How to Make It in America, Russian Indie Band-Style

Pompeya1
Pompeya, a Russian chillwave band that is signed by the indie label No Shame in the U.S., in the streets of New York. The band released its third album, "Real," in April. Hassan Kinley

It was a winter day in Miami in late 2011 and Marco Vicini, a co-founder of the small New York-based label No Shame, was driving around with his colleagues listening to a local college radio station. At one point, a really cool song came on that Vicini fell in love with immediately, though he didn’t know who the band was. Neither did Shazam, when he searched for it on the app.  Finally, Vicini took the old-fashioned route and called the station, where he learned that it was “Slaver,” a single off the first record of a band called Pompeya. The reason why even Shazam couldn’t help with it was simple: Pompeya was from Russia and didn’t have any representatives in the U.S.

Several weeks later, an e-mail popped up in Pompeya’s mailbox: guys from No Shame expressed their interest in the group and invited them to the U.S. The musicians were both delighted and puzzled. While they’d spent some time trying to spread the word about themselves, sending e-mails with links to their songs to all the relevant people whose contacts they could find, they had no idea how “Slaver” ended up on a Miami college radio station. Besides, the request from No Shame didn’t sound very professional.

“They were, like, ‘Guys, come hang out with us in Miami,’” Daniil Brod, Pompeya’s lead singer, recalls. “We said, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we play some shows instead?’”

Eventually Pompeya came to New York for three live gigs. When those went well, the band met with the label representatives in an office near Wall Street (“For us, simple Russian kids, it looked like we were in a movie,” says Brod) and, sometime later, signed a contract with No Shame.             

Nowadays, Carlos Aybar, the managing director of No Shame, calls Pompeya a flagship band on his label. The band’s groovy tropical chillwave, sung in English, sounds more in the vein of indie darlings Twin Shadow and Washed Out than what people normally associate with Russian rock. “I couldn’t believe these fresh, groovy sounds came from Russia. I would imagine that people there would play something darker, with a punk-based garage sound and DIY production quality,” says Aybar. “Pompeya was an eye-opener.”

Pompeya may be the latest Russian musicians trying to make it in the West—but they’re definitely not the only ones.

There’s Tesla Boy, a glossy synth-pop quartet that sold out New York’s Webster Hall, played the Mysteryland Festival in upstate New York and will be back for a solo gig in Brooklyn on June 27. Or Mumiy Troll, the band that reinvented Russian rock in the ’90s. Their frontman lives in Los Angeles, writes new songs in English and is enthusiastically supported by Jeff Greenberg, owner of celebrated recording studio the Village and a manager with four decades of experience.

There’s also Proxy, an electronic musician from the Moscow suburbs who plays powerful and aggressive U.K.-rave inspired tracks. He now shares management with Kanye West, Deadmau5 and Rihanna. Or Motorama, a postpunk band from Rostov-on-Don that now spends more time playing clubs and venues in Germany, France, Spain and Peru (of all places) than at home.

There are more. And while their music and personnel and backstories may be very different, all these bands have something in common: They’re all Russian, but their music isn’t.

“There’s nothing Russian in Pompeya or Tesla Boy’s music,” David MacFadyen, a musicology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who has been studying and covering contemporary Russian popular music for years, tells Newsweek. “The traditions of Russian popular music are not continued; one’s native language is avoided; and the general trajectory is towards recognizability. Towards sameness.”

This might come as a surprise, especially considering the previous attempt by Russian rock musicians, in the ’80s, to make themselves known in the West. Back then, when Boris Grebenschchikov, the lead singer of seminal Soviet rock band Aquarium, recorded an album with Dave Stewart from Eurythmics, and Red Wave, a compilation of songs by four Soviet bands, was released in the U.S., they definitely promoted themselves as the unlikely rock missionaries from a country that wasn’t supposed to know what rock was.

“During the Perestroika times, Russia was kind of hip here. [Americans] perceived the Soviet Union as a mysterious wonderland,” explains Anton Sevidov, lead singer of Tesla Boy, while waiting for his burger at hip New York restaurant Ruby’s. “Now the hype is gone.” Recently, when Sevidov was going through American customs, an officer asked him what he did for a living. To make it easier, Sevidov replied that he played in a rock band. According to the musician, the officer was really surprised: He didn’t think that rock was permitted in Russia.

Sevidov, a stylishly dressed 35-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, had a career in the West in mind as soon as he started Tesla Boy in 2009. (Before that, he had another band for which he tried to write songs in Russian, but it didn’t work out very well.) However, it would be unfair to say that everybody who sings in English in Russia aspires to a foreign breakthrough. In fact, even though there are no definitive stats, it seems that any new Russian band that wants to be fancy, hip and profitable is more likely to write songs in English than in their native language. For a new generation of musicians that came about in the second half of the 2000s and included Tesla Boy and Pompeya, English was not as much a career choice as a sign of cultural cosmopolitanism.

When the digital era started in Russia, local musicians suddenly discovered endless sound opportunities that were never explored by their predecessors. Although Russian mainstream music became much more diverse after the fall of the Soviet Union, its scope was still considerably limited. In a new global context, English seemed to be a natural choice: If somebody plays the music of the same genres as people from London or New York, why should the music’s actual language be different? For some, English seemed more natural for rock, a genre invented by English-speaking people anyway. For others, it was a way to make a break with the previous Russian rock tradition, which was perceived as pompous and provincial. Even now, when local bloggers write that a band’s music makes it hard to tell whether they’re Russian, it’s usually meant as a compliment.

There’s a market for Russian bands that sing in English: hipster metropolitan bars and clubs, corporate events held by glossy magazines and international corporations, summer open-air festivals sponsored by companies that want millennials as their customers. Tesla Boy and Pompeya, among others, are the leaders of this niche. So trying to make themselves heard in the West isn’t about finding a key to success, but about merely increasing their market share.

“I see Tesla Boy as a Grammy winner, and I see Anton getting as many accolades as a producer as, say, Diplo and Steve Aoki,” says Tesla Boy’s American manager Andre Howard, who was first introduced to the band’s songs four years ago when he worked for a major label. “Their sound is very authentic to original synth-pop from the ’80s, but at the same time it’s very modern, and people really appreciate it.”

Jeff Greenberg, who manages Mumiy Troll, was equally optimistic about his clients’ future. “I do think that they’re going to have great success here,” he says. “In my opinion, they’re one of the best rock bands in the world, and once they start doing festivals, people will see how explosive, powerful and exciting they are.”

Mumiy Troll’s American story is probably the most puzzling. Where other English-speaking Russian artists are newcomers, Mumiy Troll are actually veterans. In the late 1990s, Ilya Lagutenko and his group turned Russian rock upside-down, bringing a layer of hip sexuality to the otherwise deadly serious post-Soviet guitar-music scene (Jarvis Cocker and Pulp are a close, if not totally accurate, analogy).

By the mid-2000s, when Mumiy Troll went to Los Angeles to record their seventh album, they were already filling stadiums all over Russia. Since money wasn’t a problem, Lagutenko just searched the Internet for “the best studio in the world,” found the Village Studios in Los Angeles, and booked a two-week session there. When Greenberg, who owned the Village, saw them performing at a club downtown, he was blown away, and decided to try to help the band find crossover success in the U.S.

So far Mumiy Troll has done a bunch of American tours, but their audience is mostly filled with people who have some kind of ties to Russia, be it expatriates or immigrants. “Honestly speaking, the percentage of people at our shows who found us without any prior knowledge is fairly small,” says Lagutenko. “But our Russian success allows us to play shows anywhere on this planet. Of course, we could stay home, play at casinos and have a good life. But for me, this is more an emotional adventure. An educational experience. A cultural tourism, of sorts.”

“It’s true that, so far, mostly Russians show up,” Greenberg confirms. “But you know, once American guys realize how beautiful the Russian girls who come to their shows are, they’ll be running. Anyway, I’ve seen enough bands to become successful, and that’s why I’m optimistic. It’s just a matter of repeat, repeat, repeat until people get it.”

And the only really effective way to “repeat, repeat and repeat” is to play live. The first Mumiy Troll tour, Lagutenko recalls, was “a totally DIY thing. We didn’t have any label or anything. We just rented a bus, like they do in the movies, and went on a trip from one coast to another.”

Pompeya have gone through the same ordeal four times already, only in their case the cross-country travel happened in a van. “It’s a cool feeling. There’s no place for arrogance,” says frontman Brod. “And the most important thing is that you meet a lot of bands just like you. Everybody is going somewhere. Everybody is chasing a dream.”

At a Dallas date, only one man showed up for Pompeya’s gig. He said he’d been a fan since 2008. They played an entire set just for him.

Things have also gone well. In Tampa, they played at a dive bar. People were so enamored, the crowd didn’t want to let them get off the stage. When the band told a woman that they were from Russia, she grabbed Brod and said that she wouldn’t let them to go back to their home country.

What’s curious is that she actually didn’t know they were from Russia until they mentioned it. It’s not hard to assume that, even if there’s no singular Russian sound to appeal to an American audience, the Russian brand itself is strong enough to be a selling point. And yet, the bands seem to have another opinion.

“Who cares about where Phoenix or A-Ha came from?” Brod asks rhetorically. “To me, music is like science. It’s international. Our goal is to be a band for everybody. I am actually glad that some people think that we’re from South America.”

Sevidov agrees: “The fact that we’re from Russia is a secondary thing for our American listeners. And when people accuse me and say that my Instagram is in English because I’m trying to be hip.… In a way, it’s not my decision. It’s how things are. It’s for the same reason why flight operators are communicating in English.”

However, the particular breed of English that Russians use might still be problematic. “The way the Russian language and intonation might translate into English can be sometimes off-putting,” Jeff Greenberg admitted. “To have a guy with a Russian accent singing a pop song still feels a bit strange and unique to an American audience.”

David MacFadyen, who has probably listened to more English-speaking Russian bands than anyone in Moscow, also mentioned this concern. “Russia conjures all kinds of stereotypes in the mind of a Western listener, and that exotic uniqueness might create a moment of fleeting interest. For me personally, though, one of the biggest obstacles here is the ‘quality’ of language,” he says. “I often have to look for lyrics of songs performed in English simply because I can’t understand the original.”

One of the few musicians who actually uses the stereotypes to his advantage when dealing with a Western audience is Evgeny Pozharnov, who performs under the stage name Proxy. While his songs don’t have any lyrics (they’re powerful, take-no-prisoners rave anthems), the imagery he surrounds himself with has a distinctly Soviet flair: He sports a T-shirt with hammer and sickle on his promotional photos, and his first record was titled Music From The Eastblock Jungles.

Pozharnov says he doesn’t think that the Russian legacy is important, though. “It’s all just fashion, and fashion comes and goes,” he tells Newsweek. “Music speaks for itself, and there’s nothing Russian in my tracks. As far as my understanding goes, there hasn’t been any mature music culture in Russia since classical music.”

Whatever reasons Russian artists might have for going West, they’re all surprisingly apolitical. Few of them write lyrics about the current social climate in Russia, and none have made any political statements.

However, their inclination toward the West is evident, a factor that might come into play when they make bigger career choices. “You know, hipsters like all those songs about summer, sea and the sun, and I understand why common Russian people might be annoyed by it,” Sevidov says. “Especially in a situation where you’re surrounded by the [rocket-launchers] shooting at each other.”

Brod put it even more bluntly. “I’m not a patriot, I’m a cosmopolite. I don’t really care about what is going on in Russia,” he says. “Careerwise, Russia is a pit. There are no big opportunities for bands like us. Though it is still a cool country in which to get drunk and to travel.”

“We were brought up on Western music,” he continues. “Just like the Soviet rockers who we listened to as kids and who inspired us. But they didn’t have a chance to break through to their dreams. And we do.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tesla Boy would be playing a solo gig in Brooklyn on June 24. The correct date is June 27. Also, the article originally incorrectly stated that Carlos Aybar first heard Pompeya's song in Miami. It was Marco Vicini, co-founder of No Shame. An earlier version of this article contained an inaccurate translation of Daniil Brod’s statement about Russia (the interviews with Brod, Sevidov, Lagutenko and Pozharnov were conducted in Russian). The statement has been altered to reflect an accurate translation.