Moscow-1980's. A self-interview on Russian 'new wave' culture and related phenomena

From Unearthing The Music

Dmitry Matsenov was one of the key figures in the Moscow rock scene in the 1980's. In this “self-interview” for Unearthing the Music he discusses the beginnings of 'Prospekt', the band he founded with Alexei Borisov and which came to be the basis for 'Notchnoi Prospekt', as well as the social and cultural climate in the last decade of the USSR.

Prospekt (1981). Picture by Alexander Yelin From left to right: Alexei Borisov, Dmitry Matsenov, Alexander Malikov (drums), Sergej Bychkov (promoter)

DMITRY MATSENOV: Moscow-1980's. A self-interview on Russian 'new wave' culture and related phenomena

  Dmitry Matsenov, December 2017 - We heard about new music but we thought it was something none of us could do in our lifetime.

It is wet and warm in Moscow in December, 2017. The famous Russian winter must be somewhere on its way but not there yet.  I am sitting in my cozy flat in Moscow downtown, sipping tea, talking to myself and my imaginary crowd of followers.  I asked myself for an interview which I gladly accepted – both as an active participant of the Russian musical scene of the 80’s and a founder and regular contributor to the Russian New Wave Facebook group.

My name is Dmitry Matsenov; together with Alexey Borisov, this blog’s regular contributor, I am a co-founder of Prospekt and an active member of the Russian New Wave scene in the early 1980’s. I currently live in Moscow and do occasional performances with Alexey. After Prospekt I played lead guitar with Doomerang, a Russian-American rock combo in 2002-2004. 

I now play with Lozhniye Proritsateli (The False Prophets), a Moscow-based psychobilly outfit just for fun.

Myself: Hey, what’s up, Dima! (Dima is Russian short for Dmitry, my first name). It’s been quite some time since we saw each other, like, maybe 30 years?

Me: Yeah, in 1987 or 1988, when we re-released the Novinki Sezona (Novelties of the Season was a fictional radio show hosted by Alexey Borisov and myself in the mid-80’s. The show featured many promising Russian new wave and punk bands that would have otherwise remained unknown to the public audience). The songs were pretty neat.

Myself:  Today we’re going to talk about Moscow in the 1980’s – music, culture, society. Feel free to talk about anything you find interesting. Let’s start with your general feeling about that era.

Me: I was 18 in 1980 and one of my biggest impressions of that time was the Moscow Olympics - 80. Being a student at the Moscow State University, I was drafted to work as an interpreter during the Games. In this capacity, I had a vezdekhod (an unrestricted pass) to all sports events of the Games and, what’s even more important, a highly valuable access to Western foods and drinks that were normally available only to foreigners or diplomats in so-called Beriozka shops.

As many tourists came to the Games, the inflow of foreign clothes, musical records and other goods of “Western civilization” became very significant. The youth was hungry for new music, new styles, new information and I believe the Moscow Olympics was one of the most powerful and pivotal moments in expanding such interest.  The International Youth and Students Festival of 1957 in Moscow had exactly the same effect on Soviet society – jazz and rock’n’roll came along with new dress styles, haircuts and attitude (the Stylyagi movement, the Russian analogue of beatniks, came up as a remarkable feature of that era).

So, that was the background for where we were at the time, music-wise. That’s when we heard about New Wave in full, so to speak. I mean, we knew about it in 1978-79 but in a very narrow sense. Soviet youth audience was raised mostly on hard rock and progressive rock and hardly a couple of dozen people (mostly in Moscow and Leningrad) would have told the difference between The Police and Haircut 100. In fact, by 1980 there was just a handful of Russian bands which played this sort of music, dressed in a New Wave fashion, had proper haircuts and lifestyle.  Of them all, I would name Tsentr (Center) and Alliance as the most influential ones.

Myself: Right, here comes the important part.

Me: Yeah, Vassya Shumov (the founder and all-time leader of Tsentr) has been probably one of the most charismatic people of Russian pop culture. He introduced totally new sounds, atonal singing and a general ‘cool’ look and attitude, unprecedented in the Soviet Union. Two of my future bandmates, Alexey Borisov and Sergey “Redhead” Kudryavtsev, played in Tsentr.

Vasily Shumov of Tsentr (Center), Moscow 1986. Picture by Anatoly Azanov

Myself:  So this is when you met Alexey?

Me: Yeah, pretty much. In 1980, we were both students at the History Faculty of Moscow State University (MSU). Ah, here comes another remarkable feature of that time! It was extremely popular in senior schools and universities to hold so-called “amateur talent contests” (this is as close as I can translate the original Russian name which sounds totally ridiculous so I won’t bother), usually devoted to some kind of politico-cultural agenda (international peace, friendship, worker’s rights, you name it). Young people would play music, sing, read poetry, etc. – with a certain political motto. The beauty of it was that under the cover of “fight against imperialism” we could perform some really cool tunes. Like, for instance, rock’n’roll or a blues song could have been masqueraded as a “song of black Americans for their rights”.  Country ballads, and to a certain extent, rockabilly would sell under the roof of “songs of farmers and common people of America” (again, for their rights or whatever just cause).

Alexey and I met at a rehearsal for one of such contests at MSU. And this is how our band, Prospekt, began. Alexey transferred from Tsentr and brought Redhead with him.  I invited my schoolmate Alexey Raskatov on drums and this was it. Our musical style came up undisputedly – rock’n’roll in a New Wave format, with a splash of ska and punk music. I’d say the closest Western analogue would have been The Jam and this entire Mod revival thing.

Our first show at the MSU dormitory was a huge success and a serious headache for the faculty’s Komsomol (Soviet Young Communists League) branch. They could not simply allow that two of their students played “ideologically immature” music. So we had to figure out something to be able to continue to play in the MSU (which was by far one of the most advanced musical audiences of that time).  And we did! From that time onwards, we staged our shows in MSU as a “parody” to whatever musical style we liked: punk, Mod, rockabilly. I know it sounds absurd but this was the only way to get permission to perform at the official MSU events. Outside MSU, we never used this stupid cover.

Myself: What else was new and exciting?

Me: All sorts of things! It is hard to believe but, despite harsh ideological conditions, there were a lot of interesting cultural events. At the premises of the City Committee of Graphical Artists at Malaya Gruzinskaya street in Moscow there was a continuous series of avant-garde art exhibitions of many prominent painters, some of whom would later become world celebrities. I remember we had to queue up for hours to get inside. But the lust for something new and fresh was so strong that we never bothered about hours of waiting.

In 1981, another important event happened. The first Soviet “rock club” opened in Leningrad (St. Petersburg nowadays). Leningrad had always been the informal “rock capital” of the Soviet Union, with bands like Aquarium, Piknik and Mify on the roll. Thanks to the Leningrad Rock Club such names as Kino, Televizor, Alisa were discovered.

Moscow always envied Leningrad for its status of “rock capital”. However, only five years later, in 1986, Moscow established its own “rock club”, called Moscow Rock Laboratory. By that time, I had left Prospekt and Alexey went on with a new project, Notchnoi Prospekt (NP, Night Avenue) which became world-famous in the years to come. NP was mainly a successful collaboration of Alexey Borisov and Ivan Sokolovsky, a gifted composer and keyboard player. Sadly, Ivan passed away in 2005.

NP, along with the fellow “new-wavers” Nikolai Kopernik, Zvuki Mu, Alibi, Meeting on Elbe and many others played a crucial role in setting up the Moscow Rock Laboratory. The band’s sound no longer had anything to do with the original rock’n’roll/Mod style of Prospekt. In many ways thanks to Ivan, NP became a professional group with a distinctive electronic sound and innovative composing and arrangements featuring, for instance, Lo-Fi synthesizers, electronic drums and an unusual vocal style reminding of tribal techniques of Indian sorcerers.

Some main figures of Russian Rock (1987/88). Left to right: Konstantin Kinchev (Alisa (Leningrad)), Peter Mamonov (Zvuki Mu (Moscow)), Sergej Zharikov (DK (Moscow)), Vasily Shumov (Tsentr (Moscow)), Boris Grebenshikov (Aquarium (Leningrad))

Myself: In 2018 we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the issue of Kisloty (Acids), probably NP’s most famous album.

Me: Yes, this is so. Kisloty set up new standards in Russian New Wave and became a major influence for many generations of Russian musicians. This music was 7-10 years ahead of its time and some people could not really dig it back in 1988. I remember people leaving NP’s shows in complete confusion followed by Alexey’s roars “Kisloty! Kisloty proniknut v krov!” (The acids! The acids will run through your veins!). That was really something, I can tell you, they actually ran from the concert halls, totally horrified!

Myself: (laughs)

Me: So, I should say, the 1980’s were very prolific in terms of music and arts in the Soviet Union. Of course, we’re talking about big cities, such as Moscow, Leningrad, Novosibirsk, Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg nowadays), the so-called “Big Four” of Russian rock, each of them hosting a special “school”. Leningrad was always famous for an “experimental” direction, whereas Novosobirsk and Sverdlovsk became the home for “Russian rock” (a self-proclaimed “school” with special emphasis on lyrics and “meaning”, often of political and social nature. The closest you can get to Bob Dylan, Russian way).

Moscow has always stood somehow separately. There’s always been a hidden public debate on Moscow vs. Leningrad, or Moscow vs. the other three, and so on. Those days are long gone and nobody cares in 2017 which city is the country’s “rock capital”. But back in the 1980’s it was important.

The development of Russian musical culture and social life attracted Western artists. In 1984, American singer and actress Joanna Stingray visited the USSR and shortly became one of the most prominent Western popular exponents of Soviet rock, being close friends with Aquarium, Kino and Tsentr.

In 1987, world-famous musician and producer Brian Eno came to the Soviet Union to collaborate with and to produce Zvuki Mu (The Sounds of Moo), one of the most eccentric Soviet bands of all times. Petr “Petya” Mamonov, the band’s frontman, was widely known for a non-conventional attitude in public places. Like, for instance, walking in a park, he would suddenly start running, and then pretend he’s hitting a wall head-first, then he’d fall, observing the reaction of people around him. Every show of Zvuki Mu was a theatrical performance of a very special kind.

Myself: (laughing again). Yes, I do remember those performances. Now, tell us a little bit about Novinki Sezona (The Novelties of the Season), the fictional radio show you and Alexey hosted way back in 1982-83, I suppose?

Me: I don’t quite remember who came up first with this idea. Probably, Alexey. We thought maybe the whole new wave of previously unknown bands would enjoy some extra public exposure, that is, those that were not part of the Moscow Rock Laboratory or any other “rock club” of this kind. All of them we totally made up. We recorded the first session at our friend’s flat in Moscow (Renat was his name), consuming lots of alcohol and different sorts of zakuski (snacks). Alexey and I played under different names, such as The Pigs of Tashkent, Stinky Weightlifters, Orchestra named after 300th Anniversary of Laundry Inception and so on, and we were the radio hosts at the same time. Those recordings are officially considered lost by now. Through Novinki, we could express our alter ego, being a new band every time we wanted to. It helped a lot to create new musical ideas and set forth a new cultural mentality, so to speak. Many prominent Russian new-wavers, such as Alexander Malikov (the drummer with ska outfit Kabinet and, later on, with one of the most successful Moscow bands, Va-Bank) and Altai Mountains -based singer-songwriter Oleg Moodruck went through our show as members of those fictional bands. In 2018, Alexey and I are planning to make a new session of Novinki dedicated to 40 years of Russian New Wave and 30 years of Acids recording. This time around we will have guests form Europe: The Elektroguitaristed (Switzerland) and Les Tajiks Tragiques (France). Hope the audience will enjoy it!

Myself: Dima thank you for the interview. That was refreshing!

Me: Thanks buddy! I did enjoy it, too!

(both laughing)

I finish my tea and go to bed. That was the longest interview in my life.