Leningrad: 'We are like a porno film'

Leningrad are banned from Moscow. They sing about 'corruption, politics, religion, sex'. Ah, that explains it.
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The Independent Culture

If you thought the gypsy-punk theatrics of Eugene Hutz and his band Gogol Bordello were a one-off, you won't have heard of Leningrad. This 15-piece Russian ska/punk/salsa/rock/gypsy/hip-hop outfit, formed by Sergey Shnurov in St Petersburg in 1997, are the darlings of millions of vodka-fuelled Russian youngsters and expat hellraisers.

Their popularity is at odds with the radio play they get - virtually none, owing to their contentious, often obscene lyrics. They were banned by Moscow's mayor Yuri Lushkov from performing in the capital. Perhaps this is because, as the vocalist Shnurov once suggested: "Leningrad is like a porno film." So they remain a guilty pleasure in spite of huge record sales and regular sell-out tours.

"They still don't like us much in Moscow," says Shnur, as he's known, when we meet to talk about their first UK-distributed album, Hleb. Their previous CD was a collaboration with the London-based gypsy cabaret three-piece The Tiger Lillies.

Shnur thinks the new album's title is one of Leningrad's most dubious. "The interpretation comes from the sacred Christian rite of communion," he says, explaining no more. Schnur, who has been described as reclusive, is not a man to waste too much time on long sentences.

When I suggest that all his songs have stories attached, he counters that "the stories are not important at all - [what's] important is the emotional message". Asked which are Leningrad's favourite topics, he says simply: "Corruption, politics, religion and sex."

The only time Schnur gets fired up is when we talk about Chelsea and its Russian owner Roman Abramovich. "It's strange for me that the governor of Chukotka invests in English football, although he has achieved tangible results. I support Zenith [a St Petersburg club] and Arsenal. I don't like Chelsea that much because of their pragmatic style - although what can you expect from a team owned by such a pragmatic man?"

The band's debut album Pulya was recorded by Leonid Fyodorov (ex-leader of the famous Russian band Auktyon) in 1999. Their original vocalist was Igor Vdovin, but he quit and bassist Shnur was thrust to the front with his gravelly voice, which he says is fuelled by "vodka, cigarettes and something else".

"There were great live bands and clubs in St Petersburg then," he says. "It meant more to sell out smaller, hotter venues than play big, cold stadiums. Leningrad tried to become, without much practising, one of the coolest bands around. That's how our style was born."

They were, and still are, inspired by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Massive Attack, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Grazhdanskaya Oborona (a Siberian punk band). However, unlike many bands, they went out of their way to avoid sounding like just another homogenised Western act.

"The same as any British band doesn't try to sound Russian, we, existing in the context of our culture, feel like a fish in the right water, the way we are," Shnur says. Which might explain why they have such empathy with their fans. "There's no barrier between the audience and us," Shnur says. "Stage and audience, one big performance. But as to who is the more drunk... I still have to think about that."

It doesn't take a genius to work out that booze plays a big role in Leningrad's music. It represents a language most people understand, alongside their street poetry and political criticism. An example, from the track "The Truth", goes: "They don't swear on TV, how nice/ How could we live without a format? We need a format/ Our politicians are great people, they never swear... Nice guys, the policemen/ Teach us good manners/ They also never swear/ And don't take bribes, well, just like our politicians."

Leningrad take the art of swearing to a new level, helped by the fact that Russian swear-words are a language in themselves. Based on a linguistic system called Mat, it provides a wealth of caustic combinations, of which Shnur is a master. He tends to use them to add force to subjects such as corruption, poverty or prison conditions, or even just getting drunk and having a good time. This is what endears Leningrad to common people and intellectuals alike.

"In our country, in virtually every family there is someone who's either been to prison, or in the army - which basically means the same thing. That's why everyone can relate to the songs."

The band's fascination with Russian prison songs of the 1930s onwards is augmented by their use of accordion, double bass, xylophone, balalaikas, singing saws and a sizeable brass section, which blast out reinvigorated versions. But there are more sedate tracks such as "Nebesnyi Tennis" (Heavenly Tennis), a cautionary tale about the gulf between ordinary Russians and their sports idols, in this case the tennis player Maria Sharapova ("Here you have your anti-stress pills, my super princess/ Everything is so trite and simple/ I fall on my bed and cry in my pillow/ It's stupid to wait for heavenly sweets, from Sharapova, fucking, Masha [Maria]...").

The melancholic delivery of "Nebesnyi Tennis" and "Svoboda" has a lineage to underground Soviet writers of the 1970s, such as Arkady Severnyi. Asked why he thinks Severnyi is such a good writer, Shnur says curtly: "If anyone could have explained that, he would have been a bad songwriter." The beauty is not in the explanation, but the emotion - and, like Severnyi, Leningrad have plenty of that.

'Hleb' is out on Eastblok ( www.eastblokmusic.com)

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