Yesterday saw the release of a debut album from Moscow's Tesla Boy, "Modern Thrills." Published by the British label Mullet Records, this CD is not only graced with expensive packaging - as shown above; it is also directing its promotional efforts squarely towards a Western audience. Finding any substantial Russian-language text on a Tesla Boy webpage is not easy. That does not mean to say, however, that the band is devoid of any links to homespun music.
As we noted in March, 2009: "Tesla Boy are – quite possibly – one of the most promising synth-pop ensembles in Russia. Composed of three young men – Anton, Dima, and Boris – they have already garnered an impressive amount of good press over the one year since their inception. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that two members have existing connections both with [then-] fashionable Banana Princess and famous Bi2."
This ensemble in other words, has much experience on the home front.
These battle-tested artists, in more specific terms, are Anton Sevidov (vocals/keyboards), Dima Midborn (backing vocals/bass), and Boris Lifshits (drums). The observations we made regarding their work last year hold just as true for the present day, since "Modern Thrills" is very much designed as the showcase for a widely recognized sound, thanks to existing singles and EPs.
Earlier we made the following remarks: "They play an unabashedly glossy, light-headed strain of electro-pop, which (among younger fans) is sometimes likened to MGNT or Australia’s Van She, even if their reference points lie more obviously in the previous generation of keyboard-hugging hipsters. The Moscow press, for example, has drawn convincing parallels with Duran Duran, Chic, and The Human League. And as for their name, we assume it to be a play upon the mid-'80s track by OMD, Tesla Girls."
The three openly credited influences behind this sound are David Bowie, imagination (either the mental capacity or the band), and the Challenger disaster. Kitsch, camp drama is to be expected, sometimes toying with its own excess; the newest PR materials, expressing these inclinations, are therefore full of wild, unjustified claims, yet they're made with sufficient irony that pleasure could be even found in their failure. They are, perhaps, not meant to be taken that seriously in the first place. Chutzpah and humor occupy the same location.
The newest press release begins by informing us that Tesla Boy are currently "consolidating their position as the greatest pop band in the world today[!]. They may well be the music industry’s best-kept secret outside of their native Russia, but 'Modern Thrills' sees them set to tear through the Iron Curtain and into a Western World, salivating for their synth-pop banquet."
Political anachronisms aside, some of that rhetoric makes little sense, no matter how close we look.
Undaunted, the group's promotional department moves further down Hyperbole Street, casting grammar aside: "Modern Thrills is an album that plays end-to-end perfectly, with a well constructed and thought-through track listing, but also[?] every track has 'hit single' written all over it. Punch the 'random play' button and you are guaranteed a classic. Tesla Boy are a young and good-looking band ready to soundtrack your life - and adorn heavily-postered teenage walls. If Smash Hits was still going, Tesla Boy would be on the front cover every week!"
A slightly more objective snapshot can be found among web-based publications, which are not only capable of responding to new material with speed; they also operate without fiscal considerations/constraints. Yet here, too, the level of enthusiasm is extremely, if not suspiciously high: "It’s as if all the greatest bands of the eighties have been distilled and then filtered into these three extraordinary, talented individuals. Killer hooks? Check! Wailing synths? Check! Hedonistic lyrics? Check! Flawless song writing? Check-a-rooney! The five tracks here, all sung in English, are pure pop perfection. You’d be doing yourself a massive disservice to not purchase this. I’ve had it in my car for some time and every single person that travels with me asks who they are - and wants to know more about them."
Among these numerous, often ecstatic responses, two central emphases emerge: a reworking of 80s' traditions and an often silly tendency towards Russian stereotypes. One netzine recently referred to Tesla Boy as "a fusion of Depeche Mode, Erasure, and The Pet Shop Boys." Another credited the severe Russian climate with a need to write energetic music: "Of course you would expect a Moscow-based group to produce uplifting tracks - to mitigate the fact that in Russia it’s minus 30 degrees outside and your car is buried under five feet of snow."
Of course you would expect a Moscow-based group to produce uplifting tracks - to mitigate the fact that in Russia it’s minus 30 degrees outside and your car is buried under five feet of snow.
Looking for more insightful material in English will, for the meanwhile, be a thankless endeavor. Keen to present Tesla Boy to a brand new audience, both the ensemble's UK label and British admirers are unwilling to exercise their critical faculties. More productive, perhaps, is a search through Russian-language publications to which the band has spoken of late.
Take, for example, one such news source from Ekaterinburg, dedicated to developments in dance music. At least we find free(r) expression in two senses: the group's three members all use their native tongue, and we - as readers - are one step removed from promo-blurbs.
Here we find an immediate extension of the historically- or geographically driven quotes above, albeit in a more level-headed register. When asked about past inspirations (again), at least the musicians explain their choices. Bowie, it transpires, has always been of interest to the members of Tesla Boy "because he constantly changes. He always finds new, developing social trends and expresses them through glam, funk, psychedelic disco, maybe new wave..."
In terms of bringing a related style-shifting to the Western public, Tesla Boy will, of course, immediately be faced with the issue of how US or UK audiences differ from those in Russia. The band has already noticed that 60% of its MySpace traffic comes from the States, specifically from Los Angeles and San Jose. As the musicians say, those two cities would, therefore, be a logical bridge for them between the Russian and US markets, allowing at least club work with a modicum of confidence.
The risk of traveling so far for small gigs is, they believe, worthwhile, considering the dire economic situation at home. "Nobody's in the habit of buying music in Russia today; people find it much easier to download everything from Vkontakte. Those 'minor' issues become major problems for us. Today we got an email from our Western manager, who said that our album won't even be released in Russia on CD, since he doesn't want to deal with the problems of local piracy."
Reason enough for a sour demeanor.
Avoiding the web, though, means embracing ostensible reality... and touring. In a sense, the group feels almost more comfortable with that situation, since they have first-hand experience of how locals scenes develop. Once again, the time spent with Banana Princess and Bi2 could pay off; designed for Western audiences, Tesla Boy have strong domestic roots.
"Music is closely tied to styles and specific places. Promoters play a very important role here, in that they invest money locally; they stage parties, and open clubs... which is where music develops. Your average female fan, by way of example, needs to know that she's not only listening to a given track. It's not only a song that she happens to like - or that she listens to in her bedroom after school. She also needs to know that the same music will be played live this Friday at a local event! It'll be a chance for her and ten friends to scream their heads off. She also needs to know that the boy she's in love with will dance in front of her... to the very same song. That's how music develops in real life..."
This belief in small-scale efficacy is, strangely, something else that Tesla Boy trace back to the 1980s. They claim, perhaps with a rather Soviet perspective, that the 1980s were "a very romantic time, when even society's 'little people' could change things." This apparent reference to perestroika and beyond is, however, then developed in a very Western context, using the example of somebody who has moot claim to the status of anything small.
"The founder of Virgin Records, Richard Branson, reached an agreement with Saddam Hussein over some British prisoners. Virgin Airlines sent a plane to Baghdad... and saved them all. Politicians were amazed that this guy, who had signed contracts with The Stones and some 30 Jamaican bands, was able to save those people without commandos or explosives. That kind of thing is hard to imagine today..."
Whatever the historical or cultural logic at work, this anecdote nonetheless reveals the kind of romanticism that Tesla Boy hope to embody with the release of "Modern Thrills." It places much hope in the ability of small, unassuming acts to have grand, sweeping consequences. No doubt for the same reason, the album is finding such enthusiastic support in the West. "Modern Thrills" takes a stubbornly hedonistic worldview, formed in the last few years of the USSR, and makes it relevant far from home - in the middle of a 21st century economic downturn.
A movable metaphor, in several senses.