By way of Russia, art-rock for art’s sake

Boston Globe, March 24, 2006

Ever wonder where art-rock went? Ambitious, literary rock music with an appetite for genre experimentation and an extroverted, theatrical stage personality? If you’re stuck in a rut, replaying your old Roxy Music or Talking Heads records, then you probably haven’t been looking to the east Eastern Europe, that is.

Art-rock is alive and well and living thriving, even in St. Petersburg, Russia. The infectious, brilliant band Auktyon, formed back in Soviet days and still a major force in the Russian musical scene, is here to prove it. It plays tonight at the Somerville Theatre.

Auktyon it means “auction” is an eight-member combo with a lineup that has stayed nearly constant since the mid-1980s. As with all great eccentric bands, its sound resists category. But the musical lineup, which leans to bottom-heavy horns such as tuba and bass clarinet, and the group’s demonstrative, jaunty style set up connections from ska to klezmer. At every shift of tempo, the connections meld or vanish as fast as they formed. Heard end to end, an Auktyon album is very much a journey.

“I don’t know how to explain our music. Only a few can, and they’re not musicians,” says saxophonist Nicolay Rubanov, on the phone from Austin, Texas, where Auktyon played South by Southwest last week.

“It’s something very attractive and nonreachable.”

But the wry, thoughtful Rubanov, who as the group’s English speaker is its unofficial spokesman on this US tour, has a less cryptic explanation for Auktyon’s continued success at home in Russia, where it has attracted generations of fans.

“I think it’s because Auktyon is a live band, and quite alive onstage,” he says. “There’s no tape or soundtracks. It’s all energy, with no substitutions. We have a lot of popular bands in Russia, but not every band can deliver the kind of energy Auktyon can.”

The energy begins with his bandmate Oleg Garkusha, whose role the band’s materials lists as “Show, Declamation, Vocals.” Garkusha is a hyperkinetic frontman for an already kinetic band.

“Oleg is dancing and moving and wailing, doing a kind of dervish dance,” says Rubanov. “He attracts the audience. People are very happy to see so strange a creature jumping around onstage.”

Playing the classic part of manic, maverick counterfoil, Garkusha offsets lead vocalist Leonid Fedorov and his complex, closely wrought Russian lyrics.

“Lyrically, Auktyon tend to do a lot of challenging stuff, like setting really avant-garde poetry to music, playing word games, and collaborating with people like [contemporary artist] Alexei Khvostenko,” says Alexander Osipovich, the arts editor of the Moscow Times.

Alexander Bratersky, a writer for Moscow newspaper Izvestia and the Russian edition of Rolling Stone, calls Auktyon’s writing “punkish and funny, like `Please stop the plane, I want to get out.’ ” The disgraced mogul and politician Boris Berezovsky, he says, was a fan of a song called “I am the sky and the moon to myself,” a punk ode to narcissism.

Still, a non-Russian audience loses only a little by not understanding the lyrics, Rubanov assures.

“Auktyon lyrics are very sophisticated verbal and phonetical constructions,” he says. “Sometimes people understand what it is all about, but the lyrics are not the main point. They are part of the whole sound picture. We have no problems playing for non-Russian audiences.”

Auktyon has long had a cult following outside Russia, particularly in Germany and northern Europe. Gigs there were a lifeline for the group in the 1990s, when Russia’s economic turmoil made surviving as an independent band difficult.

Those challenges, of course, paled in comparison to the strictures that the Soviet government placed on nonapproved artists. It was when those restraints were loosened under the glasnost policy of Mik hail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, that the musical underground in cities like St. Petersburg began to express itself out loud.

Auktyon is often called a glasnost-era band as a result, but Rubanov resists that label.

“It has no strong connection,” he says. “Naturally, we were involved in that process because everyone was. But it was a very interesting time. It was much easier to play strange music than five years before. The authorities had other problems. They had no interest in controlling different musical movements.”

Then as now, Auktyon didn’t trade in protest music, Rubanov makes clear.

“We try to avoid political discussions because we do not like political discussions. We aren’t afraid of political and social processes, in Russia and the world. But we like a more sophisticated level,” he says.

That art-for-art’s-sake stance marks Auktyon as a leader in the Russian avant-garde, even if its own music is popular and quite accessible.

All the band members are involved in side projects, from their own groups to acting roles in theater and film. Their eclectic artistic lives match their eclectic music.

Rubanov, who also plays in an outfit called the Union of Commercial Avant-Garde, says St. Petersburg has proved to be fertile ground for musical experimentation, with numerous bands and, now that the Russian economy has stabilized, the artistic facilities to support them.

“St. Petersburg music is not only pop bands,” he says, almost affectionately.

“There are many insane musicians there who are doing very, very strange things.”