Scan any random music publication’s feature and interview section, and it’s easy to form the impression that music scribes are terribly myopic. The Holy Trinity of Brooklyn, LA, and East London have the pull of black holes; centres of gravity toward which talent is inexorably drawn, moths to the proverbial flame. Bands operating outside the confines of these postcodes, or even from outwith the UK and the US, are routinely ignored or patronised, as if someone’s hometown was a signifier of quality or authenticity. It’s a shame; those who exist on the margins, or come from unfashionable places, are typically far better at foregoing the bluster and posturing associated with much of modern culture and just getting on with being creative. Perhaps it’s deep-seated prejudice, perhaps it’s just the aftershock of sniggering at one too many bad Eurovision entries. But anyone willing to look further afield and open their ears will encounter music that’s refreshingly free of whatever jaded signifiers tastemakers are currently lauding.
Russian group Pinkshinyultrablast are the perfect example. Growing up in St. Petersburg, the quintet quietly absorbed and gravitated towards sounds and artists that genuinely interested them as opposed to what was considered “cool”; they take their name from American shoegaze supergroup Astrobrite’s third album. “We just found that our tastes were the closest to each other’s,” says singer Lyubov Soloveva by way of explanation. Just as importantly, it allowed them the freedom to make mistakes while they found their musical feet; they confess to starting out as a twee pop band, as well as a stint under the name Once Upon A Hamster. What they did aspire to – Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, and Cocteau Twins are all noted as significant influences – shines through on their debut album Everything Else Matters, a glorious collection of shimmering guitars, carefully crafted layers of noise, and the kind of sweeping, euphoric, widescreen washes that sound desperate to burst of from the confines of the speakers. Early reviews labelled them as shoegaze, but that does them a disservice. While not afraid to employ judicious amounts of reverb, as on the soaring crescendos of ‘Glitter’, their songs are meticulously put together and are often carried along by the most delicate of details; the vocal looping on ‘Metamorphosis’ for example, or ‘Umi’s chiming guitar lines.
Throughout our Skype conversation, Lyubov does most of the talking, a situation her band mates – bassist Igor Simkin, guitarist Roman Parinov, and synths maestro Rustam Izmailov, who remains mute throughout, staring resolutely at the screen and barely moving – seem more than happy with. Passionate and gregarious, she talks openly of her troubled teen years and her distain for political art – Pussy Riot come in for some particularly harsh criticism. But what shines through is just how much the band, and their music, mean to them, and how excited they are about an upcoming European tour. They clearly feel blessed, and I sense a steely determination to make the most of the opportunities they’ve earned. “We’ve never played outside Russia, so it’s also extremely nerve wracking for multiple reasons,” admits Lyubov. “I’m just a little bit nervous.” I suspect she has nothing to worry about, and that this is just the first step on a long and fruitful path.
DiS: How did you the five of you meet, and come to form a band?
Lyubov: It’s been a long journey. There were four of us initially and we just lived not far from each other; we were friends and hung out together. Igor and Rustam joined us a little bit later; I was still in high school when we became friends. The thing is, St. Petersburg is relatively small and I came to realise that even in larger cities, even if there are more scenes in a place, everybody still winds up knowing everybody and I guess we just found that our tastes were the closest to each other’s. We just tried it out and it worked, so we stuck around. It’s surprising at times that we’re still doing this, but everybody wanted to just keep going. What were those similar tastes? What bands did you listen to growing up, and that influenced you? Lyubov: We would probably name different things to what we’re influenced by right now. I feel like certain milestones that for all of us were really important from the beginning, we were listening to pretty intensely. Our sound has evolved with time but, initially we were really into Stereolab and Krautrock, and there was one point where we were trying to play that. Before that we were fooling around with other bands, or just jamming.
Roman: We used to try to play more of a kind of twee pop, mixed with some Astrobrite stuff.
Lyubov: We were into Black Tambourine too.
Roman: Yeah, stuff like that. Then came Astrobrite, and they were the main influence in terms of the noisier stuff.
Lyubov: Then we got really into My Bloody Valentine until we reached the point where we couldn’t listen to them anymore (laughs). When you’re really young, 15 or 16, and it first hits you and you discover it, it’s just so drastically different from so many things. But those initial influences when you’re like: “Woah”, that doesn’t happen anymore because you can easily put something into this or that box and make sense of whatever you are listening to. When you’re really young, and you’re finding something that is totally out of the mainstream element or apart from what you’ve been exposed to, those influences impact you the most while you are developing. I was absorbing a lot of things and growing up with those groups, and they influenced me in a really intense way.
Was it a case of gravitating towards like-minded people, like you were in some special club? I remember at school you had the rock kids, the indie kids, the dance kids…
Lyubov: For me it was a different experience because I was a lot younger than everybody, and I feel like the age difference gave us different experiences of what was going on. None of my friends were my high school friends or anything; my high school was a nightmare, so I gravitated towards completely different people. The boys had already gone to college or were just going [to college], and I was just sort of catching up with things.
Roman: Another main thing was the Internet became big when I was 19 and Lyubov was just 15. It was the blast of music for me; before that I bought CDs and it was impossible to buy lots of them, but then you had the opportunity to download 100 albums per day.
Lyubov: I remember us going to CD stores, and going through racks of CD’s, and if you found something it was like the whole event of the day; you’d wind up paying a lot of money. We would save up our lunch money.
Roman: I went to a Stereolab gig here in St. Petersburg in 2004, and it was a great thing to do, to start thinking in a new way for me. It was their first concert here, eleven years ago, and it was awesome! It made me think in another way and how it was possible to play music like this.
You mentioned high school being horrible. Growing up, lots of kids turn to music as a form of escape, or an act of rebellion; was it the same for you guys?
Roman: I started to play music with my schoolmates; it was a time when I was involved in music, but school was ok for me, especially the last few years. I had the freedom to make almost anything I wanted, so it was more than ok. I found that rebellion when I was in college I think; that was when I knew I wanted to do something different.
Igor: When I began playing the bass guitar, which was 12 years ago, I had certain problems at home with my family. At that time I started listening to lots of hard rock so, yes, I think that those problems made it simple to learn the instrument. But it wasn’t really a rebellion, it was more like real help has come from certain happenings in my life.
Lyubov: For me, it was definitely a way of coping because I switched schools around 13, and I had different sorts of trouble in both of them. I was basically kicked out for misbehaving from the first one and then the second one, I don’t know; kids were just really mean a lot of the time. So it was definitely a justification in a way of…I don’t want to be dramatic or anything, but maybe it was a place to exist in and be myself, and that was definitely an escape and a place to feel comfortable and at peace.
There was quite a big gap between your first EP and the album – nearly six years. Why did it take so long for the album to appear?
Roman: Some of the songs on the album were written the same year the EP was actually released. Not all of them, but they were all composed around 2009 and 2010, then it took four years to finish everything.
Lyubov: Yeah, just putting things together, and it was DIY in the sense that we basically did everything from scratch to the end, and then we found a label after having finished everything. From then on, once we did find a label, there were a few more things to do.
So it was just a natural delay – it wasn’t like you weren’t working on the sound really intensely, or working out which direction to go in?
Lyubov: A lot of times yes, we did work on production for quite a bit, even though the songs were from a while ago and they were even recorded a while ago; technically, I recorded my parts in 2011. It’s like time travel when you’re listening to it. But then we added things when we were listening back, and re-recorded things again; there were several songs we decided to re-record in terms of voice. We gave the final shape to the album pretty recently, since all of the production and shaping was done more or less over the last year.
Roman: Also, we spent more than half a year working with one producer, but it was the wrong decision. Our methods just didn’t fit each other, so it killed six months [of the process].
Lyubov: I guess we now know that working with producers long distance is not the best way to spend a year.
I’ve seen it written that your music is a reaction to the indie scene in St. Petersburg. What’s it like, and is it really that bad?
Lyubov: Yeah, that is the most common question [we get] and every time I stumble upon it, I don’t really know what to say. I have been trying to think; why? Why did we say that?
Roman: I think I know why. We used to listen to a lot of new music. We were into the Strokes and the Libertines in the early 2000’s, but then we started listening to a lot of music from the Eighties and Nineties, anything from shoegaze to classic indie pop, from C86 to a lot of new stuff like not very popular American bands, and we felt that our scene was copying the indie music of the early 2000’s, and it was just boring for us.
Lyubov: The thing is, the pool of everything is just not enough. When a scene is vibrant, there is just so much crap out there, and out of this crap emerges, once in a while, something great. I just think for us, maybe there is not enough crappy stuff going on! There are so many bands that are sometimes trying to copy things and sometimes trying to do new things, but they’re not very interesting to us. It’s a very personal thing; we’re not really saying it’s all bad and boring – people like it – but maybe the problem is there’s just not enough of that pool of everything for us to be able to say: “Oh, this is cool” or whatever. There is just objectively not as much stuff going on, so obviously that would probably make it boring by that mere fact.
So you didn’t make a conscious decision to be different?
Roman: I don’t think so; we just wanted to try to play what we wanted to play.
Lyubov: Yeah, we weren’t like: “Let’s be different”.
Roman: We had tried to play something new that we hadn’t heard here, but it wasn’t the main thing; we just wanted to try. We didn’t even really have any songs before, we just came to the rehearsal space and tried to compose something, and tried to make something that we can write by ourselves. That’s how it was in the beginning.
Lyubov: We literally talked each other into it! Some of us had side projects; I think each of us, except for me. Our bassist at the time and the drummer were in a different band, and Roman had something going on… Roman: We were in a band called Once Upon a Hamster together.
You were called what?
Lyubov: Yeah, Once Upon a Hamster. (Laughs) My God, it’s so bad – don’t look it up, please! He also had a project called Bicycle Boy; I think the MySpace page probably still exists. That was a good one, all Casio inspired stuff.
Some of your songs are very dense and layered. How do you go about the process of writing and recording?
Lyubov: It depends. Sometimes somebody will bring a piece – a pattern if you will – or just a chunk of music that we then try to elaborate on and add things to. Most of the time we’re trying to add things up, even though a lot of the times it does start with a sort of impulse, like: “Here’s the pattern that I thought of last night, let’s try and do something with it!” Then, the painful process of starting to do something with it starts, but it’s purely collaborative. We each have our visions, with different intensity and different points of time, but we try and talk to each other and communicate. It’s about trying to listen to each other, although sometimes it might be hard.
Igor: Sometimes though, the original piece can end up being really different from what it was at first. It’s just because we like to evolve things, to change the structures and everything through time. So some songs that were composed a year ago, they now sound completely different.
How did you develop your singing style? Was it something you worked on, to sound a particular way, or is that just the way it comes out when you sing?
Lyubov: I’ve had a lot of trouble with singing. I started out when I was 16, 17, and I had a really quiet voice. It wasn’t until recently that I figured out how make myself louder without buying $2000 monitors. It’s been extremely hard, and I think that my voice has actually changed through time just because I started out pretty early; like my voice is actually breaking in, like a teenager. So I’ve been really self-conscious most of the time, and only recently started to be less self-conscious and actually find a way for my body to listen to what I’m trying to do, and for my brain and vocal chords to communicate with each other. Before, unless the situation was perfect…even with the EP I had to be in a pretty calm, comforting atmosphere, not to be worried. I’m generally an anxious person, so it affects me a lot unfortunately, and I’m still working on a way to be able to perform, no matter what. Whatever the circumstances are, I know that I’m going to have to do this thing; it’s a little nerve-wracking because unlike everybody else, this is my body, and I’m not quite sure how to master it.
But my singing has definitely gone higher, by a lot. On the album, I went one set higher in terms of octaves in relation to what was on the EP, and our unrecorded songs are even higher than that at times. That’s given me confidence because it’s actually easier to do; it comes out clearer than when you are lower. It’s harder for me to sing in lower keys, because it just becomes muddy, and it’s more difficult to get it right.
Was it a band decision to bury some of the vocals into the music, so you can’t really hear the lyrics?
Lyubov: Yeah, it was right from the beginning; we didn’t want for the voice to stick out ever. In part, it’s because certain types of singing have always rubbed us up the wrong way, like where the voice is what you are actually listening to, and the lyrics are full of meaning and death, (laughs) and all that kind of stuff. We wanted to create this sort of mix where the voice is as much a part of the whole music, the whole piece, as everything else. Generally we don’t like the idea of frontmen, and whatever is usually ascribed to that – the whole “lead singer” figure. Or where the music is just a supportive element to whatever the singer might want to communicate; we’ve never thought of it that way. It was hard sometimes because we’ve always been creating the same kind of sound, as much as possible, during our practices and I had to figure out a very specific way to moderate myself; before, I just had speaker monitors with lots of reverb on the voice, and it being buried in all the other sounds, but the reverb would also create this mud, so it was a huge problem. But we’ve pretty much always stuck around the concept of voice being immersed and not its own leading thing.
What about the decision to write and sing in English?
Lyubov: It was my decision, and it was supported by everybody. It’s not like we don’t care about lyrics, but we maybe don’t give them as much weight as a lot of people, or listeners, do. For me, English felt like a more natural language to sing in because it just sounded more melodic. Even before we write lyrics, sometimes we just come up with goofy juxtapositions of, not ‘stream of consciousness’ exactly, but associations or whatever, and a lot of words where you can prolong the vowels and nothing’s going to happen, there’s no sounds that you can stumble on. Sometimes, songs take so much time there’s no point in writing lyrics because we’re definitely going to change something, and there’s going to be five other pieces that we’re going to add and five other melodies throughout the song.
It wasn’t really a statement in any way, but we’ve sometimes had, not trouble, but certain misunderstandings from certain people in St Petersburg saying: “Everything’s great about you guys, but you should really revise your approach to lyrics and language and all that – I don’t understand what you’re singing about!” For me, the content of the words – the actual meaning – matters less because when you’re making music, it’s something else that hooks you, something else you’re being drawn to. We’ve been trying to get away from any type of meaningful poetry so we could really just focus on the music itself.
That’s interesting; my next question was going to be if your music, and the lyrics, carried any kind of message, or were in any way political…
Lyubov: Actually, one song that we have, I like to think of it as a metaphor for something. But whenever poets talk about their poetry, it always seems to become stale; there are things that are not meant to be talked about. Like with Pussy Riot. I’m sorry, but I was watching ‘Democracy Now’ yesterday and they fucking showed their new video called ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and it’s dedicated to Eric Gardeners’ death – and I was like: “Dude, what the fuck are you doing? Are you just taking every wrong situation and using it to your advantage?” What, are we supposed to write a song about Boris Nemtsov’s death; I mean, No!
I imagine they might.
Lyubov: This commercialisation of every tragedy, it really enrages me actually, because there is no actual engagement in this kind of approach. It’s really gross. I think we as a band, and me personally, have been trying divide these things as much as possible because, no matter what, we didn’t know the extent then of these inscriptions but, I guess they are just there. We knew no matter what that we were going to be inscribed into this whole political situation that’s there, even though we’re working outside of it.
You mean people assuming your work has a political aspect, or been influenced by it?
Lyubov: Yeah, I know, but it comes from every publication and I’m going to be frank with you; the publications that are big enough and have a broader audience that’s not just about music, they’re interested in the interesting quirks of the Third World or whatever. They want the juicy stuff. They’re like: “You guys, if you’re all about music, that’s just boring. Give us some succulent details!” It’s got to the point where we’re a little frustrated with the whole thing. But ‘Glitter’ is sort of political in a very removed way; technically the lyrics are political, but it’s like if you took all the problems of Russia and put them into a Nausicaä-type setting. You know Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? That’s what that song is about.
Roman: I believe it’s called psychedelic!
Lyubov: It’s not psychedelic, it’s just this Miyazaki kind of world. Which is not to say that we don’t care; I want to communicate to all the people that ask us that, we care about what’s going on! It’s just that we don’t want to, in any way, speculate on it. Sometimes it’s turning into your commercial interests and honestly, most of the straightforwardly political art that I’ve seen, be it music or art, performances, painting or anything, it’s: “I’m political, I’m here! I’m art, and I exist to be political, and this is my commentary on the world!” It’s just gross; there’s nothing to unfold. Once that statement is there, I don’t understand what else is there, there’s nothing to it. For us, we don’t want to be that shallow statement, and maybe we’re even over compulsively trying to remove ourselves from that, just because we realise we’re in circumstances where some things might be interpreted as political no matter what, even without our consent or intention. So we have to take a step further away from it.
Given that these songs, and the album, have had such a long gestation, are you excited to be finally touring them and playing live?
Lyubov: I think we have a difficult relationship with our songs, just because sometimes we’ve heard them so much that we cannot stand them anymore (laughs); I feel like any band has a love/hate relationship with their music. It’s definitely extremely exciting – we’ve never played outside Russia – but it’s also extremely nerve wracking for multiple reasons, just because we don’t know what the crowds will be like and we’re doing a show each day for two weeks; we haven’t done that before, so I’m just a little bit nervous. I think it’s all going to be great but I’m hypothetically thinking: ‘How’s that going to work?’ Also, with the specific venues that we’re playing, it seems pretty tough in terms of sound check and being quick; you’ve got to be professional about it! We’ve been trying to take this professional approach to what we do, but it’s a little bit hard for most of us, so we’ll see how it goes.
Pinkshinyultrablast Tour Dates
Thu 30th April, London, Village Underground (w/Moon Duo)
Fri 1st May, Odd Box Weekender, London, The Shacklewell Arms
Sat 2nd May, Live at Leeds, Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
Sun 3rd May, Sounds From The Other City, Manchester, St. Philip's Church
Wed 6th May, Cardiff, Clwb Ifor Bach
Thu 7th May, Birmingham, The Institute
Fri 8th May, Nottingham, The Lofthouse
Sat 9th May, Leicester, The Scholar Bar
Mon 11th May, London, Hoxton Bar & Grill
Wed 13th May, Ramsgate, Ramsgate Music Hall
14th-16th May, Great Escape Festival, Brighton, Various Venues