Sonic Garbage: Won James Won, AWOTT, Zhenya Kukoverov & IHNABTB

Zhenya Kukoverov and a suitably amorphous self-portrait

Given the total disconnect between avant-garde rock in Russia and a paycheck, it is unsurprising that musicians move back and forth between projects. There are neither financial nor legal reasons why an artist should be bound to any one collective. Similarly, experimental compositions operate as jazz standards, floating from one group to another and remaining simultaneously open to endless (re)interpretation. By way of example, we might begin with a solo release today from one Moscow singer-songwriter and see where that leads, in terms of improvisation and the professionalization of an otherwise unmarketable craft. 

We're interested in modernity's transformation of art into some homogenous whole (Elikuka)

Zhenya Kukoverov sometimes records under the stage-name of Vorevokuk; he is also a founding member of IHNABTB––but more of them later. This fleeting link between Kukoverov and another band is quickly invoked because IHNABTB are well-known for 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.

Whenever IHNABTB and Zhenya Kukoverov play live, they clearly embody a common worldview. 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 have more allure than any hierarchy; they also guarantee disorderly surprises for an audience. The intuitive bonds of childish trust are more charming––and honest––than whatever adult experience fosters.

Zhenya's previous recordings this year were gathered together under the loser/slacker/outsider title of "Wrong Soundtrack." That phrase was 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!"

The appeal of wrongness will only grow.

Zhenya Kukoverov: "Pegasus" (2016)

In one particular Russian magazine this attitude of deliberate, yet productive failure has been praised especially 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."

A new album has followed with speed, called "Pegasus" (Пегас). To a large degree it's a lyrical reflection or continuation of prior multimedial work done between Kukoverov and his friend Oleg Eliseev, who plays in IHNABTB. The two men began experimenting together almost a decade ago, primarily in the visual arts––and called themselves Elikuka.

That neologism also sounds like a bizarre Russian phrase––"They ate [Captain] Cook," a reference back to the eighteenth-century English explorer. According to a grim myth of the time, Cook was killed and eaten by cannibals. In actual fact he was murdered by Hawaiian islanders after a number of clashes––and Cook's attempt to kidnap a local dignitary. Elikuka's dalliance with falsehood and silliness is important here; it helps to blur the line between official and unofficial language. Between national news and utter nonsense.

The theme of manipulation continues throughout

One of the primary concerns of Elikuka has always been the experiences of Russia's first post–Soviet generation, raised in the politically formless 1990s, somewhere between communism and capitalism. This long-lasting interest in some grey realm between cosmos and chaos also lies at the very heart of IHNABTB ("I Have Not Any Breakfast Today, Bitch!), a collective covered multiple times on FFM. One of the most telling quotes from Eliseev, outlining his on-stage rationale with IHNABTB, reads: "You can call us anarchists, but our work doesn't really offer any clear engagement with today's politics. Instead we're more interested in modernity's transformation of art into some homogenous whole. Or, more accurately, modern art has become a mere strategy, something that's taught to––and then enacted by––students at major art schools. A young artist today already knows what he ought to read and what positions to take..."

Healthy diversity is replaced with propriety.

One Elikuka exhibition in Kazan several years ago set the philosphical scene immediately: "The show begins with uninterrupted thunder and loud buzzing sounds––with a cacophony of noises and movements... Next comes a red and white barrier, which the viewer must pass through in order to reach the actual exhibition space. But––if one lifts the barrier, that same movement stops other visitors from entering another part of the exhibition. And so the theme of manipulation continues throughout..."

Limitations, laws, and decent performance are connected to both intellectual and physical repression. A free people should, ideally, express themselves freely. Formlessly, even.

"Elikuka:" Zhenya Kukoverov (L) and Oleg Eliseev, both of IHNABTB

A critique of local cant continues: "A bright neon and pop-art Mona Lisa symbolizes [state] observation. Her eyes are replaced by a video reel that follows visitors around the show. She also appears elsewhere, in a section dedicated to forms of passport control. In fact various masterworks of world art are treated with both irony and wit. They include Caravaggio's 'Boy with a Basket of Fruit'; Bruegel's 'Return of the Hunters'; and Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus.' All the paintings are forced to undergo acts of violence or made to spin round and round, at some insane speed."

The heroine is supposed to make love to a Yeti––who is very lonely (IHNABTB)

The canon is dramatically downgraded and destabilized, robbing it of the ability to generate permanent or proper meaning. Just as Elikuka's disrespect for established norms––for stable significance––is brought to life, so is the theme of refugees. Human beings are forced into radical instability by political intransigence. They do not choose an intinerant, potentially meaningless existence. The Kazan show considered the awful experience of post–Soviet guest-workers, who are shown to be "carrying a remarkable device––instead of an [lifeboat's] oar. At one end of the stick is a dustpan; at the other is a wreath."

The noun sovok, meaning "dustpan," is also a slang term referring to the very worst of Soviet culture––since the two words sound relatively similar. The confines of habit, cartography, and other convenient practices bring little, if any promise. They only confuse trash with triumph. Victory, by implication, needs extreme levels of liberty––to the point where self-control is willingly sacrificed. Freedom lies in the unconscious, perhaps. 

The newest albums from both Zhenya Kukoverov and IHNABTB continue a line of investigation that's over a decade old. The children of the '90s still struggle to find a rationale in modern policy. As Russian primetime entertainment becomes increasingly conservative, retrospective, and repressive, the need for a "cacophony of noises and movement" in 2016 only grows. Because nobody has faith in control any more. 

Including a song dedicated to crocodiles made from cucumbers, the new IHNABTB LP also has the following, almost nonsensical yarn to spin. It deliberately has no purposeful ending. Eliseev begins: "There will be a whole cycle of IHNABTB songs soon, all written in the first person. Various prostitutes relate mystical or fantastic experiences in their lives. In our song a geologist takes the heroine to the Far North; she is supposed to make love to a Yeti––who is very lonely. The Yeti asked the geologist to bring him back a female companion––since he cannot entrust anyone else with the task. In this version of the song, it's not entirely clear what happened to the Yeti, but the prostitute certainly liked him. In fact, she falls hopelessly in love." 

The more willingly we endorse change, chance, and the presence of others, the more intolerance and intransigence will find themselves untenable. 

Yetis and crocodiles: IHNABTB: "Unwanted Album" (2016)

Won James Won play a similarly messy game––and even have a related timeline, since they began making a noise in 2003. Based initially in St Petersburg, they can be traced to a core duo of Daniil Smirnov and Tikhon Kubov, yet often expand to the dimensions of a seven-piece ensemble when live. In a similarly shapeless fashion, their collective output––both in and out of WJW––runs the gamut from dabblings with industrial drone to part-time membership(s) in the funk/punk outfit Kirpichi.

Not only do Won James Won operate outside the claustrophobic restrictions of any one lineup, they also––like Zhenya Kukoverov and IHNABTB––have additional ties to multimedia projects, namely the ZveZdaZ art movement. Defending themselves against possible accusations of dilettantism, the musicians declare: "Some skeptics may argue that ZveZdaZ is nothing more than another side project, instituted by popular performers who got tied of the public's expectations, not to mention social engagements, creative restrictions, limitations in general, etc. That's not impossible, of course, but don’t expect to hear the people at ZveZdaZ say anything intelligible––or even fashionable."

Oddity is a fine defense against banality.

Don't expect us to say anything intelligible––or even fashionable (ZveZdaZ)

Recently, all of Won James Won collectively published a few lines from David Means' novel "Hystopia" as a programatic statement. The novel takes place in an imaginary 1960s, where Kennedy is not assassinated. Instead the president has to deal with mass hysteria that surrounds returning veterans from a war in Vietnam that will not end. The health system cannot cope with snowballing numbers of wounded soldiers, for whom mental illness is increasingly manifest in violent crime. As the government loses control, the forces governing national life become vague, even mystical: "They listened to the faraway sea sound of the surf and the wind rising in the pines, dying away, rising again. Nonspecific vibrations at the coordinates’ location, as specified in a prior vision. Dangerous vibrations, northern negative lure."

Meaning and political force lie elsewhere; neither is here.

In a recent interview, one of Won James Won's founding members, the aforementioned Tikhon Kubov, credited the outfit's longevity to a similarly vague and homeless impulse. "The band's sound is usually overseen by our friend Danilo. There's a good reason why he's both a scholar and a mystic––with several titles, too. Any categories such as 'electronic' or 'live' performance are totally erased––and were long ago. Danilo's approach is therefore a complex one... In essence I'm in favor of any low-budget jumble and sampledelic spasms. Oh, and some crystal-clear bleating, too."

The less systematic, the better.

Disorder triumphs. Won James Won: "Utopleniada" (2016)

The visual is needed to capture the ineffable, since we're dealing with a celebration of mystery and mess. "Over the ten plus years of Won James Won, our visual 'phantoms' are a very important, if not essential element of what we do... I cannot imagine describing our sickly existence without illustrations." Coherent language makes zero sense: "We don't just sample films. We also take TV shows from our extensive VHS archive, plus serials, conversations captured on the streets, noises gifted us by our public plumbing system, and monologs––both spontaneous and recorded examples. Put simply, they represent the diversity of today's sonic garbage. Sometimes a successful sample will grow into a fully fledged track, but more often we find something lacking in a 'finished' composition. And that will be fixed with an example of human speech."

We represent the diversity of today's accessible sonic garbage

Why so much chatter, itself chopped and diced? "The preponderance of voices in our songs comes from a desire to increase their anthropological potential. Each and every voice increases a very special mood... I've always been drawn to bursts of the unconscious. I mean a kind of automatic writing––in other words, unpredictability––is what I value most of all in art." Unpredictability suggests that matters can change––and hopefully for the better. 

This sensation of a gap between life and logic (or hope and habit) is, of course, extremely well established in Russian cultural narratives. The fact that it endures in 2016 is disheartening. Today these lacunae can take special––yet ultimately familiar––forms, for example as a result of Russia's isolationism under Putin. Strangeness––or potential––resides elsewhere. There's a gap between "us" and "them." The latter both look and sound better. 

And that difference gives rise to outfits such as Moscow's AWOTT: "Asian Women on the Telephone." With self-deprecating recourse to some clunky, orientalist views of Asian capitalist practice, AWOTT do not claim any moralizing difference between domestic and distant praxis. Instead the distinction is between the familiar/fossilized and surprising/productive poles in individual behavior. The band members themselves, following that same argument, play the role of "foreign" voices, phoning in a range of bizarre, yet promising outlooks. They bring oddness, shock, and therefore possibility in from left-field enterprise. 

Won James Won: Tikhon Kubov (R) and an irreverent, yet solid bond

When asked about AWOTT's current inspirations, the performers refer both to local history and the importance of oddity. "We've long been inspired by really distant locations; the kind of places we've never visited... but where we might nonetheless perform, one day! We absorbed both Dadaism and Futurism with our 'spongey' bodies when we were younger. Nowadays, though, we don't really think about it [i.e, the matter of influence]. Occasionally we'll just draw a black square."

Malevich redux.

The group famously performs in mock-ritualistic costumes, both hiding their identities and giving an orderly, regimented impression of chaos. Put differently, AWOTT can look like high priests of unpredictability––and that worries some folks. Nonetheless, a suitably random voice of support comes from Ukraine. The following paragraph is designed to be difficult, ornate, and potentially meaningless. We quote it verbatim.

Proclamatory detritus (AWOTT)

"Steady it goes, the rock-a-nought shop boys' ship, the motorik freundschaft cisternalium of Asian Women on the Telephone. Arms-legs-torso-necks flash forth in dub's syndrome fits, oblivious to the dumb, random law-mongering darkness that creeps around. They've got enough pressure, enough dog fuzz stunts and enough proclamatory detritus of their own to give all your little boo-hoos a polar-teddy silver enema to ride on. Never the ones to take "locked" or "unlocked" as a final word, these workers stay focused yet unstuck, body parts protruding against/past each other and plugged into hidden ad-hoc stocks of fire, gravy and muesli. And so the vehicle marches gently, in a steamy and righteous goat trance."

Thus spake Andrij Orel––for no particular reason.

The band's timeline is no less bizarre. The genesis of AWOTT is credited to a mythical Uncle and Auntie, followed by some bestial figures known only as Cow, Dog, Dog 2, Goat, Raven Ravenson, and others. No matter where one looks, idiosyncrasy and noncomfomity lead the way: "The sounds of AWOTT were gathered from the foam of some grey matter... Our true heroes are simple folk, the past's true believers such as Serge Gainsbourg, John Lennon, and Viktor Tsoi. Together they spoke about this world for those of us who've loved––not for anybody else. They send you greetings via AWOTT––to all of us who yearn and are happy. To those who are offended and still hunger." 

AWOTT: the unnecessarily intricate design of "Bolshoi" (2016)

Hope lies in the bizarre, in the foreign and fantastic. None of which are likely to be found in legislative practice.

The most recent interview with AWOTT was conducted in Kiev, where the band members were likened (tongue in cheek) to animals, children, and Siberian shamans. The musicians themselves preferred to talk of themselves as "kids from the block." And, on the subject of feeling distant from anything culturally unusual, whimsical, or inspiringly witty, the performers still refuse to take themselves seriously. They neither grandstand, nor fall to self-pity in a very difficult profession. 

We read aloud all the most eloquent passages from Dostoevsky (AWOTT)

"When I was twelve or so, my friend and I loved to read aloud all the most eloquent passages from Dostoevsky"––to little effect. "In fact I hate Dostoevsky. There's a passage in which Myshkin says [in 'The Idiot'] that every little flower, every blade of grass... it all hums with life and radiates light. They all have their path––and know it, too. They all wake with a song and fall asleep that way, too. Only I am unable to find my place. Only I am unaware of my identity, place, or know why I have foam upon my lips [from epilepsy]."  The shift from third- to first-person narration makes Myshkin's words sound both subjective and silly at the same time. The world is a place in which neither logic nor faith has the upper hand. 

Again a juxtaposition of rationality and the freakish emerges, this time stretching far back beyond any pathological inability of Soviet ideologues to speak the truth. AWOTT discern their DNA in Dostoevsky's 1869 tale of an epileptic who may be experiencing a spiritual epiphany. Nobody knows for sure. And that story is itself pulling from Orthodox dogma in an irrational framework, wherein God can never be approached through language, logic, or rational debate. Divine potentiality does not belong to common sense.

And so AWOTT conclude: "Technology is developing today, but people's problems remain the same. The problem of loneliness; the problematic search for God..." A colleague chips: "An answer is coming to all that. There's an app being built as we speak..." 

The very silliness of a final (serious) quip shows how AWOTTWon James WonZveZdaZIHNABTBZhenya Kukoverov, and Elikuka are all looking for truth in a very long tradition of irrationalism. The reason for that ongoing effort, even in 2016, is because common sense and political pragmatism have failed to provide any philosophical tenets of worth. Stately craft is replaces by silliness; the canon is replaced by latter-day jesters, capable of inverting various hierarchies and making stolid actuality look very different indeed. 

An ongoing inversion of normal, productive rhetoric: AWOTT


Won James Won – Huesos-Gostosas-Nebulosas
Won James Won – John the Millimetrone
AWOTT – Maxutkina Song
AWOTT – Obliply

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