La Dolce Vita of Ukrainian Urban-Rockers

Interview with Okean Elzy one of the most popular and recognisable rock bands of all the countries of the former SU.

Back in 2001, they once again opened up Ukrainian rock to Eastern Europe. Their song 911 gave it a new lease of life, when many people, including Ukrainians themselves, were predicting its impending doom. They also proved that songs sung in their native language could indeed firmly occupy the top spots in the overseas charts. Today, Okean Elzy is one of the best-known examples of Ukrainian music. They have been on the road crossing the continents for over six months now on the Dolce Vita album tour. In the run-up to their concert in Prague, Youth Time attended their press conference and spoke with the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk.

Sviatoslav, Okean Elzy is one of the most popular rock bands on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Having won the love of millions in the East, doesn’t the desire to conquer the Western electric guitar fan ever crop up?

You cannot really plan these things. I’ve always believed that strategies don’t work. What’s needed is music which will resonate with the listeners. You need to ride the wave of these people. But that is just rock. In pop music there are other rules. The group Tatu is popular. They play on other things. They are international and Freudian. He unites everyone.

Where do you like playing more: stadiums or small venues?

We like to perform at venues where the audience is near. Where people can freely express their emotions. Now, for example on the US and Russian parts of the tour, there were a few small venues we had completely forgotten about. They were intimate even. I really liked them. When a venue with a capacity of 500 people is stuffed with 1000 – this, believe me, is a buzz.

And in the midst of a buzz did you ever try that favourite amongst the Western rockers – stage diving?

I’ve tried it twice. The first time was in a small club in Moscow. It was a classic stage dive. I was held up by the strong hands of 15-year-old girls. The second time was in Kiev. This time, it was a bit more serious. We had a concert at a sporting ground, with an audience of 10 thousand people. I jumped. Afterwards I noticed that people were beginning to scatter. After a few seconds I realised that I was just stood next to them. I returned half-naked. The top half, thank God. Next time I will wear a special suit, that won’t rip. Incidentally, I remember after a concert in Slovakia, we jumped into a pool. There was a pool next to the stage, and with the final chord we dived in fully clothed from the stage.

You mentioned that you need to ride the wave of the people to whom you play. You tour a lot, visiting many countries and cities. Do you try to change your repertoire, depending on the audience?

Well, for example, in the Czech Republic you can play any of Dvorak’s symphonies … In fact, we have the same set list for Petropavlovsk to Kamchatka, that we also do in New York.

Nevertheless, people change from place to place, and fans behave differently. Can you remember the most interesting incident you’ve had with the fans?

It happened in Kharkiv. I went up to my room and there out of the darkness jumped two screaming girls. They wanted an autograph. I almost had a heart attack. If they had screamed a little louder, they might not have gotten that autograph.

What kind of music do you prefer?

Yesterday, I asked myself that very question when delving into iTunes radio. The result was that I settled on classic jazz. Does that mean that jazz is my favorite music?
It probably means more that at that moment I did not fancy anything heavier. In fact, if you read one book, listened to one song, or met one woman in your life, then perhaps you could say what is better. So, I don’t know.

Do you think that in Russia, the Ukraine, and in the West there is a difference in the perception of rock music?

There’s a big difference. For me, it is clear as day. The fact is that the Russian rock tradition is ballads played on electric guitar. It was basically a way of making a protest. A political protest. But Western rock music is built, as I like to put it, on Freud. It takes as a starting point the fact that men want women to like them and vice versa. Thus, western rock focuses on musical energy: the melody, arrangement, rhythm; and Russian rock focuses on the lyrics. It continues to this day. In terms of meaning, the songs of very many world-famous Western rock bands are very basic, stupid even. Russian groups have very serious lyrics, but they’re rarely put to good music. To put it bluntly, Western rock is often characterised by great music with meaningless lyrics, while Russian rock has profound, meaningful lyrics but bad music. Ukrainian rock, oddly enough, is closer to Western rock. It’s because we didn’t have it in the 80s, when it all started. It was influenced by what we heard on the radio. I think you will find much fewer important things in the lyrics of Ukrainian groups, but much more in the music. This is probably one of the reasons why in Russia, where they don’t know the language, Ukrainian groups are popular.

After Yuri Shevchuk, frontman of the band DDT’s famous meeting with Vladimir Putin in Russia, there was a lot of debate on whether there is a place for the musician in politics. You were once a National Deputy in Ukraine. What is your opinion on this?

It is inappropriate to compare this. I am often inundated with questions like why did I leave parliament, was I disappointed? I actually was not disappointed in anything. I left politics not because I was fed up of it or I didn’t feel right there. It was more like making a stand. Through my act, I demonstrated that normal people cannot be in the Ukrainian parliament. Someone had to demonstrate this clearly.

You are now a UN Goodwill Ambassador for the youth in Ukraine. Furthermore, you can observe a change in generations among the fans of Okean Elzy. Can you compare the ‘character’ of young people in the 90s and today?

I honestly do not see much difference. Maybe people have a little more money, and variety in terms of what they see. Probably the biggest difference is in the emergence of the Internet. But this had an impact not only on youth, but on all of us. Because of this, everything is changing rapidly. In the 90s it didn’t really exist. It only generally became so active in the last ten years.

So to finish, in the run-up to the winter holidays, what can you tell our readers?

2010 is my year. I was born in the year of the Rabbit/Cat. I would like to wish everyone all the best in my year, and I hope that it’ll be good for me too.

Photo: From the Archive of Okean Elzy

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