Difficult Songs: Grand Astoria, Best Pessimist, Brave Men Run, and Pony

The Best Pessimist (Odessa): "The Half-World" (2015)

Prior to an actual encounter with East European songwriting, Western journalists often labor under various assumptions or expectations of melancholy. Multiple literary and/or cultural cliches over the decades still tend outsiders to anticipate the sounds of sadness. Playing directly into those same presumptions of pessimism is Sergey Lunev, a multi-instrumentalist living in the Ukrainian port of Odessa. He has been performing for the last six years under the memorable stage-name of The Best Pessimist. Whatever the Slavic specificity of that dourness, Lunev's catalog has often been likened to the music of The American Dollar, God Is An Astronaut, French Teen Idol, and The Calm Blue Sea.

After all, it's emotion that prompts us to do things

The moniker of The Best Pessimist even implies some "skill" in sadness - concerning the degree to which lofty commitments and ideals might be validated by loss. In other words, "pessimism" may indicate doubt in civic progress and/or the validity of social cheer, yet Lunev's chosen stage-name shows that some chivalrous ideals do still persist. Consequently, fidelity to something special - come what may! - will pass through anxiety, if not misery, in order to show its full worth. On the far side of sadness lies something better. Civic hope may have dwindled, therefore, yet wordless desire endures.

Lunev rarely gives interviews, but one conversation with the local press of late proved especially telling. He admitted to being a proud resident of Odessa, though was not willing to tie his ideals to a physical location. "I don't think my local sense of pride is reflected that much in my music. The feelings within each and every one of us are considerably more important. After all, it's emotion that prompts us to do things.... I'm very fond indeed of composing. Each and every day I try to find something precious within this enormous world of ours."

Once again, pessimism allows for the recognition or realization of some greater, more praiseworthy ideals - together with an admission that they're hard to find. 

The Best Pessimist founder Sergey Lunev on tour in China

For these reasons, Lunev has tended to speak of an affective connection between individuals, rather than any bonds grounded in concrete locations or ethnicity. "It's not important who your audience is in terms of their musical preferences, age group, or any other criteria. It's more important that each listener finds something personal in my music, a reflection of whatever he's feeling - or felt once before. I mean a connection to whatever that person has experienced - or would like to experience, and so forth."

If we cast a brief glance backwards, for example to a Best Pessimist interview of 2010, there's no shift in focus. Lunev's viewpoint has been constant. Subjective, emotive experience is more appealing than the wordy, sometimes woeful realm of civic enterprise. Introspection is preferable to expansive, showy gestures. "Whenever I start to compose something, I never wonder whether the result will please a certain audience. Instead I'm more concerned with trying to manage my feelings and internal state of being." 

Seven days and seven nights/ Brave men run

That emotive state is reflected spatially, too. Sentiment is best fostered at home, away from prying eyes. "I've managed to acquire a few essential instruments and recording tools. Together they've become a small home studio. The hardware I've set up at home allows me to record to a decent standard - or at least I think so! ... As a rule, I don't hurry to publish my material. Whenever you produce something that originated in the very core of your being, there's always a sense of euphoria - but that can also stop you from seeing what's wrong. For the same reason, whenever I've written something, I always spend a few weeks looking for its weak spots."

There's no burning desire to engage the outside world - or seek its validation. 

Similar doubts about social values or virtue emerge in the new single from Brave Men Run in Vladivostok. They take their peculiar moniker, presumably, from the 1985 Sonic Youth track of the same name. That song juxtaposes two gender-specific notions of bravery. The bravest souls are, perhaps, those who flee the destructive realms of stereotypical male behavior. "I dreamt a sailor's dream of me./ Seven days and seven nights - /The world was made and lost again./ Seven days and seven nights./ Brave men run." To paraphrase our Odessa performer, a certain pessimism about showy bravado prompts some other, better ideas. 

Brave Men Run (Vladivostok): "What I Told You" (2015)

These Vladivostok musicians - who openly mock themselves as latter-day "beatniks" - say in a similar vein that they "hope to avoid any one musical direction. Instead we try and experiment with our sound. Sometimes that'll produce pure noise, whereas on other occasions it'll lead to psychedelia or indie compositions. If we do have a goal in mind, it's basically to express some important or pressing issues in simple terms, without falling to triteness, of course."

A sense of unity, something operating between ourselves and the listeners

The same artists both named and explained the two core emphases of their catalog in an interview of 2012. Some of the views expressed by The Best Pessimist reappear. Put differently, material goals - or physical places - are downplayed in favor of some elusive, emotive connection. Doubts over normal, everyday interaction lead to a sentimental, hopeful register - bordering at times on mawkishness. These artists want first to nurture a local or regional sense of cohesion and then extend that same collective spirit beyond the city limits. "We always take our songs and shows seriously; we certainly try to feel deeply or sincerely about everything we do on stage. Ideally those performances should create a sense of unity, something operating between ourselves and the listeners..."

Local scenes or support groups begin with the removal of a fourth wall. And "pure noise."

Talking to the now defunct Afisha-Volna magazine in Moscow, the frontman of Brave Men Run (Maksim Krivoruchko) once spoke about his growing distance from local enterprise, at least in terms of material gain. Music no longer served a commercial, modish, or civic purpose. It had become private to the point of self-expression - and nothing more. For the same reason, no doubt, the Brave Men Run pages on VK currently display enormous gaps, as if the musicians only rarely - unpredictably - come together, without any real sense of social purpose. Even the band's new single, "What I Told You," is prefaced on that same networking account with a single word in Russian that means "suddenly" or "unexpectedly."

Moscow's Pony (Пони): "Sami po sebe" ("On Our Own," 2015)

And so, returning to the same prior conversation, we learn that Krivoruchko explained his social pessimism in ways that would later become introspection, even silence: "A short while ago I could have named a few Vladivostok bands whom I enjoy - or whose output I would happily follow. Nowadays, however, nobody decent comes to mind. To be honest, everything seems a bit dull and tedious. There are occasional concerts or a band might come to town... You'll find secret parties and other nonsense; it all kinda passes me by. There doesn't seem to be an ounce of sincerity in any of it. People are simply looking for ways to relax."

On occasion, his disinterest borders on despair. "I'm sorry, but a couple of years ago I would've discussed these questions with enthusiasm. Now, though, I've no desire to talk about local clubs - or how we're doing here [on the Pacific Coast]."

You're hardly going to hear any Russian music on the BBC - and that would be wrong, in any case!

So what of the capital? Perhaps the tendency towards self-reflection evident with Brave Men Run and The Best Pessimist is a consequence of geography? After all, Vladivostok and Odessa are both distant ports, marking the eastern and southern extremes of Russian-speaking lands. By way of contract, the Moscow collective Pony (Пони) was founded twelve years ago by Aleksei Ponomarev and friend Viktor Davydov. The band remains very much tied to the same city, and has long been known for its dedicated student following. 

The last time we encountered the group, they were participating in a Christmas compilation album, supposedly to celebrate a major social date. Ponomarev, however, explained his view of New Year "as a fairly senseless, but pleasant annual ritual... Our song on the compilation was called 'Afterparty' and it relates to the feeling of these holidays dragging on somewhat... From time to time, you even feel a strangely pleasant sense of melancholy - and you want to be alone." He continued: "But still… we all somehow overcome that desire for solitude and - once again - accept more guests into our home!" 

Pony founders A. Ponomarev (L) and V. Davydov (seated)

A related communal skepticism concerns the future of Russian music overall; maybe it's not meant to have a terribly wide audience. Ponomarev asserted in one recent and published conversation that: "Russian songwriting really does have great potential and the best is yet to come." That success, however, will be entirely at home: "You're hardly going to hear any Russian music on the BBC - and that would be wrong, in any case! Brits love their own music, their own beer, and their own football, too. I don't know why they'd ever want to hear something like Pony. But, on the other hand, if we could actually be bothered to put together some sort of English-language program... then why not?"

An article in Afisha a couple of years ago extended these topics of discussion. Quoting the Russian President, Ponomarev spoke of 2013 as having been a "difficult" period, in the sociopolitical sense. "Reality leaves its mark, of course. Music for me has become a hiding place from reality - but sometimes everything just collapses, nonetheless."

We should simply play music and have a good time doing so. That's the answer...

One of those primary difficulties or causes for pessimism is found in the unwillingness of commercial radio - an inherently social medium - to support bands such as Pony. If mainstream media refuse to promote or make a group "public," then songwriting will understandably become a more private activity. "We'll never become full-blown hipsters - and indeed our music is something different [to whatever's modish or in the mainstream]. That's the general state of affairs in music today." He then complains that even fashionable ensembles, if they happen to sing in Russian, often get no airtime due to the conservative, "primetime" workings of rock radio. Everybody wants to sing in English and dreams of global renown. "But there's nothing we can do. There's no [meaningful] response [to this yearning overseas]. We should simply play music and have a good time doing so. That's the answer." Contemplation and introversion sound better than attention-seeking within far-flung crowds.

An inherent distrust in social values colors the stoner or Southern rock of The Grand Astoria from Saint Petersburg. The band's lineup changes relatively often and is currently quite lengthy: Kamille Sharapodinov (vocals, guitars, and KORG Monotron); Danila Danilov (vocals, flute, tambourine, KORG MS2000);  Eugene Trukhin (bass);  Denis Kirillov (keyboards); Ravil Azizov (clarinet); Alexey Nikiforov (trumpet); Valery Dudik (saxophone); Kirill Serov (percussion); and - last of all - Alexander Filippov (drums). 

The Grand Astoria (St. Petersburg): "The Mighty Few" (2015)

The most common parallels used by foreign critics when talking of The Grand Astoria are taken from slacker rock of the 1990s or, in the words of one Luxembourg author, from the "handmade vintage psychedelia" of earlier decades. There's an enduring respect among these Saint Petersburg musicians for the "drop-out" culture of a prior generation.

One Russian blogger says of the band's newest release. "One week ago, The Grand Astoria put out their newest work, 'The Mighty Few.' The LP consists of just a couple of tracks. They're two monumental, unpredictable compositions lasting almost fifty minutes. This is one of those rare instances when you should make yourself comfortable, maybe in bed or on public transport... Close your eyes and just turn on the music. You need to create the right setting to enjoy 'The Mighty Few.' Put all your affairs to one side; don't listen to this LP if you're in a rush. The only way to get real pleasure from this musical hybrid, cultivated by Petersburg performers, is to place your affairs aside." Pleasure and social practicalities have nothing to do with one another.

Handmade vintage psychedelia

Based upon the example of these four recordings, one might think that the raison d'être of Slavic rock music in 2015 is no longer social or publicly activist; it's increasingly private and introspective, as one Ukrainian writer announced when The Grand Astoria played in Donetsk. Recent fighting and international conflict in that city are replaced with some very determined stargazing. "Each and every time the band played on stage, Kamille took flight to another galaxy!" Self-respect and examination are best kept far from the madding crowd.

Sharapodinov himself has spoken of late about his side-project, The Legendary Flower Punk, for which the biggest influences have been Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and late Soviet experimentalist Sergey Kuryokhin (1954-1996). The appreciation audible in Ukraine comes in part from the use of a psychedelic tradition to ignore fixed tags, categories, or identities - over which loud arguments and antagonisms often begin. What sounds like woefully unoriginal promotional boilerplate, in terms a band bravely "avoiding stylistic boundaries" (etc.), actually becomes a profound local response to equally local civic failings. The more actuality is subjected to crude, perhaps violent rhetoric, the more an equally simple turn of phrase can resonate. One stamp counters another. 

And so we read in some recent PR materials for The Grand Astoria. "Their music first saw the light of day in the blisteringly cold setting of Saint Petersburg. The musicians would rather not give their music any [fixed] categories, but - for want of a better word - it's often labeled as 'psychedelic stoner punk.'" Three affective, straightforward categories respond to what Aleksei Ponomarev has called "difficult times." None of them are new or clever and yet - in places such as Odessa or Donetsk - they counter one rudimentary register (frontline jingoism) with an equally straightforward antithesis (romanticism). Bellicose sloganeering is hopefully avoided with straightforward escapism. Problems in the here and now are rejected in favor of long-standing dreams of "there" - of somewhere else altogether. 

The Grand Astoria pondering somewhere better with K. Sharapodinov (L)

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