Interview with Anton Nikkilä (OUT.FEST 2018)
From Unearthing The Music
The following interview was conducted by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC team before Anton Nikkilä's presentation of his "Literal Translations" performance at OUT.FEST 2018.
You were in Moscow in the 80s. Can you tell us about how you got there and how the music scene was there at the time? Who were the key figures?
I have Russian roots from my mother’s side, but I was born and raised in Helsinki. My Finnish father worked in Moscow during the 70s and 80s, so I went to a Soviet school for a year (from 78 to 79) and when I was a bit older I started going to Moscow, first to visit my father, but then alone because I was interested in the music scene there. This was around 83/84, and it partly happened because of the cassette culture of the time. In Helsinki me and a friend, Mika Taanila, had a cassette label called Valtavat Ihmesilmälasit Records when we were teenagers, and we released these small handmade print runs of around 20 cassettes in 1980–1982. The music we put out would today be called something like 'noise' or 'industrial' music, but at that point those labels weren't really common. My contacts with the Russian music scene began by exchanging some of those cassettes for cassette copies of Russian underground rock. For me getting to know the Russian underground rock scene was a way out from Helsinki’s music scene, which at the time felt somewhat limiting.
So first I discovered some underground rock bands which played something like what was called the ‘new wave’ in Russia – this was several years after the new wave in Anglo-American countries - with bands like Center and Kino, but soon I found also musically more experimental groups like Jungle (Dzhungli in Russia), ZGA, New Composers, AVIA and Notchnoi Prospekt. There were several things that fascinated me about their music, but one was amateurism. The music was mostly primitively or quite unconventionally recorded, the sound at concerts was like this too, and many bands featured non-musicians. So it didn’t seem like musos’ music at all, more like music of ideas and concepts. It felt like there was a competition in inventing new things instead of crowd-pleasing routine and repetition.
The first time I actually collaborated with Russian musicians was in 89, with the experimental composer and musician Kamil Tchalaev, who was in Finland before emigrating to Paris. We played a semi-improvised concert, then he headed on to France with a Russian theatre troupe he was playing with and never went back. Then in the 90s I started collaborating with another Russian musician, Alexei Borisov, whose music I had already heard in the 80s when he was a part of Notchnoi Prospekt. I was dabbling with journalism in the 80s and 90s (mostly writing and making some radio shows about Russian underground music) and that’s how I got to know him. Eventually we started collaborating and became more active in the late 90s – I think we had our first concert in 98 – and then we started a label in 2000 called N&B Research Digest, which was active for about 10 years.
Can you tell me more about that label? Yeah, it partially came about for very practical reasons. My first solo cd came out in Russia in 98 on a label called Exotica where Borisov had already released some of his music. It was probably the leading experimental label in Russia at the time, but then in 98 there was an economic crash, and the label nearly went bankrupt and became inactive for quite a while. So, we needed another outlet for our music (especially because we were recording together by then) and so we started N&B Research Digest. We had nothing like a business plan – in a way it was more like a conceptual project, and at some point we even called it a “publication series” instead of a label, because a label sounded like some kind of business venture… We had this kind of underdeveloped semi-mythology for the label: That it was actually a research institute which may or may not have had its own building in Moscow, and we designed the records to look like the product of an institute of some kind of research…
We started with a really low profile – first we put out three CD-R’s in the early 2000s, during this small period of time when CD-R’s became like cassettes are today, in a way, something that anybody could put out – and since I was involved with cassette culture in the early 80s this was kind of a familiar thing to me, to put out music without explicitly commercial aims. Somehow these CD-R’s got a pretty positive response, and the fourth release we put out was already a commercially printed CD, which was quite cheap in Russia at the time, so we started making factory runs and this kept on going until 2007.
We mostly put out our own music, but one of the ideas was to put out also archival or forgotten stuff by other people – for example, the Finnish composer and musician Pekka Airaksinen. He was a member of Finland's underground movement in the 60s and of the performance collective The Sperm, the guy who made most of their music, in fact. In the early 70s he started making music under his own name, and we put out a compilation of his work from the 60s until the early 2000s.
In 2007 or 2008 the internet music business started booming, and we got this proposal from an English distributor, one of the earliest digital distributors of experimental music, so we switched to digital-only releases. Somehow that made us even more independent, not having to produce any physical objects, so the label’s last 6 releases were digital only. At this point it wasn’t clear how the economics side of internet distribution functioned and how Spotify and others were going to exploit it…The distributor started running into some economic problems (though they did last about 10 years, which isn’t that bad), and this year they finally had to stop their operations. All of our releases went offline and most of the CDs are sold out, so in a way most of our music doesn’t exist anymore, which is an interesting situation. I’m trying to understand what happens in EU law when it comes to digital but for now I don’t know what's the best way to make our label's music available again.
Would you say there were regional differences between the scenes in Russia at the time, particularly between Moscow and St. Petersburg?
There was a clear difference in the 80s when there was this so called “Russian classic rock”. It has been called that since the early 90s, it was somehow canonized quite early and it became obvious that pretty soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union the classic period was over. Maybe it’s worth mentioning that some of the key musicians of that period died in the late 80s and early 90s, so there was definitely a feeling that that era in music had ended.
There was a Leningrad (the city now called St. Petersburg) scene, a Moscow scene and some other ones – perhaps the most prominent was the one in Sverdlovsk, which is now Yekaterinburg. There was also a Siberian punk scene which was quite big, centred in Novosibirsk and Omsk. And dozens of more local scenes in different cities, now mostly forgotten. There’s this established notion that Leningrad rock was somehow more ‘literary’, perhaps due to the fact that the music of the city's most respected rock band Aquarium was seen as based on lyrics. But there were also bands in Moscow which were influenced by earlier generations of non-rock singer-songwriters, this Russian tradition of troubadours, bards as they call them. Their music is commonly viewed so that its lyrics are more important than the accompaniment. Personally I can’t subscribe to that, music doesn’t work like that, even if it’s a three-chord song…
There were infrastructural differences between the scenes for example – in Leningrad there was a quite tightly knit scene around an organization called the “Leningrad Rock Club”, which started in 1981 and was the first kind of legalized entity related to rock music in Russia. It was actually an old theatre which started having regular rock concerts, they had one of the earliest festivals too…It was a venue of sorts, and an association you had to become a member of at the same time.
So, almost all of the better known bands in Leningrad were part of this Leningrad rock club, and their musicians frequently switched between bands and would influence each other, probably more closely than in most cities.
Moscow also had a similar organization set up a few years later called the Moscow Rock Laboratory. It seems that both were careful operations by the KGB to contain the rock underground in one monitored place. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the revelations about this fact were in a way embarrassing for Russia's rock scene, but later this state of affairs has been gradually acknowledged as part of the history of Russian rock, even though the details are still not clear. There's a phraseologism in Russian, when something under discussion is said to have a "double bottom". The phrase was originally longer: something could be described as "a suitcase with a double bottom", bottom meaning a hidden bottom compartment. "Skeleton in a closet" is quite close to this in English. But it's also sometimes been said about Soviet history that things "have one double bottom after another". You can't really trust ex-KGB officers’ public revelations about who established the rock clubs in Russia and why, just as you can't trust the KGB archives if they will ever be opened. So many things that happened during the Soviet times may never be known in an objective way as it's understood in the West.
Back to the differences between scenes – it seemed like a lot of the information about what was going on in the west came quicker to Leningrad, perhaps due to a group of rock musicians who had contacts in the west and got parcels of records, perhaps due to the proximity of Finland and Estonia. But in Moscow there were also some people who were getting the latest news… My contact in Moscow was the rock critic Art Troitsky, with whom I started exchanging cassettes at the age of 16, and while he was sending me Russian New Wave music, I was sending my own music and western stuff like Einsturzende Neubaten and others. Soon he was sending me these ‘shopping lists’ of records I’d buy in Helsinki and send to Moscow…I think a lot of the information about more alternative and experimental music in the Soviet Union travelled through a small number of people in Leningrad and Moscow, and maybe a few other places, and especially through musicians in these cities.
There were also some western labels who had contacts in the USSR, like Leo Records in London, who were the first to release Russian underground music in the west, stuff like the Ganelin Trio for instance, and of course Chris Cutler’s Recommended Records. The New Musical Express (NME), when it was still a newspaper and very important in Europe (including in Helsinki, where it was sold in dozens of kiosks) was also a key part of discovering new music at the time…one of the first articles in the west about the Russian underground was published there, and Melody Maker (the other big music newspaper at the time) was also covering the topic after a certain point.
There’s another aspect that is perhaps exclusive to Moscow - conceptualism, Moscow conceptualism, which was an art movement of mostly visual artists but also writers who influenced many rock and experimental musicians, even my closest collaborator Alexei Borisov was probably influenced by this scene, which started in the 70s and was quite active, first in underground exhibitions in people’s homes and then in legal exhibitions in the late 80s…this was something that did not happen in St. Petersburg - there was almost no conceptual art and literature there, they had another scene of visual artists which also mingled with the music scene somewhat, with people like Sergey Kuryokhin collaborating with visual artists like Timur Novikov and Sergei Bugaev and others.
So yeah there were these kind of different scenes in Moscow and St.Petersburg. These cities have always been competing with each other one way or another, but this was all in the 80s and many things have changed since then. It’s a shame that the classic period of Russian rock later never got proper exposure in the rest of the world like for example krautrock has got. And I don’t think you can neatly separate the experimental scene of the time from the underground rock scene. All the rock bands I have mentioned, even Russia’s most popular punk band, Grazhdanskaya oborona from Omsk, definitively had an avant-garde side or took various ideas from things like Russian literature of the absurd or conceptual art.
A common view about what happened to the underground music when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 is that all these scenes, which had been united due to the pressure of the state in daily life and frequently mingled with each other, formed a sort of community which then began to disintegrate after Russia became ultra capitalist almost overnight. But in fact talk about commercialisation began in the underground rock community much earlier, at the latest in 1988. And during the 90s the capitalist mechanisms in the music business started working very slowly and gradually. It was only by the end of the decade that full uniformization and commercialization of the radio, television and music industry was reached.
What I can say is that from the mid 90s to 2011 I went to Moscow quite often and to St. Petersburg as well, to a lesser extent, particularly for concerts with Alexei Borisov, and by 2010 I had already started feeling really uncomfortable in Russia. Not because I was under surveillance or anything like that, but simply because it started feeling like the late 70s in the Soviet Union all over again, with a lot of patriotic songs on TV, a lot of military uniforms on the streets. Eventually I was only going there once a year and I noticed the changes every time, whereas the Russians did not because this happened gradually for them. I haven’t been there at all since 2011, but a few things have excited me about Russia for these last 7 years though – especially Pussy Riot, which I got interested in after their performance on the Red Square. I felt that it was something that Finns should know about, so I played them on Finnish radio and I’ve been writing about it…I even wrote my bachelor’s thesis (at the age of almost 50!) about Pussy Riot’s first music video, trying to analyse how it works not only as a political work but also as a piece of music and a video.
You saw the Ganelin Trio live in the 80s. Can you tell us about that experience, and about live music in the Russia during the Soviet Period in general?
Well that was perhaps in 83, so I was 18 years old at the time – it was a very long time ago. I can’t remember exactly where it happened – it was some kind of large concert hall, most likely, because there were no clubs in the western sense at all. It all happened in more or less pompous theatre and conference venues, sometimes in trade union halls and youth culture houses, which all had the same specific stuffy atmosphere, more or less. At rock concerts in particularly it was very constraining, seeing as everyone had to sit… I vaguely remember that the mood was a bit like it was in underground rock concerts of the time – quite exciting, because these were rare occasions, having this kind of free or avant-garde jazz concerts. And the rock concerts themselves sometimes had a slightly absurd atmosphere to them because since they happened in more traditional venues, part of the crowd would have absolutely no idea what rock music was and they had never been to a rock concert, and the other part was really into it because it was a big part of their lives and concerts only happened half a dozen times a year, or so…
I do remember a jazz-related performance in 85 very clearly: seeing Sergey Khuryokin for the first time in one of his very first performances as Pop Mekhanika. He usually had this (often very large) ensemble of rock musicians, with some guest jazz musicians and a couple of choirs and performance artists, but for this concert he had maybe 10, mainly rock musicians from Leningrad. I remember it very well because it was clearly a very humoristic performance – the audience was laughing a lot – and I was there with a few Finnish friends who had come to the Leningrad Rock Festival which happened once a year and they understood nothing about the humor. Even I couldn’t understand most of the references, they were Soviet cultural references and I had only lived in the Soviet Union for a year. It took me years of working as a translator and collaborating with local musicians to start understanding the cultural references in the arts better. The Soviet Union was in many ways a separate civilization, even though it wasn’t 100% closed, separated, the totalitarian monolith it’s sometimes described as, but it was trying to build its own civilization, and a lot of it is still very difficult to understand on a lot of levels for western people. But I think it’s the same as with many other cultures – with Indian music for instance, there are many things you’d have to study to truly ‘understand’ it.