The Toronto Star, Feature on Auktyon >>
Passion for Auktyon's pieces
SXSW sensation hard to pin down
By Greg Quill
As post-Communist Russia lurches towards a radical redefinition of free enterprise, the nation's popular music is the last commodity to be exploited. It comes of being left to its own devices and fermenting in an isolated crucible for 60 years.
Now Canada is about to get its first taste of St. Petersburg-based band Auktyon. They arrive fresh from jaw-dropping hysteria last week at the South by Southwest indie music conference and showcase in Austin, Tx. The band is very much its own beast, unlike anything we've heard in the West, too seriously musical to be discounted as a novelty, too odd and otherworldly to be wholly embraced.
It's an aggressively alternative eight-man aggregation that eschewed political posturing and pop acclaim back home for the rigorous pursuit of purely musical challenges during the past three decades.
Auktyon's single-minded direction has served them well. Russian musicians and songwriters, deprived of political targets and disoriented by rapid change in the larger world, are apparently losing their distinctive voices. It's no easy task to find success in Western music's teeming marketplace when that market has been turned upside down with digital technology and the stunning growth of independent musical enterprise.
No wonder Auktyon finds itself bewildered by its growing popularity in an increasingly xenophobic U.S., where it often seems no one understands their language, let alone the arcane roots of their exotic music.
Not that critics in this part of the world haven't fallen all over themselves trying to describe what Auktyon — pronounced "ouk-chy-own" and literally means auction — is and does. Here are some examples:
" ... bruising rock songs ... frontman Oleg Garkusha moves like a floppy-armed version of Zippy the Pinhead ... hints of Slavic tradition driven by a burly low-register bass, baritone saxophone and tuba."
"... art-rock to post-punk, free jazz sax squall to Latin percussion to military marching band tuba holding down the bottom ... they can connect with fans of everyone from Gogol Bordello to the Boredoms, Talking Heads to Pere Ubu, Ozomatli to Mr. Bungle."
" ... horn-driven skank ...in the pan-Slavic tradition of wild-ass pre-perestroika hairiness ...profligate frenzy ... very strangely arranged, very globally crossbred and sweatily choreographed."
"... singer/guitarist Leonid Fedorov is something of a Leonard Cohen-style heartthrob, all husky, romantic intonation and lyrical poetry. If Herbie Hancock had a Russian grandfather and jammed with Black Sabbath and the Barnum & Bailey band..."
You get the idea.
And here they are again, on their eighth trip to the U.S. since 1997, and their first to Canada — Auktyon's debut in this country will be at the Mod Club Wednesday night — and at a loss to explain how they got here or where they're going.
We've never been enormously popular, even in Russia, but people know who we are because we've been together since 1978," says saxophonist Nikolai Roubanov, over the phone from Austin. Roubanov is the band's spokesman and only English speaker — other than novice manager, expatriate Russian Max Milendorf.
His great achievements have been to direct Auktyon away from cocooning émigré audiences in the U.S. and onto folk, rock and world music festival and concert stages, and to secure the band an agent and a North American record deal, with a disc possibly later this year.
"We play mostly in Europe, but our records sell best is Russia," Roubanov continues. "We are famous there mainly because we are an old band."
Yes and no. Ages of the current members of Auktyon — many are originals — range from 33 to 47, which is not old at all by the Rolling Stones standard.
But 28 years in relative obscurity is a long haul for a band that has no concept of record company support, has financed 15 albums from fan subscriptions, loans from friends and from-the-stage record sales, and whose constituents, until the late 1990s, had access to "outside" music only via BBC Radio, Voice Of America and smuggled cassette tapes and LPs passed around in an underground lending library.
They have virtually no common musical vernacular, just an abundance of curiosity that sparks off quite erratically in a dozen different directions at once.
"Now everyone has modern equipment, computers and iPods, and the modern problems that come with them," Roubanov explains. "Too much information, too much music.
"Only by heart do we stay unique. You listen for what your soul is saying to you. We find a way to play what each member wants to hear. We have our own influences and preferences, and mix them all together. There is no disadvantage in this. The result is ... complex.
"It's very clear to us what we have done only after we have done it, but during the creation of our music, we are aware only of trying to taste everything we can. There is no analogy in Western music. Comparisons to other bands are not fair, not correct. It's impossible to say what we play ... all I know is that 15 years ago we could not do what we do today. We are better musicians because we have kept Auktyon alive."
And now that they're on the outskirts of the Big Time, in the land of abundant opportunity musical plenty, earning all kinds of celebrity kudos in the U.S. for their chaotic blend of prog-rock, art song, folk music, vaudeville, circus rave-up, cabaret, street theatrics, jazz, military pomp and dance rhythms of indeterminable cultural origin, Roubanov seems unimpressed.
However, the prospect of the band recording later this year with New York progressive jazz keyboardist and composer John Medeski and trumpeter Frank London is high on his radar.
"There are so many different things in America," Roubanov says, trying to assess his culture shock in broken English. "Music is different, cars are different, people are different. It's not easy or hard for us in America, just different.
"And it's not too attractive for us as a place to live. It is more interesting to appear, have new experiences, and to go back home and think about what we have seen.
"We have no ideas about being a big success in America. We are here to find new audiences, catch new emotions and to make new conversations." 03/23/06 >> go there