Music, the Mind, and the Questions that Make us Human: a Closer Look at Platon Karataev

In every era, we find artistic genius that is far beyond its time. The transcendent, vivid music created by Platon Karataev falls into this rare category. Each note draws the listener in closer; each lyric seems to be imbued with tens of thousands of meanings.

Platon Karataev is a Hungarian band that released its first album For Her in 2017. The band, which is composed of Gergely Balla, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Soma Bradák, and László Sallai, quickly gained international attention, particularly with one of their hit songs, Elevator. In less than one year, their music was streamed more than 4 million times on Spotify. They write profound, inspiring, often dark and riveting music on self-discovery, existential inquiry, and love. 

The enigmatic songs of Platon Karataev are written by Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly. Gergely humbly claims that the band’s music comes “from the same source where all people are searching”. I had the chance to learn more about the making of their music in an exclusive interview with the creative mastermind himself, Gergely.

How did the band start?

I met Sebestyén when we were 10 years old. We played on the same soccer team in Hungary, so we were good friends as children. I continued to play soccer at a competitive level, but Sebestyén stopped, so we lost each other for a couple years. Around 6 years ago, we contacted each other again and there was a common interest in music and musical taste, and for the first time, we just did covers for fun.

We played Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, and when we had our first ideas for songs, we decided to start a band. That was around 2016. Then we contacted the drummer Soma who plays in a famous Hungarian band, Galaxisok. It’s not a mainstream band but it’s quite well known. So our first gig began with just the 3 of us. Then we added a bassist but he had to leave the band because of family reasons. Then László joined as the new bassist, who plays in Galaxisok and many other bands as well. In Hungary it’s very common for bands to share musicians.

What’s the genre of your music?

For us, the lyrics are really important; so I don’t know any genre which has this in the spotlight, but maybe “art rock” or “indie rock” is the best, if we have to categorize it.

Can you tell me more about the name of the band, and what it means?  

Platon Karataev is a character from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—a huge novel—but the main plot centers around the Napolean wars, in the 19th century.  Platon Karataev is just a minor character, only appearing on around 15-20 pages, but he has a huge impact on one of the main characters’ life development.

Platon Karataev is a simple Russian peasant, but in his simple and honest way, he can say the deepest truth of life. This is how I feel we are connected to this character; we are not such good musicians, but we have deep feelings and we have the talent to channel these feelings into songs. So we try to write these songs in our simple but honest way, and we are searching also for the truths of life. Or at least to ask these questions.

Gergely balla

You ask these huge, existential questions in your music, especially in your album Atoms. Have any of you experienced a dark night of the soul or apathy that you’ve tried to grapple with?

Our music speaks about the heaviest part of existence. But I don’t want to put it as a negative thing; it has some melancholy in it, but I don’t call this “depressed” or “negative”; for us, it’s just deep feelings, and it’s not the same.

I don’t want to say our aim in music is to answer these questions, because I also don’t know how we write these songs. For me, it’s really some mystical, magical place where these songs come from, and I’m always seeking that place, but I can’t tell you where these songs come from. I can’t say I was sad and I wrote these songs, it just comes out of me.

How do you write the lyrics of your songs?

Orange Nights

The leaves whisper autumn

On this lonely night in Pest

This kind of love I’ve found

Oh, I hate and I detest

Those orange nights in Pest

When I can’t rest and I

Let all my feelings float away

Both the worst and best

Those orange nights in Pest

With the weight on my chest

Solitude, you’re with me in the end

We salute as old friends

For me, as I see it, it’s not my theory, but I usually say that your output, for me as a musician, really depends on your input. I read a lot of literature, poems, and it really reflects what comes out of me. I don’t believe in originality, I believe everyone collects things around them and what they can reach. In our lyrics there is a lot of intertextuality, I refer to Shakespeare and Rumi, or Eric Fromm and Maslow. Me and Sebestyén are psychologists as well, so we have a strong psychology background.

For example, we studied about Maslow in university and so there is also a reflection of that. But I also read a lot of Hungarian poets and writers, as well as the Bible and spiritual writings—these are my inputs, and you can sense it in the output or the lyrics as well.

So you truly don’t believe your lyrics are adding anything new?

I don’t think we’re adding anything new. It just seems fresh, but I believe everything that is important has already been written down thousands of years ago. I’m currently reading a book by a Hungarian philosopher Béla Hamvas, and he composed a collection of thoughts from philosophers and poets from all of history, in order. For me, it’s mind-blowing that people already wrote about these things 5,000 or 8,000 years ago. None of my lyrics are new, it’s just from the same source where all of these people are searching.

I write these songs and it’s really great to experience this artistic process, and it means a lot when it resonates with others. But the most amazing thing for me is when I’m home alone and I’m just writing these songs. When they are actually happening to me. Not the final state of the song or recording it or performing it. It’s a really different experience.

I write all of the lyrics, and I write a lot of the melodies along with Sebestyén. Soma is the drummer, he writes the drum patterns and László is the bass player so he writes the bass. In their daily lives, Soma is a curator in an art gallery, and László is a teacher. I have a Master’s degree in adult clinical psychology, but I’m currently only focussing on music and the band, and Sebestyén is doing that as well.

Do you write outside of music?

For me, it’s been a really big dream to write lyrics or texts in Hungarian, because it’s a beautiful language but it’s hard to touch it from an artistic perspective. But this past March, I started to write lyrics in Hungarian, and around two weeks ago I wrote my first ‘poem’, which—turns out—will be published by a literature site. So I’m at the beginning of this, and I don’t have any ambitions to be a writer, but I have one poem now.

What was the premise of your first album, For Her? What was the idea behind it?

For Her was about a relationship and about a breakup. I had a relationship that lasted 2 years, and then there was a breakup. After that I was really depressed. And that’s when I started to write my first songs. For Her are my first songs ever written. I was living in Portugal at the time and I was so depressed. I slept 14-15 hours per night and when I woke up I just played the guitar. There was a 1-year long breakup and after that year we actually got back together, and she’s my wife now. So it’s a happy ending. My wife is an artist, and she does a lot of design and artwork for the band; she also directed the music video for Wolf Throats and Ocean.

But yes, when I wrote For Her, you can really tell that I was upset. In psychology, there are the 5 Stages of Grief, and you can easily follow these steps through the album. I wrote Season of Singing when we got back together, and I wrote Light Trap throughout the entire year. So the writing was not done in order, but I wrote them all throughout the year and then I put them in order, so you can follow the narrative I went through during that time.

How do the 5 Stages of Grief correspond to the album?

You can see elements of these stages in many of the songs; it’s not clear-cut, but they appear in all of the songs. But for instance, all of my anger was put in Lady Macbeth; bargaining is in Elevator; depression is in Light Trap and Orange Nights; and denial is also throughout the album as well. And the final stage of acceptance is Old Enough For Love.

Can you tell me more about the premise of your second album, Atoms

Atoms is a big switch for us instrumentally; we switched from acoustic to broader, heavier instrumentation and the topics changed. I wrote what I had to say about the relationship; and for me, being 27, it was the start of adult life. And you’re facing these huge questions that can sometimes be scary. So Atoms is about an existential crisis, but not in a “bad” way, it’s just asking all of these questions that I cannot answer.

Atoms asks, what is this exactly? What is life itself? It asks these unthinkable questions about existence, which we are not able to understand with our human mind. We can ask the questions but we never get to the answers. And there is a lot of paradox in this whole thing, which is also a focus of this record. Because for instance, as I see it, the biggest paradox is “all I know is that I know nothing”, and only with this sentence can we focus on so many things. I don’t want to say that it can’t be maddening. But it can be challenging to accept things just as they are.

Gergely Balla

What do you want the listener to get out of this album?

I don’t want to put myself in the position of having something to say and you have to listen to it. I just write these songs and I don’t like to elaborate all of the meanings of the lyrics because it’s also beautiful how one song can resonate in a thousand ways in a thousand different people. Everyone has his or her own interpretation of a lyric, a song. And these can all be valid and true beside each other. My interpretation of the lyrics is not the same as what it might mean for you.

What is the aim of Platon Karataev?

We put a lot of work into managing the band and getting it to new places, but the goal of the band, or the aim, is just to write good songs and explore ourselves artistically. That’s the main goal. In Hungary, there are certain patterns one can follow in order to get “famous”. But I don’t want to make these compromises. I just want to make my music and if that leads us to a smaller audience, then that’s what it is and we accept it. We don’t take ourselves so seriously that we have some sort of message to take places.

Do you have anything you may want to share about the band?

We wrote a new album during quarantine and made good progress to record it; it will be in Hungarian, but I started to translate it to English. It requires a different perspective and a lot of work to translate these songs, but I want to try to have English versions of them too because I know we have a lot of international listeners and it’s good to connect with them as well. For me personally, it’s huge happiness that we will have Hungarian songs.

Wide eyes

A heavy burden of choice

On my deepening mind

My eyes are wide from both fear and from wonder

I see my way but I’m lost in this straight labyrinth

I’m drowning in paradox

No more fear from the walk

Through the dark forest of my mind

This pressure of freedom

And stone cold apathy

I can’t see but I feel

There are greater things than me

But I’m sinking in apathy

I’m sinking in apathy

Why were most of your lyrics in English to begin with?

It’s a complex thing. Most of the music we listen to is in English; like what I mentioned about inputs and outputs; when you listen to a lot of music in English you start to write music in English, too. In English it’s also much easier to write lyrics because the language has a lot of short syllables but in Hungarian it’s crazy what can happen with words. So it’s much harder. It takes a different talent to write really good lyrics in Hungarian. I read a lot of Hungarian poets who are amazing, and I feel so far away from their level that I’ve always felt paralyzed to write in Hungarian.

I don’t want to imply there aren’t good English writers or Hungarian writers are better, it’s just that for years I was mainly surrounded by Hungarian literature and felt that I couldn’t tackle my mother tongue at such a level. Also, these songs are really personal and as honest as they can be. Now, looking back, I feel that writing them in English was also a way to build up a wall between me and the songs, and between me and the audience listening.

Now that I started to write and sing in Hungarian, I feel the words have such a deeper and broader meaning to me as a Hungarian person, and it’s such a different level of connection with the audience as well. So now I feel super naked on stage.

When I’m performing a song, I have to pay attention to what is between me and the people listening to my songs; certain things like the microphone which I’m singing into, or my guitar, also an object between me and the audience. I usually sing with my eyes shut because with closed eyes I escape into myself. Singing in English is also a barrier. So now, singing in Hungarian is a big thing, and I’m making progress to open my eyes while I sing and to try to connect with the audience.

What is the new album called? And What’s the overall theme or question for this album?

In English, it’s something like Shouting for Shore or Crying for Shore.  It follows the path we began with Atoms, so again, existential topics. But it has I think a bigger focus on the mind, and our possibilities to dive into ourselves. It speaks of different states of mind.

The new record will come out in November 2021, but until then we will have videos and singles out. We don’t want to rush it, it’s a good thing when we have time to look back on the record and make small adjustments. But until then I hope to release 4 new songs.

Our concert on May 7, 2021 is the postponed album release show for Atoms (which was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19).

Where can people find you and your music?

All platforms are connected to us, we are the people behind them all, we manage all of our social media sites. We are really happy to connect if people want to reach out. Spotify and YouTube would be best to find our music. If you’re interested in visuals and it’s your first introduction to the band it’d be best to find us on YouTube. 

Connect with Platon Karataev on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and on their website.

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