The more we learn about Russia, the less we understand it. That's what my professor of Russian History once said. A bit on the nose, I thought at the time, but he’s the expert. And maybe there's some truth in it too, because with all the still surprisingly persistent Cold War rhetoric, it's very easy to dismiss the country as the Great Other and leave it at that, but break through that barrier and you'll really see how large, exciting and diverse the country is, and with it its alternative music scene. Where on earth do you even start? Fortunately, breaking that barrier is almost as old a tradition as maintaining it has been, and representatives of the Russian underground seep through to the Western European club and festival circuit from time to time.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
The 'New Russian Wave', they call it. No more copy-pasting, playing by the rulebook of Western bands, as was the custom in the 90s and well into the 00s. “Everyone got sick of that,” says Natasha Padabed, the face behind “one-woman agency” More Zvukov. In 2001 she moved from Saint Petersburg to Amsterdam for her studies, where she soon started booking shows for befriended Russian bands. Padabed now lives in Berlin, but when I call her she is back in Amsterdam for a while, from where she will tour OCCII (Amsterdam), WORM (Rotterdam) and Welcome to the Village with Moscow's Lucidvox this week. In the last four or five years more and more bands have managed to develop an original, idiosyncratic sound, increasingly based on the Russian language and culture instead of Western influences; Lucidvox is one of those bands. “There are so many people all over the world who have no idea what Russia means; they only think in stereotypes like communism, Putin and vodka,” the band recently told Clash. “We want to show that much more is happening in Russia.” On the surface, the four women make whooping, endlessly fascinating and transcendent prog; beneath it lies “a magical world of Slavic folklore and fairy tales full of wisdom and unique characters, a world that will be completely unknown to most people.” When I ask them in a back-and-forth email thread what drives that ‘new wave’, the answer is: “Maybe musicians here are finally realizing their strength and that our culture is completely different from that of the West. If you want to change something in your own country, you have to do it in your own language.”
Lucidvox is not alone and slowly this new Russian wave also seems to wash up on Dutch shores. Shortparis, also on the roster of Padabed, did almost the same round in 2018, transforming Valkhof, OCCII, WORM and Welcome to the Village into a complete chaos, tossing all conventions of entertainment aside. Earlier this year, ГШ / Glintshake also played its first Dutch shows at, you guessed it, WORM and OCCII, plus the Groningen café Kult. If you look at this year's line-up of Welcome to the Village, you will see a range of exciting acts from other Eastern European countries appearing next to Lucidvox and Russian ambient virtuoso Kate NV (also frontwoman of Glintshake): Karpov not Kasparov from Romania; shishi from Lithuania, Mart Avi from Estonia, The Ills from Slovakia, just to name a few. And if you ask Richard Foster, journalist for The Quietus, among others, head of communications at WORM and by now an authority on the Russian underground, you could well speak of a new development. “Apart from Shortparis, Motorama and some of their side projects, I think this is all fairly new for the Netherlands. People from the mainstream media have laughed at me for being so excited about it. God knows why, because it is very good music.”
Apparently there is a tentative change ongoing and if you look for the cause it won't take you long to find the many showcase festivals in Central and Eastern Europe. Padabed and Foster are full of praise, as is Koen ter Heegde, who brought the aforementioned bands (and many others) to WORM and OCCII as programmer and to Welcome to the Village as a curator: “Thanks to those showcase festivals in Central Europe, an extra door has been opened for those bands. Dutch programmers do not visit Russia on a monthly or annual basis. There is a huge barrier to getting a foothold in Europe, so something has definitely changed with those bands being seen at MENT Ljubljana or Tallinn Music Week or Station Narva or Waves Vienna.” “Magical festivals,” Foster calls them. “They are actual bridges, where people meet, talk and become friends.” He writes to me while Mart Avi, “pop star sans pareil”, smokes an e-cigarette on his balcony. They know each other from exactly those festivals and next week Avi is joining Lucidvox on tour. Via similar paths Lucidvox and Shortparis ended up on, among others, The Great Escape, which has helped them get more of a foothold. It is all the more striking that an influential showcase festival like Eurosonic, perhaps the most important gatekeeper for European bands in the Netherlands, has not booked Russian bands in its official program for years.
It is not easy to make the crossing as a Russian band; impossible without the described intermediate steps. “Russia is very far,” Padabed likes to reiterate. “For a real tour you have to hire a van, a driver, a backline – that's a lot of money. And then you still have to drive from Moscow to Europe, that's already a couple of days. I only know one Dutch band that has ever done that the other way around. It was hell for them. It's relatively easy for a band like Shortparis, because they come from Saint Petersburg, right on the border of Finland and the Baltic States. But imagine that you have to come from Novosibirsk, or from Vladivostok, or somewhere in the middle of Russia. It is so hard." Distance, money, hassle with visas – and Foster can think of a few more reasons why so many interesting Russian artists don't venture outside of their own country: “A lot of Western clubs, bookers and promoters don't want them because they are good or interesting bands but purely because they are Russian bands. It is the heritage of a mainly Anglo-American music industry. There is no further intention behind it and it is not actively happening, but the music industry is a well-oiled machine in that respect with sometimes very rigid, cumbersome rules and a strong sense of complacency, which does not really create chances for new, unconventional sounds. We should really just ignore that. We have to take risks.”
“I’ll talk about Putin or his politics when he makes a good record I want to buy.”Richard Foster
If you ask Padabed, not much has changed for Russian bands in the Netherlands in recent years. After all, what she does, she has been doing for over fifteen years. “It might be a little easier for me now, because the bands I represent are getting bigger and I'm also representing some successful non-Russian acts. But the interest in Russian acts from the Netherlands is still limited to two or three major cities, where the audience is a bit more progressive.” But Ter Heegde notes that the constant search, the hunger for new acts with new stories, has increasingly led people to Central and Eastern Europe in recent years, and that better networks are developing between the bands there and promoters and bookers here. It offers bands the opportunity to compete with English, American and Dutch bands, something that would have been impossible on their own. Ter Heegde acknowledges his own role, and that of Foster and Padabed, in all these developments, as well as the importance of a strong narrative: “It is a form of curatorship. I think curating bands individually, custom fit within a lineup that has been lovingly curated, and that goes for WORM as well as OCCII and Welcome to the Village, also puts the band into context and into a story. This way you can introduce a band to an audience in a DIY way, without putting thousands of euros into a promotional budget, because I don't have one."
Padabed cannot ignore the importance of a good story and the importance of media that tell that story. It is not her work that changes, it is not Russia that changes, but the Western perspective on it. Like Ter Heegde, she refers to the extensive media attention for the aforementioned showcase festivals and the impressive series of articles that Foster recently wrote for The Quietus about the Russian underground. Foster himself speaks of “a new take on the old Russo-Western cultural foxtrot” and sketches the dream of an 'alternative International' and thus sets the tone for what the interaction between the Western European music industry, the public and the Russian underground should look like. Ter Heegde: “Russia is a rewarding subject in more ways than one, but what you see a lot is that writers try to politicize these new acts, such as Shortparis, and think that anyone who makes music that is factious would also automatically be political. But that focus often distracts from the music.” When asked, Foster also likes to keep politics out of the story: "I'll talk about Putin or his politics when he makes a good record I want to buy." So the story of Russian bands like Lucidvox, Shortparis, Glintshake and many others who find their way to Western Europe is not a political story; it is a story that does not lend itself to contradictions at all, but revolves around breaking down barriers and establishing a kind of cultural cross-pollination, or at least an introduction.
Lucidvox will play in OCCII, Amsterdam on July 18; on July 19 in WORM, Rotterdam; and July 20 on Welcome to the Village. Kate NV will also be playing at the festival in Leeuwarden that day. At the end of August she will be at Into The Great Wide Open.
This article was created in unpaid collaboration with festival Welcome to the Village. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.