The Aggression in RUSSIA, March 2003
The cast of characters:
Matt Gentile: Management, international club superstar. The man with the contacts.
Mike "Ash" Venezia: Guitarist/Computer Mastermind and Lead Foreign Ambassador. Tallest Foreigner in Russia.
Mike "The Kidd" Hess: Keyboardist, Vodka taster, Omelet maker. Communism scholar.
F.J. DeSanto: Vocalist, Bassist, recovering caviar addict (should not be exposed to jagermeister or any Tabasco related drinks).
Thomas Whitfleet: Vocalist, Guitarist, and Head Chef. Ruler of Xanadu. Just wants to dance.
Dan G. Hamill: Trip organizer, insomniac, beard. Occasionally awake.
First, a little backstory. We're the aggression, from New York. We've just released our third CD, FLOOD, on the Tinman label. But the aggression is not just a band; it's a gang of 6 who have known each other anywhere from 10-20 years. This tight group is known as "The MOGpac" In 2001, the aggression first ventured abroad to the UK to perform at a release party for a compilation we appeared on called DEFCON 1. We turned that trip into a mini vacation, starting with a 4-day romp in Iceland, (now the stuff of legend) before. It was incredible. We met a lot of great people and got our music to places we never thought we ever could and as soon as we got home from that adventure, discussions began about where to venture next…
It took a year to plan, but Russia was chosen, so without further delay, we join the MOGpac en route to Russia…
We arrive to a very sunny and pleasant Moscow. After all that talk about bringing thermal underwear and how we're going to freeze our asses off and be buried in snow, Moscow is warmer than New York and is remarkably snow free. There are traces of melting snow, but I honestly think we got lucky with the weather on this trip (despite the later rain, it snows briefly only once). Dimitri, the driver arranged to pick us up (and of whom Tom does an incredibly hilarious impersonation of), welcomes us and brings us to the mini van that, once we're inside, resembles a sardine can. It's a very long and uncomfortable drive from the airport, but the excitement of just being here overrides it and we're able to have a laugh about it. We arrive at the Hotel Belgrad, which I'm told by G is famous and has been immortalized in a Russian film called, appropriately enough "Hotel Belgrad". I wonder if Blockbuster carries it. The hotel is nice and has the essentials, bed, toilet, cable, and a 24-hour bar in the lobby, which often becomes our starting point and ending point each day for either drinks or vodka.
Some are tired and want to rest and others, like myself, Tom, Ash and Matt are looking for an evening out, so we are met by Zaur, Matt's contact who has arranged the Moscow show. Zaur is a German raised in Russia. He speaks perfect English and recently quit his job as a financial analyst to become a full time musician. He play guitar for Dolphin, a former boy band star who, in adulthood, has transformed himself into the Russian Beck. We later learn that Dolphin is a very important artist and speaks with "the voice of the people." Zaur later gives me a couple of Dolphin's album and I have become quite a fan, despite my not understanding a word. Anyway, Zaur takes the four of us to a pub called the Riverside, which is basically your local pub and we have a hell of a time. This is Zaur's hangout, so we meet lots of cool people ranging from musicians to young politicians, play pool and drink ourselves silly. The house band plays Beatle covers and later the DJ spins Savage Garden. For some reason, in Russia this is all quite cool and very enjoyable.
Oh yeah, by the way, Zaur informs us that the first gig is cancelled due to the club closing down. Collective moans all around. Another gig has been arranged for the 15th, which means we have to switch all of our hotel and train reservations between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I don't know how Matt and G did this, but they pulled it off, seemingly without any problems. So now, we'll play St. Petersburg first and then Moscow at the end of our trip. At this point I would like to mention that Matt made me put the original gig dates on the back of our "Russia 2003" shirts, which now are either stupid cause the dates are wrong or are a collectors item, depending on how you look at it. Oh well, we're in Russia, we're playing gigs, so who cares!!
The gig rescheduling gives us a few days to go sightseeing, G hires a guy our age, named Dan, to give us a walking tour of the city, which is very enjoyable, especially since the weather is nice. The city is very nice, very old, and as Tom so often points out quite "filthy". But its fun to explore and when I discover CD's are only three dollars US, I get quite mental. We're told Depeche Mode is the biggest international band in Russia, so I snag some great B-side and Remix bootleg CD's. Dave Gahan is coming both to Moscow and St. Petersburg in June and is playing arenas for a solo album no one has heard. Now THAT is star power. Maybe we can open for him. Anyway, many CD's are purchased, a lot of shopping, and we even get drunk on vodka in a mall by the Kremlin. Good times.
G has arranged for us to take the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. After a wonderful Italian dinner in an empty restaurant, we hurry to make the 12:15am train. The Moscow train station, is, quite an adventure in itself. Obi-Wan Kenobi (or Acumen Nation) would deem it "eville". It's the first time since we've left New York that we have felt unsafe. We're obviously American and carrying our gear with us doesn't help either. We spend our time there grabbing water, beer, chips (Lay's Bacon Potato Chips are the discovery of the trip!), etc for the 11-12 hour ride and we encounter one or two pick pocket attempts, but nothing really beyond that. But it's a shady place, straight out of a film noir movie from the 40's. As we walk to the foggy platform, many eyes (in my opinion) seem to be on us.
These trains aren't exactly designed for traveling bands, but we adjust and squeeze our luggage/equipment, and the six of us into two overnight compartments. Once inside, Ash has bit of a confrontation with one of the conductors, (though we're not sure what over thanks to the language barrier) who somehow gets some money off of Ash and is his new best friend. Later, Tom, Ash and I are able to bust out the guitars and powerbook and have an impromptu "rehearsal" while Matt sleeps away below and spills beer on himself (this will not be an isolated incident with Matt this trip). I then retire to my bunk and quickly pass out…
Peaceful slumber doesn't last as we are all awakened to the sound of the train arriving in St. Petersburg, right on time. And with that prompt arrival, the train crew wants everyone off immediately and I mean immediately. Ash's conductor friend seemingly doesn't recall the ruble "gift" of the night before and is constantly yelling at us to get the hell off the train. After that ordeal, we find ourselves in the St. Petersburg train station, which is designed exactly like the one in Moscow but is totally opposite in atmosphere. It's safe, clean and well lit. Once we get our bearings, Matt and G decide our hotel is close enough to walk to. And we're off…
Straight into the cold and pouring rain. Again, the locals look us upon as if we were aliens. Honestly, after a while, this becomes kind of cool. However, today, in the rain and carrying bags and guitars, we really just want to be dry and warm. As we plod our way towards the hotel, something catches my eye on a street corner wall. Upon further inspection, I my suspicions are confirmed: I have just found a poster for our St. Petersburg show with "THE AGGRESSION (USA)" written in large red letters across it. Considering all the other bands are written in small letters, its then when we realize that we are the headliners. I think we all stared at this poster for 10 minutes just laughing at how wild it was to see our name on a Russian poster. And these posters are EVERYWHERE in this city. If no one shows, you can't blame it on a lack of promotion (USA take note).
I don't know how G pulled this off, but somehow instead of staying a regular hotel, he has secured for us a very large 3 bedroom, 2-bathroom condo at the Swiss consulate. After the tight accommodations in Moscow, this is like winning the lottery, until of course I realize that the room Tom and I have doesn't have the two single beds the other rooms have. No, of course the band's two vocalists are forced to share a queen-sized bed. This prompts much ribbing from the other guys. So much for the rock n roll lifestyle. But the place is pretty swank and we're the first people to ever stay in it. We then proceed to stock the kitchen with tons of food ranging from cereal to caviar (to which I quickly become addicted). Commune dinners and breakfasts become the rage, with Tom and Matt delivering an awesome pasta dinner and the Kidd transforming himself from keyboard player to the King of Omelets.
That night Vuvo, Matt's contact in St. Petersburg who set up the show here, comes by to visit with his band mate Dan (aka Gnome) and their girlfriends. Introductions are made and fortunately they speak decent English. Soon after, we're out and about and they take us to their hangout, a café in the artists section of town, which is an interesting complex of old buildings, mostly deserted, but with clubs and cafes found in the nooks and crannies of the complex. The centerpiece of the complex is a passageway called "John Lennon Way" which is there to promote "peace and art" (it says in English on a plaque).
The café is like a living room and a group of 12 or so of us spend the bulk of the evening getting to know each other and talking about music and our respective cultures. These people, all our age, are no different than us, people with day jobs who spend every moment working on music as much as possible. In the case of these guys, they have THREE bands, Scang (melodic Nu-metal), Stress (guitar industrial who will be opening for us), and my favorite, Dubsinthe (tribal electro in a mellow Die Warzau kind of way, also opening for us). There is no industrial "scene" per se, but it's not unusual to be in multiple bands making different kinds of music. These guys all have different bands in which they do different things. It seems Vuvo is the one constant in all three bands. Later, we are joined by Atom, the "mastermind" (their word) of their music. He's the lead guy in Dubsinthe and his solo work as Atom Fear has made it to a compilation or two on Warp records. So this guy means business. He's known in the café, so he gets them to spin his music, which is quite good. Their vocalist has the range of a Jim Marcus or Dan Neet. Discs are eventually exchanged. Later, Ash, Matt and I go with the crew to the studio, where they are mixing new Scang material. We stay till about two in the morning, while the other guys hit a club that finds them approached by skate kids and hookers.
The next day is our sightseeing day, with Vuvo's girlfriend, Nellie, taking us around and showing us The Hermitage and various other historical sights. St. Petersburg is a pretty city, very old Europe. One of my favorite 'attractions" is a statue of a horse overlooking a canal that has napoleon's head where its genitals should be, a nice old school Russian "screw you" to the French. We have one scary instance where a big block of ice falls from a building and destroys a car windshield right as we're walking past it. Scared the hell out of us!! I'm later told that over a dozen people are hurt or killed a year because of this falling ice problem. That to me is not the proper rock n roll way to go, know what I mean?
We constantly rehearse in Ash's room to make sure we are in shape for the gig. The set list is debated and will be so all the way till we hit the stage. I like to use these drummer-less "old school" gigs as a way to play the material from our first two CD's that we don't play any more, so consideration is given to that material, along with the singles and rockier material from "FLOOD".
Finally, its time for the first gig. We have to be at the Red Club for soundcheck at 5pm. The game faces are on. The venue is in walking distance. Now, when you play a venue in the states, you kind of know what you are getting into, or at least you have an idea. We don't know what clubs are like here, what the standard is in terms of sound, stage, etc. and while we've been assured by our Russian friends that this is a good club, we're all a bit uncertain. However, some research has been done and we've learned that this is the club where most international acts play. Upon arriving at the club, we're very happy to learn that this three level club is quite up to snuff and has a great stage and great sound system. All the equipment we asked for is there and we're good to go. Our soundcheck goes smoothly, the crew of the club is very cooperative, except when we try to bring beer in and are stopped by club security, which are a bunch of guys in smart suits. They're bit scary in a KGB sort of way, but they don't give us too hard a time.
After a quick bite (including caviar, of course) we're back to the club to check out the opening acts. However, we learn that Dubsinthe has a dilemma in that Atom has been arrest for drug possession! When I tell Gnome's girlfriend (who's name I don't remember, but we called her Noxzema girl because of her excellent skin) that we're sorry he got arrested, she tells us "its no big deal, at least he was arrested by real police". It turns out Russia has a big "fake police" problem in which impersonators "arrest" people to rob them (or worse). I'm shocked to hear this, but Noxzema Girl is more interested in talking about our song "kamikazi.God" which claims is "the best song I have ever heard". Since she is so vocal in her praise for the song, we decide to add it to the set (luckily we played it at soundcheck).
The Atom-less Dubsinthe performs and they are quite good. Very live tribal stuff, which Gnome providing some excellent percussion. For a band improvising, this is awesome. The gig is off to a great start. There's quite a few people in the club as well, also a good sign. Stress comes on next and I believe this was their debut gig. They're mix of synth loops and heavy guitar give them a fun NIN vibe, but with less angst and more melody. Their frontman is the tallest man in Russia I think and the band goes over really well (there is a rumour in Russia that the tallest men get the prettiest girls, which in this guys case is the truth as his wife is stunning). This is a band I want to hear on CD. Quite simply, they rock, and at least in my mind they've upped the ante.
Now it's our turn. Because things are running late, we've been asked to cut our set down a bit. Because we see the kids are into the heavy stuff, we eliminate some of the lighter tracks. We come onstage to a solid round of applause and a scattered crowd, mostly lurking in the back. Several kids are right up at the front, already screaming. We break into Lion's Den and the sound is good and the band is tight. It's also a nice sized stage so it gives us room to run around a bit. By the third song, we've won over quite a few people and the crowd grows to about 150, all of who stay through the remainder of the set and move up to the front. The enthusiastic kids in the front get more and more vocal, especially when I start interacting with them. They pogo, they chant along and the mood becomes electric. As we've learned most young people in Russia speak English, so they are able to understand what I'm saying between songs, but they cheer wildly when I say "Thank You" in Russian. They love the harder songs and really love the rock n roll stage antics. By mid-set, band and crowd have developed a great rapport, though that's not to say there's not a heckler or two. One kid in particular, a total hipster doofus dressed in bad plaid pants, takes it upon himself to discuss music with me in between songs, asking me "when are you going to change your style?" Now if this were in NY, I would verbally castrate this kid beyond belief. But here in Russia, God knows who this kid is and if he could have me beaten up. So I keep my mouth shut a few songs, but eventually the need to be a wise ass overcomes me and I tell the crowd "I'll change my style when this guy changes his pants". Obviously no one gets this except this guy and his pal (who's into it). The guys face turns red and he walks out, forcing his reluctant friend to come with him. We end with Kamizaki.God and Noxzema Girl gets a nice pit going. The song goes over really well and we're off, to a very appreciative round of applause.
Spirits are high backstage and the bands all hang out discussing the events of the evening. Matt informs me that I should go to the merch "booth" a table) downstairs, because people are asking for autographs. Needless to say, he's not kidding, and I end up signing tons of CD's, posters, ticket stubs etc. Its quite odd posing for photographs, especially with the no longer tight assed security guards. T-shirts and CD's are sold. The only two Goth girls in St. Petersburg, Anna and Margot, approach us and are determined to hang out with the band. Almost too determined, but hey its Russia. Of course with such a large group, free flowing beer and Vodka, and a great gig, the next step is obvious: Party at our place! But no one can! Everyone has work or school the next day, and thus we can now confirm that Russians NEVER go out on weeknights. Every restaurant is empty, every club is empty. Weeknights just ain't happening. Of course, the Goth girls walk us home and its quite a task explaining to them that they can't come up to the condo with us. Very tough, Russian girls.
The rest of the stay in St. Petersburg involves some of the lads getting tattoos from one of Vuvo's friends while others do more sightseeing. A day or so later we're on the day train back to Moscow to make it just in time for the second gig that night. It's a nice, yet cramped, 6-hour train ride capped off by a nice blini dinner in the ultra retro dining car.
We rush back to our Moscow hotel and quickly change and get our gear ready for the show. Zaur is at the hotel with car, girlfriend and taxi to take us to the venue, which is called Club Relax. And off we go…and go…and go…for almost and hour, outside of the city. WAY outside the city. Its way after midnight and the fact that we're now beyond the burbs and into some, no pun intended, industrial section is kind of nerve wracking. Someone even (half) jokes "are you guys taking us here to be killed?' Nervous laughter ensues.
In a run down section of town we arrive at the "club" which is actually a deserted, dilapidated hotel. There is only one functioning floor in the whole 8-10 story building, and that's the 5th floor that serves as club relax. Needless to say, we felt a little out of sorts. In particular, I was kind of freaked out, especially with the amount of police hanging out outside the building.
The actual club is converted disco with a stage and a bar. And it's all kind of crap. It's Front 242 night at Club Relax so it seems like the only thing being spun is 242 and the same 8 or so 242 songs over and over again. The DJ's are crap, they can't mix the songs together and people all seem rather bored. The guy running this show, who's band is opening for us, is a total teenage dickhead who looks like a Flock of Seagulls rip off, complete with bad new romantic army uniform. He's too drunk to engage in a normal conversation and is actually quite rude to us. Needless to say, he's not helping the vibe. They give us a backstage "closet" to hang in, but we don't really spend too much time in it, especially when, despite attempts to keep people out, the room is filled with randoms who look at us like we're criminals. Zaur introduces us to a lot of his friends who are there, who, like Zaur, are quite cool and we all gravitate to this dimly lit room with a Goth conference table and all sort of wind up pairing off into different chats. A guy from New Jersey, who has lived in Moscow for the past three years teaching English, later joins us. Like me, he's an NYU grad, so there's a lot to talk about. We ask him what the scene is like here in Moscow and he tells us "there is none". He was a little weird, but cool.
Flock of Douchebags plays, but we can't be arsed to check it out. We can hear the dickhead screaming onstage to some bad electro and honestly that's the best I can tell you. Zaur's band MC DEAD come on next and I'm surprised at how good they are. Sort of like a nu metal chemlab. Good loops and Zaur shows why he is an in demand guitar player. He's really good. The singer is a bit too Korn for me and he looks like the singer from Linkin Park, but they get the crowd going and have a good reaction. It would be interesting to hear these guys on disc (they haven't recorded yet).
So around 3:30am, we take to the stage at Club Relax, with no soundcheck, crappy amps and we take the stage to about 150 Muscovites who are tired, drunk and blankly staring at us. The vibe is not good. We decide to open with a dancier track, THESE MILLION NIGHTS, which usually goes over well in our set, but this time, the Russians aren't having it. We start to play the heavier stuff and while they are attentive and appreciative in between songs, but the vibe is off. Unfortunately, this is the only time during the whole trip to Russia that I start to panic, especially when Flock of Douchebags is constantly trying to talk to Ash and the Kidd during the songs!! This idiot almost knocks over Ash's laptop repeatedly and decides he should be the sound guy! Of course the Kidd can't hear a thing and they won't listen to him when he asks for some volume, he's met with a puzzled look. Therefore, the Kidd does the only other thing he can do…drink vodka. The vibe is now like sour milk and honestly, I want off the stage. All I can remember thinking is "these people are going to kill us", especially when this big hairy metal dude keeps walking up to me and staring menacingly during every song!!
I make the call to shorten the set from and hour to 25 minutes. In my mind, these kids just aren't having it and it's been a long trip and I just want out of this place. Ash is just furious and is screaming at FOD. It's no good. We play CROSS and with a furious crash, Ash throws down his guitar and the band is off and ready to leave this place. And of course, the crowd starts chanting for an encore, but we're already packed. Again, autographs. Weird. Of course metal dude comes right up to me and yapping away in Russian in my face. However, he knows one word of English…"bass". I'm the bassist and it turns out this dude is a bassist and he wanted to compare notes, not kill me! I give him a t-shirt and he starts crying and hugging me. Hilarious. He was a total pussycat after all.
Drunk and tired, we head for the taxis downstairs. My favorite moment is matt placing a t-shirt on top of a kid who was passed out on the floor of the hotel lobby. Priceless! We then head back to the hotel and try to stay up for breakfast, but we all pass out.
We wake up on our last full day in Russia to do all our souvenir shopping. Not very rock n roll. However, at an Internet café the Kidd meets a cute girl his age that basically forces herself to hang with him that evening, so he brings her along to our last big dinner at an (again) deserted Restaurant that Zaur has found for us called Milk. The end of the trip party consists of us, Zaur and his girl and this girl the Kidd picked up and its an awesome evening of friends celebrating a great trip and drinking weird shots that consisted of things like Vodka, Lime Juice and Tabasco in one shot and hot pepper in another. Needless to say, I almost didn't make it through those, but Zaur tells us its Russian tradition, so we can't say no. The evening ends on a high note, with everyone in good spirits and we all part as friends. Oh and I forgot to mention that, with the inadvertent help of G this Russian girl also forces her way into the kids hotel room (for the record, he never asked or wanted her to come back with him)…its more comical than romantic, I'll tell you that
I wont bore you with the trip back because 9 hours and 45 minutes on a packed plane sucks, especially when the in flight movie is BEETHOVEN'S SECOND, starring Judge Reinhold. You would think they would give us the new Matrix for having to fly that long.
Anyway, we're all back; we're all safe, happy and sound and all the better for our experience in Russia. We played one great gig and one really scary gig, but made a lot of friends and a few fans in the process. I have a strong feeling we'll end up back in St. Petersburg, hopefully for another gig (this time, with our missing drummer, the lovely Robin). I wish there was a scene report to be told, but simply, there isn't. There's a lot of music, some good, some bad, but its at least they are willing to listen and give something new a shot. They aren't spoiled yet and are hungry for new music. And we were happy to deliver and have an amazing experience in the process.
Oh yeah, by the way, the war started the very next day and we had no clue it was actually about to happen. Our families and friends were quite happy we came back the day before. Later, I had this image of Bush saying to his people "are they back yet? Did they land? YES? Ok start the war tomorrow!" Thanks, G.W.
But not even war can stop the aggression, I don't think, as discussions have begun about where to go next. We shall see, but if I had my say, Tokyo will see the aggression soon!