I meet three of the five band members from Shortparis in Berlin, just before they are about to go on stage to play at Pop-Kultur 2018. Nikolay Komiagin - vocals. Aleksandr Galianov - guitar and synthesizer, and Danila Kholodkov on drums and percussion. Their debut album Пасха was released last year; an album of which Gigwise's Steven Kline said: “It resembles a band trying to smash five decades of music with an electrified cricket bat. Rave, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, darktronica, Balkan folk, eastern psychedelia, Muse and rock ragas, all set about mercilessly by singer Nikolay while apparently in a fit of raging tears,” which is a lot of fun to listen to.
Now, they’ve had a Summer of wow-ing festivals around Poland, the Netherlands and Germany and are currently being filmed by German Tv producers ‘Arte’ for a documentary on the Russian underground music scene. Spirits are high, and talking to them, it feels as if they are trying out as many moods and ideas in their interviews as they are in their music. Concepts are flexible, everything is open to negotiation. Quite fitting for a band that seek world fame and their own dispansion in equal measure.
We move quickly between the highs of performing, the extreme hedonism they’ve seen and found a little empty at festivals this Summer and the escapism music offers them. Whilst there is a healthy amount of disagreement between them, singer Nikolay Komiagin seems to lead the troupe and wears the mantel of “Philosopher-in-chief” as well as lead vocals. Sitting in a white t.shirt emblazoned with a Russian flag, he is focused, composed and serious to the point of paradox. I never see him blink. Dark eyes sitting deep in their sockets lend themselves to the idea that he is somehow old before his years.
I ask how they met.
The answer: “In Petersburg”.
Despite prodding, I cannot get any more detail from them. I’m wondering if this is because there is a Russian Simon Cowell in their history, or simply that they deem this question to be unimportant.
Their next answer points towards it being the latter: “For us, music is more important than our friendship. This is not a friends band. This is work for us. But not bad work of course. Understand - music is a way to run away for us from Russia. Especially in Siberia. It is a form of escapism and social status elevation.”
Drummer Danila confidently disagrees. All tatoos and lion cub testosterone he proclaims “We all don’t need to escape from anything but ourselves.”
The other two joke that he would say this because he is from St. Petersburg. This I am told, is like the ‘Europe of Russia” and a cosmopolitan world quite apart from the Siberia where the others grew up.
Progress and paradox continue to be themes of the conversation. For them and later, for the audience. On the topic of what has shaped their band until now and what pushes forward their sound, they are self- critical:
“We’re trying to be more professional and see how we suck. We think that we play hate pop. That means that we try to make pop and always hate everything that we play, and so we try to find the sounds that we don’t hate.” (AG) “Well...on the one hand we are trying to be more professional and grown up. On the other hand, we don’t want to get rid of punk, so we’re just trying to find our own path and not follow other bands.” (DK)
As with their shows on stage, Nikolay turns up the gravitas. “It is important for you to know this. We have two dreams. To be big rock stars and to go to the end of this dream. To feel it and see where the end is. At the same time, we have another dream- to destroy the rock career. Because we don’t believe it. Everybody who has a mind, every clever person, I hope, knows that all of this is fake. Rock music is very epic, but it's a fake of pop culture. It's scary if people don’t know this because young people start to believe that this is real and try to follow this dream and then eventually, they see that the real world, where they have to get married and have children is totally different.
Rock music is like a religion. People believe it’s the most important thing in their life. Something true, something big. Rock music, like all art gives people the feeling they have something important in their life. But clever people understand that maybe we don’t have anything important. Maybe everything is empty. And this is what we must remember. When we stand on the stage and act like a rock god, we say to people: ‘something exists. Believe it’ We act as something like a town cryer or prophet of this message. The classic parody of rock music. It's like a political manipulation of people and the message. And we have doubts about this. We think it's important to show it."
Following him down the rabbit-hole I ask what it is in their music or performance exactly that hints to people that this is all a game. He does not really tell me. But I do not doubt the sincerity of his sentiment. I resolve to look for the clues at their gig later that night. Is the heavy Russian Orthodox cross round his neck on stage one of the them? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I wonder how far they are hinting at the dilemna every artists faces when working creatively and trying to earn money from it. And how far this focus on schizoid doom and world success stem from the huge difference in the worlds they move between.
I ask what their families think about their music. They share a wry smile.
“Sasha’s father is starting to feel proud of him, but with a look in his eye that is very suspicious. He doesn’t fully understand the music.” (AG)
“When he heard my very high voice, it was confusing for him. Not macho. Which is weird because these hard rock bands all sing really high at points too.” (NK)
“They are seeing how it goes. They understand that we aren’t just playing and what we are doing is much more deeper here than just having fun. We are not having fun you know.” (AG)
They press upon me again the seriousness of their musical labour in a way that would be unusual for a Western European band. For a band who seem to have so much fun on stage, I guess what they want more than anything, is to be taken seriously as musicians. They want this to last.
I am still thinking on this as I watch them perform later than night. Their set is electric, eclectic and packed with showmanship. They are bombastic, full-body musicians, giving all of their energy.
I didn’t learn that much more about Shortparis’ music or creative process from speaking with them. Time was short and the occasional need for translation made it shorter. Nor did I learn really how they met. But I did learn something about them as people. They’re brutally aware that things change quickly in music, hungry to make this their career and not ashamed to say so.
I pass their PR an hour or so after the show. All but one of the boys are in bed. Ready for tomorrow.