Anton Nikkila Interviewed at OUT.FEST 2018
The following is the abridged version of an interview conducted by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC team before Anton Nikkilä‘s presentation of his “Literal Translations” performance at OUT.FEST 2018.
Anton Nikkilä playing at OUT.FEST 2018 in Barreiro, Portugal. Photo by Andreia Carvalho
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.
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 can read the full interview in the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC database by clicking here.