Roman Suslov: “We enjoy playing flawed music”

On Thursday March 31, Vezhlivy Otkaz will celebrate their 31st anniversary at Yotaspace.’s reporter met with the band’s leader Roman Suslov to talk about the new program, wartime songs, dissonant music and escaping from the city.

– You named the new program, timed to coincide with the 31st anniversary of Vezhlivy Otkaz, Schwung (“Upswing”). Why this sentiment now of all times, when the general ambiance doesn’t seem a likely setting for something of this sort?

– Well, that depends. It does to me, for one. Maybe spring is just that time of the year. I’m always on the upswing in spring, despite the winter weariness, seriously. As a matter of fact, I picked the German term for a reason: it is more complex and comprehensive than “upswing” in Russian. “Schwung” is a horse riding term; this is when the horse you ride is lively, playful, moves with pleasure and a certain upswing. This is what schwung is, that is how I imagine it.

– Living on a farm, are you still not particularly interested in the outside world?

– I simply don’t brood. Of course, some rumors and news about reality do reach me, but I try to stamp them down with this voluntary isolation of mine.

– Last year you were working on a program of wartime songs. Have they finally been recorded yet?

– I never said we were recording anything. On the contrary, I have always maintained that I don't want to record anything because every time it seems premature to me. In my opinion, the new pieces have not yet acquired the necessary gloss. Apart from the performance technique and the right compatibility of the musicians, this is about the independent life of these things; they have yet to gain a mobility of their own. That’s number one. Number two, to me studio recoding is a sort of a verdict because it means plunging a living matter into a dull and lifeless form. I have never cared much about ways of recording and capturing live material; what I do care about is reviving it every time on stage. In this sense, to me live performances and rehearsals are far more important and fascinating than studio work. In fact, I’ve always followed the lead of the labels, who would say we need to record this program or that one. Now the commercial and financial situation is not as relaxed as before, and these are expensive things to do. This is another reason why the new album release is not happening.

– Aren't you afraid that unrecorded compositions may sink into oblivion? With this attitude, chances are high that you may forget something for good.

– Not at all. You see, the thing is, if something gets forgotten, that’s the way it should be. This is why many titles from our repertoire are not getting any playing these days. This means that they are not relevant.

– So if Vezhlivy Otkaz had no studio heritage whatsoever, you wouldn’t be saddened, would you?

– Absolutely not. Having a recording is a comfort to punks; young performers always love to see their mugs on the screen. Studio albums are the same story. I think all Vezhlivy Otkaz musicians share my point of view.

– You’ve mentioned the financial side of the issue—have you thought about trying crowdfunding?

– This is even more boring, people have been suggesting this to me for a long time now.

– What will the new program be made of?

– The concert program will be mainly based on wartime verses, but in a slightly extended form; a few pieces from the past that we rarely perform these days will be brought back to life, and two new compositions will appear. I hope we will be able to properly articulate them by the concert time. One is a write-up to the wartime verses, the other is a new experience for me, a rattler.

– Something noise-laden?

– Loud, I would say, not noise-laden. Although there is enough dissonance there too. Generally speaking, I’ve always been interested in uncomfortable music, but now that interest has grown more natural, because I have mastered that language. Before it was more contrived, far-fetched. This is why to me the music written at an early age seems pretty sterile and juvenile. Now it’s well-rounded and mature.

 – Is dissonant music harder to make than pop hits?

– Yes, because there are more opportunities in the dirt. So it’s quite difficult to extract the exact essence of what you wanted to say with it. Throughout my cooperation with Vezhlivy Otkaz, I have been coming closer to using complex finely punctuated rhythmic patterns. This applies to the rhythm rather than the melody, but partly to the melody as well. Most of musicians this side of the border lack this skill. They don’t know how to break up compositions on into 30 half notes, into 60 fourths, then splay them into triplets and extract those beats that are needed at the moment. And if some islanders can do it intuitively and western musicians mentally, ours can't do it at all. And I've always yearned to achieve this solid, finely textured, fractional, precise rhythmics. That pretty much sums up all my experimentation.

– This is interesting because Vezhlivy Otkaz in one way or another is part of the rock scene but stands far apart from its other participants—even the atypical Zvuki Mu and Auktyon. Don’t you have a task to write a catchy song?

– Well, that’s not entirely true either. If we should go disclosing secrets, you could say that Vezhlivy Otkaz songs certainly do have certain aspirations to catchiness in them. The march toward popularity does exist in a certain way. But I'm fighting it in every way, I often use catchy melodic forms, but rarely rhythmical ones, to squeeze them into a completely unimaginable context, harmonic or rhythmic; so that they become unrecognizable but still be there. And so, in one way or another, they are there, but as mere hints, rather.

– Why did the military theme spark your interest in recent years?

– War to me is a kind of internal conflict, a civil war, a citizen’s war. On the one hand, it's something personal, and on the other an attempt to create a new context for the old forms of wartime songs. The first song to appear was “We’ll Win Over!”—a totally banal, tried-and-true melodic and rhythmic form with hooks. At first I wanted it to be performed as in the old movie about pilots, the one with Kryuchkov (Heavenly Slug—auth.). But then I abandoned those plans and set everything on a completely different track. The rest came together pretty much the same way. I would remember a song, for example, “Nightingales, Nightingales, Let the Soldiers Sleep Sound” about infantry in the trenches and bang!—would redo it with a completely different delivery. But in the back of my mind I always kept that very same song, which had bored the wits our of me a long time ago. I couldn't stand all these songs in my childhood, and now they are like signs to me which I want to send off to some very different musical worlds. This is actually what I do.

– And how does that change the semantic content of the Soviet wartime songs?

– Drastically, although this is a matter of perception. They always work differently because we give them a fairly free form. The original songs are like some wormholes, paths for the listener that are there to be found in our new compositions. They have accessible, and I will dare say beautiful, melodic passages along with totally destructive, noise-laden, defective sounds characteristic of the very destructive nature of war. So in many ways our wartime songs are relevant to what they were built on, and in many ways they are not.

– It would be strange to expect any heroic pathos from Vezhlivy Otkaz.

– Not heroic, but tragic pathos is always there. Otherwise there would be no songs. To me all this military stuff is always a kind of tragedy. I’m not being ironic about it; I'm completely honest in this case. To me all this is a fine edge of an inflamed nerve. Hell knows what it’s about, but it’s there inside of me.

– Incidentally, I wonder if you heard Yegor Letov’s album Soldatsky Son.

– No, I'm not at all familiar with Grazhdanskaya Oborona. Generally speaking, I'm not familiar with the work of our homegrown artists, especially those who claim to be part of the rock movement. To me they are closed off by their lack of independent musical expression. That is, they are all so cliché-oriented that I'm not interested. As for textual, or vocal, or verbal forms, then yes, it is certainly noteworthy, but again, this is not my field of interest. I have my ear out for musical things above all else. Pyotr Mamonov’s semantic forms, paradoxical to my taste and masterful even, especially in his latest pieces, interest me with their musicality, rhythmic expression and organization of the textual space, but not semantics. Word as an instrument.

– You have said many times that writing lyrics to a song is a problem to you. How did you overcome this in the wartime songs? Were the new pieces entirely written by you or are any of the lyrics somebody else’s?

– No, the lyrics are all mine, where there are any lyrics at all. But these are sign lyrics, the approach isn’t even poetic, these are some symbols just to outline a topic, these are headline lyrics.

– There is a perception these days that pop music is in crisis. The basic concepts and meanings have long been articulated, and most of what modern artists do is compiling. Is this the case in your kindred academic and avant-garde music?

– Same story, absolutely, rehashing the old no matter how you slice it. How successful it is depends on how strong the interpreter is, be it the performer or the author, as it were. Strong as a person and a human being, and not only and not so much as a craftsman. Because indeed all the material has been created a long time ago. All the rest is the ability to play on contexts, meanings and models.

– Do you see this as a problem?

– This is the natural course of things. It doesn’t just go on and on and then stop all of a sudden. It has gone on and continued with some minor fluctuations toward the extremes, by which I mean downs or ups in the cultural sense, but nothing more. The overall envelope of all this tends to zero.

– Do you think this happens only to music?

– No, in a broader sense this has been going on for a long time. It’s just that now people have started to articulate and comprehend it.

– Is Vezhlivy Otkaz doing this?

– No, we are just such pleasure-seekers, we simply enjoy digging around in our own stuff, and the rest is of little interest. We enjoy playing this kind of flawed music together.

– What is the band’s activity schedule?

– We get together before some newsworthy events or on the occasion of writing new stuff. If they start coming out, we get together regardless of the occasions. I come to Moscow myself; almost nobody comes to my place, except maybe the saxophonist with the instrument. He has come to my place even before, but his motivation is different: he dabbles in horse riding and trying to get his son interested in it. I sometimes make use of this, and we can rehearse something together with him. Otherwise never I get to see anybody, they can’t be bothered to come over.

– Have you grown apart with the city for good?

– Yes, and progressively so, because Moscow has changed a great deal, and I’m not finding those nostalgic and warm leads that once used to keep me warm and draw me there. Even in the 1990s it didn’t expel me as much as it does now. The sensitive guy that I am, everything interests me: the texture, the color, the odor, and so on, the architecture, the faces. And all this has become alien.

– Still not listening to music at home?

– Still not. Sometimes I do turn it on when driving, but as a rule only when I have to, when the children need something to listen to. I’m aware of my limited capability to discover something new. I have a farm to run, and when I’m done with my chores, there is no place left to even listen to something within myself. I can't repair a tractor and hum a melody, I just can’t. So now I consciously find some gaps in time to take care of the musical affairs, but they are infrequent and brief. For this exercise you need privacy and tranquility.

– In one of last year's interview, you said you wanted to become as independent from the state as possible. Did it work out for you?

– Partly yes, I moved away from it. I didn’t quite pass from sight completely, but I think for me the way things are today is the best, because I'd rather not relocate. Even though the world certainly has more beautiful and peaceful places than the one where I now live, they don’t feel as warm to me. I have traveled the world and have an idea about the where, the what and how beautiful it all is. But all that is alien, and nothing can be done here.

– Do you see Vezhlivy Otkaz in the Western cultural context at all? Could a band like yours exist, say, in England or Germany?

– Yes it could, but only if that band was a local grassroots phenomenon, which we would demonstrate there. That is, if we had originally met in that environment, we would have turned out to be something else, not Vezhlivy Otkaz.

Interviewed by Maxim Dinkevich.

Photo by Vladimir Lavrishchev.

Published by M24 at 6pm Moscow time on March 30, 2016.