not at home, it’s about fighting or peeing outside and other things that the kids are told they’re not allowed to do, but we say is normal. It will be very interesting to watch what happens, because kids are sacred to people, and if you attack their kids with this open-minded approach that we have, it might be very interesting all the reactions we get.
PR: Other than the kids album, what does the future look like for you and for Demo?
JB: I’m really looking forward to getting Demo as big as he can be and to make a difference. We’ll make some changes, have some fun but also I feel a little bit of pressure to write another hit like “Zlatíčka”, because that’s the song that changed my career. It’s very hard to think, Oh I have to go and sit down and make another hit. I don’t want to think that way, but hopefully I can manage to do that and then carry on with different projects and make some great albums. I know there are some great albums coming from my kitchen from my friends.
Interview by Taylor Bern