From Yekaterinburg and Beyond: Sansara, RSAC, OQJAV, and AloeVera

Sasha Gagarin and the new Sansara LP, "Lastochka" (Swallow)

The city of Yekaterinburg––known as Sverdlovsk from 1924 to 1991––was arguably second only to Leningrad in terms of a perestroika rock tradition. Those two Soviet cities combined popular song and public protest in very consequential youth movements of the 1980s. As for Yekaterinburg, the Sverdlovsk Rock Club opened in 1986 and from the outset experienced some crude and intrusive forms of censorship. Most rock or pop lyricists were not allowed to be members of the Writers' Union and therefore less able to make a living from their craft. They were immediately deemed outsiders. Secondly, even when an approved song was presented to authorities prior to a concert, it still risked official disapproval at the last moment––and could easily be struck from the evening's entertainment. Longterm planning was impossible. 

Ask the swallow a question, while it stops for a drink... (Sansara)

Despite such nonsense, a local rock festival was staged in June 1986 and immediately caught the attention of regional television networks. Young people from across the Urals soon became aware of a movement in Sverdlovsk. This meant that the Rock Club was able to host annual events of increasing consequence until the end of the 1991. All of a sudden, in that final year, there seemed nothing to protest; democracy would supposedly rectify most problems. Time would prove the optimists wrong, but this little location had a lasting effect. Even when the Rock Club closed down, Russia was able to attribute many important rock ensembles of the 1990s to that same small building. 

The last couple of weeks in April 2016 have seen––by intriguing coincidence––brand new recordings from several important Yekaterinburg outfits, together with a Saint Petersburg rapper and guitarist who has long collaborated with a major rock outfit of the UralsWe might begin with Sansara––not only because they are that outfit, but also because the band's career has involved a plethora of musicians both locally and far beyond Yekaterinburg. Colleagues in the past have included Galya Chikiss7he MyriadsObe DveMars Needs LoversRed Samara Automobile ClubElochnye IgrushkiPes i GruppaGornostay.... and, therefore, Ilya Lagutenko of Mumii TrollSansara are a nexus through which many performers and concepts of the Urals pass.

Founder and frontman Sasha Gagarin  spoke of Sansara's last LP––"Igla" (Needle)––as something of a "Twitter" album, designed for an age of fleeting media and narrative brevity. He even used some tweets as the building blocks for the LP's lyrics. On occasion, those same songs and their modern stories looped back to the Leningrad rock generation of Kino in the mid–'80s. Sansara relatively recently took part in an ongoing tribute to Kino's Leningrad contemporaries, Akvarium. Once the studio work was finished, the musicians decided to re-watch the mystical thriller "ASSA" (1987), which starred Tsoi in a key role. Gagarin added: "It's all amazing stuff. It's cinema with a really romantic spirit. In a word, we all felt inspired."

Sasha Gagarin & Felix Bondarev (R) on Russian national TV last month

What's fascinating here is that the romance of DIY Russian rock from 1987 combines with the amateur scribblings of Twitter to produce––apparently––a related love for Lars von Trier's "Idiots" (1998)! What on earth might the connection have been? Gagarin's colleague in Sansara––Felix Bondarev (the rapper mentioned above––began by saying: "[When making the LP, we decided that] everything should be done as intimately and fast as possible. We decided to record it all quickly and without much editing. 'Here and now' [was the key principle]. That's the basic idea of 'Igla,' too. No real plans ahead of time––and no superfluous ideas, either. Nothing but work––in every free moment we had. As if we were on a NASCAR track!" This celebration of spontaneity over common sense and secure planning will continue to be important.

All night long, we shoot at the moon (Sansara)

A cluster of intuitive thoughts, references, and images helps to highlight a certain paradox––and even explain the inclusion of von Trier. In a world where the rational importance of music has been undermined, maintaining rock's legendary status as a form of confident, consequential liberty will be hard. If songwriting is likewise not a (logical!) career, then other pragmatic obligations will emerge, from 8 to 5––and beyond. Free time, used in celebration of itself––is extraordinary demanding; it's the calling of freewheeling "idiots," a cynic might say. Yesterday's champions of civic liberty become today's ardent fans of a meaningful idiocy––they celebrate wayward patterns of inspiration amid indifference and cupidity.

The same motifs of flight or hardcore fancy undoubtedly inform the new Sansara album, "Lastochka" (Swallow). Gagarin has told the Russian press this month it is a direct and deliberate continuation of "Igla." The former is full of "songs from a youthful individual, whereas 'Lastochka' expresses the views of a more mature character. Even the images on the two covers are similar; I'd consider both recordings [sonically and visually] a single entity." Part of that maturity on "Lastochka" has been expressed in terms of a more local focus. Maturity is voiced as a minor, more humble modus operandi.

On the subject of not moving to Moscow, Gagarin declared this month: "Only now have I matured enough for my hometown... Audiences here feel closer to me. I can be more confident in Yekaterinburg, too. I can be sure of both good attendance figures and a warm reception. I've even noticed that our listeners have grown younger over the last few years!" There's an element of truth in that claim to ongoing relevance or popularity, as we'll see. Something native binds both audiences and neighbors in the rock communities of Yekaterinburg, even across generations. 

OQJAV: (L-R) Daniil Shaikhinurov, Vadik Korolyov, Katya Pavlova

Part of this enduring connection––both in Gagarin's local past and his regional future––is discerned in the workings of sung performance, pure and simple. Songs have a mission. "They help people in happiness or sadness, both musically and poetically. Language is such an important part of our lives. We hear what power sounds like [in political bluster], for example. Journalists, artists, and our friends all sound different from one another. Language shows us something essential about life, whereas poetry is its highest form––a kind of upper limit, perhaps... We're living in a time when poems are clearly needed. Material values are [eternally] fleeting, in other words we cannot take our cars, apartments, or dachas with us when we die. As for poems, though, we can take them, if we fill our lives with their values." Gagarin refers both to the enormous popularity of verse during Russia's gently liberal Thaw of the early '60s and to the cultural resonance of modern rap.

We're living in a time when poems are clearly needed (Sasha Gagarin)

Ultimately the question emerges of whether popular, sung verse even needs rock music as a vehicle in 2016? If verse is so important, does it really need to be sung? Gagarin admits that stylistic boundaries mean less today than thirty years ago, when the nature of rock was clearly defined––and equally maligned. Today, conversely, there's more freedom in Yekaterinburg and other culturally vibrant cities to wander between registers or venues, such that garage bands and academic performers may collaborate––thanks, perhaps to the city's relatively small dimensions, at least when compared to Moscow. Genres cross-pollinate faster in smaller places. "I always know we can approach people in Yekaterinburg and do something interesting together."

That romantic talk of togetherness is then made more specific: "You know what? It would be wonderful if every person in Russia could play a musical instrument––even a recorder or mouth organ. Folks would find their 'inner world' greatly enriched. Imagine a society in which everybody played something. The world would be really different. We'd have a lot less problems––including less corruption."

A focus on sound and stanzas instead of cash would also, thinks Sasha Gagarin, help to foster an acceptance of opposing world-views. An imprecise, happily subjective art form would recognize itself as such and make no claims to dogmatic truth. "When you're greatly opposed to something [like a regime], to the point where your blood starts to boil, you end up opposing [i.e., damaging] yourself, too. That kind of inflexibility in people really gets me down. All of our [social] problems and misfortunes stem from that––from the inability to understand one another. It's also an inability to put yourself in another's position."

The simple ethical demands of Sverdlovsk rock seem no closer to resolution after three decades. Kindness and inclusion remain a distant ideal.

Fond memories. OQJAV (Yekaterinburg): "Marta" (2016)

One of Yekaterinburg's critically acclaimed outfits that emerged from Sansara––but then subsequently disbanded––was Obe Dve, fronted by Katya Pavlova and her sister. The group, due to various internal tensions, broke up just as primetime interest was growing. Whatever those disappointments, Pavlova has since gone to form another project, Okudjav––that was very quickly renamed as OQJAV

Obe Dve reappeared last year in order to publish an unexpected album, though the group seems now to be fading slowly into the past––once and for all. The tracks attributed to OQJAV, conversely, are multiplying in number––including a brand-new LP called "Marta" (i.e., Martha). A recent interview produced some additional context and clarity from Pavlova's male colleague and co-vocalist in OQJAV, Vadik Korolyov––who used to play in Pilar. He is joined by the trio's third member, Daniil Shaikhinurov. 

Songwriting is not a conscious process (OQJAV)

Korolyov spoke to the nature of collective effort––among new people and personalities in a fresh project. "I write the songs. In other words, I produce the lyrics and basic vocal patterns. Often I won't even develop a harmony, just a few couplets and a basic storyline, perhaps. Then I'll show it to Katya and Daniil––and we'll do everything else together... I mean, do we really even know what a song is? I might sing some lines, but their arrangement is a totally different question. People have been struggling with that [matter of proper sonic arrangement] for a thousand years. I may play the role of a basic author, but [once again] we do everything else together. The role of Katya and Daniil in that sense is even more significant than mine; I mean the production, sounds, melodies, choice of instruments, and so forth."

A collective is more important––and more elusive––than anything individual. Meaning is made together. In the same manner, songwriting needs to be social in order to be relevant, since the passage of time forces other people and phenomena upon us. Life is increasingly complex, multiple, and networked. Songs need to echo the same process. OQJAV explain: "It's all natural enough. As time goes on, you'll meet more women, drink more wine, watch another film or two, and read new books. You might go to the beach more or less often, recall how you'd enjoy fishing with your grandfather in your childhood... And it all influences you. That's how OQJAV's creative patterns operate, too. It's not a conscious process––or, if it is, then I'm not an artist, just a mere member of the proletariat."  

Sasha Gagarin's cherished "flexibility"––the apolitical dexterity of avoiding the strait and narrow––becomes the mental design celebrated by OQJAV. Over time, individual convictions become a folded, winding passage within which arrogance fades away. Time fosters a healthy sense of modesty or, put differently, doubt. Korolyov himself says that the older one gets, the more important the past becomes; the future is doubted. There's a slight, perhaps charming irony here in the fact that political songwiritng of the Sverdlovsk Rock Club has fostered a generation who would rather avoid politics altogether. An allegedly progressive ideology should, ideally, be replaced by something much less dogmatic. 

AloeVera, with Artyom Klimenko (L) and Vera Musaelyan

Those dizzying social experiences and lessening swagger will be especially clear if one moves away from home––to a grander metropolis. For that reason it's beneficial to consider a group such as AloeVera, originally from Yekaterinburg but now operating in the Russian capital. Despite any transition to the Big City, AloeVera's lead vocalist Vera Musaelyan and her colleagues have not made the modish decision to sing in English. They stay faithful to a local register. Musaelyan states: "I don't understand why I should sing in a language that's not my own. Russia covers a huge amount of territory, in fact it's a substantial part of the planet! No matter how well I know a foreign language, I'll never be able to use it as my own, native tongue. Who needs hand-me-down products [from somewhere else]? I love songs in English - from that country. But I don't like it when Russian bands sing in English."

The Sverdlovsk Rock Club was a real unifying force! (Artyom Klimenko, AloeVera)

AloeVera have a new EP, the title of which might translate as "Keep Me Informed" (Держи меня в курсе). A related interview of late has led Musaelyan to make some consequential statements about leaving Yekaterinburg. An ongoing affection for her hometown is clear: "All the musicians back there are in constant dialog with one another, but the best way to communicate is always on stage or in some kind of collaborative endeavor. And that, in turn, is only possible if you all play in the same clubs or venues. Being evaluated by your colleagues is something that inspires you to be interesting––not only to yourself, but also to your audiences." Aloofness takes a back seat to a more social, even charitable spirit.

Tellingly enough, Musaelyan records a note of jealousy among local residents who decide to stay at home forever. "To begin with, most folks who move away will nonetheless go back to Yekaterinburg for a while––and quite regularly, too. Initially they'll notice that nobody's dancing at their shows. Everybody looks at you as if you're a traitor! People will come to your gigs, simply to tell you what an assh*le you've been––because you moved away, have come back, and now want to start singing. Everybody goes through that process, but folks soon realize that everybody's just the way they always were."  

Musaelyan claims to know "nothing" about the Sverdlovsk Rock Club, due to her youth, though she does recall a number of related outdoor festivals that developed in the wake of the club's closure. Whatever that sense of a departing tradition, AloeVera colleague Artyom Klimenko agrees that the "SRC" was a "real unifying force here. Almost all the big bands in Yekaterinburg were involved with it to some degree. The SRC was a sort of engine within local musical culture, making sure you always wrote something novel––or that you got better by submitting demo-tapes for [public] assessment." 

AloeVera (Yekaterinburg): "Keep Me Informed" (2016)

A witty and wise play upon these themes comes from Felix Bondarev and his very combative project Red Samara Automobile Club (RSAC). Bondarev's solo endeavors have been multiple, including RSACAETC––and a longstanding professional connection to Sansara in Yekaterinburg. Overseas, he also collaborated with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Despite all of these efforts, he dismisses any talk about ladder-climbing, increasingly self-confident DJ work––and even rejects most of his own catalog. Swagger and self-deprecation cancel each other out.

Similarly, when Bondarev is asked about professionally "useful" PR in 2016, he admits that he often lies to the public, claiming, for example, that his projects have disbanded. "F**k it, I'm deceiving people all the time. In fact, I fool myself, too." In fiscally inspired tales of artistic progress, the line between fact and fiction vanishes. Promotion, in a word, is no different to delusion. Bondarev has spoken openly about the unavoidable link between effort and profit nowadays, in that most musicians––in his view––operate not in the name of dignity, but instead for cash alone. They fool themselves.

Our love wasn't to be. You work for the police (RSAC)

Similarly, Bondarev often defines effort invested in music as a way of escaping pragmatic or profitable existence. He quotes Henry Miller's assertion that: "The best way to get over a woman is to turn her into literature." He then compares a novel to a sound recording. In other words, the more one writes or records, the more society's bruising effects are forgotten. Fictions help us to forget fact, because they are superior. Dreaming becomes ideal if commonsensical options or acts are so paltry. We retreat slowly––and with admitted satisfaction––into the safety of solitude. Turning again to Miller and Russian writer Sergey Dovlatov in a conversation with Saint Petersburg magazine Sobaka, Bondarev outlines the primary issues of his catalog as: "Love, love's absence, alcohol, delusions, and searching. But you never get to the truth." 

This impassioned hope for some reliable truths took dramatic form last week, when Bondarev played a show in provincial Samara. The concert was designed to showcase his newest LP, the title of which comes from the four letters of RSAC. Those words, usually transcribed as Red Samara Automobile Club, were now promoted as "Rap. Sex. Alcohol. Criminal." Too many people came to the concert––in expectation of the same four thrills––and the police raided the club with much force and little grace. Allegedly the concert was cut short when Bondarev begin to sing a new track, entitled "Police." One especially troubling couplet reads: "I fell in love with your beautiful eyebrows, but our love wasn't to be. You work for the police." The speakers were immediately unplugged and everybody's documents were checked on the spot. Bondarev thought himself lucky to avoid arrest.

As a result, RSAC have since changed the title of their 2016 tour to four other Russian words, beginning with the same letters: "Joy. Happiness. Amnesia. Culture." The third noun is key: nobody in high places wants to remember the civic failures of the past––or admit that police raids are probably not the best way to build community spirit. 

RSAC: "Rap. Sex, Alcohol. Criminal" (2016)

Russia's offshoot of Rolling Stone magazine has spoken very highly of "Rap. Sex. Alcohol. Criminal." "What we have here is the diary of a hedonist, undergoing some really serious problems with self-identification. Nonetheless, the same character is also presented to us as somebody who's both sociable and perfectly aware of how to charm girls or open beer bottles. He flicks through a catalog of female woes like some heartless doctor, skillfully outlining a multitude of their desires. Bondarev can be very crude, while his [hoarse] voice seems to suggest the impending death of all beauty." A romantic turns to crudity and offense when the world disappoints––as it so often does. This intricate, heartbreaking mix of social expertise and social disappointment is termed by Rolling Stone "a real creative victory"––as if Bondarev has captured the bitter grievances of many contemporaries. 

I don't have the social status to offer advice to anyone (Felix Bondarev)

When it comes to an appropriately bitter style, the most recent interview with RSAC defines any "generic constraints or ties" in terms of their limited options. Again the theme of inflexibility arises, from a longterm colleague of Sasha Gagarin. The two men played together on Russia's most popular nighttime talkshow only a couple of weeks ago. Hence, perhaps, Bondarev's related declaration that "a wide musical horizon always creates more options." They help one to escape what he sees as the three timeless themes of Russian songwriting, shaped by social misery: "Love. Mortality. Blood." Or, put differently––an elusive ideal, sad material burdens, and pain. The former is outnumbered two to one.

The belief that less duty (less convention) leads to more freedom also makes it unlikely that Bondarev will ever plan a long and happy future for himself. On the subject of a hypothetical family life, he recently admitted: "I've thought a lot about it. I've considered it, analyzed things, drawn up some graphs––and drawn some parallels, too!––together with mathematical conundrums. I then did some equations... but I can't see a single advantage in the whole thing." The idea of any experience lasting "forever and ever" remains implausible; the outside world will surely intrude. Sooner or later.

Given the long connections of RSACAloeVeraOQJAV, and Sansara to Yekaterinburg, it seems fair to suggest some commonalities. All four of these bands or projects invest much time and creative effort in theorizing a number of core civic themes, be they micro- or macrosocial in scale. Ultimately they declare that smaller is better; two people are better than two million. From a historical perspective, the bold sociological and political optimism of the Sverdlovsk Rock Club has changed dramatically. Confident or programmatic statements have been downscaled; the "inflexible" tenets of a shared political platform have become instead the call of Sansara to flexibility. Nobody enjoys the loud insistence of others upon a narrow set of beliefs.

What, however, has endured is the spirit of Yekaterinburg as a domain of mutual support and collaboration. The city maintains its reputation for easy and fruitful interaction––as in 1986.

The question persists, nonetheless, of why apolitical people and projects should even look for shared values? Especially if there's a general admission that time obliges one to changeFelix Bondarev was asked by a Russian magazine last month what advice he'd like to offer readers. His conflicted response was as follows: "I don't have the social status to offer advice to anyone. I'm too shy for that." A brutal and wantonly confrontational rapper is dragged down from a Samara stage by Russian police for a dangerous philosophy. For his poetry. Private insecurity or shyness––in other words, the ability to doubt everything, including oneself––is deemed threatening. It accepts nothing at face value. Maybe those nagging doubts and the unflagging social relativity of four Yekaterinburg bands is a kind of "Sverdlovsk redux"––the new politics of having no politics whatsoever.   

Felix Bondarev (St. Petersburg––and sometimes Yekaterinburg)

Audio

AloeVera – Dahlias
RSAC – Dirty Style
RSAC – Hi! (feat. Zhenya Merkel)
Sansara – Rendezvous
Sansara – The Swallow

Related Artists