We speak to Shortparis in the midst of their European tour, unpacking the influence of Jean-Claude Van Damme and French pop in their music
This past summer while visiting St. Petersburg, I met up with my friend who worked at the Museum of St. Petersburg Art. It turned out that the singer of Shortparis, Nikolay Komaigin, also worked at the museum giving tours of their current exhibitions. Naturally, I joined one of his tours. Dressed in a pink Madonna shirt, his head shaved, Komaigin spoke to a group of about twenty. He was passionate about his interpretation of the artwork, while cracking jokes and making references to other Russian paintings, seeming completely at ease in this pedagogic role. At the end of the tour, I saw several people come up to talk to him. I got the impression that they were also fans. After all, Shortparis is one of the most popular bands in St. Petersburg today.
The band, comprised of Komiagin on vocals, Aleksandr Galianov on guitar and keyboards, Aleksandr Ionin on guitar, bass, and accordion, Pavel Lesnikov on drums and sampler, and Danila Kholodkov on drums and percussion, formed in St. Petersburg around 8 years ago. Komiagin told me that their first show was in 2011, at Café Stirka 40°, “a small but cult” St. Petersburg bar “with room for 20 but only two people showed up.” Nowadays, the band tours Europe and the UK, had their music featured in the second season of the American Netflix show The OA, and had a scene in the Russian film Leto about the famous St. Petersburg 80s band Kino. They sell out concert halls, headline festivals, and have earned a reputation as one of the best Russian live acts.
All of this doesn’t surprise me after listening to their two albums, Docheri (Daughters) from 2013 and Paskha (Easter) from 2017. The music blends together experimental synth pop, art-punk, and even elements of polyrhythmic math rock. It is often frenzied, with Komiagin’s voice casually switching between English, Russian, and French, and rising to a feverish, almost animal-like pitch. In some songs, his voice falls somewhere between Thom Yorke and Matt Bellamy, only to shift back to a solemn, monkish chant. The songs, often without the hope and resolution one wants, build in intensity thanks to the percussion-heavy focus. You can only imagine just how the music will translate into the raw and unbridled energy on stage. You feel just as gutted when the music ends as when it started – Shortparis wants to destroy your expectations. I recently caught up with the entire band to discuss their approach to music and performance.
What was the defining moment that made you want to do music?
Aleksandr G.: I have a story from my childhood, when I ate my mom’s antidepressants. I was about 4. They took me to the hospital to pump my stomach, and the only thing I remember is that they gave me a plastic balalaika. I think that was the moment I decided to make music.
Danila: The whole myth surrounding the rockstar life – being free, you can do what you want, and you stay young and beautiful. I think the only way to stay forever young is to create music.
For someone who hasn’t heard Shortparis before, what should they listen to first?
Nikolay: Requiem. It seems to me that it has a more universal structure. With other tracks, you can associate them with a culture and other more modern musical genres. Requiem has no genders, no generation, almost as if the music is not of today’s era. There are references to other music: from classical to Russian chanson, and choral music/chanting. Maybe it’s not the best musically, but I like its idea, and I think it’s one of our most daring and ambitious musical ideas, although maybe not fully realized.
And how do you want people to feel after watching your performances?
Aleksandr G.: Like after sex: happy and spent.
Friends of mine who have toured in Russia told me about how much they love playing there due to how enthusiastic the audience gets. How would you compare the Russian audience to an international audience?
Danila: It’s equal.
Nikolay: Everywhere we play, we have a hometown Russian audience. At least a third of our audience is Russian-speaking, so they save the situation in any case. Sometimes I want to say like Danila, that there is no difference. But the more we answer journalists’ questions, it does seem like there’s a difference. In fact, sometimes you can run into a really boring audience…
In Russia and in Eastern Europe, there is some naiveté and impulsivity, where people completely lose themselves. A sort of maximalism. Our music and our live performance are above national differences – more universal. It’s music that can break through gender barriers, age differences, and can bring people to the place where we want them to be. However, from time to time, the music culture of a particular place is stronger.
We have noticed that no matter what we do in certain European cities, no matter how much we dance, no matter how much Danila beats the drums, people would drink their beer and nod their heads, clearly enjoying the show, but that’s it. For me, it’s insulting.
Do you know the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme? When he’s fighting his enemy, he falls to the ground, bleeding, and there’s a small child next to him, saying «Papa, you can do it!» [Everybody laughs] And Van Damme says «I can do it» and gets up. He gets motivated to fight again. We feel the same thing at our shows. We look at each other. Now we will shake them up, we will force them to throw down their beer glasses, and get into a ritualistic state of mind. We run into the concert hall, grab them, and then nothing changes. Afterwards, we receive letters from people asking us to apologize publicly that there was some sort of physical contact. For us, it’s a defeat. But in the end, I think we shall find the right way to reach them.
And what has been one of your favorite cities to play and concert experiences?
Danila: There have been too many, but I still warmly remember our concert inside a circus in Kiev. It was really beautiful. And also recently, we had another concert where there were a lot of naked people [Everybody laughs], so it was wonderful.
I personally find it fascinating that you are able to sing and write in three different languages. Can you tell me more about why you decided to do your first album in English and French, then your sophomore album in Russian?
Nikolay: What do you think is the most important language?
For me, English, because I am primarily an Anglophone, and it makes sense for an international audience. But when I listen to your music, I don’t think you really need to know your lyrics to feel it.
Nikolay: Well, most groups chose the English language for that reason. The fact that we also chose the French language made us different.
Why French then?
Nikolay: Alexander I. and I came up with the name of the band. We lived together in a small apartment. Sasha usually was in the kitchen, doing his thing, probably playing bass, while I was spending my evenings listening to French music from the 70s and 80s for some reason. I’m not talking about French underground music, the first thing that probably would come to mind to readers of your magazine. I was actually listening to pop music, as mainstream as it gets, from Jacques Brel to Mireille Mathieu. I was touched by this music. My mom loved it. I found some sacred greatness in it.
Three of us are from Siberia, from some godforsaken place. So to me, this music was associated with high culture, with civilization. There is something antique about it, like reading Homer’s Ulysses. You are getting close to a lost civilization, to a myth. Antiquity means a legend, and subsequently what comes with it – some magic aura, magnetism and mystique. So for me, Mireille Mathieu was like Homer. She guided me into modern Western civilization, with its aesthetics, beauty, and romantic lightness, which is not so popular nowadays for the younger generation.
Of course, this is a simplified explanation, and it may sound funny and silly for some, but for us, provincial Siberians at that time, it was like a dare to understand art of such caliber. We could just imitate. And that is where the Shortparis comes from, representing our doubts that we would ever be able to communicate with Western culture. And for that reason we chose French, among other languages. It may sound pretentious, unfortunately. But this is how our music language developed, because French allowed us to work with phonetics and forms, and afterwards, we added Russian into it.
Photo by Yuri Gryaznov
Do you write your music or lyrics first?
Nikolay: We write the melody and after that the words in Russian. The more I think about it, the more I understand that genetically melody and music hate lyrics. They take lyrics as the enemy and try to destroy them.
[Nikolay plays a song off his phone].
We just heard only two syllables Radui-sya [Rejoice in Russian]. This is part of a prayer. Some time ago, I was teaching on the subject of Byzantine culture. I let my students listen to this track, and they all thought it was Middle Eastern. They only heard half of the word, and immediately thought it was a Muslim song, different and foreign, until they heard the other half and realized it was Russian, something native and maternal. This is how arrogantly melody behaves with lyrics. The lyrics and words are destroyed. You can’t understand what he is singing. And here the text is very important: Raduisya Maria [Rejoice Mary] – these are sacred words, prayers to God, to the Virgin Mary. But the Middle Eastern tone of the music makes it difficult for the words – it plays with context, creating some standalone abstract structures. It’s very cool. We try to make the lyrics important, and in our example, what can be more important than the words of the prayer. We see that our melody always tries to destroy our lyrics, and at the same time, it tries to protect them without losing the meaning.
Are you working on a new album? Can you tell us what we can expect?
Nikolay: We don’t like this commercial strategy, bragging or trying to hype it up before the album comes out. We prefer to say nothing.
You had a scene in the film Leto where you performed a cover of David Bowie’s All the Young Dudes. If your music was the soundtrack to any film, which film would it be?
Nikolay: Arrival of a train, the very first silent film ever made in which people shot at the screen thinking an actual train is coming.
Aleksandr G.: I just remember this film called Blush [by Wim Vandekeybus], with a soundtrack by the group Woven Hand. It’s a film about ballet without any dialogue, just dancing to music. I think that we would do something more like that.
Switching gears to your music video for ‘Strashno’ – how involved were you in the production of the video and its concept?
Nikolay: 100%. This was completely our product. From the beginning, the idea, the screenplay, the scenes, the filming, and editing. With the help of a small crew.
Could you talk more about the scene where people are carrying a boy holding a Russian flag and what it means to you?
Nikolay: There is no point in commenting because the video is done, and you can see it for yourself. The video wants to destroy the words the way that a melody does.
The video seems to challenge the concept of Russian and a masculine identities. Do you agree?
Nikolay: Why does it seem like that to you?
Well, we watch you, looking like skinheads, going into the school with guns on your shirts and carrying duffel bags. We expect a school shooting or mass violence. Instead you go to the gym, which is full of Central Asian men, women, and children, who look like they could be refugees. This first begs the question: who is Russian? Is it just white Russians or others too? And then there is a scene where you’re dancing in front of the flower background, which challenges what it means to be a man in Russia.
Nikolay: It seems to me that you are breaking down our video to political theses. Gender equality, any of the issues you’re bringing up can become a part of a political agenda or law. There are social and psychological issues that do exist. We can talk about equality of genders and that men can be different or behave differently. But this is not part of the art. What we are trying to say is an artistic statement. And the meaning of this statement is somewhere between all these political or social or psychological slogans. Form is important in itself because it creates context. You cannot define it in one word. If you break down our video like this, you would be oversimplifying everything.
Aleksandr G.: I want to add about the difference between artistic and political statements. The artistic statement is always tense. It’s like a bow and arrow. You’re not shooting the arrow yet, but you’re ready. There are always a number of tensions between the meanings, which you can’t combine into one. When you try to analyze something, it’s like you’re unstringing the bow, disassembling the arrow, and placing everything neatly on the shelf. This is one approach. But when you see something in action, when you’re ready to shoot, this is when you feel the tension.
Speaking of art, Nikolay, how does your work at the art museum influence your music?
Nikolay: I don’t work at the museum anymore. I quit a month ago. We shall see how this influenced me in the future. I think that one of our strengths is that our band doesn’t think like a musical group. This could be tied to my profession or to Sasha who is a linguist or the other Sasha who is a geographer. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but the fact that we think not just as a band and our actions are not always what you would expect from a band – all this makes us unpredictable every time we perform. This is our strength.