The Indietronic Band From Russia's Far East Tells Us All About Rocking In Eastern Europe
Moscow-based Sistra is one of those rare bands where the sound alone is all that’s needed to capture the imagination. Their sound combines synthesizer and electronic beats with rock instruments to create something strange and protean, more liquid than typical post-rock, more spiritual than the most gossamer electropop. Their songs are as buoyant as they are brooding and introverted.
The quartet was formed by four friends from Khabaraovsk, far to the east of the country near China, but since relocating to Moscow the group has toured all over their vast region and released a haunting debut called Telegram Cloud. In our interview with the band, vocalist Michail Gnesin, percussionist Roman Murashov, bassist/keyboardist Roman Lopatkov, and guitarist Arseniy Sysoletin all chimed in on their story.
Though they would say it’s a very ordinary biography, we’re glad we got to hear it from them all the same. And the interview itself reveals quite a few items of interest, such as why Vladivostock is just like San Francisco and three different perspectives on the Pussy Riot.
How did you guys form?
Roman Lopatkov: We consider November 26, 2008 as the date of our spiritual formation, although we played together for a long time, since we were kids. In fact, whenever band is asked about “how they were formed” they all have the same story. School or college friends who subsequently begin to make music together, that’s all. And we have the same story.
How did you choose your name?
Roman Lopatkov: We have many versions of our band name for journalists. But in fact, at first we just came up with that word. We liked the sharp sound of it – Sistra!
Over time, we learned that this word has its meaning. Sistra – is the ancient Egyptian percussion instrument, some kind of a church rattle and even the symbol of some deity. The meaning is kinda cool, suitable for our music.
How would you describe your music?
Roman Murashov: Melancholic pop, or music for those who want to be happy.
Mikhail Gnesin: Sad songs that make people happy. I consider mellow songs the most beautiful and interesting. I listened to a lot of Cure, Portishead and The Smiths stuff in my childhood and they had a big impact on me.
Was there a particular emotion you wanted to capture while you were making Telegram Cloud?
Arseniy Sysoletin: In brief, we had a rich experience of searching our sound and Telegram Cloud sound had some special emotions. This album contains a big part of northern coolness but at the same time it is spiced up with some kind of oriental melodies. So, these two different cultures influenced our music and gave it some special emotions
Tell us about Khabarovsk. What did you do for fun when you were kids?
Roman Murashov: We have known each other from 16 years old. In our childhood days we were addicted to various artistic stuff (music, literature and cinema), looking for ourselves, played in different rock bands until we meet each other.
During our childhood, we were introduced to the Russian phenomenon known as “Gopnik.” It’s like “chav” in England or “white trash” in the US. Life with that kind of human waste always turned into game: one wrong turn into the lane and you could go home without your cell phone, sneakers or money. The legendary phrase “Yo! Sit on haunches and talk to me” usually ends with a street robbery. But right now Khabarovsk is rapidly growing and developing administrative center of the Far East of Russia. A beautiful city with beautiful scenery and perfect architectural solutions in the downtown area.
Have you played China and Japan?
Arseniy Sysoletin: Unfortunately we have never played Japan or China, but we’ll go there some day, at least we’d like to. Point is, we’re located closer to Europe at the moment so we’ll get there first thing.
When did you move to Moscow?
Roman Murashov: In May of last year. We had reached the ceiling of our musical career in our hometown and needed new emotions, new opportunities for self-realization. After a year in Moscow we’ve released our debut record on the same date that we arrived.
What’s the music scene like there now?
Mikahil Gnesin: Right now, Moscow is undergoing a period of supersaturation. Not much can surprise musically. It’s not because there are no good bands and songs, it’s because nobody cares that much, however, the underground music scene is big and it consists of very different and interesting communities: swag hip-hop, experimental, punk, hardcore, indie, dance, folk. Concerts and music distribution are often arranged with a DIY policy.
But a large percent of Russian people are still interested in only two genres of music: Gangsta rap and restaurant Russian chanson. Stas Mikhailov is the most popular music artist in Russia, a kind of Frank Sinatra with bad taste. He has 230 songs with the same melody and rhythm, and he is a millionaire.
What is your favorite Russian city to play and why?
Arseniy Sysoletin: Well it’s hard to say, on the one hand, Moscow is a great city and it offers you everything you want. But on the other, we like little ancient towns like Smolensk for their spirit and wonderful people. And we can say it about most places in Ukraine.
Mikhail Gnesin: I liked to play gigs in Vladivostok – a cool and magical harbor town not far from Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. This town is really digs into music and stuff, our shows there were always swaggin’. Vlad is like San Francisco in every aspect.
Why did you decide to insert a few lines from The Specials’ song “Ghost Town” into “Tiny Boat?” Do you like ska?
Mikhail Gnesin: I’m not a fan of ska music, but I love The Specials, because they have, in my opinion, very good lyrics in terms of social commentary. I used the lines from their song as a cultural reference. Their hit is about urban decay as is our song “Tiny Boat.”
What’s your perspective on the Pussy Riot trial?
Roman Murashov: I want a child from Tolokonnikova. She’s a very intelligent woman with the dark past. It’s very sexy. I’ll wait for her, because Putin won’t be gracious to Pussy Riot.
Mikhail Gnesin: Pussy Riot is a counterculture appearance that must exist in any society as resistance to social and common cultural space. I believe that such things should exist. Any form of protest should exist. Their verdict is very hard and the whole trial, of course, was ridiculous. In terms of law – it’s hooliganism, not a criminal case.
As for the fact that they offended the feelings of religious people – the Church is meant to set up the good above the evil, mercy above reproach, forgiveness over punishment. In this process, we were sent back to days when the church declared crusades against their children, made them suffer, pursued witch hunts. And I’m very sad that because of Putin and this trial our country once again is looking like we are bunch of savages. I love my homeland. I don’t like my government.
Roman Murashov: Despite this vicious trial the girls beat Russian rockers Gorky Park. Right now, Pussy Riot is the most popular Russian rock band in the U.S. and in the world. They can hang out with Sir Paul and Madonna.