Three months ago, the image above appeared online from DIY outfit Pes i Gruppa. Next to the mock-confrontational air of this photograph was an equally playful promo-text. "We're a group from Saint Petersburg and Krasnoiarsk. We sing about boys from Michigan, dogs in the morning... and so forth. Not long ago, when it was time for us to define our style or direction, we came up the term 'underwater.' It turned out, though, that we weren't actually the people who'd created that turn of phrase... Nonetheless, an honestly invented bicycle can still be considered an invention! As our drummer Pasha once said, good people need the blues in bad times; Pes i Gruppa play music that's needed by good people... in good times."
Had the text continued, it would - no doubt - have displayed even less logic.
Other tags have been thrown at this ensemble, in order to make vague generic sense of the proceedings; they have included "lo-fi" and "new weird Russia," which - it transpires - is yet another "invention" by band members. They all help - apparently - "to turn homemade music into real music."
A little more context can be found in another venue; it offers the back-story to these problems of self-categorization. "Basically, we were obliged to think about how we might define our music [in terms of labels]. We don't play in any particular style and 'indie' has long since become a load of cr*p. That's why we invented the 'underwater' tag. If you take a look around, you'll notice that we're not so much 'underground' artists as 'underwater."
Basically, we were obliged to think about how we might define our music [in terms of labels]. We don't play in any particular style and 'indie' has long since become a load of cr*p. That's why we invented the 'underwater' tag. If you take a look around, you'll notice that we're not so much 'underground' artists as 'underwater.
The musicians then add a brief postscript, in order to explain. "The idea of 'underground' doesn't concern us, because nowadays 'underground' means absolutely everything on earth. It means watching TV... and it means not watching TV; it means eating meat and not eating meat; it means walking around in old clothes and new ones, too. It's considered 'underground' to listen to rock, pop, hip-hop, music hall, metal, swing, opera, jazz, cra*p jazz, indie, cr*p indie... and Lemonday."
A surprise reference pops up at the last minute.
At the end of all genres, in a place where respect and even ability come to an close, we find Lemonday: two girls who live in St Petersburg and play profoundly hopeless, subversively bad acoustic "bard pop." Lemonday, Pes i Gruppa, and their spiritual forefathers, Padla Bear Outfit, all live in the same town and embody the same aesthetic: collectively they celebrate the benefits of a spontaneous, often lazy style, played on cheap guitars and even cheaper household objects.
In several tracks we can hear the tinny backdrop of family radios, domestic chores being finished, shoe-boxes being thumped, showers being taken and so forth. Songs often begin with the constant hum or white noise of really low-grade recording tape and end with the clunk of a large "OFF" button being pushed on some antique cassette player.
For the ensemble's newer songs (the last four files in this post), Pes i Gruppa are accompanied by Elochnye igrushki (aka Christmas Baubles), who also epitomize the spirit of St Petersburg's amateurism. Just like Lemonday, Padla Bear et al, Elochnye igrushki both treasure the wordiness of their junkyard hip-hip, yet treat that same language with constant irony. In a world where loud, dumb commercial practice, say, so often crowds out the effectiveness of eloquence, all of these bands both acknowledge the miniature scale of their endeavors and mock anything that aspires to marketable "expertise" - including themselves.
Pes i Gruppa have referred to Elochnye Igrushki - and their side-project SBPCh - as the "most normal group in Russia." Small-scale, self-deprecating, and amateurish: these are the constant traits of "normal" people in a northern city. Those individuals are, indeed, not "underground." They're merely under water.
Elochnye igrushki, once in the studio, had no desire to beef up these anxious, knockabout noises with bold - and therefore delusional! - signs of confidence. The last four audio files in this post clearly have additional instrumentation and a little bit of polish, but a respect for the lo-fi workings of Pes i Gruppa remains. Aleksandr Zaitsev of Igrushki recently said about the collaboration: "I had the constant desire to change or add things - but in the end, I decided to keep things the way they are. The one thing we did do was finish up some percussive grooves in one of the songs, and that [minimal level of intrusion] allowed us to respect the initial sounds as much as possible."
Why leave things sounding so bad? Because, claims Zaitsev, "this is really touching, even 'wise' songwriting. At the risk of sounding silly, I'd even say it's very 'musical.' I constantly find myself singing along..." Comments on various online forums support this contention: "This is the best stuff I'd heard for the last two years. Well done! These songs make me very happy indeed."
This is the best stuff I'd heard for the last two years. Well done! These songs make me very happy indeed.
An interview with key members Zhenia Gudkov and Inna (aka Ins Maklakins) helps to demystify this sense of ramshackle musical community. Gudkov sees himself as symbolizing the figure of "Pes," which is - yet again - not the most glitzy, flattering form of reference. The band's name, after all, can be translated as "Dog and the Group" or - worse still "Bitch and the Band," perhaps. Neither is designed to boost anybody's ego. And, by extension of that idea, any subsequent sense of community or gruppa will be formed among the downtrodden, rather than the proud and haughty.
Gudkov created Pes i Gruppa not because he has a large circle of gifted friends, but - quite simply - because he doesn't know any musicians. When the idea of forming a band first arose back in Krasnoiarsk, he just handed out instruments to people in a haphazard fashion. "First of all we decided how to play the songs, and then we recorded them. That, probably, took about six weeks of halfhearted activity."
Not exactly what one would call a titanic effort, especially, as Inna notes, because "there wasn't much of a 'musical concept' to be worked out, really, since the limits of our ability dictated what was possible!" The performers - quite literally - did all they could... and nothing more.
It has been pointed out to Pes i Gruppa, on more than one occasion, that Elochnye igrushki tend to call them the "first post-Padla [Bear] band." Inna admits that "once all the facts have been considered, that kind of label is more than appropriate." Having, therefore, avoided all manner of generic tags, this group is nonetheless happy to be linked with another group of musicians. Existing styles and labels do not form useful parallels, existing colleagues do.
What we have, as a result, is the beginning of a local scene: various ensembles discover between themselves a bond that's lacking in standard formats. It's a connection evoked physically - in performance - rather than verbally (in labels, tags, and terms).
These outfits - Pes i Gruppa, Lemonday, Padla Bear Outfit, and (all offshoots of) Elochnye igrushki - will, in Gudkov's opinion, continue to write songs that "get more serious and more tedious. But for precisely that reason, people will like us even more!" Put differently, the most "normal," representative, and socially expressive songs - as with SPBCh - are those that reflect a serious tedium. One that leaves people feeling stuck "under water" and helplessly immobile.
Gudkov has said of late that he's not sure why this kind of style and worldview would come together in St Petersburg. As we see below, every so often Mother Nature turns a social metaphor into reality, in order to remind the more forgetful members of northern Russia.
This, apparently, is how most "normal" people in St Petersburg view their social surroundings; it's the backdrop to what Pes i Gruppa, at the start of this post, refer to as "good times." Heaven only knows how bad things can get.
Time to sing the blues, indeed.