“Did you hear them say we're the best band in St Petersburg?” Anya asks her fellow bandmembers, Katya and Nastya. We are sitting in the cloak room of a bar called Cliché, where the all-girl band Ruka Docheri (Daughter’s Hand) have just come off stage. They are sipping a cocktail named after them: white rum, lemon juice and homemade alcoholic ginger ale. When I suggest that guitar music is not as cool as it was ten years ago, they shrug and proclaim that it will always be cool.
The day before, I had listened to them practice for eight hours at their studio, a tiny room covered in carpets and wood. Every time the door swung open you could make out the sounds of hardcore and metal from a band of pale thin boys practising in the next room. When it shut, the room filled with the girls' dreamy dark post-punk. They told me they had all been born in December, so the band was obviously meant to be.
Ruka Docheri are a relatively new band, even though they have been in the scene (or tusovka, as they call it in Russian) for a while. Nastya, the drummer, also runs the tusovka's main shop, Garage Karma Store, also based in Cliché. Technically just a white cabinet on the wall covered in stickers, filled with records and padlocked, the business is slowly growing, with orders coming in from as far as Vladivostok. Nastya says this is the only place in St Petersburg where you can buy cassette tapes, the main product of the local garage scene. There's some vinyl, but since it's more expensive to produce, and since not all can afford a record player, cassettes rule the day. The majority of them are produced locally by labels such as Valenton Records, Hair Del, Loser Pop, Saint Brooklynsburg, and others.
The music — dirty guitars, faded vocals, simple tunes — sounds surprisingly organic through the analogue medium from the last century. I wonder whether it might not only be the production costs but the fact that most kids, teens and the younger twenty-somethings, the core of the local garage scene, haven't had to use cassettes out of necessity, to experience how utterly annoying they were, jamming, tangling and wearing out — and all that without an option to switch to your iPhone whenever you please. Isn't this similar to romanticising a rotary dial phone — cute design but a nightmare to use? The girls talk passionately about the superior sound quality of cassettes and the importance of the physical manifestation of music. So is it about having a fetish? “Totally”, says Anya, getting excited, “It really is fetishism, it's about the form the music takes, and it's amazing.”
The audience in the bar goes crazy and we go back in to check out another local favourite — a band that calls itself Otstoy (Crap). Their thick, grungy guitar sound spills out of the bar in waves. Even though all the bands on the bill pack out the tiny bar, Otstoy's congregation is the biggest and the craziest. When I ask why, several people in the crowd suggest it's the lead singer's sweet face that is drawing the people in, boyband style. It's hard to tell if they are joking — everyone here seems to know each other, and share many inside jokes. But in fact, Otstoy have garnered one of the scene's few instances of media attention when, performing at festival in Moscow in July, a security guard attacked their guitarist mid-song for jumping on an amp.
Apart from playing an occasional festival like Forma, the bands are mostly organising concerts and parties themselves. And they turn out to be quite prolific, which is always surprising in a sleepy city like St Petersburg: gigs happen nearly every week, usually with several bands on the bill, in small bars like Cliché and underground clubs like Ionoteka. The entry is usually a couple of hundred roubles, as is the pricing for everything here — records, concert tickets, drinks at the bar — it seems to have been formed with broke students and young creatives in mind.
Cassettes at Garage Karma store cost between 50 and 150 roubles (50p—£1.50), even though some of the cover art is actually handmade: Ruka Docheri’s split EP, made with local band Bong Rips, for example, is a limited edition, and each tape comes with a handmade collage. Valenton Records uses literal trash for the cover of the cassettes — one is decorated with a Subway napkin, another with a flyer for a local film festival, completely unrelated to the cassette's contents but printed with a track list.
As for the music, most bands choose to sing in Russian, and only several bands write lyrics in English – particularly those with the Saint Brooklynsburg label. Anyone who's familiar with guitar music in Russia will know that this situation is not typical. Most will associate Russian indie bands with songs in English, sung in a heavy Russian accent in front of a scarce crowd in a club. “I tried to write in English first”, admits Anya, who sings for Ruka Docheri, often about drama in school and relationships with parents, “But then – suddenly – I realised that singing in Russian is also cool. Cooler, really”.
When Otstoy finish playing, Moscow-based solo act Mango Tweedlight Academy takes the stage with an electric mix of guitar and synth and songs with names like At The Chebureki Shop With Satan. The scene in St Petersburg keeps close connections with garage bands all over Russia and even several outside the country, in Belarus and Ukraine. The main factory in Russia that mass-produces cassettes, Go Tape (also known as GotApe), is also situated here in the city. They, as well as other labels, collaborate with several artists who make cover art and inlays, and people who produce merchandise for the bands. A union of creativity and small business is booming in the garage scene even though it doesn't bring much profit. But money, obviously, is not the goal in the music business, and most of the musicians and entrepreneurs have daytime jobs.
Leather Jacket High School by Bong Rips
The idea of a thriving independent music scene is quite new to St Petersburg (the only other example would be the 1980s Leningrad rock scene that spawned Kino), and the fact that it also launched many businesses makes it a phenomenon. We finally have a scene that we all wanted to be a part of in 2004 when The Strokes were big and we, still kids then, downloaded their tracks on dial-up speed and desperately wished for some bands of our own to adore. Now, ten years later, those kids have grown up, upgraded their internet connection, and realised they don't need anyone else to do this, just themselves, some guitars, a tape recorder and several blank cassettes.
In general, there are very few things that differentiate the garage scene here from any other country, where subcultures like this one are more widespread. Sure, their lyrics are in Russian but the kids look and act the same, and the music they could have been published on an indie label in the US. Anya sums it up for me: “Grown-up teenagers are the same everywhere.”