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I am Meat

I am Meat was formed by Jonas Golland and Kazuya Ohtani as part of their university project in 2011. David Gadsdon, who was moonlighting as a stand-up comedian at the time, was drafted in to front the band. While Golland and Ohtani composed the frenetic music, Gadsdon’s lyrics underpinned the songs by constructing elaborate narratives populated by abhorrent protagonists. On stage, the frontman would embody these characters by dressing up in various costumes and delivering the vocals in a confrontational style. 

When Ohtani moved back to Japan, the band continued to operate, with Gardyloo Spew (SPeW) joining on alto saxophone and Cos Chapman (Rude Mechanicals, An Infernal Contraption) on bass. The shifting lineup saw the band move away from the theatrical cabaret that defined them in the beginning to the queasy jazz-punk outfit they later became. While Spew’s riffs gave the songs a new melodious edge, Chapman’s bass worked hard to ground Golland’s flitting drumming. Having no guitar opened up the mid-range and ensured that Gadsdon’s lyrics took centre stage.

The band finally disbanded in 2014, citing exhaustion as the principal cause for their demise. Luckily, their experiments in punk, jazz and cabaret were committed to tape. Six years later, I am Meat’s eponymous debut finally sees the light of day. Like their live shows, the album exudes a sense of paranoid urgency where the vocals, rhythm section and saxophone conspire to reflect our chaotic world. Ilia Rogatchevski caught up with the band to examine their motivations.

The band broke up back in 2014, why release the record now or even at all?

Jonas Golland: Better late than never seems a veritable excuse, but we feel the album is worth it. This was the release that captured most of the songs of the four members. It was also the highest quality and, in the early noughties, production values dwarfed the urgency. Recorded music is a wafer these days. One touch-up of vocals or saxophone levels leads to another, until our release show had no actual album. We hoped no one would notice.

David Gadsdon: With the rise of streaming, albums aren’t given as much prominence in the digital world as they once were. I longed for this to be the record it is, because, in my mind, this collection of songs shares similar thematic concerns. Most of them were played at our first gig and it felt like a betrayal to leave any of them behind. The bottom line is that it’s so good to finish something and set it free. It draws a line under what you’ve done and allows it to live a life of its own.

I am Meat started off as a trio called The Protagonists of David Gadsdon. Can you tell us more about the early days? 

DG: I was doing a monthly stand up gig at the Boogaloo pub in north London in 2009. Jonas came to see me perform. I didn’t meet him until I was outside. He started saying my name over and over in order to memorise it. It was a disturbing encounter. From there I was invited to do some improv recordings with him, which I had never done before, to pieces of his pre-recorded music. They were much more comedy sketches and jazzy lyrics than songs, but the intention of making each a different character was still embedded in the concept of the band at that time.

Flash forward to 2011. Jonas had decided, based on our recording sessions, to put together a band as part of his dissertation at university. I was probably the natural choice to do it with, as was Kazuya Ohtani, who was living and studying with Jonas at the time. By this point the music started to edge towards spoken word songs with a cabaret influence to them, like Kurt Weill or The Dresden Dolls.

JG: As a trio we debuted at the Kings Head, Acton, to an unsuspecting student crowd from Tech Music Schools. The good response was played down by professor Simon Carter: “It’s a bit niche, innit?”

Who are these characters that you mention and how do they manifest themselves in the music?

DG: A mulch of people. Some of them are fictional like ‘The New Growth’, some are based on people I know. Others are takes on famous people, like Walter Sickert in ‘Mr. Nemo’. There’s a part of me in all the characters, although I draw a line with associating myself with the truly awful ones. 

Some of your characters express chauvinistic tendencies. ‘Mr Nemo’ is certainly one. Having had a prolonged break between the writing and publication of these songs, how do you reflect on their content in 2020?

DG: I’m glad you’ve brought this up. It’s been on my mind a lot. Post #MeToo, there is a lot of focus on men doing grossly inappropriate, if not actually immoral, things. I can’t help but reframe the way I see the characters in that context. There is definitely a lot of toxic masculinity in some of them; Mr. Nemo is downright diabolical and I had to stop performing him live because I hated the character. My focus was to puff up the characters and then deconstruct their machismo.

The lyrical content of ‘Teenage Sluts’ suggests that the protagonist is male, but the song is written and sung by a woman. Is there more to this song than carnivalesque inversion of traditional gendered perspectives?

Gardyloo Spew: The perspective inversion came from an angered place somewhere in the depths of my mind. Some have interpreted the lyrics as an anti-feminist attack when in fact it is the complete opposite. At the time of writing, I had a friend who was a heavy porn abuser and this triggered me very strongly. The reaction I had had come from my own past experiences of being objectified and abused. I wanted to attempt to understand the state of mind of the abuser.

Corrupted states of mind seem to be one of the principal themes on this album. Do you still see the individual as inherently corruptible? 

DG: I think the temptation of corruption is evident in everyone’s life. Being in certain positions makes you more prone to it. The rich and powerful are bound to fall prey to corruption more easily, because they are trying to protect the hierarchical systems that give them such exclusive privilege. The burden they place on the people beneath them creates an additional temptation to give in to whatever dubious ethical or moral failing they may feel seduced by. That does not mean you cannot fight against it. 

I certainly wouldn’t say that we are in a better place now than when I wrote the songs. What with the increase in police brutality against black people, the trampling of queer rights and the inequalities between the genders, it seems we are in a much worse place than before. These systems can’t help but fail us, because one size does not fit all. The challenge of maintaining your individual integrity is as strong a fight as it’s ever been. But you can choose that path and you can decide to do the right thing. 

‘I am Meat’ is out now on Ex Gratia. Follow I am Meat on Facebook and Instagram. Photos courtesy of the band.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Joyzine, June 2020

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Moscow Music Week

Various Venues, Moscow, Russia.
Photo: Sasha Mademuaselle

Moscow Music Week is a festival that celebrates new underground music. It has been described by Russian culture website The Village as Russia’s answer to The Great Escape and SXSW, although it doesn’t yet match the size or status of either. Its fifth edition took place in a dozen different venues spread throughout the centre and northeastern quarters of the city, competing for the public’s attention with the Russian capital’s 872nd birthday celebrations.

Thirty events were programmed over the course of four warm September days. These included concerts, panel discussions and a cinema screening. It’s a tough calendar to follow and impossible to see everything, especially when considering the distances involved in getting from one venue to another. Due to the majority of the festival being held on weekdays, the gigs were programmed concurrently in the evenings, hence many unavoidable clashes. 

Most of the gigs at Moscow Music Week were marketed as showcases. These were organised by external promoters affiliated with record labels, other festivals or radio stations, each with its own specific audience and sound. The online radio station New New World Radio, which was founded in 2017 by Arthur Kuzmin and Ivan Zoloto, took over the Powerhouse late on Friday night. Describing itself on Instagram as “post-genres, post-geography, post-politics”, NNW’s showcase focused primarily on experimental electronica in a 19th century house not far from the Moscow river front. 

NNW regulars Electro-haram began the night with a series of textured sound collages assembled from a bank of blinking effects boxes and rotating flexi discs. In a questionable choice of stage attire, one of the group’s members wore a niqāb. It is unclear if this was a ‘post-political’ provocation, but if the wearer isn’t Muslim, then this action is extremely disrespectful. Judging from some of the group’s releases, namely Rape the tape >> Tape the rape and Taharrush Gamea (Arabic for group harrasment), they also have a fixation with sexual assault. 

When questioned about the set post factum, the project’s representative Dalia Bakunova claimed that “this practice is the theatrical embodiment of the metaphysical synthesis of tradition and modernity, religiously-mystical components and a reflection on the subject of global culture.” Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to equate Muslims with rapists and terrorists, but it’s hard not to come to that conclusion when presented with overwrought PR statements such as the one above.

One of the real highlights of the festival was the sovietwave four piece POEXXXALI (pronounced poekhali – meaning ‘let’s hit the road’) who performed at the Aglomerat creative space. Claiming on social media to hail from “Darkmenistan”, the band is a conceptual project that began life on YouTube. Their videos made liberal use of 1990s cable television aesthetics and exaggerated performance art. Co-fronted by the alleged vampire Poko Cox, whose skin was painted entirely in red, and Valdis Bielykh (former art director of the Dozhd oppositional TV channel), the band cycled through a set of songs that were both humorous and thematically basic, but nevertheless got to the core of the Russian condition. 

For example, the lyrics to the song Chai list different sorts of tea, as well as all the things you can do with with the hot beverage, namely drinking or spilling it. Another key song is Zarplata, which is about spending all your payday money in one go. Western audiences may hear echoes of the Beastie Boys or Devo in POEXXXALI’s prankish style, but the band make their new wave allegiances clear by covering Imperiya’s 1992 synthpop hit Poezd na Leningrad (Train to Leningrad) towards the end of the show.

POEXXXALI’s concert was part of the Bol Festival showcase, which mostly confined itself to the Aviator Loft in the Basmanny District. Bol promotes homegrown indie acts and there were many artists on the bill, but Lucidvox, who have already made waves in the UK press with their blend of desert psych and Russian folk vocalisations, were perhaps the most memorable. 

In the Zamoskvorechye District, just south of the Kremlin, the DOM culture house presented a showcase of free jazz and improvisation. Speedball Trio came close to forging a new unstable element with their transgressive fusion of jazz and metal, while the improv four-piece Dukkha, lead by the sound artist Viktor Dryzhov, mined for fleeting instances of textured serenity, before collapsing time and time again into freeform noise. However, it was the Saint Petersburg quartet Kubikmaggi who were the most arresting act of the evening. 

The self-proclaimed jazz-punks synthesized radically disparate styles that included electronica, dub and minimalist composition to create an enchanting atmosphere that had people daydreaming in the mezzanine lounge area. There were moments of grinding tension, too, such as the track Summertime. Bass player Max Roudenko, drummer Ilya Varfolomeev and saxophonist Alexander Timofeev wove in and out of Ksenia Fedorova’s piano melodies, which started off playfully meditative, before swelling into an ambulatory groove and, finally, concluding in a thundering crescendo.  

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2019

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Lonely Hearts Club Band: an interview with Trupa Trupa’s Grzegorz Kwiatkowski

Ilia Rogatchevski catches up with the Polish quartet’s front man to discuss Gdansk’s tumultuous history, the films of Werner Herzog and the importance of boredom to the creative process

Trupa Trupa are an art rock band from Gdansk. Fusing elements of post-hardcore, no wave and psychedelia, the four-piece exude a restless energy that bears the hallmarks of Fugazi’s uncompromising punk ethos. Fronted by the poet Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, the band weave absurd lyrics through liquifying guitar riffs, angular bass lines and concise percussion. Repetition plays a key role in their work, as is evidenced by their playful band name, which roughly translates to a troupe of corpses.

Trupa Trupa released their first two albums Headache and Jolly New Songs, through independent labels Blue Tapes and ici d’ailleurs. Both records received international praise. In his Quietus review of the band’s debut, Wire contributor Tristan Bath called Headache ”their first moment of true greatness”.

On the 26 February the band announced that they had signed to Sub Pop, whose label head Jonathan Poneman revealed that he thinks of the band “as a thunderstorm with big gusts, explosions and torrential downpours”. He made the decision to sign them three years ago, but, he says, “it took me a long time to get it done”. Coinciding with the news, Trupa Trupa released the brand new track “Dream About”, with an accompanying video by Norwegian artist Benjamin Finger.

Ilia Rogatchevski: Congratulations on signing to Sub Pop. How did it happen?

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: Jonathan Poneman, the boss of Sub Pop, was at our gig at OFF Festival in Katowice. He enjoyed the gig and suggested that he would like to work with us. That was six years ago. Through the years we were working hard, but we weren’t working for Sub Pop or anyone else. Of course, we were curious. We knew that it could happen.

The breaking point was when we played SXSW in 2018. The gig was in a small Irish pub. David Fricke from Rolling Stone was there and Robin Hilton from NPR. All these important people came and my amp broke. I asked the stage manager if he had something else, but he didn’t. Suddenly, one person from the audience said: “I’ve got an amp I can give you.”

In 20 minutes we played songs which should be played in 35. The fastest concert ever. We were so angry. Everything was going wrong. The bass player’s guitar stopped working. We kept on playing, but he was shouting with his guitar over his head. These journalists thought: Woah, man! What a band. They are crazy. We are lucky to have strange accidents working on our side.

Is the band a conduit for accidents, then?

We are really open to mistakes. We love absurdity and paradoxes. The band seem a bit dark, but we love to act like clowns. We just wrote many songs with our producer (Michał Kupicz), but we really don’t know if they will be accessible. Let’s see.

Dream About

Benjamin Finger directed the music video for your new song “Dream About”. How did that collaboration come about?

We played with him at a great gig in Cafe Oto in London and became friends. The video looks like hipster stuff from the internet, but it’s his own tapes. We love this kind of atmosphere. It’s very important for us that we are not pretending to be a professional rock band, which makes a professional video. We were afraid that Sub Pop would tell us what to do. Of course, we were wrong. They are totally open to this kind of DIY art.

In a previous interview you suggested that the “spiritual strategy of DIY” is important to the band. Can you define what you mean by that?

You can feel it inside the music that it’s not a PR project. The important thing about Trupa Trupa is that [our] albums are a bit boring. I like to be bored. Our new songs remind me of the atmosphere from Samuel Beckett. Samuel Beckett’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The time is running. We are waiting. We are observing. It’s a meditative, pessimistic thing.

Samuel Beckett’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I like that. In the past you’ve cited The Beatles as a core influence. They were very forward thinking for their time, but are now so canonised that we no longer consider them to be experimental. With that in mind, what sets you apart from other guitar bands working today?

Bands as we are, they don’t exist, because they break up after one or two years. But we exist and are more established than ever. Quite unique, I think, is that we are very democratic in our vision. Every one of us has a strong personality. One is a painter, the second one is a graphic designer, the third a poet, the fourth a reporter and a photographer. Every one of us is trying to put his view inside of the band. It’s kind of a competition. We don’t want to [exist] for the audience. The most important thing is ourselves. I know that sounds narcissistic, but we are friends and this music comes from our friendship.

You guys are based in Gdansk. Have you always been there?

We all live in Gdansk, but not all of us were born here. Tomek Pawluczuk [drums] and Wojciech Juchniewicz [bass] came here from Białystok and Skarżysko-Kamienna, respectively, for studies at the Academy of Fine Arts. Me and Rafał Wojczal [keyboard, guitar] are friends from the same neighbourhood. This is our city and I think that it’s got some impact on us, even if we don’t want it. It’s a very special place, for sure.

What aspects of it seep into your work?

It is the history. Gdansk is connected to the Second World War, to the movement of Solidarity. For me, the place called Westerplatte – the place where the war started – was the dream place for a child. It was like a video game.

There is a mixture of many things in the air still. It’s a really horrifying place, even. For example, a few weeks ago our mayor [Paweł Adamowicz] was murdered. The whole of Poland is in big shock. Gdansk is the city of transgression. Big things are still happening here.

There is also big, great nature around us. We love these landscapes. All of us love Werner Herzog movies, for example. It’s a bit connected to the German aesthetic, I guess. On the other hand, we have our inner landscapes and stories, which are not so connected to the city.

It’s interesting that you mention Herzog. In a previous interview you said that “Jolly New Songs” was a Fitzcarraldo moment for you: the band building an opera house in the middle of the rainforest.

Brian Fitzgerald, the main character of Fitzcarraldo, is a hero for me in the same way as Don Quixote. I’d like to be someone and achieve something, but after all I’m a loser. Every day I wake up and think I will be a better man. It’s not that I would like to be the Übermensch. I would like to be a good man, but I would also like to be a good artist who is constructing his strange ideas and objects.

Listening to “Dream About”, I would compare it to another Herzog film: Lesson Of Darkness (1992), which documents the burning of the oil fields in Kuwait after the Gulf War. It’s contemplative and mellow, but very dark as well.

I think you’re right with this example. For me, the new material is the same. It’s pessimistic, naive and slow. You can hear in this song [“Dream About”] that it’s a bit broken. It’s resigned, calm. Almost every [one of our] songs pretends to be a regular song, but they’re really mantras about nothingness. They really are songs of nowhere.

Trupa Trupa will perform three dates at SXSW 2019 on 14, 15 & 16 March, as well Poznań on 26 April and Sharpe Festival, Bratislava, on 27 April. Photo: Michal Szlaga

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, February 2019

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Skaņu Mežs Festival

Daile Music House, Riga, Latvia
Photo: Busdriver by Artūrs Pavlovs.

Based at the Daile Music House, a repurposed cinema in Riga’s central district, Skaņu Mežs displays a broad approach to curation. Now in its 16th edition the festival’s most accessible programme yet incorporates everything from contemporary classical to power electronics. 

First on stage is the Latvian pianist Rūdolfs Macats. His solo piece is percussive and unrelenting. Using his elbows to hammer the keys and, at times, tersely strumming the strings inside, Macats’s violent treatment of his instrument erodes away established notions of the piano’s melodic qualities and sets the tone for the sets that follow.

One of this year’s Shape platform artists Caterina Barbieri presents a modular set so loud it has members of the audience sticking fingers in their ears. Harsh noise is common, but so are ethereal synth sweeps, occasionally punctuated by interjections of deep bass. These stark combinations embody the Italian composer’s work with a sense of grave and foreboding intensity.

The feeling spills over into Thurston Moore and Mats Gustafsson’s improvised duet. Both musicians display a diverse textural range and, during the delicate sections, it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for the bell-like flourishes. There is plenty of feedback, of course. At one point, Gustafsson gets behind his pedalboard and starts emitting staccato bass frequencies, which pop the speaker cones and make you worry for the sound system. 

By contrast, William Basinski’s music is much more static. Subtle melodies weave in and out of scope as if they were tectonic plates grinding up against each other. Basinski’s appropriation of muzak finds a natural home in Riga. The city’s public spaces are dominated by what the American composer calls “anesthesia music”. In the Q&A prior to his set, Basinski spoke about capturing and distorting these unwelcome interventions in an effort to “find a loop that suspends time”. 

Strong parallels exist between Basinski and Liz Harris aka Grouper. Both composers make music that is slow and melancholic, but whereas Basinski is in search for the sublime, Harris is engaged with the intimate. Illuminated by a single dim spotlight, Harris alternates between cassette playback, spacial guitars and contemplative piano phrases. The reverb-laced vocals conceal the lyrics, but the sense that a story is unfolding is never far away.

Armed with a mic and sampler, LA’s Busdriver aka Regan Farquhar unleashes a torrent of staggeringly psychedelic hip hop rhythms interspersed with hyperfast lyrics about electricity, sabotage and dangerous art. Vocally reminiscent of Mr. Bungle-era Mike Patton and backed by jazz drummer Darryl Moore, Busdriver gets the crowd moving by fusing elements of bebop, funk and electro. Despite the bare staging, there is theatricality in Farquhar’s delivery and, during one of his improvised segments, he even enters a scat battle with the drums.

It is RP Boo’s set, however, that eventually breaks the dance floor. Spinning deconstructed hits like Bohemian Rhapsody and Funkytown, the footwork pioneer intercuts the source material with syncopated beats and unifies the audience into a single dancing organism. Speaking to the festival director Viestarts Gailītis after the event, I asked him to explain the diverse curation of Skaņu Mežs. “It works best to have a programme that caters to various tastes,” he says. “That way concert attendants learn about other genres [and] aren’t easily bored by uniformity. Next year, we will have more dissonant music”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, December 2018

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Leto (Summer)

Kirill Serebrennikov (Director), Hype Film/Kinovista, 126 mins
Image: Aleksander Kuznetsov as The Skeptik in Leto (Summer)

“The Soviet rock musician must find the light inside of mankind. He must have an active role in society.” So says the director of the Leningrad Rock Club, Anna Aleksandrovna (Yuliya Aug), as she examines the lyrics of Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo). The Rock Club is a bastion of liberty in an otherwise monochromatic world and Anna is its gatekeeper. Tsoi’s lyrics engage with the poetic aspects of working class life, but in order to appease the censor, his songs are masked as critiques of unsavoury behaviour: sexual promiscuity, teenage alcoholism and parasitism. 

Tsoi, who died in a car accident in 1990, is a heroic figure in the eyes of many Russian speakers. His legacy, and that of his post punk band Kino, stretches far beyond its original Soviet context. It still resonates. So strongly, in fact, that Tsoi is the subject of three separate movies produced this year. Leto (Summer) was the first to be released, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Soundtrack Award), and is, perhaps, the most controversial. 

Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Leto is an endearing, if somewhat fictional, portrait of the 1980s Soviet rock era. Set in Leningrad, the film follows the early working relationship of Tsoi and Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk), songwriter and frontman of the blues rock band Zoopark. The screenplay is based on the recollections of Naumenko’s widow, Natasha (Irina Starshenbaum) and ensnares the three main protagonists in a love triangle. Those who knew them consider this an ill-conceived plot device. Boris Grebenshchikov, a Russian rock legend in his own right, went as far as to call the screenplay “Lies, from start to finish.” at a televised press conference. 

Grebenshchikov may be right, but Leto is fiction, after all. The viewer is frequently reminded of this by Sceptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), a peripheral character who has a habit of dramatically breaking the fourth wall. In one scene, he starts a near-riot at the Rock Club by encouraging the sedentary audience to get up and dance, before reminding us that none of this actually happened. 

Such moments are there to articulate the complex dynamics of Soviet life: rock is allowed, but dancing to it is not. To experience a taste of freedom, the audience must look inward. In the ARU TV video blog, the Russian music journalist Artemy Troitsky, who also worked as a consultant on the film, refers to this phenomenon as “total internal emigration”. According to Troitsky, this was a crucial tactic, used by artists and audience alike, to survive in a totalitarian state, which was closed off from the rest of the world. (Serebrennikov might have been forced to employ this tactic to finish the film. He’s been under house arrest since August 2017, for the alleged embezzlement of government grants.)

Leto finds itself following in the tradition of many western biopics that bend the facts for the benefit of artistic effect: The Doors (1991), 24 Hour Party People (2002), Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010). It must be remembered, however, that rock thrives on myth. If a film accurately manages to reflect the energy felt by the listener when he or she hears those songs, then it should be treated as a success. These emotions are, of course, intimately subjective, but Serebrennikov’s Leto gets close to illuminating them.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, November 2018

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Sabiwa + Lafidki + Pisitakun + Sonia Calico

The Glove That Fits, London, UK
Photo: Pisitakun by Jonathan Crabb

Tonight’s showcase is organised by Chinabot, Eastern Margins and Yeti Out, collectives who specialise in curating contemporary art and music from Asia. Hailing from Taiwan, Sabiwa’s laptop-based audiovisual performance makes use of dislocated vocals, field recordings and acidic synths to create an ethereal take on techno. The beats are erratic, disappearing as quickly as they surface. Judging from the corresponding projections of parrots, bees and jellyfish, themes of nature and transformation, link Sabiwa’s compositions.

The vibe gets darker when the Cambodian musician Lafidki aka Saphy Vong takes to the stage. Hunched over a laptop and two sequencers, Vong’s minimalist dance music fuses industrial house beats with a saturated high end. Coupled with glitchy visuals, Lafidki’s psychedelic interjections create a web of unsettling visions. 

Vong is the founder of Chinabot, which has put out eight releases since its inception in 2017. Later clarifying, over email, the reason for initiating the project, Vong states that: “There is an erasure of Asian people’s narratives from electronic music. I want to find a way to rewrite these voices into history.” 

He went on to say that there is an overall “fetishization of social troubles” by western creatives who appropriate Asian culture and aesthetics, but ignore their own role in the “colonization of ideas”. The information exchange works the other way, too. According to Vong, the Cambodian electronic scene is dominated by expat DJs who spin only commercial tracks. Chinabot attempts to challenge the globalised nature of electronic music by providing Asian artists with a platform to experiment; a place where they can “be proud of their culture and background”.

That being said, it is difficult to uncover any distinctive aesthetics in Sabiwa and Lafidki’s sets. Their music explores tropes that are transnational, borderless. This assertion, however, may be down to latent references that are unrecognised by western ears. 

The most affecting set of the evening comes from the Thai artist Pisitakun. His latest release, SOSLEEP, was created in response to the death of the artist’s father. Traditional instruments like the pi mon and the khean are pitted against drum machines and synthesisers. The beat is led by field recordings of a heart rate monitor and fortified with metallic kick drums and crashing waves of harsh noise. The resulting atmosphere is that of an oddly groovy catharsis. 

In our post-concert Facebook chat, Pisitakun explains: “I was in an ER and woke up to the chaotic noise happening in the room. Some stranger in the next bed passed away. Death [is] like sleep. People could just go in a second. The name ‘So Sleep’ was my SOS for when there’s no help, emotionally”.

By the time Taipei’s Sonia Calico steps up to the decks, the crowd is ready to be coaxed out of the darkness. Calico’s DJ set is diverse. It’s peppered with Korean grime, reggae bangers and pop remixes, as well as a few of Calico’s own productions.  The music elicits conversations about language, emigration and integration from some of the more loquacious dancers. Their conversation brings to mind Vong’s other reason for organising this event: “Noise shows used to be a lot less diverse, but more people are finding diversity in these spaces. I like the idea [of going] to a noise show and then dancing in a club, but [at] the same event.”

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, November 2018

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Summer of Love

Photo: Teo Yoo as Viktor Tsoi and Roma Zver as Mike Naumenko in Leto (Summer)

Russian underground chronicler Artemy Troitsky talks to Ilia Rogatchevski about Leto, Kirill Serebrennikov’s new film documenting the 1980s Soviet rock scene.

Artemy Troitsky is a Russian music journalist, cultural critic and video blogger. He is the author of books such as Back In The USSR: The True Story Of Rock In Russia (1987), Tusovka: Who’s Who In The New Soviet Rock Culture (1990) and Subkultura: Stories Of Youth And Resistance In Russia (2017). Troitsky began his career in the early 1980s and is closely associated with the rising wave of Soviet rock musicians, who came to prominence during this time. Two key artists from this period were Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko, chief songwriters and frontmen of the bands Kino and Zoopark, respectively. The two men had a close working relationship and both died young, in tragic, but unrelated circumstances, at the beginning of the 1990s.

Kino are a true phenomenon. Rock was an illicit artform in the Soviet Union before the 1980s and the band shot to popularity in Mikhael Gorbachev’s Perestroika era begun in 1985. Fusing elements of new wave, post punk and pop, with lyrics that articulated the defiance of the Russian soul, Kino’s music captured the ambiguous divide between totalitarianism and an uncertain future. Naumenko’s Zoopark also reflected the disaffection of Soviet youth, but whereas Kino’s legacy extends far beyond its original context, Zoopark’s music struggles to resonate with young Russians today due to Naumenko’s frosty intellectual detachment.

Kino “Khochu Peremen!” (“I Want Change!”, 1989)

Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Leto (Summer, 2018), is based on the recollections of Naumenko’s widow Natasha. Set in the summer of 1982, around the time when Kino recorded their debut album 45, the plot focuses on Tsoi and Naumenko’s working relationship. There is, however, an additional dimension to the story: a love triangle between Tsoi, Naumenko and Natasha. Even before its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the movie managed to generate waves of controversy from people who knew the protagonists personally. Musicians such as Boris Grebenshchikov, of the band Akvarium, and Aleksei Rybin, who co-founded Kino with Tsoi in 1981, criticised the screenplay for being unfaithful to true events.

Prior to the completion of filming, on 22 August 2017 Serebrennikov was arrested by the Russian authorities on charges of fraud. His theatre company Sedmaya Studiya (Studio Seven) is accused of embezzling 133 million rubles (£1.5 million) of government grants. It has been suggested that the arrest was a repressive reaction to Serebrennikov’s previous film The Student (2016), which is heavily critical of the Orthodox church and the Russian education system. The above charges are unrelated to Leto, but the scandal has helped to generate hype around the film. Serebrennikov was forced to complete it under house arrest and remains incarcerated while awaiting trial to this day.

Meanwhile, Leto has been praised by critics at home and abroad. Its soundtrack, which was produced by the contemporary Russian rock band Zveri (the band’s frontman Roman Bilyk plays the lead role of Naumenko in the film) won a prize at Cannes. It features covers of classic compositions by not only Tsoi and Naumenko, but also Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Talking Heads. A spin-off documentary by Serebrennikov about the making of the film called Posle Leta (After Summer) was released in Russian cinemas on the 6 September 2018. Artemy Troitsky worked both as a consultant on Leto and was interviewed for Posle Leta.

Ilia Rogatchevski spoke to him about the cultural fallout of Serebrennikov’s project.

Naumenko/Zveri in Leto (Summer, 1982/2018)

Ilia Rogatchevski: You worked as a consultant on the film Leto. When did Serebrennikov ask you to work with him and what did this role involve?

Artemy Troitsky: Kirill Serebrennikov, whom I have known for at least 15 years, called me around January or February 2017. He told me about the film, asked to check the script and give permission to ‘use my character’ in the movie. He also suggested that I take part in the shoot, because initially he wanted to mix the actors with the real 1980s people.

Can you share any details about the shoot?

I was present at the shoots in Saint Petersburg (September 2017, Rock Club) and winter 2017/18 in Moscow for the kvartirnik [scene, an unauthorised concert in a private apartment – Ed]. In both cases, I’ve done big on-camera interviews with Sceptic (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), which later were used in the documentary Posle Leta. The atmosphere and the vibe at the shootings were great, very enthusiastic, but rather unlike ‘the real thing’.

What was ‘the real thing’ like?

Quite impossible or too long to explain.

Was there always an idea to make a concurrent documentary, or do you think Serebrennikov suspected there may be dislike angled towards Leto from the old guard and he wanted to answer it preemptively?

Posle Leta was an improvisation. Initially, the idea was to make one film, as usual, and mix the actors and comments from the vosmidesyatniki [the generation of artists and intellectuals living and working in the 1980s – Ed]. Later it appeared that there is way too much material. Leto is over two hours long. Serebrennikov decided to put together a separate documentary for the same budget.

Iggy Pop/Anton Sevidov “The Passenger” (1977/2018)

What were your initial thoughts on the screenplay? Did they match those of Boris Grebenshchikov and Aleksei Rybin?

The ‘affair’ between Natasha Naumenko (Irina Starshenbaum) and Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) was, as we all think, Natasha’s fantasy. No one among the closest friends – Aleksei Rybin included – knew about it.

Why do you think they responded so negatively to it?

Building the whole plot around a love triangle that did not exist was, well, dodgy. Hence the reaction.

In one of your video blogs you said that ‘out of every screenplay, even the worst kind, you can make a good movie’. Do you feel this is the case with Leto?

Yes, this is what I think now too. This is the reason why: despite obvious questions about the script – I told Serebrennikov straight away that there was no love story – I agreed to work with them. Serebrennikov is an extraordinary director and I believed he would produce something worthwhile.

Were you at all surprised by Serebrennikov’s arrest? How did this affect the production of the film?

Indeed, everyone was shocked about the arrest! It was absolutely unexpected. But soon they learned how to cope with it. All the footage was immediately sent to Serebrennikov and he made commands by phone or internet. It was really complicated but they managed.

Kino “Bezdelnik No 2” (“Slacker No 2”, 1982)

As somebody who has lived through the Soviet period, how do you think the repressions of that time compare to Russia today?

The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, there was total control. The Russian Federation is a hybrid totalitarian state. The authorities choose what to control and who to punish. And it’s not always predictable, like in the Serebrennikov case – he was never an outspoken oppositional activist.

Do you feel that Serebrennikov’s film interpretation gets across the atmosphere of the time?

Most objections regarding Leto deal with factual details not the general feeling. I think it’s simply impossible to ideally recreate the atmosphere of 35 years ago, but it was a good try.

Why do you think Tsoi’s legacy still resonates with young people today, but Naumenko has largely been forgotten?

Tsoi and Kino were a great pop band, with remarkable melodic hooks and a straight, positive romantic image. They were like the Beatles. Mike Naumenko was like Lou Reed: an intellectual songwriter, way too ironic, subversive and negativistic for a general audience.

In a previous interview you noted that ‘total internal emigration’ was an important tool for Soviet musicians to experience freedom. Do you think this is still true for underground musicians working today?

Inner emigration is still fine, but I feel that the new generation is in a less escapist mood. Those who want to emigrate, do emigrate. It’s easy now. But those who remain – at least many of them are ready to fight.

ГШ (Glintshake) & Aleksandr Gorchilin “Psycho Killer” (2018)

What did you think about Leto‘s soundtrack?

The soundtrack sounds too good to my ears. I would rather stick to the original bad quality tapes. But again it’s a respectable try. It isn’t khaltura (a hack job), and could have been much worse.

Do you think that the addition of bands such as Glintshake and Shortparis in the soundtrack was an attempt to draw parallels between underground music in the 1980s and now?

Well, I noticed Shortparis at the acid party scene at the end of the film but I don’t recall Glintshake. [Glintshake do not appear on screen, but their cover of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” soundtracks the film’s riotous train scene – Ed] Both bands are good, totally unlike the 1980s Soviet groups, and do not look completely out of place in the movie. Probably the purists hate it, but I think it is a funny trick. It kind of symbolises the connection of two gloomy periods in Russian history and the young rebels’ reaction to it.

Leto will be screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 14 and 15 October 2018.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, September 2018

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Bastard Assignments, Thick & Tight + Lady Vendredi

Block 336, London, UK
Photo: Tim Spooner by Dimitri Djuric

Bastard Assignments is a collective of composer-performers that includes Timothy Cape, Edward Henderson, Caitlin Rowley and Josh Spear. Consisting of six performances that interrogate the remix and its role on the stage, the evening begins simply and ends in a riot of colour, playfulness and complexity.  

Cape’s Untitled opens the show. Looking as if they were coerced into judicial combat armed with only midi controllers and a drum pad, Spear and Henderson fire off pop music samples at each other. These sounds are interlaced with guttural vocalisations from the two players. The result is a piece that is somewhere between noise and language and recalls the flatulent logic of Neil Luck’s 2015 LCMF commission Via Gut.

Composed by Henderson, Good utilises a six-piece band and appropriates the final cadence of James Brown’s I Got You (I Feel Good). Inspired by a live recording where Brown’s band jams on the last chord ad infinitum, Henderson’s arrangement uses silence, repetition and dissonant deviation to unsettle the ear. In a post-concert email interview, Henderson described the composition as a “mysterious gesture”, going on to say that “imbuing each section of the piece with a non-causal, non-narrative sense of something that could go on forever” was instrumental to abstracting the original work and divorcing it from the climactic power of funk.  

This notion of abstraction is also evident in Crying, a piece by Eleanor Perry and Tim Spooner. The foundations of the work are composed from samples of crying women. Taken from movies such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and The Philadelphia Story, these heavily edited bursts of counterfeit emotion readily lend themselves to mimesis. Wearing a stark combination of colours Perry and Spooner imitate passages of dialogue, as well as loops of diegetic sound, with a variety of materials that include inflatables, rubber and transparent plastic. Although surreal and playful on the surface, Perry’s emphasis on breath underpins Crying with a disconcerting feeling of hyperventilation that is difficult to shake off for days after the performance. 

Birthday, choreographed by Thick & Tight (Eleanor Perry and Daniel Hay-Gordon) and performed by Bastard Assignments, is stylistically similar to Crying, but takes Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party as its material. Again, the performers mime to edited dialogue. Black gloves, semi-darkness and a haunting execution of Blind Man’s Buff take Pinter’s ‘comedy of menace’ further into maniacal farce by adding new layers of dark and ambiguous symbolism. 

Broadcast across four CRT screens (with a fifth acting as a score for the live soundtrack), In the Paracinematic Cuteness appropriates early computer animation, television static and vaporwave imagery to suggest, as the composer Josh Spear told me later, “a viewing, way in the future, by aliens or AI, that had been constructed from today’s entertainments”. 

Spear’s pessimistic view of late capitalism and its alien voyeurs is contrasted by Lady Vendredi’s utopian afrofuturist piece Neon Dream. Mixing aspects of Haitian Vodou and contemporary composition Lady Vendredi aka Nwando Ebizie presents the audience with a parallel dimension attained through sacrificial offerings (prosecco, crisps) and the transformative power of the four elements (psychedelic fires, sea of balloons, a giant egg, inflatable clothes). Collaborating with pianist Yung Yee Chen and director Jonathan Grieve, Ebizie combines colourful postmodern pop with theatrics rooted in the shamanic rites of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and the Loa spirit world. 

At times challenging, and often bordering on the absurd, the evening’s cross-disciplinary approach serves to show that works, which seamlessly blend aspects of stage, screen and sound, project a vision of the future where art escapes identification and subversive humour plays a key role in our survival.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, September 2018

Lady Vendredi by Dimitri Djuric

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Dronica

The Old Church, London, UK
Photo: Luxul by Matteo Favero

Dronica is a small-scale experimental music festival that produces around three editions annually. Now in its third year, the festival hosts workshops, installations and live performances in a modest Elizabethan church. Chosen for its intimate size and unique acoustics, Stoke Newington’s Old Church has served as Dronica’s home since the festival’s inception and the event series feels inextricably linked to this location. 

Architecture plays a vital role in any gig and many of the artists who performed over the course of this three-day event knew how to make the space work for them. Pascal Savy compared it to the art of boiling frogs. “You start with cold water,” he told me in the overgrown courtyard just prior to his set, “and slowly raise the temperature. This space is like a resonant box and I’m slowly filling it with water”. 

Partly inspired by rave music, Savy’s electroacoustic performance consisted of the French composer layering effects and “opening a bass filter for twenty minutes”. Coupled with the frog analogy, it made for vivid listening and even forced one of the PA speakers to disconnect itself. 

Other highlights included Gareth Davis’s ambient explorations on the bass clarinet, Luxul’s cathartic viola-induced harsh noise and experimental cellist Jasmine Pender aka Rotten Bliss. Pender began her performance by descending the wooden pulpit, singing a capella and unamplified, before taking hold of her electric cello and delivering a string of coarse and beautifully heavy songs. Processed through pedals, triggers and various Max patches, Pender’s tracks betrayed hallmarks of folk, metal and classical without subscribing to any particular tribe.

Charles Hayward’s thirty-minute snare solo was probably the best example of the space itself being played. Around five years ago, Hayward was approached by the Otolith Group who wished to film his drum rolls. The intention was to use the drumsticks both as source material and a surface onto which the footage could be projected. Hayward became interested in the endurance aspect of the drum roll, as well as the sonic possibilities that an extended piece could offer.

In the context of the church’s multifaceted walls and ceilings, Hayward took on the role of a water diviner, sourcing new sonic streams from the bricks, wood and limestone. The snare’s reflections bounced back in waves of varying intensity. New phantom sounds could be heard, such as bells and chanting. According to Hayward, “each room has its own beat, [but] you can’t play faster than the beat of the room”. Attempting to do so will result in confusion, syncopation and dissonance. 

Perhaps in anticipation of this argument, Disinformation’s ‘Ammonite’ video installation aimed to find harmony within visual noise. The silent film’s undulating white spiral echoed the trend of camp late ‘60s spy serials, such as the Avengers and the Prisoner, by recording visual feedback of a laser beam pointing at a television screen. The harmonious golden section created by this installation is not designed to brainwash paranoid spies, however. Instead, Disinformation says, the intention is to encourage “lifeforms [to] emerge out of chaos”.

In ‘Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture’, the book’s author Branden Joseph suggests that music and composition have an intimate relationship with architecture. Cage, a fan of modernist architects like Mies van der Rohe, considered that glass buildings, which can both reflect their environment and disappear within it, were analogous to the transparent qualities of his music. If the building materials dictate the nature of the sounds, then, in contrast with Cage’s preferences, the music programmed by Dronica is as opaque and heavy as the limestone that supports the church walls, roof and steeple. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, July 2018

Rotten Bliss by Matteo Favero
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Geoff Leigh and Makoto Kawabata + Kamura Obscura

Iklectik, London, UK

Atsuko Kamura aka Kamura Obscura opens her solo set with pizzicato vocalisations and wind-like sighing. These sounds are quickly looped and layered, becoming rhythmic tracks that guide her compositions. Kamura’s various voices combine to create an indeterminate libretto in which bird song, ocean waves and white noise stand tall. 

The music is structured, though it may appear improvised at first. Stealing a look at Kamura’s score reveals a list of phrases such as “Frog Beat” and “Space Head”. This list refers to samples, presets and moods that she wishes to trigger or evoke in a certain order. 

Synthesised melodies shift the atmosphere from B movie horror, past New Age ambient, and onto playful children’s song. Her second to last composition is a Macedonian lullaby, the melody of which was fused with lyrics from a Japanese cradle song. As if to emphasise the playful music, Toni, the Iklectik house cat, wanders into the venue and walks around the stage as Kamura performs. 

Kamura’s previous work includes the Japanese punk band Mizutama Shobodan, Frank Chickens and a stint co-presenting Kazuko’s Karaoke Klub on British television in the late 1980s. Geoff Leigh and Makoto Kawabata, too, have colourful backgrounds and vast discographies behind them. Leigh has played with Henry Cow, Faust and The Artaud Beats, whilst Kawabata is the founding member of the Japanese psychedelic rock band Acid Mothers Temple. 

The first time that Leigh and Kawabata played together was in 2014 at the Urbanguild in Kyoto, Japan. The recording of that performance was released by the Acid Mothers Temple label two years later as ‘Spatial Roots’. This document of their first encounter as an improvising duo is markedly different from tonight’s performance. ‘Spatial Roots’ develops slowly and the players sounded much more uncertain of each other, with the guitar often fading in the mix. Having worked together on many occasions since then, tonight’s performance sees Leigh and Kawabata both confident and loud. 

The players start without hesitation. Leigh samples his flute, processing the arabesque notes through a laptop. Kawabata mirrors Leigh‘s fluttering notes with nimble dashes across the fretboard of his black headless guitar, approaching the instrument like a sculptor might approach clay. An experienced sarangi player, Kawabata then draws his curved bow across the strings to produce textures that are malleable and forever shifting. He tells me later that the size and shape of the sarangi bow allows him to easily alternate the tension of the bow hairs, which provides more control over the sound.

There is virtually no low end, but both players work hard to fill up empty spaces. Leigh’s close miked flute puts an accent on each suck of air, giving the impression that a vacuum is forming inside the venue. Because his set up is coming through the PA, but Kawabata’s guitar is not, an interesting spatialism occurs. The flutes bounce around the venue in stereo, while Kawabata’s controlled use of overdrive force the sound waves into different corners of the room, meaning that the reflections arrive with a slight delay into each ear. 

In the second half of the composition Leigh and Kawabata move onto soprano saxophone and electronics respectively. Kawabata’s Pocket Piano and effects chain bring additional nuance, whilst Leigh’s looped microphone taps and mouth clicks impart a syncopated rhythm track. The sound remains at a constant intensity throughout the concert. It would have been preferable to experience a greater dynamic shift between the two players – Leigh’s singing bowls and cowbells could barely be heard – but being hit by a wall of sound can be just as satisfying.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, May 2018