If you told me last year that I would have accompanied three bands for a state-sponsored trip to Russia, I would’ve said that you were deluded. For almost two years I had been trying to convince my previous girlfriend to go to Moscow for a week of Communist history, ogling brutalist architecture and visiting the resting place of Lenin, arguing how this was time better spent than on a beach holiday. This was, somewhat unsurprisingly, to no avail. So when I got a call out of the blue from Kevin McManus (one of Liverpool’s soundest people and mastermind of the Capital of Culture bid back in 2008) asking if I wanted to pick some bands from my label, Eggy Records, to go and play in Russia, I bit his hand off.
The thought of some of Eggy’s finest left unsupervised in Russia was enough to fill my heart with dread – which is why my presence as chaperone was justified. Having managed to stow away with EYESORE & THE JINX, STORES (formed from the ashes of Jo Mary and Hannah & The Wick Effect) and friend of the eggs, ALI HORN, I’m soon lost in a swirl of forms and passport details. The trip has been organised under the banner of the UNESCO Creative Cities network. As a UNESCO City of Music, Liverpool is committed to helping expand the reach of the city’s musical identity around the world, showing that there’s far more to it than The Beatles et al. While in Russia, the bands will perform at two events in different cities – one of them in Ulyanovsk, a UNESCO City of Literature – as representatives of Liverpool’s current music scene.
The run up to the trip feels like a surreal fever dream. Russia could perhaps be seen as one of the few enigmatic frontiers in Europe. A vast landmass so large it’s home to almost 200 nationalities and races, both native and from bordering countries. The Iron Curtain may have fallen over 30 years ago but its shadow still hangs heavy, with a large number of westerners not really knowing what Russia is actually like. From the Novichok attacks, which were allegedly the work of Russian secret services, to a questionable attitude towards LGBTQ+, British perceptions of the country are still mixed.
The mood in the group is a little giddy. As our Aeroflot flight touches down in Moscow, the hammer and sickle badges on the stewards’ brilliant red blazers flicker golden in the light. We are met at the airport by Alex, without whom we would probably still be there today, lost among commemorative Vladimir Putin plates and surviving on a diet harvested exclusively from vending machines. “You all have such beautiful names,” Alex says once we’ve introduced ourselves to him. “Samuel Paul Warren: it’s perhaps the most beautiful name I’ve heard.”
Having educated Alex on how Liverpool is far better than Manchester (using the analogy of Moscow versus Saint Petersburg) we settle down for the night before we fly to our final destination: Ulyanovsk. Most famously known as the birthplace of Lenin, it’s another hour and a half away on a plane and not a place that tourists visit too often. We arrive in the city, which sits on the banks of the Volga river, and are met by the friendly face of our host Svetlana (who will become known more affectionately as Svetti for most of the trip).
The culture shock doesn’t immediately hit until we tuck in to what we think is a trifle (it turns out to be a herring salad with beetroot and creamed potatoes), but Svetlana brings us firmly back to ground. A quick walk down the road and we’re plunged straight into jam sessions with local musicians. Despite our initial awkward British stiffness, barriers are quickly broken down as songs twist wildly from Marilyn Manson’s version of Sweet Dreams through to Sweet Jane. Later, after a bottle of gin poured between five glasses of some red version of 7 Up has firmly broken down any remaining barriers, we’re sat in front of an English-speaking class, smoking apple and blackcurrant ciggies and feeling slightly in the spotlight. Most of the people here haven’t heard someone with a British accent in the flesh before, let alone encountered the kind of North Liverpool drawl that is Josh from Eyesore’s stock in trade. It’s our first real chance to chat properly with groups of young Russians, and conversation soon turns to the semantic differences between Russian and English swearing. The rest of the night is a lilting haze of booze, conversation and serenading cats. Even a rather tense 3am street fight can’t quell the mood.
After a breakfast of spicy sausages and cheese, we head out to see the city and visit a few museums. The 19th Century home of famous novelist Goncharov is juxtaposed with the brutalist architecture we find ourselves immersed in. We wander from warm period rooms to wet squares where metal sculptures of Lenin and Marx sprout from the ground. After a stop-gap tour of the region’s natural history by one of the most enthusiastic women I’ve ever met, it’s time for a press scrum. We’re surrounded by cameras and lights and someone translates our every word as I deliver a talk about Eggy Records. It’s disorientating, wondrous and slightly surreal. Sitting outside on a bench painted like a piano adorned with Nickelback lyrics, my head explodes as I start to ponder that thriving music communities exist worldwide from Birkenhead to Ulyanovsk. Our email adorns the chalk wall in the Records Music Bar in Ulyanovsk and one day we (Eggy) want to sign a band from there – maybe from one of the people gathered in that room. One question that also resonates strongly is “How many shows get cancelled in the UK?” Aside from illegal raves and isolated high profile cases (Tyler, The Creator), this isn’t something we’re used to, but is something that’s prevalent in Russia. It rings true that the feeling of censorship isn’t one that is supported in this room, with fans of music spread throughout citing love of everyone from The Exploited to Brockhampton. This is highlighted when Svetti takes us to the top of one of the highest buildings in the city for a fancy dress rave that has us dancing wildly to hardcore and gabber.
The following day finds us walking past the home of FC Volga Ulyanovsk and murals depicting Putin and leaders from the Russian Orthodox Church on our way to the city’s Intersection Of Music festival. Today is Day Of Youth, a national holiday for the young people of Russia, and the city’s local residents (as well as neighbouring Dimitrovgrad and Cheboksary) are being introduced to modern British music culture – through us. The press events and ‘masterclass’ meetings are all part of this initiative, with the aim of promoting and developing the proto music industry that exists locally.
A street has been closed off for the festival, and a rather angry old woman comes out shouting as we soundcheck. Sam takes a picture of a group of locals gathered nearby, saying “cheerski” as he does (a phrase not too dissimilar to ‘tits’), much to the group’s amusement. The performances go down well throughout the day, culminating with Eyesore’s performance which features a punter continually hoisting his five-year-old son onstage, who claps furiously as Josh attempts his hardest to not smack him in the head with his bass. My paranoia leads me to panic the rest of the group into thinking that we’re being followed by a spy, but it’s a little more than a rather curious middle-aged man (to our knowledge).
That night we end up in an iron forge at three in the morning with a blacksmith making a bottle opener in flip flops. One of the group samples the sound of the forge and starts to make it into a dance tune. It’s a surreal experience which again shows just how open and inviting our hosts are. Having wandered back to their version of Ye Cracke, it’s time to call it a night.
Our last day in Russia sees us split into two groups, with Stores, Ali Horn and myself heading to nearby town Cherdakly, and Eyesore heading to Dimitrovgrad with their manager, Cath. As we wave off our mates on a minibus to the ‘concrete city’, we jump into another one. “We’re going to a beehive,” Svetti lets us know. We bounce down the road to Cherdakly (population 11,000) and bond with Svetti over a love of dark British comedy, like Peep Show and The Mighty Boosh.
We arrive, to an exceptionally warm welcome, at the house of Gennadiy, a spacious place in the middle of nowhere. Gennadiy’s passion breaks all language barriers as he tells us about the bees he keeps, their politics and fighting wasps. We stand entranced in our beekeeping mesh headwear, eating raw honey from the hive as Gennadiy keeps us entertained. We sit and drink homemade honey mead with him, downing shot after shot of the sweet, high strength alcohol, Svetti’s face becoming more and more worried at the amount we’re drinking at midday prior to the show.
“This one is alcohol free,” Gennadiy says. We down the shot. “I lied, ha ha ha!”
Gennadiy seems to have life sorted, enjoying the simple pleasures of homegrown food, the peace and quiet of nature and a close family. It’s something I often look back on and envy. We take a picture with Gennadiy and his wife in front of a Pushkin quote, honey in hand, and receive the strongest hug ever received as we part ways.
The show in Cherdakly is a slightly more rough and ready affair with us arriving at what feels a bit like a glorified summer fair. Stores – preceded by a prepubescent dance troupe – stand on stage like some scene in a strange arthouse film, as Sam is plagued by electric shocks and the soundman attempting to add flanger to his guitar. Ali goes down better, being asked to play more and more Springsteen covers.
It’s an odder situation for Eyesore, who perform inside a behemoth of a brutalist building, with police stood either side of the stage and a massive area in front of the stage roped off, where only a handful of toddlers dance and cartwheel – in front of a huge bust of Lenin.
With a four o’clock shuttle to the airport we decide to stay up and enjoy the pleasures of late night Russian TV. As I watch two scantily clad women wrestle in oil on the telly, I reflect on my time here. It’s perhaps one of the maddest trips I’ve ever been on. British media is often quick to display Russia as overly serious and restrictive, but the people we have met here are among the kindest and funniest people I’ve ever met. From the eccentric Max Rock ’n’ Roll to our host Svetti, and the class dreampop group Love Fade, the people have welcomed us – a bunch of heavy-drinking wools and Scousers – into their world and shown us, at full throttle, how boss their country is. We’ll be back for sure, and hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later.