Having worked our way out of our winter clothes — down jackets, hats, scarves, and mittens — we proceed into the darkened space and sit ourselves on the floor by the stage, backlit by quirky video art. Amid the darkness, pools of light reveal modular synths, samplers, cables and FX pedals arranged on a table before a musician. We’re in the Siberian town of Novosibirsk for the Echotourist party, the best place to hear prickly experimental music. Outside, it’s -20 and snowing.
The energetic fella behind the mixer is called Stanislav Sharifullin; his music comes out under the pseudonym Hmot. Stas grew up in Lesosibirsk, a small town 200 miles north of Krasnoyarsk; today he performs throughout the major cities of Siberia, where he continues to live, but also in Moscow and St Petersburg. In 2009, Stas and a few like-minded individuals launched Gimme5, a blog dedicated to progressive electronica; having pulled many of Russia’s leading electronic artists into its orbit, the blog’s activities culminated in late 2011 with the release of compilation album Fly Russia. Over a year ago, Stas launched a small independent label by the name of Klammklang in Krasnoyarsk and is now using it to release various genres of electronica by predominantly Russian artists.
At first glance there’s nothing unusual about Stas’s story. But in the context of Siberia, which lacked an independent music industry for years, his projects are out of the ordinary. In a region where major businesses are dominated by raw material extraction, heavy industry and freight services, while small ones revolve around the services sector, the idea of making music doesn’t occur to many people. Most creative projects here are concocted by people in their free time. “Amateurism,” says Stas, “is what defines provinciality. On the other hand, it’s hard to stay professional when you’re surrounded by philistine stereotypes. People think you're a weirdo if your happiness doesn't depend on the size of your bank account. So you must have balls of steel to do arts. It's not that bad if you have a few like-minded people around, though.”
What is Siberia? A huge, harshly climated Russian region that extends eastwards from the Ural mountains, stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. As Siberian schoolchildren learn in their first geography lessons, a modestly sized European country such as France would fit into Siberia 20 times over. Siberia’s expanses are home to around 40 million people, living in towns and villages sparsely scattered among forests, mountains, rivers and steppes. The population of the major financial centres and transport hubs — Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Barnaul, Novokuznetsk and others — rarely exceeds a million people; Novosibirsk, with a population of almost two million, is an exception.
Moscow and Novosibirsk are separated by a distance of over 2800 km, so travelling between Siberia and central Russia isn’t cheap. “The major characteristic of this place,” says Stas, “is its remoteness — geographical, psychological, cultural and political. And since the media infrastructure in Siberia isn't developed quite well yet, we're all being left on our own. Although we’ve managed to counteract this state of affairs recently, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that time has stopped here. In a way, life in Siberia is a perpetual internal immigration into a vacuum.”
Be that as it may, local artists and musicians see positives in this situation as well. “Siberia is kind of a blank slate”, Stas explains. “You can draw whatever you want on it. It’s really interesting to try out new stuff here.” On the one hand, the lack of an established industry complicates things for this new generation of Siberian artists, who often fail to secure any backing for their undertakings. On the other, it allows them to play by their own rules in this snow-bound terrain.
After the Soviet tradition of music publishing and distribution collapsed together with the USSR, the task of creating new institutions and labels fell to the musicians themselves. Independent, experimental artists tend to find their audience through music media — pretty thin on the ground in Russia — and streaming services that allow musicians to upload their recordings. There’s no shortage of enthusiasm, though: over the last five years, several dozen indie labels have popped up in Russia, including some that release interesting and intelligent electronic music.
“People enjoy doing their very own little things,” says Stas. “Some are into model railways, some make homemade pâté, and as for me, I stick cables into my modular synth and release stuff on cassettes. I’ve got fewer friends who share my interests here than other people might, but that’s just the way it is. I'm cool with it.” But Klammklang isn’t the only Siberian label working with electronica and experimental music: there’s also Hair Del and Echotourist, a Novosibirsk-based association of musicians which manages an eponymous label currently run by Evgeny Gavrilov, aka Dyad. Electronica artists signed to these labels — Novosibirsk’s Ferrein and The Patience, Krasnoyark’s Arktor, and others — are well known to fans of the genre beyond Russia’s borders: many release records on foreign labels and perform throughout Europe.
Klammklang’s music is distributed worldwide in digital format by Los Angeles-based Alpha Pup Records. It's also represented in physical form as brightly coloured plastic cassettes with pictorial sleeves packed into neat waterproof envelopes; each cassette is accompanied by a selection of postcards designed according to the artist’s wishes. The cassettes are released in limited editions of around 30 copies. Receiving your order, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve just got a parcel, put together by hand, “from Siberia with love”.
“When I have more money I’ll start pressing vinyl,” says Stas. “Though cassettes do have their own charm. My first music collection was all on tapes, mostly tapes I recorded over a thousand times — it wasn’t easy to get hold of interesting music in Lesosibirsk.”
Sometimes the cassettes come with more than just postcards: buy the Kosichkin Tapes album, for example, and you’ll also get reel to-reel tape loops from the personal sound library of the Kosichkin family, around whom the album revolves. One of the most unusual albums to have been released on Klammklang, the Kosichkin Tapes is a collage pieced together from the home recordings of a Soviet family by Egor Klochikhin, a musician from the small town of Berdsk in the Novosibirsk region. Klochikhin stumbled upon the recordings by chance. He’d bought an old cassette recorder at an online auction; on its way to Berdsk, the recorder broke — but, in consolation, it disgorged several reels with recordings into his possession.
“I’m a historian by education, so I find these sorts of things interesting,” says Klochikhin. “I discovered a whole host of interesting stuff — the elder Kosichkin, a Soviet military man, recorded the life of his family over a period of ten years.
Klochikhin arranged his collage chronologically: it begins with a recording made in 1971 — the Kosichkins are teaching their eldest to say “Daddy” — and it finishes in the late 80s, with the same boy telling us about the marks he’s been getting at school and proclaiming that “Everything’s fine round here”. Numerous songs from Kosichkin’s homemade mixtapes, featuring classics of Soviet popular music as well as completely obscure performers from Warsaw Pact countries, made it onto the album as well. “As I worked on the recording, I tried to give prominence to its ‘audio-dust’”, says Klochikhin“— all the sounds of the record button being pressed, and other things dear to the hearts of lo-fi fans.”
Most of the records put out by Klammklang are snapped up by foreign listeners, predominantly from the UK, Germany and the USA, with Russia a mere fourth on the list. The Kosichkin Tapes — a product seemingly destined for domestic consumption — has not proven an exception. “More than half of the album’s limited edition went abroad,” says Stas. “People interpret music in different ways, but, just like love, it remains a universal language. And there’s a whole lotta love in the Kosichkin Tapes — the love between the members of the family that became the focus of the record, and love as the message of the album as a whole.”
A few weeks ago Klochikhin released another album with Klammklang — this time under the umbrella of Foresteppe, the project that brought him to prominence two years ago. Foresteppe’s No Time to Hurry (2013), a record that straddles the gap between reflective ambient music and instrumental folk, caught the attention of various music publications: the artist from the tiny town of Berdsk found himself being written about in Russia’s Afisha-Volna and Colta.ru, and even mentioned in the Guardian.
In discussions of Klochikhin’s music, critics frequently use the adjective “Siberian” — a word also often used to describe the music of his friend and colleague Nikita Bondarev, also based in Berdsk, who records minimalist electronica under the pseudonym Speck (Nikita recently released the evocatively titled album Siberian Loner, also on Klammklang). However, it’s pretty inappropriate to speak of any typically “Siberian” sound: the local electronica scene encompasses all sorts of different artists, bound by friendship but recording very dissimilar music.
Nonetheless, you can pinpoint certain commonalities in these records. “People around here like to claim that music in Siberia is more fluid, more experimental, that it’s got more space and reverberation,” says Stas. “On the other hand, musicians here are working in lots of different, sometimes very adventurous styles and genres. Finally, it's not about styles and genres at all – it's about people who keep the true passion for music and never give up, no matter what happens. On the whole, I’d say that the topographic contours of the Siberian Federal District epitomise the so-called Siberian sound and character pretty well.”
Hmot’s new EP Barricades is out on independent Russian label Full Of Nothing on the 30th of March