Sobering Answers: On-the-Go, Lemonday, Sonic Death, and Palms on Fire

On-the-Go, founded in Togliatti and now based in Moscow

The collective known as On-the-Go was formed nine years ago in the industrial city of Togliatti. The original members soon decided that a move to Moscow would be necessary and, since that transition, the band's progress has been documented by Russia's newspapers, magazines, or digital periodicals. One of the first changes in daily life, caused by Moscow's grand dimensions, was the complexity of rehearsing. Practice sessions became much harder to arrange; the distances between apartments grew, as did workplace obligations. Moscow was tougher both to negotiate and afford. And so two members of On-the-Go, brothers Yura and Maksim Makarychev, became important team players as they were already spending so much time together––either in Togliatti or Moscow. They were composing and rehearsing when others could not.

We understood that a move was essential (On-the-Go)

By 2013, Yura was remarking to the Russian press that: "We enjoy going back to Togliatti during our tours. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen as often as we'd like. I often wonder how our life would've turned out, if we had actually stayed in Togliatti––for good? Maybe the musical culture of our hometown would have altered, too... We wanted [even in our early years] to focus entirely on the music, and that's why we made the move to Moscow. It became an important stimulus in our development."

And yet in the same year Yura Makarychev also declared that On-the-Go have always felt a certain distance between themselves and mainstream Russian entertainment, whether the band had moved to the capital or not. "We never listened to Russian music [growing up], including any of those [fashionable] bands that are usually referred to as our 'underground.' I only know that a few Russian towns here and there have had local rock scenes [in the past]. Maksim and I only ever listened to Western stuff... Admittedly, I do listen to many different styles or genres, but I could probably count the Russian artists I like on one hand. The same goes for all the new domestic groups of late. Consequently, our choice of language for songwriting was not a hard one." On-the-Go both compose and sing entirely in English.

The subject of a parallel life has emerged elsewhere, in other words, the possibility or likelihood of not moving anywhere. "If we had stayed in Togliatti, perhaps we could have done a lot for the city. But we understood that a move was essential for us; it knew it would give us more motivation [in our careers]. Maybe that choice was the result of youthful maximalism, but we have never regretted it." Maksim clarifies the issue: "We needed to make sure that we spend time among much better musicians than ourselves. That's how the bar gets raised and you learn in the process, too." 

On-the-Go: "Origins" (2016)

A year later––in 2014––an admission came that: "It has been ages since I could add to my list of good, new Russian bands. I'm often asked who's new on the scene or who I like/don't like, etc. I've got nothing to say! I'm tired of listing the same old names... I used to read the music press with interest and see who they'd dug up, but one day I understood there's no real movement any more. It's like everything has to be dragged out of people... For some reason, whenever folks here see a new band, the first thing they do is trash it. We've run up against that, too. You just have to step over it all."

You'll never escape your own ego (Lemonday)

As they planned for the newest album, "Origins," On-the-Go have continued to embody their stage-name in that the journey from Togliatti to Moscow became only the first of several planned transitions. Further stepping stones were pondered. "[Due to the economic downturn] there's a drop in concert activity right now, but that also gives us a chance to unearth something new. It's a time for us to summon fresh energy––and figure out how everything's going to look and sound [on stage or television soon]... We've been amazed by the levels of energy in audiences we've encountered around Western Europe. Russian listeners really do have a different mentality. It makes you realize that people here grew up in a very different climate and with a different cultural background." A sense of movement endures, at least for nine years, beyond the reach of local praxis. 

A slightly different––and more cutting––view of career development comes this month from the Saint Petersburg DIY outfit Lemonday (Лемондэй): Julia Nakaryakova, Zhenya Il', and drummer Anton Pokrovsky. These northern performers, given their lowly budget and lo-fi enterprise, were once asked after moving from Krasnoyarsk to Saint Petersburg why they continue to make music in a second city. Why keep going? After all, there's little promise of big money, no matter one's address. Zhenya replied:

"It's really hard to stop! We tried stopping, but it just didn't work." Julia then simplified matters a little: "I think any answers to that question will always be a tad contrived. It's really hard to explain an impulse with words. Why have we kept going? Because Zhenya and I always considered ourselves geniuses." She then laughs: "You'll never escape your own ego." That false swagger, as we'll see, suggests a more nuanced view of success and/or self-determination. Talk of progress is immediately undermined with a self-deprecating quip. Forward movement is doubted––if not dismissed as mere fantasy.

Lemonday (St. Pbg): (L-R) J. Nakaryakova, A. Pokrovsky, and Zh. Il'

And so, against a backdrop of self-mockery, Lemonday have just released a rough demo album of seven songs that are already well-known to fans, yet were recorded in 2010. In other words, a new recording comes from an old archive, while celebrating the songs' lack of polish. Entitled "Smoke" (Дым), it is widely available for free download. The band's rejection of arrogance or chutzpah is something to celebrate––as is the related lack of audible progress. In fact, this could well be the last recording we hear from this Petersburg trio.

Another interesting contrast with On-the-Go concerns language. The Makarychev brothers have said before that Russian is overloaded with consonants; the "longer" vowels of English are easier to sing. Lemonday's approach to any standard, quotidian idiom is to use it less often. The band speaks in favor of minimalism and understatement. The new LP celebrates paltry evolution––with songs that employ less language. They almost say nothing.

To start with, you need something [in the lyrics] that's really essential

"To start with, you need something [in the lyrics] that's really essential. Something that paints a basic image and that you can build on. But you shouldn't then load it up with all kinds of details––the kind of things that would let your audience see that picture exactly as you do."  Zhenya Il' calls the resulting technique "textual concentrate." A second language is replaced by fewer words. Movement away from home is swapped for an escape from home––into hermeticism.  

As for the contrast between KrasnoyarskSaint Petersburg, and anywhere else beyond those two urban centers, Lemonday have an intriguing attitude towards the need for movement across a map. In essence, the band thinks it would be out of place anywhere––so why move to Moscow? What we find is a cultivated air of social estrangement, with three young people playing "freak folk," as Lemonday define their catalog. No address will ever feel welcoming to a freak, it seems: "I remember one moment back when I was studying architecture in Krasnoyarsk. Our student group was asked to paint a still life. Fifteen people were painting at once; everybody was doing it differently, with all kinds of colors. I looked at the person next to me and thought––'Where does he get those colors from? The objects we're painting look nothing like that!'" An outsider's perspective was cultivated at an early age. 

The other difference between On-the-Go and Lemonday comes from Nakaryakova's recent conversion to Orthodox Christianity––even though she was christened at thirteen, back home in Siberia. Confidence is swapped for a faltering humility. "I feel that––in the past––I used to sing the same lyrics, over and over. They were all about petty things in life. You know what? Now it is possible to sing those same words [on stage], yet have them mean something bigger, something more significant. You take a break from your own ego." Faith allows one to escape the narrow, suffocating dimensions of the here and now. It seems one can "run from your own ego."

Sonic Death (Saint Petersburg): "Hate Machine" (2016)

The ability to swap physical movement or material progress for something superior, even immaterial (so to speak) has always lain at the basis of Sonic Death, fronted by Arsenii Morozov. Here the likelihood of any spiritual epiphany is constantly doubted, even mocked. Early in his career, Morozov was discussed in the Russian press as an exponent of ironic anti-folk, whereas nowadays his views of social existence and spiritual opportunity have darkened considerably, especially since Sonic Death became his primary outfit. "The main product of Russian society over the last eighteen months has been hatred. The country is at war and we're living like people did back in the 1970s."

We always want our culture to be political in Russia (Sonic Death)

Morozov's view of domestic recording environments is no sunnier; local sound "experts" are not to be trusted. "Here's some advice for young musicians: don't give your music to anybody. Mix it yourself. Firstly, nobody will ever understand the material like you do. Secondly, all studio engineers in this country are tone deaf. To this day, I've not found a single SOB who's capable of operating normally."

The new Sonic Death album is, says Morozov, both "heavy and grim," even if he does admit to high levels of self-mockery. Hence the recent decision to dress like black metal performers in several photo shoots, including the album cover (above) for "Hate Machine." He does not, however, expect anything resembling the operatic grandeur of black metal lyrics to materialize. Life is less than impressive. "One big problem with this country is that we cannot ever operate in a [purely] cultural realm. We always want our culture to be political. We want life to change because of it––and for something genuinely revolutionary to happen. Scr*w all that! Let this album exist purely within its own framework."

Nothing of consequence ever happens; songwriting is ineffectual––and going nowhere in the process. Better to ignore one's surroundings and live alone. Morozov admits: "I have problems socializing with others. I don't understand the behavioral laws by which other people live. I'm actually afraid of them. I either want to kill or scr*w everybody. I've no idea what lies between those options. That's why I don't fit into the arts world here. I prefer hard, manual labor, after which it's really cool to play on stage. It's all a matter of honesty. If you dupe yourself and live according to someone else's life, then you'll be tossed back to Level One, as in a computer game."

The best response to unappealing surroundings is to create one's own value system. Dignity is more important than objective progress. 

Palms on Fire (Izhevsk): "Where Are the Grey Clouds Going?"

And that brings us to Palms on Fire, who are (currently) a trio from the industrial city of Izhevsk, which has a similar history and reputation to that of Togliatti. The group has a new LP to report, "Where Are the Grey Clouds Going?" but no apparent plans to move away––even though one member, Anna Kislova, lived in India for a while. Hence, one might suggest, the band's admitted fondness for UK twee-pop, which is maximally at odds with a city traditionally associated with dirty factories and tall chimney stacks. Amid loud noises from local warehouses come some pronounced forms of introspective minorism––especially when visa problems, for example, have conspired to keep Palms on Fire from performing at a New York festival. Everybody is forced to stay at home by banks and/or bureaucrats.

We've got a fairly sober view of everything nowadays (Palms on Fire)

For those reasons, earlier conversations with Palms on Fire in the Russian press have included an admitted love for "old American movies and romance [as depicted in pop music] of the 1980s." The Ramones, Beach Boys, and Talulah Gosh are often mentioned. Best not to engage the dangers of a threatening world; hiding and daydreaming make more sense. "Almost everything we do is recorded at home. We like that; it lets us feel independent. We feel free. We're not rushed––and that gives us a chance to experiment. We enjoy both making everything ourselves and being responsible for the entire recording process. That's the only way to get exactly what we want." The doubting, dismissive attitudes of Arsenii Morozov return, albeit without the anger. Instead a playful air presides:

"We formed the band simply in order to mess around; we didn't have any plans. It was only when we started getting lots of positive feedback from friends that we decided to take things more seriously." Invitations came "most often from Moscow," but the band still stayed home, despite some evident disadvantages. "There are plenty of groups in Izhevsk, but they all just pass us by. There's nobody we can recommend."

Whatever the levels of tedium in Izhevsk, some of the hometown benefits listed by On-the-Go are on full display. Since the three members of Palms on Fire are all related in some way (as brother, sister, and cousin)––and live in the same small city, exchanging ideas or rehearsing is not difficult. "That's actually a big plus, in terms of still living here. It's simple for us to get together... We've really don't have any big plans. We'll be recording new songs––and then let's see how things go after that."

When asked by a journalist whether Palms on Fire feel "much joy" or "euphoria" in what they do, the musicians have an interesting response. On-the-Go frequently view their career as a trajectory linking various locations; Lemonday see themselves as outsiders, no matter their address; Sonic Death embrace a semi-serious fatalism (everywhere!); and Palms on Fire retreat into pre-adult reverie, away from local streets. "Maybe we had that sense of euphoria earlier on, but not now. We've got a fairly sober view of everything." A tough actuality demands a response. These new recordings from a range of Russian locations offer an equally wide range of options.

Palms on Fire: (L-R) M. KislovA. Kislova, and K. Korolyov

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