Sense and Sensibility: Slackers, Red Deer, Ned Hoper & Zhenya Kukoverov

Andrei Mitroshin (R) and Paranoid Eyes of Slackers (Moscow)

In a creative environment where piracy, enormous distances, and destitution make music an inadvisable career, only fools and romantics will remain on stage. This detachment of songwriting from a salary also means there is little obligation to be diligent––and so we encounter band names such as "Slackers." This seminal garage outfit has been tied––at least early on––to the Siberian city of Omsk and its local Dopefish community. The members of that online label have been responsible for plenty of stylistically innovative EPs and LPs over the last few years, none of which have been sold or promoted (with any discernible effort). A Russian musician in 2016 is more likely to be a lovable slacker than a ruthless professional.

It's 1991––just as we agreed! (Slackers)

The three main figures behind Slackers are Andrei Mitroshin, Roma "Paranoid Eyes," and Ivan Lazarev. Most of their promotional photographs are very lo-fi, discolored, and even disfigured––with corners crumpled or torn. There is, however, a logic to these old-school media. Slackers' social networking account on VK is topped with an important phrase in Russian: "It's 1991––just as we agreed!" There's a shared commitment to the aesthetic of a prior generation, when democratic potentials seemed boundless immediately after the fall of the USSR. There was plenty of entrepreneurial opportunity in the early '90s and certainly no room for indifference or indolence.(Mitroshin and colleagues also suggest that we check out "Forest City Rockers" and "Beat Happening––Live at Maxwells, 1991" for additional atmosphere from the same decade.) 

Earlier Dopefish recordings, published under the name of Businessman (a Mitroshin alter ego), made protracted fun of anybody who expects to get rich in a domestic setting. One of those albums was made available on Bandcamp not long ago––for the very reasonable price of $800. Andrei, recognizing Russia's economy as an easy target for black humor, admits that Slackers may be the most popular group on the Dopefish label; a devil-may-care attitude is both familiar and appealing. 

The band's name is usually printed together with a small icon, depicting a black umbrella. If the word and the symbol are run through the search engines of Vkontakte together, "you'll see that people are uploading the group's songs on a regular basis." Could the band ever hope for international fame? "Not long ago, we got invited to New York... but I told the guy it couldn't work out, since he'd have to pay for the flights. And who in America would go to a Slackers gig?" The ensemble's sound and sardonic humor are very local phenomena.

Slackers: "I Won't Remember This" (Dopefish, 2016)

Slackers' unrelenting self-mockery leads to the trio inventing tags and DIY labels such as: #buttrock, #collegerock, #newbedroomwave, #garagepop, #lofi, #boredyouth––and #studentrock. Some other self-appointed designations include: "Kitchen Cowboys," "Bottom Feeders," "Boozy Wanderers," and "Garage Goths." There's little professional benefit in taking oneself seriously––because there's not much of a profession in the first place.

It's as if the songs always slip out of our hands (Andrei Mitroshin)

In various interviews of late, Slackers have been asked what exactly leads them to celebrate "losers" and "outsiders." Why eulogize society's least productive members? Roma Paranoid Eyes answers: "That's just the way I live. I don't have a job––yet I don't spend my time in bars and another 'establishments,' either. I don't wear expensive clothes. I've only got one pair of jeans, a couple of shirts, and some trainers. It's all really cheap stuff. Yet none of that [underfunded minimalism] ever stops me feeling good––I don't really need any of those [pricey] things."

Andrei Mitroshin adds elsewhere: "Nothing ever turns out well for losers; they're all lazy bums. As for outsiders, they choose to be that way, even if they know they'll fail." And so, instead of using pop songs to promote vigor, self-confidence, or personal growth, Slackers admit: "We've absolutely no idea what'll happen at our gigs. It's as if the songs always slip out of our hands." Giving up, in various senses, brings immediate relief, but these three young men still declare a certain purpose to their songwriting. Their primary and deliberate goal is realism:

"All of Slackers' songs are based on actual events––and almost all are about us personally." Statistically speaking, all of these losers and outsiders may actually constitute a social norm. They outnumber any purposeful––and delusional––compatriots. In the same way, because Slackers insist their "punk" style is designed to celebrate aimless joy, come what may, an interviewer is even prompted to declare: "What you do is a kind of protest, directed against Putin––and power in general." Happy disinterest is a form of dissension, just as apoliticism was under the Soviets. Not caring is offensive to those in positions of power; social status requires social recognition.

An undoubtedly carefree and kindred spirit here is Moscow's Zhenya Kukoverov, who sometimes records under the stage-name of Vorevokuk; he is also a founding member of IHNABTB. That last ensemble is well-known for its shambolic, wantonly senseless performances––conducted with minimal interest in either sound quality or market appeal. Po-faced professionalism is nowhere to be seen. Instead, everybody cares a great deal about not caring.

Zhenya Kukoverov (Moscow): "Wrong Soundtrack" (2016)

When IHNABTB and Zhenya Kukoverov play live, they embody a common worldview that overlaps with Slackers' programatic laziness. Society's rule-bound intolerance or prejudices are countered by these musicians in ways that everybody can see. They all manifest a cooperative spirit so pronounced that instruments are exchanged back and forth on stage. Everybody plays everything. Friendship and mutual investment are more appealing than any hierarchy; they also guarantee disorderly surprises for an audience. The intuitive bonds of childish trust are more appealing––and honest––than whatever adult experience fosters.

I produced the wrong soundtrack... but with proper music! (Zhenya Kukoverov)

Zhenya's newest recordings are gathered together under the loser/slacker/outsider title of "Wrong Soundtrack." That phrase is granted a little context by Kukoverov himself: "A friend of mine shot a film recently and then asked me to produce the soundtrack. I wrote a few numbers that sounded good to me, but they really didn't suit the footage. I kept on recording, yet the tracks moved further and further from our original goal. Ultimately we ended up with the sort of music I like to hear and play myself. That's when I realized I'd produced the wrong soundtrack... but with proper music!"  

In one particular Russian magazine this attitude of deliberate, yet productive failure is praised highly. "There's a psychedelic and vintage sound on display here. It's stuck somewhere between hauntology, dream-pop, and glo-fi. It slowly builds a genuinely indescribable atmosphere... something like a circus show, perhaps. The main reason you should listen to 'Wrong Soundtrack' is because nobody else in Russia is writing material like this."

In the same vein, Zhenya Kukoverov listed some of his favorite Western recordings for a different Russian periodical this month. They included The Lounge Lizards, The Red Krayola, Kurt Vile, and Can. Those names alone will help newcomers to expect something a little more explicit.

In the words of yet another local publication, which jokingly refers to Kukoverov as "social parasite" (a criminal offense in the USSR), he is also lauded for his songs' "infantile simplicity––with no loss of content." In telling contrast, Moscow's "Afisha" magazine has praised exactly the same artist for his "complete lack of infantile lyrics, without which Zhenya remains just as charming." In a logocentric realm where political rhetoric is often very oppressively applied, it's better to say nothing––and then revert to the apolitical joys of pre-adult experience. Shut up, do nothing, and have fun.

Zhenya Kukoverov (L) and a very bad idea

An alternative form of voluntary, wordless detachment is audible in the newest EP from Kirill Kontorshchikov. He performs as Red Deer, either alone or with colleagues on stage. This Russian guitarist first lived in a little-known town near Ufa called Sterlitamak. Roughly a couple of years ago, he uploaded a prose sketch about making a fresh start in Saint Petersburg; it concerned the "size of surrounding buildings and the ambitions of typical passers-by." Greater specificity took shape in some related poetry, inspired by life in the same grey city. One of Kontorshchikov's poems depicted a place where "nobody's waiting for you, so please die quietly... Nothing but bitter daydreams and tedious leisure. Welcome to Saint Petersburg." 

I witness the gutter, not life (Red Deer)

Some of these impressionistic writings surrounding Red Deer's solo catalog will draw upon classic associations of Saint Petersburg with material demise and decay.  Newer verse grows darker still. An opening stanza of some "f***ed up poetry" this month begins as follows, if translated into English: "The wire digs into my throat/ The hospital inserts a dripfeed/ The needles and bedding both burn/ I witness the gutter, not life."

The newest Red Deer album is called "Porridge," presumably from the Russian word kasha (каша), which also means "muddle" or "disorder." Kontorshchikov has already referred to this seventh LP as a "selection of tracks that have meant the most to me in recent times." Real-world kasha and authorial control sit side by side, in what Russian webzines have somewhat vaguely called "a most consistent movement of energy––the kind of which post-rock is so often fond." The music, supposedly, helps to make sense of the muddle. Chord progressions become a small-scale, personal alternative to social regression.

Against this binary backdrop, one might expect to encounter the nostalgia so important to Slackers––and indeed, Kontorshchikov's new side-project, called Wintermilk, has been defined in the press as an "assertive combination of guitar noise from the 1990s, together with post-rock redolent of the 2000s, and an original sonic portrait of the present day." How, though, might any such retrospection be applied to a forward-looking career? In a brand-new interview––including both Kontorshchikov and his two colleagues from Wintermilk, Kirill makes a very insightful observation. When asked whether Wintermilk and Red Deer are "nothing more than a hobby," he counters with a serious and broadly applicable statement.

Kirill Kontorshchikov (L) and his new colleagues in Wintermilk

"Sure, my material was a hobby to start with. Nowadays, however, it's more a way of life. Music can always be viewed from two different standpoints. Everybody [in Russia] begins by singing the songs of [1980s rock rebel] Viktor Tsoi on a guitar––and below somebody's window, too. After that, only your desire will determine how high you go. Personally, I take my music very seriously." A detachment from the busy, goal-driven urban world is not used to cultivate a "slacker" aesthetic––no matter the degrees of nostalgia or disappointment. Instead solitude is deemed necessary in order to fashion a structured, orderly alternative to the moral kasha of social actuality.

Каша [kasha]: jumble, muddle (Oxford Russian Dictionary)

Considerably more faith is placed in structure––as opposed to disorder––by Ned Hoper from Saint Petersburg. This instrumental outfit, named after an imaginary figure, likes to describe itself thus: "Ned Hoper offer their audience a remarkably harmonious interplay of post-rock, prog, and modern electronica. Taken together, it conjures a wealth of visual imagery––as if you were watching a movie unfold. These instrumentals suggest a cleverly constructed screenplay, a narrative arc with well-drawn heroes, and the skill of a gifted director."

But who exactly is Ned Hoper? There's no such person in real life, even though the band members keep insisting upon the Australian roots of their legendary frontman. Here's the official party line, so to speak, which is full of imagination––and very far from fact:

"The story of Ned Hoper starts in 1918[!], when Lunacharsky [working as Commissar of Enlightenment] declared that art should henceforth be created on an experimental basis. Nonetheless, these five musicians were brought together by a common desire to work on––and with!––music a little later... The official birthday of Ned Hoper is traditionally considered to be 16th February, 2007. That date marks the very first concert by the ensemble. Before that––if we exclude a number of side-projects––the musicians had been working exclusively within the confines of several studios."

That brief––and patently nonsensical––timeline suggests that the members of Ned Hoper will keep returning to the same rooms and corridors of a private, yet productive space. Studio work promises more than the crudity of politics or massed, civic songs. The appeal of private enterprise clearly grows. Work conducted far away from noisy social existence is able to cultivate a superior alternative to anything offered by life outside. Isolation and introspection––both profoundly apolitical gestures––thus become a kind of commentary upon whatever messy society hopes to offer.

A real muddle. Red Deer (Ufa/ St. Pbg): "Porridge" (2016)

The group's newest recording is called "Sons du Jour, 1-10." Daydreams are placed in orderly fashion, one after the other. Conscious form is given to subconscious formlessness: "Our laboratory experiments have recently grown into something bigger. As a result, we decided to make this strange record. We have just published its opening sections, made from brief dramatic interludes or impressions––all of which were inspired by our very own instruments, our sound design systems, and a reasonable amount of old analog technology."

Daydreams are placed end to end––and then numbered––in order to give chaotic human sensations more sense. The standard on-stage (visual) appearance of Ned Hoper is an ironic commentary upon this love of structure: the musicians usually don white lab coats.

There are concepts all over the place (Ned Hoper, "Sons du Jour, 1-10")

A fondness for complex, "scientific" patterns is made clearer still by a popular torrent site: "To say that Ned Hoper are an experimental outfit is to say nothing at all. There are concepts all over the place: starting with the band's LP covers and continuing in their tendency to name tracks as 'etudes.' This [structuring device] is evident even in the final note of the final number. Everything's very well considered––and then executed even more impressively. It's all really intriguing, yet consistently tricky when it comes to guessing what's next! Even the [most fundamental] beats are made into something complex. Ned Hoper are a fine example of an experimental style––used successfully." Experimentation here becomes synonymous with order––with a focus upon sensibility, not sense (as Jane Austen would have it). It's a search for better structures.

For Slackers and Zhenya Kukoverov, the raison d'être of modern Russian society leaves much to be desired. As a result, those Moscow musicians opt for emotional detachment or indifference, even; there's no reason to care about the civic structures currently on view. With Red Deer and Ned Hoper, however, the same social kasha is good reason to ponder something better––and that structural yearning is expressed sonically. Experimentation takes places formally; different narrative patterns are foregrounded, to the point where Ned Hoper imagine themselves on stage as lab technicians. They are sound engineers, in a semi-literal sense.

The search continues for superior linkages, be they between losers, outsiders, or advocates of better "law and order." In all those cases, a distinct lack is discerned within modern experience––a painful absence that begs the instigation of something superior. New sound engineers are indeed needed. 

Ned Hoper (Saint Petersburg): "Sons du Jour, 1-10." (2016)

Audio

Slackers – Girlfriend (The UV Race)
Slackers – I Won't Remember This
Ned Hoper – Sons Du Jour 05
Ned Hoper – Sons Du Jour 06 (Sputnik)
Red Deer – Too Distant Stars

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