It was just a year after the 6-piece Greek band Koza Mostra were formed that they represented their country performing ‘Alcohol is Free’ at the Eurovision Song Contest held in Malmö, Sweden in 2013.
But founder member, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Ilias Kozas, wasn’t sure about performing in front of tens of thousands of people live and millions watching around the world.
“It wasn’t that we were at all anxious, I just didn’t want Koza Mostra to be categorised as a pop band”, explains Ilias. “I really don’t like labelling music, but if I have to, I’ll say our theme is up-tempo ska, ethnic, punk and rock all played within a traditional Greek style. ‘Alcohol is Free’ also featured the Greek folksinger Agathonas Iakovidis, so I informed the organisers of the contest that we would come with Agathonas, and that’s how it all started.
"A lot of pop artists who play and perform for their country at this event, often believe that if they win, or get high votes and finish near the top, everything will be perfect afterwards, but it’s not like that. It’s a great platform, but it’s only the beginning, you have to show the audience that you have more to offer and that you are different.”
This really is a massive production, arguably one of the biggest live TV events, how did it feel to be playing to a worldwide audience?
“Yes, it’s huge, then you realise what you are here for and what your goal is, and if you have a goal that’s bigger than the rest of the participants, your goal is even greater. The contest was a very convenient way indeed to promote Koza Mostra and build a name for ourselves around the world.”
Composed by Ilias, ‘Alcohol Is Free’ is a mix of ska, punk and rebetiko music styles, finishing at a well respectable 6th position and was the highest-ranking song not sung primarily in English.
“In a way, we were the black sheep of the family as we were indeed different, which people loved and this actually helped us a lot. I must say we really enjoyed our performance, it was one of the best musical experiences of my life.
"Koza Mostra is a very visual and energetic band on stage and I was wearing a headset microphone which I was conscious about and I’m thinking, what do I do if I want to cough when I’m singing?”, he laughs. “You can actually hear me breathing as I’m running around the stage!”
Hailing from the Greek port city of Thessaloniki on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, Koza Mostra consists of drummer Stelios Tsompanidis, bass player Dimitris Christonis, Tasos Korkovelos on keys/vocals, saxophone player Tasos Gentsis, guitarist/vocalist Petros Lagontsos and Ilias Mostra on guitar and vocals.
“Thessaloniki is a beautiful city says Ilias, but most artists and bands are from Athens which in the past, has made it a little difficult for us.
"Our music is also very ethnical with influences from other countries as well as Greece, which we play in our rock theme. I grew up listening to a lot of rock music especially Queen, who were my favourite band and a big influence on my guitar playing and songwriting. They were a band that was not afraid to experiment within their songwriting. I feel exactly the same way. I think it is good because if you aren’t afraid, you can do your own thing. You have to start somewhere.
"As I mentioned, Koza Mostra is dealing with a variety of up-tempo music styles heavily influenced with a traditional Greek theme, but mention traditional Greek music and most people think of the bouzouki. There are so many more instruments and genres of music, especially here in the Republic of Macedonia. Several countries around the world have their own traditional music that’s very similar to Greece.”
How were you first received on the music scene, as you weren’t the traditional bouzouki style Greek band?
“Before I formed Koza Mostra I was in a band called Cabaret Balkan which played what you might call electric Balkan, again, I really hate having to label music, but I’m forced to, so people can understand.
"We haven’t had that many bands or artists playing with a rock feel to their music, so we were playing music that people didn’t really have the opportunity to listen to here in Greece. Now that the music of Koza Mostra includes the likes of ethic rock, ska, rock and punk, fans of these musical genres can all enjoy our music at the same time.
"It was difficult at first, especially with the economic crisis a few years ago which made it hard to produce promotional material, but we were lucky, we already had a video uploaded to YouTube before our first show, which was a positive marketing move. ‘Alcohol Is Free’ was released just after the contest and was on our ‘Keep up the Rhythm’ album which sold over 130,000 physical copies in less than one year of the band’s existence.
"We recorded ‘Keep up the Rhythm’ exclusively in a professional studio, but for our second album Corrida, I recorded and engineered some material in my own studio.
"I sometimes like to be alone in my studio where I am able to create new ideas and experiment by myself without feeling inhibited if something doesn’t work out. I can relate that to being asked many times what it was like performing in front of all those people at Eurovision. For me, the more people, the less anxious I feel, compared to being in a room with a few friends and someone hands me a guitar and asks me to play a song.
"On our next album, which we are working on, there’s a track called ‘Requiem’ that I recorded with Pedrito Erazo the percussionist and vocalist in the American punk band called Gogol Bordello. The theme is about the history of immigrants and I wanted to involve a Russian choir, but that couldn’t be organised, so I decided to do it all by myself, again, in my own studio. I recorded my voice over 30 times to emulate the choir, and you know, I felt like I was Freddie Mercury on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Koza Mostra is an energetic band on stage and loud in more ways than one, as reflected on the designs of their album covers, Ilias explains,
“I met the Romanian painter Paul Hitter in France, we were playing at one of their legendary Gypsy festivals. These are magical events and have such a diverse selection of artists including luthiers, chefs and painters.
"Paul is renowned for presenting his thoughts, emotions, and values in his own clear, vivid and colourful language. We talked for ages and it came out that he had also worked with Gogol Bordello, has created a lot of their artwork. He saw us play live and said we were the best live act he’d seen for years and would be prepared to design the album cover artwork for ‘Keep Up The Rhythm’ and ‘Corrida’.”
For most guitar players, one guitar is just not enough, an excuse to have more of course. While Ilias has several, they are all part of an essential and rewarding side project.
“During our live set, I play both classical and electric guitars and sometimes just take lead vocalist position without any instruments. I have a few electric guitars including a Fender Jazzmaster which I bought to replace a stolen guitar, but you know, I think it happened for a reason. I’m on the lookout also for a Fender Jaguar as well, loaded with a pair of P.90 pickups. Apart from having a passion for guitars, I need several alternative models as I also teach guitar to children and people with special needs, which is also one of the best things I’ve done in my life. I’ve also realised that children are the best judges at what they hear, if they feel something is good, they’ll show you.
"Even though Koza Mostra is travelling extensively, I do manage to keep the lessons going, as it’s so rewarding. Travelling with instruments can be quite daunting to say the least, we are all concerned for their safety especially with airlines. We soon realised that a heavy hard case is so expensive to book on to an aircraft.
"So we decided to see who made the best gigbags for travelling and we liked the look of the range of Fusion gig bags, they’re really tough and specialise in instrument safety. They’re also lightweight and have so many pockets and can be carried by handles or back straps, and it’s so reassuring to know the instruments are very well protected inside.
"Fusion has been so helpful and the best solution for us, and I loved the way they replied to us, they were genuinely interested in the band and were so friendly. We have quite a few of their products now, I have a double guitar gig bag which is great because I can check in one bag with two guitars in instead of two bags and with the additional Fuse-On System, I can carry my clothes and stage gear all in one package, ingenious.”
Talking of stage gear, as we have said, Koza Mostra is an energetic band, within their music and their onstage presence, as Ilias continues.
“I wanted to create an imaginary bridge that connects Greece with the other side of Europe. In Ireland or Scotland for example, the kilt is a part of the customary dress code and also plays a major role in traditional music. We also have the fustanella which is the original Greek white kilt worn by men of many nations here and which we often wear on stage. There are many countries that have a lot in common with traditional Greek music which has a great deal of power and where people are having a great time.”
About the Author
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.