Guitars and the grind: stories from Siberia’s fractured DIY music scene

21 February 2020
Illustrations: Semen Ushkov

Anyone who’s ever been involved in Siberia’s DIY music scene will tell you there’s no such thing. Or at least, Siberia’s DIY scene doesn’t exist in a sense of a single, unified entity. Instead, a handful of creative clusters scattered across the region flicker stubbornly in the face of immense distances, a serious lack of connective infrastructure and general public indifference. Five bands from five Siberian cities tell The Calvert Journal their stories of how to survive (or not) as an artist in an environment that perpetually gives you a very cold shoulder.


Сharmed (Zacharovannye) from Tomsk. Image: Daria Zhuravleva

When it comes to fiery feminist rhetoric set to blazing rock, Tomsk, a university town in western Siberia, already has a historic pedigree. Last year, local trio Pozory (or Disgraces in English), led by singer Lena Kuznetsova, made a splash with their debut EP “Devichye Gore” (“Girl’s Grief”), prompting Russian news outlet Meduza to hail the band as “the new hope of Russian rock music”. Two thirds of Pozory have since left Tomsk for Moscow, but Zacharovanniye (Charmed), has appeared to carry the torch both thematically and pterally. The band’s punky staple tracks are propelled by the concise and biting guitar riffs of Egor Wolf, Pozory’s remaining Siberia-based member and stalwart of the local indie community.

Wolf may be one the most experienced musicians around, but he isn’t the mastermind behind the band: he was invited to join Zacharovanniye by three female friends after a drunken selfie sparked artistic inspiration. “We [took the photo and] thought that we looked like the heroines from the TV show Charmed,” explains singer Alyona Alkova, “so the joke was to start a band and call it that”.

In the end, only 25-year-old Alkova stuck by their vow to reach for musical stardom, eventually being joined by Darya Ignatovich on bass and Andrey Shishov on drums. A journalist by day, Alkova uses her professional expertise to address feminist topics switching between straightforward sloganeering and evocative character sketches, punky irreverence and brooding metaphoric tales. The band’s rousing closing number “Zatreschina” (“A Blow”) combines an anthemic chorus, with the lines, “If silence is golden, why aren’t I rich yet?” Musically, the band finds compellingly new ways to stay true to the punk formula; slash-and-burn rave-ups flash by in less than two minutes, followed by genuinely dark slow-motion grind on tracks such as “Porno”. “This band is not about music as some higher goal,” explains Alkova. “It’s about self-expression, about getting rid of assumptive fears and concepts. It’s about untangling the web of stereotypes that are holding you down.”

Haund

Novosibirsk

Lipatov is the sole member of Haund, a name inspired by the English word “hound”, except written in Cyrillic. An ex-guitarist for Britpop-inspired band Mertvoemore (The Dead Sea), Lipatov went solo last year with Haund, a scrappy, DIY take on groovy, mid-tempo dance-rock, constructed of drum machine beats, stabs of guitar, and a healthy dose of swagger. The band is almost comparable to a latter-day Foals, if their hits were also recorded by one person in a garage — or a living room, to be precise, as that’s where Lipatov records his music directly to the sound card of his computer.

There’s an abundance of offhand, care-about-nothing cool to Haund’s records, which are comprised of an EP and a full-length album titled Muzika dlya Torgovih Centrov (Music for Malls). That’s because Lipatov does not seem to care. “Music, seriously? I’m 25-years-old, for fuck’s sake,” he scoffs. “I’ve got to eat”. He insists that he is done with Haund and has zero interest in committing to a musical project of his own on any level, local or otherwise. “There are plenty of studios and rehearsal spaces,” he admits. “Yeah, you can cut a record, if you’re a genius, then go mix it in St. Petersburg, sure. Then tour, promote it, that’s the main thing. I don’t need any of this. And I’m not a genius”.

In his view, the local scene also holds nothing of interest. “I stopped going out about a year ago, really, so I don’t know what’s going on today. Maybe something is happening now. But back then it was mostly bar bands or school kids trying out rock, or some tasteless shit.” The idea of “moving on” crops up again and again, as it does for many creatives in Siberia’s cultural scene. With few opportunities to turn a hobby into a career, people often prefer the security of a nicely-paid job. It takes a special kind of determination to keep playing in tiny taprooms to a handful of friends for no money. Many simply don’t see the point, and Lipatov, content with his job in IT, may be a prime example. “There was a number of people I met between the ages of 16 and 23,” he says, “people I connected with about music, people who played something or just listened to something. Most of them have moved on. So have I.”


Prognoz Pogody

Krasnoyarsk, St. Petersburg

Pozory Punk Band

“We’re confused by life, and we’ve recorded 24 minutes of that confusion for you,” reads the intro to one of the Prognoz Pogody’s biggest hits records. The 2018 release — called “Ne Pytaisya” (or “Don’t Try” in English) — was picked up by one of the largest pages for Russian artists on social media platform VK, where it was reposted with the attention-grabbing caption, “Death Grips Vs Dirty Beaches”.

The band, formed by Krasnoyarsk-born brothers Andrey and Misha Lyubchenko cite New York synth-punk godfathers Suicide as their defining reference point, although they admit that hipster name-dropping doesn’t get them far in the Russian music scene. “If you compare a story about [renowned Russian indie band] Pasosh with some clickbait about a naked grandpa who fell out of a window, or a fight at a doctors’ surgery, music will always lose” [in the mainstream media], says Andrey, a former hospital employee, in one interview.

That bitter outlook manifests itself in music that pulses with desperation and frustrated anger. Prognoz Pogody (Weather Report in Russian) create a noisy, decidedly lo-fi swirl of irregular electronic beats, unexpected samples, anguished vocals — part noise rock, part hip-hop, and part pure bravado. It’s a blend that the brothers have half-jokingly labelled “sofa punk” or “cyber-pop”. The sofa reference is meant to be taken literally: all of the brothers’ work is done at home on a single computer, with Andrey writing and recording the music and Misha stepping in to shout and scream his way through biting lyrics, mostly penned by his brother.

The brothers have recently relocated to St. Petersburg, where they share an apartment with Andrey’s wife and dog and try to scratch out a living. Andrey is a warehouse employee for a bookstore chain, while Misha is studying to be a hairdresser. Not so long ago, both were almost ready to quit music for good, partly because performing live and the intensity required by their music was taking a serious psychological toll on Misha. The due instead bounced back with “Zlost’ & Smeh” (“Anger & Laughter”), their first record made in St. Petersburg. If everything is indeed a fight, then Prognoz Pogody are not ready to go down without one.

Crumbnoise

Omsk

Dmitriy “Crumb” Laputin is somewhat reluctant to call his Crumbnoise project a “label”. “It’s basically just a Bandcamp page and a VK group to publish my own projects and collaborations,” he says. A veteran of Omsk’s indie and experimental scene, 34-year-old Laputin has been exploring drone-based guitar music for almost two decades now (“I was critically bad at playing, this was the only way to get creative,” he says.) His informed view of the Omsk indie scene, however, is far from optimistic. “It comes and goes in waves”, he explains. “Once a critical mass of interested consumers accumulates, things spring up; the in-crowd forms, venues open and touring artists are brought in, shows are held and pull in crowds. But then everybody grows up and moves on, whether to the capital or the routine of adult life. I’ve long stopped counting how many of these cycles there have been.”

Local artists, meanwhile, always have it tough, even when the scene is on the up. “Hardly anyone comes to see local stuff, though there’s never a shortage of artists,” shrugs Laputin. “With my own experimental music, it was pointless to even bother; there’s no one to see that and almost no one to play it. There isn’t any scene to speak of; it’s just me, that guy, and maybe a couple of buddies of mine.” Despite Laputin’s self-effacing attitude, the Crumbnoise Bandcamp page lists no less than 28 releases. Sure, most of them are solo or collaborative pieces built around improvisation, but they also boast a considerable stylistic range, from droning ambient of Micronesia Guitar Trio and Baxmal to propulsive and jagged krautrock of Flageda and insistent techno beats of Ryabikov-Kresling-Laputin trio. Crumb’s most recent release, a self-described “rock” record by project [[\/\/W\/\/]] may be his strongest yet: an hour’s worth of furious guitar noise riding a thundering krautrock groove that establishes Crumb as a clear sonic and spiritual descendant of titans like Can, Swans and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. “There’s never money for anything more than a tolerable provincial life, and you can’t get far on enthusiasm alone”, admits the musician, who works as a paramedic in his day-to-day life. Though he’s quick to add that the current downswing of the Omsk indie scene doesn’t really affect his own solo projects. Among his immediate plans: touring and figuring out a way to put out cassette mixtapes with Crumbnoise tracks.


Cathou

Novokuznetsk

Image: Courtesy of Cathou

Even by Siberian standards, Novokuznetsk, a large industrial city at the heart of the Kuzbass coal region, doesn’t have much going for it culturally. “There are practically no opportunities here,” says Cathou’s Ekaterina Zhernakova. “There’s no culture, no events, at least musically speaking. You cling to anything, really. Mostly you have to come up with your own ways to recharge your creative batteries.” Cathou is one such outlet for Zhernakova, who decided to pursue music full-time after stumbling into a project almost by accident. “I met this guy at one local party who said he had a studio with a friend,” she says. “And he offered me the chance to go there and try to make something crazy.” The result of that impromptu session was “Popytka Vzloma Bytiya” (“The Attempted Hack of Creation”), a single released online in June 2017 and credited to Katana ft. Mormorion Fox. Katana became Zhernakova’s first musical alias. While the background beats struggle to shine, Katana raps over them with forcefulness and flair one would hardly expect from anyone’s first time at the mic. The single might not have had much reach besides the musicians’ closest friends, but the result felt good enough for Zhernakova to continue.

Released two years later, “Chernovoy” (“The Draft”), the debut record from Zhernakova’s latest project, Cathou, is a far more confident mix of sultry vocals, sensitive beats, and bare bones electronic arrangements with an eastern tinge. A wealth of new experience means that Zhernakova is capable not only of giving her performance more nuance, but also a softer and fuller tone — a change which partly prompted her name change. “Chernovoy” smoulders instead of pierces, seeks to enchant and seduce rather than attack head-on; its best moments, like the subtly erotic track “Moe Serdce” (“My Heart”), shows that Cathou is clearly ready for the big leagues. Major labels, however, have yet to come knocking in Novokuznetsk. For Zhernakova, Cathou is something that she invests in, rather than profits from — at least for now.

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