Roman Suslov: “Bluntness annoys me a lot”

The leader of the band called Vezhlivy Otkaz talked to Gazeta.Ru about his upcoming concert, the need for deception, his farming enterprise and attempts to isolate himself from the state.

The Moscow-based band Vezhlivy Otkaz has managed to go 30 years without fitting inside any boundaries—not even the canons of the celebrated “Russian rock,” where it would seem to belong by its place and time of origin and the instruments played. For many years the musicians have been mixing together jazz and folk music, playing with form and substance to produce a completely unique God-knows-what, for which the most convenient name would appear to be jazz rock <and yet any jazz rock lover will tell you that VO music has nothing to do with this music genre>. At the turn of the century the band went on a hiatus for several years when its leader Roman Suslov retreated into the horse breeding business he had founded. In 2006 the band played a reunion concert, which marked the beginning of a new phase in the band’s life. In recent years, Vezhlivy Otkaz opened up another chapter—an all-new program Wartime Verses has been going through trial-run concerts for a long while now, and for the time being you can only hear it live—there are no recording plans. The March 31 concert at Yotaspace is another eccentric gesture of the musicians, who decided to celebrate their 31st anniversary onstage in a grand manner. In the run-up to the performance, Gazeta.Ru talked with Roman Suslov about the meaning of it all.

– Thirty-one is not a round figure—why celebrate it with a big concert?

– We thought we would make this a storyline, celebrating birthdays every year. As if to defy the conventional notion that no one celebrates birthdays at this age. On the one hand, it’s an occasion to invite people to listen to the music, and on the other a way of disciplining ourselves with scheduled ‘bottom-line’ concerts at the end of every season. We will mostly play songs of, let’s say, the past few years. Titles from way back will be few, and those few ones will be those songs that we play the rarest. In addition, there will be a couple of brand new songs that we have not showed anyone yet.

– Can you tell us anything about them?

– These are, again, in a way, experiments. I keep wondering how much you can destructure lyrics and melody, how paradoxical and dissonant you can make it, and broadly—at what point its viability will run out. When the melody and the lyrics will cease to be perceived as a phenomenon, an object, an artifact. My conviction is that any musical statement, if done masterfully (I won't use the word “professionally”)—if all musicians play the piece exactly as it is written—is an object of art. And here I am trying to prove it. To myself (laughs). We take any old perfectly hackneyed musical forms, match them with some banal lyrics carrying some trivial little idea, and we try to perform it fluently.

– I don't quite understand. You talk about destructuring the melody, but at the same time you work with existing cliches. What do you mean?

– Well, this destructuring is in the detail. If I'm talking about cliches, then it means that I use a verse-refrain song form with an instrument solo piece. This is a cliche. Also, we use some cookie-cutter harmony. But inside that, paradoxical and absurd themes develop.

– Why do you play more concerts in general? The concert at the Moscow Art Theater ten years ago, the one you played in honor of the band’s anniversary, left a feeling that you're not too thrilled about doing it. Is everything different now?

– Yes, everything became more slacked up. The attitude to music became more relaxed, even though the music itself did not at all become simple—quite the contrary. At some point I had a simple idea of collaging musical forms that are neither harmonically nor rhythmically related. In essence, we recreate live what deejays do with a single press of a button. That way I’m trying to pick a form of musical utterance that is comfortable to me. In different genres I relate to different elements. For example, rap music interests me with its structure, articulation, lyrical forms and melodic insets. But to me they don’t seem sophisticated and, so to speak, poignant enough. Everything about them is blunt, and that bluntness annoys me a lot. I need an element of deception, this is what I am at my core, there’s no other way for me. I need it to be “as if so” and not just plain “so”; this is what I'm trying to accomplish.

– Why is this deception so important to you?

– It’s not something mental or rational; rather, it’s intuitive. The way I see it, that's the way it should be. I go by my perception of the world. It’s important to me that everywhere should be the question “is it true?”, a doubt rather than a statement. This, in my opinion, is what makes Vezhlivy Otkaz music unique.

– For the past few years you have been playing the program called Wartime Verses. Where does it stand now?

– The upcoming performance will borrow heavily from that one. Moreover, one of the new songs, I think, will complete this program, round it off. I have no plans to record it for now; I’m leaving it to our musicians to bounce around. I always try to put songs through a shakedown at concerts before recording them. I feel some verbal forms are still missing there; they haven’t ripened in me yet.

– Didn’t you say at some point that you would like to do away with the lyrics altogether, replacing them with individual phonemes?

– Yes, I think it greatly simplifies things. When you just vocalize individual phonemes to yourself, they mesh with the music better and tighter than any lyrics. Embedding text into an existing musical space is very hard; to me, what I do is an escape, a search for an easy solution.

– That is, you can't answer the question what it is that you mean by all this?

– No, these are just maneuvers. In no case is this something born of strenuous effort, agonized over; it’s not. If I hit the desired neural points, it feels very good. This is a way of inner harmonization, treatment of neuroses and ills that pile up whether you like it or not.

– I asked about the content because recordings of one of the new songs,  “We’ll Win Over!”, taken by many to be nothing short of a civil statement, have popped up online at some point.

– Ha-ha. Well, that one is a sly piece, meant to land us on no particular side of the fence. I've always had a desire to wear two hats. Or even three.

– Tell us, what else is going on with you besides music? Is farming still your main source of income?

– Well, yes, the family, the farm, the children, the horses. We mainly do horse riding rental. People come over, ride on horseback, stay over for a few days.

– You didn’t move to the countryside for some mystical reasons; you did so to “have nothing to do with the state.” Are you succeeding in that?

– Not one hundred percent, of course, but I try in every way to break off contacts with the state. They do come up, of course—after all, my leaving the country is only make-believe. But I’m trying to recede as far away as I can.

– You don't want to have anything to do specifically with the Russian state or any one at all?

– None at all, yes. The state is a form of oppression of an individual, there’s nothing to do about it... You can’t escape, but you can inch away. This is why I’m not changing countries, although my wife is constantly saying we should move somewhere better for horse breeding. Over there is a better place to be, that’s a fact. But it's like that old joke about moles: “Son, this garbage heap is our motherland.” I’m disgusted by the majority of our countrymen, sickened to hear all that talk from everywhere, but only here there is something that makes up that love of country. The climate is lousy, no question about it, but over here I know every twig, every blade of grass—and all pleases the eye.

– To a casual observer, your biography does leave a strange impression. You were and remain a refined Moscow intellectual, a musician, and yet when you are not composing avant-garde music, you quite literally work the land, getting your hands dirty ...

– Well, this perception seems fabricated out of ignorance of the subject. If you dig deeper into this, you’ll find that the intellectual is less than refined, nor the music avant-garde ... If you dive even deeper, there's a lot of a kind of down-to-earth naturality there. My degree is in engineering, I’ve had a knack for handiwork since I was a child, so blending into the hands-on rustic reality came fairly easy to me. Except that it was physically demanding at first—my muscles were sore, I had to get up at daybreak.

But a form of diligence, an aptitude for learning, the habit of “doing homework” have always been second nature to me.

I willingly went to school, never needed help with my homework, held up my hand in class to answer first—I enjoyed it. In the country life, too, I easily accepted what I was given to me as “homework.” I quickly fell to doing as the other villagers were doing and did not stick my neck out. I do less physical work myself these days—only when I need to fill in for my hired worker. I have just the one—I handle everything myself, mostly. I built a house alone with my own hands. And not just the house, by the way. Apart from the little house that I built for my wife and myself, I have raised a big structure, with stables on the ground floor and a hotel on the first. Now, though, because our family has suddenly grown to four people, we had to move into this hotel—we are taking up the space that could potentially be rented out (laughs).

– Do you feel that more of that down-to-earthness is seeping into your songs? Does your music change somehow to fit with your lifestyle?

– The naturality has always been there. It’s just that before this music was poorly played. Now the problem is solved, so everything fell into place. What changes is the attitude toward the music, but not the music itself. It seems to me that the melodic and harmonic sequence that I perform has always been one and the same—it simply varies in arrangements. Maybe I would want to do something different, but it seems that I’m unable (laughs). There are some subtle motifs that make up my essence. All attempts to somehow move away from them look contrived, cold, empty, unmusical ...  Everything I’ve just said contradicts what I said at the beginning, but these things happen.


Interviewed by Yaroslav Zabaluyev.

Photo by Sergey Karpov/TASS.

Published by Gazeta.Ru at 9 am Moscow time on March 30, 2016.