My Little Mad World (Artyom Kitikov, Siberia): "Final Stop"
There are countless collectives around Russia who draw upon the halcyon days of childhood. This is normally done in order to reestablish an element of faith in the outside world, since anything resembling optimism has been battered by adult experience. One such outfit, whom we found in a nostalgic mood a couple of years ago, was the Siberian trio Kometjakten. A local webzine in their hometown of Novosibirsk began by establishing a general tone of approval: "There's a genuinely delicate approach [to songwriting] evident here. It convinces us that no matter what 'wall of sound' you might [presume or] discover behind the stage-name Kometjakten, the group has manufactured some amazingly good-natured recordings. The key role is always played by melody. There's no room for the sort of emotional detachment you'd associate with Kometjakten's chosen genre [of post-rock]. Instead there's romance, genuine drive, and plenty of room for empathy."
So which aspects of an East European childhood allowed for relative optimism within dour post-rock?
Once upon a time there was a wonderful band in this town. Then it broke up.
Any upbeat notes discerned in Kometjakten's small catalog were directly inspired by the classic Finnish "Moomin" stories for children, specifically by the animated film of 2010, "Moomins and the Comet Chase." That cinematic tale describes the impending collision of a comet with the Moomins' home. As a decision, solution, or exit is sought, the sky grows increasingly dark. The main goal is get everybody to safety: mutual support systems or "plenty of empathy" will perhaps save the day.
Nowadays, one of the Kometjakten threesome, drummer Artyom Kitikov, is slowly building a solo project that also validates life on a minor scale: "My Little Mad World" (or "мой маленький беzумный мир" - written in lower case, jumbled characters). It would be wrong to assume any pre-adult sentimentality here, however. Indeed, Kitikov's stage-name alone is enough to dissuade us from accusations of kitsch.
By way of equally direct example, his most recent post on Facebook used an angry 1819 epigraph from poet Alexander Pushkin, threatening to "crush the last czar with the guts of [our nation's] final priest." Those same irate lines - and related royal suspicions - would have Pushkin dispatched to the Caucasus and Crimea within a year. Youthful impetuosity was not tolerated in high places.
Three sides of Artyom Kitikov in Novosibirsk
"My Little Mad World" is, in actual fact, a phrase used relatively often around the Russian web, wherever private blogs and words of solitude become expressions of confusion or complaint. The same four words tend to accompany diary entries or posts that give voice to a growing anxiety. Kitikov's numerous brief compositions, usually instrumental, toy with similar awareness of some snowballing nervousness - as time passes. "Smallness" falls away with the closing moments of youth; "madness" apparently lies ahead. The safe, cozy environments of Kometjakten gradually becomes less so.
Consolation comes at present from an interesting source. There's a deliberate authorial silence around most of the uploads from My Little Mad World - in fact our Siberian performer has almost nothing to say for himself. Nonetheless, Artyom Kitikov recently uploaded and endorsed a list of forty-five suggestions for a better life from nationally renowned rock singer Boris Grebenshchikov. Taken together, they were said to be guarantors of happiness. In actual fact, the mere "charitable" act of forwarding the list to a friend or family member was said to bring good luck. This was, perhaps, the world's kindest chain letter.
Keep believing in love at first sight. Never mock the dreams and desires of others (Boris Grebenshchikov)
Grebenshchikov's aphorisms began as follows. Here are the first ten: "1. Give others more than they expect - and do so with joy. 2. Recall your favorite poem. 3. Don't believe all you hear. Spend all you have. Sleep as long as you wish. 4. If you say: 'I love you,' then tell the truth. 5. If you tell somebody 'I'm sorry,' then look them in the eye. 6. If you make a marriage proposal, do so at least six months before the ceremony. 7. Keep believing in love at first sight. Never mock the dreams and desires of others. 8. Love profoundly and with passion. You may get hurt, but it's the only path to a full life. 9. Fight honestly in moments of conflict. 10. Do not judge others by their family members."
And so, a full ten statements into this list of forty-five, the emphasis remains wholly on small-scale, micro-social interaction. The idealism of childhood, fostered among friends and family, can easily be lost in the same small arena.
For this and other reasons, it's pleasing to note that Grebenshchikov himself has just published a new solo album. Bearing the title of "Salt" (Соль), it was recorded in his hometown of St. Petersburg, as well as London and Los Angeles. In an interview marking the occasion, Grebenshchikov remarked that the LP's ten songs were not released though his regular band (Akvarium), since "they're more personal tracks this time. They're somewhat melancholy, if not gloomy." Sadness and solo effort are deemed to be a suitable pairing.
When asked about the influence of recent geopolitical events on "Salt," Grebenshchikov uses the Russia/Ukraine hostilities to speak more of private experience - and its increasing value. "Whatever historical period we might be living through, people will still be brought into this world and pass away. They will still be in relationships both good and bad; they'll both torment and love one another. We've seen all this before [in society and politics]. We've seen worse times. And better ones, also."
We've seen worse times. And better ones, also
In another interview, published almost simultaneously, Grebenshchikov speaks in bolder terms about his general dislike for grand social planning. Majesty and monumentalism are rarely good ideas. "I've less interest in politics than I do in the agriculture of nineteenth-century Guatemala..." Nonetheless, he does have aspirations for his nation as a whole. "I dream of seeing Russia as a fair, educated, and successful country." Adult norms, however, will not change overnight - and so social situations are likely to remain unaltered.
"Russia is populated with very many people... and there's no escaping that! They won't suddenly start speaking another language, changing their traditions or habits. They won't suddenly become citizens of Mexico or Bali! Russia's current state [or worldview] has been ongoing for more than a thousand years - and that's hardly likely to alter tomorrow. Or, put differently, her culture won't immediately vanish, either."
One's contemporaries are of little consolation. In the same manner, Grebenshchikov does not feel that decades of "mature" experience have necessarily brought wisdom. One leaves childhood behind - and then enters a long period of confusion. "I would never consider myself a guru, wise man, or teacher. I don't know enough about the workings of 'inner harmony,' and I've no formula for universal happiness. We all encounter various obstacles in life, and that presents us with a choice. We can either view those obstacles as unsolvable conundrums - as cause for hand-wringing! - or as a challenge. The latter option may be tough, but can lead to real solutions."
A gentleman of equal standing in Russian rock would be Leonid Fedorov, best-known as frontman of Auktsyon. He, too, published a new album several weeks ago with long-term colleague, Vladimir Volkov. The duo's last LP a couple of years ago was dedicated to the city of St. Petersburg - and the fact it is constantly changing, both visually and socially. On several occasions, the track-list touched upon a related, sadly unavoidable transience in adult experience. Stability and permanence are rare indeed, no matter one's address. Bodies slowly fail and buildings crumble.
In more specific terms, Fedorov spoke about his connection to St. Petersburg in 2013: "I'm obliged to go there pretty often, since I have my parents, relatives, and friends in the city. I don't experience any nostalgia for the place, though; I've simply watched the town become something different. At first I felt it was getting worse, maybe becoming more provincial - but now I understand that it's simply changing."
I always hated Soviet art for its [grand] style, general aesthetics, and rhetorical nonsense
This issue of transience appeared again during the same conversation, in three forms: as the passing nature of inspiration; the changing face of a cityscape; and the ugly twists and turns of "progressive" politics. One should learn to accept and live with all three. "Vladimir and I are sometimes inclined to give passing events [such as political drama] more significance than they actually have!" Culture has, therefore, always offered more than policy. "Let me put it more simply... if you try and understand something [within the creative process], there's the initial sensation that you've been given a thread of significance. You have to pull on it! It'll either lead further... or snap. Time will pass, and only then you'll understand whether things panned out or not. Or whether your song is any good." Effort is better invested in creativity, not ideology.
"I don't ever get nostalgic [for the Soviet years] - nor do I yearn for anything. I deal with both of those states from a philosophical point of view... Although - of late - life has thrust major changes upon us all: the kind of things you'd not even imagine in your nightmares."
In a newer interview for Colta, concerning a forthcoming documentary feature on Auktsyon, Fedorov spoke yet again of politics' inability to offer adult guidance. "I always hated Soviet art for its style, general aesthetics, and rhetorical nonsense. In fact, I can't stand any mass aesthetic, whether it's Soviet or Fascist. It makes no difference. And now it's happening all over again, both here and in the US. Idiocy and falsehood..."
Just as Grebenshchikov, so Fedorov is unwilling to shift the burden of philosophical responsibility onto songwriters. Poets should not be prophets. Instead he develops an argument that situates wisdom within a network of prior generations. The anxiety of a private future could be lessened with an awareness of one's position within universal and cultured human enterprise. "Pop music today is just running around on ice skates [in reality and talent/dancing shows]. Audiences' time and interest have been directed towards all kinds of amateur nonsense. I mean TV competitions with bizarre rules, like 'The Voice.'"
"There are nothing but freak shows on TV today... If you genuinely don't understand that culture builds connections between everything and everyone [of prior times], then your life soon becomes senseless. You must be aware of [multiple, past] geniuses in our culture. We've all fallen in love with [fleeting, banal] 'vignettes' today. Culture has become mere ornamentation, a diminutive pattern along society's edges. That's what people love nowadays. What they should love are things like 'Crime and Punishment.'"
That novel, of course, is a dramatic tale of one man's isolation and anxieties. The hero, wondering whether he's worthy of royal standing or a mere nobody, comes slowly to find salvation in shared experience. Both love and a radically humbling engagement with God together save him from adult disaster.
The story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration (Dostoevsky, 1866)
Paraphrasing Fedorov, one might say that the passage into adulthood, if not old age, makes considerably more sense if one actively fosters an understanding of prior events. A pushy insistence upon self-determination and one's future plans are, ultimately, less rewarding than a humble membership within the values of times past. Kinship becomes more valuable than independence. Fedorov feels that meaningful connections with Russia's cultural heritage are today being squandered by political cynicism and public indifference. Mass media are peddling nothing but "idiocy and falsehood."
It's this overarching despair, perhaps, that informs the vertiginous self-destruction of garage bands like The Bungalow Bums, who are originally from Omsk in southern Siberia, but currently based in Saint Petersburg. Their documented idols in the past have included a noisy American threesome: The Stooges, MC5, and New York Dolls. And indeed the band has often admitted in interviews, both willingly and almost immediately: "[Once we started working together,] we soon developed a love for classic garage rock from the 1960s in all its forms." Loud abandon seems a good response to a world that won't change.
From the outset, therefore, The Bungalow Bums "have tried to link South-Western Siberia with the northern states of America. They endeavor to compare their hometown of Omsk with Detroit or other cities of Michigan. The group hopes to translate an American sense of unbelievable tedium [into Russian settings], in other words the feeling of having nothing to do. More specifically, it's a never-ending sense of doziness, a particular kind of peripheral [or provincial] trance, even. The only thing that can break that spell is the most driven, almost desperate rock 'n' roll imaginable."
Interestingly enough, whatever that Western yearning, The Bungalow Bums have tended to borrow some of the more melancholy themes from a US rock and blues canon. "The characters in our songs often abuse the kind of substances that people shouldn't be playing around with. They almost die from their own insignificance... but they never get too depressed(!)."
The cold wind follows us everywhere (The Bungalow Bums)
There is now a new live album to report from The Bungalow Bums - recorded in Kirov - and a related interview with an English-language webzine. Here the band members speak of their ongoing desire to resurrect specific aspects of a more optimistic, free-wheeling garage tradition from the 1960s. They include: "Wild gigs, trains [between venues], girls, bold adventure, blood, magic... and all the other sh*t that follows you around if you're in a rock band. We are from Siberia you know!" That closing line is key - and implies that spaces too large to manage will engender, sooner or later, a kind of compensating mechanism. Early desires in the middle of nowhere become more driven forms of behavior. Insistence becomes self-harm.
"We sound like an angry Siberian bear whose mind was launched into outer space! Seriously, though: we try to mix some raw sounds from a blues tradition with slide guitars, psychedelia, and even folk melodies. Those are our current choices. Youth is... youth, you know." It pushes hard against the impending disappointments of adulthood, especially in the center of Russia. "Our recording process is really simple. We buy some gas, drive out into the Siberian fields, get everything ready, press 'REC' on a mobile phone... and start playing! The cold wind follows us everywhere." The wind of an empty landscape and unwelcoming future.