Born in the USSR: Boris Grebenshikov's Russian Rock

Author: Evelyn McDonnell
Source: The NewPaper, Providence, RI
Date: August 3, 1989

Boris Grebenshikov sits on the floor of a penthouse in midtown Manhattan and sips coffee, still trying to wake up from a late night at the New Music Seminar's opening party. His rock-star-long hair has been cut and his face is creased with expressive wrinkles, each fold shimmering with the sweat of another humid New York day. His manager, Kenny Schaffer, one of the people who helped bring Boris to the States from Leningrad, bounces in and out of the room – answering the phone, joking, fetching coffee. The quiet, intense Grebenshikov smiles at Schaffer's manic hovering.

Boris Grebenshikov is the Soviet Union's premier rock star. His band, Aquarium, became an underground legend during the past decade by circulating contraband tapes of their material. Then came perestroika. Suddenly the government was releasing an official album from this unofficial rock band. At the same time, Westerners began pouring through the part in the Iron Curtain, searching for business and cultural opportunities alike. In Boris, they found both.

Schaffer and his partner, Marina Albee, run Balka International, a consulting firm that helps orchestrate deals between East and West. They "discovered" Grebenshikov in 1986 and helped him get a recording contract with CBS Records. Along the way, the poetic frontman separated from Aquarium, but he picked up the assistance of the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart. The two headed into the studio with some of Boris' Russian comrades and some of Dave' mates. The resulting album, Radio Silence has been playing on radios across the U.S. since its release in June.

The NewPaper: Are you spending much time at home these days?

Boris Grebenshikov: I spend time where I can do some work, and these days that means I spend like four months here, and then two months in Russia.

Q: Does your family still live there?

A: Well, my new wife and her kid is here with me, but my previous children are over there, my mother's over there ...

Q: Are the Soviet authorities worried that you're spending too much time over here?

A: No! They're waiting for their money!

Q: You're a valuable export to them! When did you first come to the States?

A: It was December '87.

Q: When did you learn English?

A: For some reason when I was a kid, I was taught some English, and I really wanted to forget it. But then the Beatles came along and everything started to organize itself into my head.

Q: I was reading in New York magazine that Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry never really caught on in Russia.

A: No, because they're rooted in black culture. You don't have any black people in Soviet Union. It's impossible to feel it unless you see the people.

Q: Since you've been here, have you gone to any ...

A: Well, I'm slowly rediscovering all the things that I've known for 20 years ... I can listen to an old Motown record, and feel what it meant. But you put on a Smokey Robinson tape in Leningrad, and it's just another voice. It's nothing interesting. Here, it means something.

Q: Why do you think that is? Because the Beatles were trying to imitate Motown when they started; they weren't that different.

A: I think you've got the wrong idea. Where? You can find four or five songs on Please Please Me, maybe a couple more, and then nothing. They were very rooted in this music hall tradition; Paul was. And John was trying to imitate black sound, kind of ... I remember distinctly when I was listening to the Beatles in the mid-60's, I was paying attention to the melodic side and the way voices blended, and the energy, not the rhythm, but the energy of the voices. And I still listen to the same thing.

Q: That's another thing I read, that you said that that was something you had to learn for this album, how to incorporate rhythm, and there is an almost disco beat to some of the songs.

A: I was always interested in exploring this corner of music, rhythm. But it's kind of tough to try to do it in Russia, because the rhythms there are much more simple.

Q: So what did you listen to try to educate yourself about American rock 'n' roll rhythms?

A: Well, I never specially listened to anything, I just listened to mostly the same things I was listening to before: traditional music like Irish and British and Middle Eastern things.

Q: So where did the rhythms come from on the new album?

A: You're still thinking about that album; it's still new to you. It's really old to me. I'm thinking about different things right now. We're doing a lot of songs using much more interesting approaches ... We only had basically four or five weeks to write the songs and record them and mix them.

Q: So you're not happy with the album then?

A: No, I'm happy with the fact that it came out, that it was recorded. I'm happy with my relationship with Dave Stewart and everybody else. But we just had so little time. If we had more time we could do much more interesting things.

Q: Such as? What are you working on now?

A: I hope you hear it.

Q: Is that what you'll be playing on this tour?

A: We'll be playing some new songs. We're recording demos ... I never knew how to describe my music. I guess they'll be slightly more complicated and less orthodox ... the songs on Radio Silence were all written here, in this apartment. I prefer to spend more time in the studio, like a week or two weeks, to develop the songs.

Q: Were you able to do that in Russia at all?

A: Yes, in Russia they were using like cold war studios, with no real quality but a lot of time.

Q: Did you feel at all overwhelmed by the recording process here?

A: A recording studio is a recording studio. If it's good or bad, it's still a mike, a mixing board, and similar things.

Q: How about the number of tracks?

A: Well, when we found an eight-track in Russia, it was like five years ago, it was like a miracle. Dream come true … But you really get used very quickly to good things. In a week, you take it for granted.

Q: How about lyrically, writing in English versus writing in Russian?

A: You see, poetry has only one law. You can't describe this law, but it makes you do things a certain way. And it doesn't really depend on the language. Probably my English sounds less developed, because again I had precious little time to write – I was in a hurry, and you can't hurry poetry – but still I was obeying the same laws that I was writing my Russian songs in. So they're basically the same. It's a miracle when you start with nothing and after a while you have a song, and the song is like God's creation, like a dream, like a human being: it's alive.

Q: Since you've been here, have you been buying lots of books and records?

A: Yes. But I had a much more interesting record collection in Leningrad, because it's a bit harder to find certain things here, you have to really look for them. And in Russia hundreds of my friends were trying to help me with the specific kinds of music I needed. Here, I go to the Village, combing through, trying to find certain things.

Q: And those things you're looking for are Irish and …

A: Well, this and all kinds of traditional music, some specific music from the end of the '60s, like now I got almost complete Incredible String Band collection. I'm still looking for some real obscure bands … You see, I'm interested in the real thing, I'm totally not interested in the things that are spoiled by the market.

As far as I know, songs make you write them. It's like divine intervention, it's like something occupies you for some time and makes you write the song. Then it's real. Then it belongs to human culture … For me, the Incredible String Band belongs to the same tradition, a human cultural tradition, like Homer, Plato, or anybody. And MTV doesn't do it. That's the difference between real and superficial. Songs that come from the heart and songs that come from a calculator, trying to find out how much money you'll get for writing your songs.

I went to see Ofra Haza last night … That's what I call the real thing, because that's music steeped in religious tradition. It is religious, and it is religion. It speaks like a middle person between God and people, like a musician should be: an intermediary between God and people.

Q: Yet she and you both have all these intermediaries, such as big production – Dave Stewart producing you – and the record company, and …

A: I think the main thing is motivation. Compare R.E.M. to Bon Jovi. R.E.M. may have a bad sound, but there is something happening. I don't think there is something happening with Bon Jovi.

But a lot of R.E.M. fans were mad when R.E.M. went over to a major label and don't like what R.E.M.'s doing now; they think they've sold out.

Well, great, because a lot of people have the same reaction to us in Russia, when government released a compilation of our tapes, people telling me that you sold out. And I said, wait a second, we recorded it two years ago! People get mad because it's really easy to be an outlaw, because you can forgive yourself a lot. Because you say, I'm an outlaw, I don't have any other choice. The thing is you have a choice … when a person doesn't have any temptation, it's easy to remain a saint. But is it the real thing? The thing is to have temptation.

Q: Do you think the rush of the recording process thwarted your goals at all?

A: Well, this record is a first step. I was kind of feeling my way around. I was very lucky to have met with Dave and that all of this happened, because I was put exactly where I want to be put: in the mainstream of rock 'n' roll, present-age rock 'n' roll. It may be good, it may be bad, but when you're in the middle of a mainstream, you can see people, and you can grow on the energies, and it's up to you, you can shape it into something that will mean something or you will just use it for anything.

I think I used the chance I was given. Well, it's interesting what happened, judging by the reaction of folks back home: people were afraid that it won't be me, and when I came back with the tapes, after a while they said well, we still hear you.

Q: As far as contemporary bands, you mentioned R.E.M., are there any other bands or sounds that you're interested in?

A: You see, to me, I can divide everything that is happening in art nowadays into two categories. It's one thing when you feel like you're on a mission from God, like in Blues Brothers, like John Belushi. Another thing is when you do it for your own sake.

It's like the distinction between white magic and black magic. If you're interested in that field, you probably know that the only distinction is how you use the energy. When you're receiving the energy, you must ground it, you must send it somewhere, to help people or to do something. Or you can use it for your own self, and then it goes into some kind of well inside of you and it disappears. And that means you are feeling the devil inside you.

When you're working for your own ego, you destroy yourself, and you hurt a lot of people. When I was listening to Ofra, it was evident that she's not working for herself. It's evident to me that R.E.M. are not working for themselves. They are desperately trying to communicate something, but maybe they don't understand themselves, but there's a sense of urgency there.

Q: Did punk come to Russia?

A: It came like two or three years later, because nobody would bring the records to Russia because black market types, they were definitely not interested in that kind of shit, and it couldn't get through any channels. The only source of punk for me at that time was Radio Luxembourg: sometimes they had some. Like I remember listening to the Dead Kennedys on Radio Luxembourg. That was an eye-opener.

Q: What did you think? I would think the Dead Kennedys would be hard to listen to.

A: Well, it's hard to listen to, but when you're listening to one song among all the Top 40 shit, it stands out. For me, it was giving me a lot of creative ideas. We were the grandfathers of Russian punk.

Q: What you're doing now is really removed from that.

A: Not really. See, it may sound different, but … "Fields of My Love" is probably much more revolutionary song than any of this political song because "Fields of My Love" deals with human choices, the choices that everybody makes throughout their lives, and they mean something. Politics usually means that you're stuck in one corner and you can't get out. The thing is when you have choice.

It's like "Fields of My Love" – it's like I'm forbidden to discuss my own songs; it's impossible for me to describe them – but "Fields of My Love," as far as I'm concerned, it deals with the person, he is given a victory, he is given a triumph, but he's saying, well, it's nice to meet you, but bye-bye, I am going away, I'm not interested in this, I'm interested in something different.

Victory and defeat is all the same thing. Political songs are boring, all of them, and they fade really quickly. For me, stuff like "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks, it's still valid, it still stands …

Life is only real when it's infused with God's spirit. That's why people take acid or any kind of shit, to be open for three or four hour, and they can't deal with it, because they're open and they close themselves down again. That's why all these '60s came to nothing, because you can't take this kind of opening without having any kind of background, without knowing how to deal with it.

It's like you're on some kind of journey or quest, the stuff you're left with after you're through is the stuff that you started with. You can achieve only what you want to achieve. Otherwise you can go into any treasure cave and you come out with a small piece of gold because you will be surrounded by any kind of treasures, you won't be able to recognize them. You can only take out what you have. The same with music …

You can have a song that expresses your political feelings, but the question for me, where does it lead you to? Does it really help you to solve your own questions? Or does it give you some energy and then leaves you out there being stuck and not knowing where to go after it? It's easy to destroy. It's really easy – I took part in a lot of destruction processes, I guess I still am in a way, but it's still a problem what you're doing with all the energy that you've got inside of you. You can waste it on destruction, and it can be useful, it can be really useful, but it doesn't help you to develop yourself to the next stage. It doesn't help you to help others, to share your energy.

Q: You're obviously a very religious person.

A: Well, for me, rock 'n' roll is religion. It focuses your life and it shows how to smile.

Q: What about people who think it's the devil's music?

A: Well, they're talking about form only … Rock 'n' roll is just a form that can be used by the devil, or by people who want to serve the devil. Or it can be used by people who want to serve the god. It's not different from any other form. You can use the microscope in same way. The same with sexual abandon: it can be holy, and it can be disgusting, or it can be neutral as it is mostly in America … Everything should be illegal, rock 'n' roll should be illegal. It works more.

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