Interview with Theodor Bastard (translated from Italian)

All questions by Roberto Alessandro Filippozzi for Darkroom Magazine

Photo by Anna Rozhetskay

It took five years for you to write & record the new album, but I think it’s plausible, considering the amount of details and the actual perfection of the new songs: what can you tell us about the making of this new masterpiece of yours?

◁  This is not a simple question. Time is a very relative thing. It’s very difficult to say where it goes when you make music. Probably, listeners can imagine that we are constantly sitting in our studio-laboratory and tormenting instruments. I want to assure you that the real picture is very far from this. Most of the resources are needed to tune the state of mind, to find inspiration, to travel, to create a concept, and of course, to search for sound. It is not so easy to describe in words how it happens. Sometimes it’s some kind of trip to nature, or watching a movie, or a discussion within the band – “brainstorming” when we discuss certain ideas. Sometimes, of course, this is playing music together and searching for some things. Sometimes, the acoustic sound of something in the nature outdoor. I remember the case with one of the tracks: I had heard the sound of a tree squeaking in the wind and this sound prompted me to create the whole composition “Pozhato”. If we knew what the album consists of, of what type of works, if we knew our creative secret ourselves, then theoretically it would be possible to create some kind of universal technology to make powerful and hit albums. But, as we can see, none of the composers and none of the bands in the world have ever had such technology. Because no one (neither the listeners nor the musicians themselves) knows where it comes from and how it happens. The craft is of course important. Of course, we learn and know how to do many things. It is important to know the instrument and material or sound production. But it is very difficult and impossible to own the energy that passes through you from somewhere. It is not yours. All you can do is to be open enough and wait for this flow. Do you understand?

Let’s get into the album now, starting with its conceptual contents. The title means “goji berry”, which is a particular exotic fruit: why have you chosen to title the album this way and what’s the concept behind such a particular title?

◁  Oh no, no! This is an annoying misunderstanding related to the English translation. The album is not at all named after the goji berry which is an exotic berry and does not grow in the North. The album is called “Wolf Berry” – this is the traditional Russian name for any kind of poisonous forest plants, which can be medicinal, but more often they are poisonous. From childhood, if you grow up in the North, your parents teach you what you can eat, for example, a lingonberry, a raspberry, a whortleberry, a northern bilberry, and what you can not eat: – Don’t take them! These are wolf berries! It may be a frangula, or a paris – one of the types of poisonous berries that grow in northern forests. This is not a goji berry at all. The title of the album encodes an important mythological layer about berries that should not be taken, but those who know can use them for healing. The album name “Volchya Yagoda” (Wolf Berry) fully reveals our feeling from interaction with nature, from all the contrast of feelings that nature evokes in a person. For example, a night forest. It is both a sense of home and a sense of danger. Do you understand? This duality in which you, breaking trees, picking mushrooms or fishing, sooner or later you become food in someone’s roots, beaks and fangs.

The artwork of the new album is absolutely beautiful: is there any specific concept behind it, especially when it comes to the cover artwork?

◁  Of course, we are always very careful with album design. This is literally a continuation of the music. This album art is a stylized world tree rooted in the earth, in the under worlds, and touching the sky with its branches, touching the upper worlds. And the shaman becomes a connecting link. A conductor.

Your lyrics are in Russian, as always. Can you take us on a little track-by-track journey through each lyric by telling us what each song is about?

◁  Our texts are not always in Russian, rather this is an exception. And more than a half of this album lyrics are either glossolalia or written in dead languages. In the history of the band we had whole albums in such languages, for example, the album “Oikoumene”. But here in “Volch’ya Yagoda”, I think, we managed to maintain a rather delicate balance between the Russian language and all other languages. I think it is not worthwhile – to explain the meaning of songs, since the language of music is a universal language. And the song is about what you feel. You see, this language is not requires explanation and interlinear translation. I love music because of that, of its versatility and abstractness. When we write lyrics even in our native language, they are also very abstract and they leave much space for interpretations. I can tell a couple of stories that we wrote for our listeners. For example, the song “Secrets” was written by me under the impression of reading the impressive monograph by Sofya Mikhailovna Loyter “Russian children’s folklore and children’s mythology: Research and texts.” The textual material of which widely represents the children’s tradition of Karelia and of the region that especially famous in the world folklore – of Zaonezhie. When creating the lyrics, I relied on this monograph, and partly on other books about children’s folklore and on his childhood memories. In the songs of Theodor Bastard, consciously or not, we quite often turn to the themes of childhood. We use the symbols of childhood: game songs, teasers, countings, fables, as well as sayings and riddles. The “Skejgored” song was composed near the foundations of old Finnish villages that are more than a hundred years old and have gone into the ground. We found them in the forest on the Karelian Isthmus. People have not lived here for a long time. Here is just a dense forest. Old stones, once the foundation of houses, were covered with moss, but the layout is visible: the place where the stove stood, where the entrance was, steps. At the same time, century-old spruce trees are growing inside the foundation. Such a temporality of all things. And sitting on these stones, thinking about the transience of life, we suddenly heard spring birds fuss in the branches, we felt smells of the sun and grass which has got thawed after winter. That special sensation, as life is reborn again after death and wilting. Inevitable and wonderful cycle! Urzala song is a piece of our experience of solo travels to the most remote corners of the Karelian and Ural forests, as well as to the north of the Kola Peninsula. We were especially impressed with the acoustics of the forest Ural caves. For example, the Miracle Cave – the longest cave in the region of Chusovaya River and one of the most beautiful caves in the Ural. This cave is located in a wild forest, on the slope of Mount Kladovaya, and its entrance is a narrow loophole, through which you need to crawl surrounded with cliffs by all sides. Claustrophobic and scary experience. Then the space expands and the grotto begins, which cavers call the Great. There is absolutely unhuman acoustics here. Urzala song is the quintessence of these travels, of observations the natural acoustics of forests and caves, and it is a certain sum of shamanistic experience and shamanistic practices available to us. The entire “Volchya Yagoda” album is dedicated to the forest. Of course, the first associations arise with the northern forest, which we know. But the forest is where we all came from. And even when we return to it for a short time from the city, we feel it. The forest is our home, we feel it. Such things, probably, may not be explain, the listener is unlikely guessing about them, but they pass through the entire album – slivers, whistles, similar sound little things. Lyrics for Fjorn Gaden is based on the Younger Edda by the medieval Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. The Younger Edda consists of seven manuscripts, dating from 1300 to 1600. Our song is not a meaningful Old Norse text, but rather, some selected quotes. We just really like the sound of some words and some images. We did not have the goal to achieve some authenticity, so could you not look for it there. We are a quite modern band and we do not do reconstruction at all. For Fjorn Gaden, we managed to gather an amazing cast. For example, Alexander Platonov, who has one of the lowest bass voice in St. Petersburg. In the past he shone on opera and theater stages, but now hehas gone into Russian folklore. Such an amazing metamorphosis! In addition to the voice of Yana, the song also contains the vocals of Ekaterina Dolmatova, our regular back-vocalist and part-time vocalist of other Petersburg folk groups. On the track, you can hear the very interesting instruments made by our friend, a wonderful master Ilya Dobrokhotov, who played them. He played the nyckelharpa. This is a traditional Swedish musical instrument. Sometimes nyckelharpa is called the ‘Swedish keyboard violin’. Ilya also played the jouhikko there. This is a Finnish and Karelian traditional instrument also simply called ‘bowed kantele’. This gave the song a special northern flavor.

Photo by Alexander Corvus

Musically speaking, I believe “Volch’ya Yagoda” is without any doubt your true masterpiece, being every single song a real prodigy. I know the last album is always “the best” in the eyes of those who created it, but this time it is absolutely true. How hard have you worked to achieve such an accomplishment and how satisfied are you with this new opus?

◁  We always give our best 200%, sometimes even sacrificing not only our time and the time for our relatives, but our sleep time and our health. I would call it an obsession!

This new album really is the sum of your prerogatives and beyond, in fact I like to see it as your most “pop” album, with its immediate and effective melodies and the beautiful refrains: what’s your point of view?

◁  Thank you very much, but we try not to evaluate our work. It’s the same as children. They were part of us. Now they have gone to the audience.

I simply love the way you combine psychedelic trip hop with cinematic instrumentals and archaic world music, meeting modern technological electronics, and this time you did it to near perfection. Do you see your musical creation as an ideal bridge between tradition and modernity?

◁  It’s hard to say, this again requires evaluation and definitions. When we create something new, we definitely do not think about how it can be defined, and how it will be perceived.

Once again, many different musicians have been employed to complete the songs, which I believe is your ideal way of working. How difficult is to work this way, and do you ever feel like an orchestra director by working this way?

◁  Yana and I have been working as composers of music for games and movies for several years. And we do not feel that we are such musicians as a rock band – when people gather at a rehearsal base behind closed windows and play music by the whole crowd, by all the musicians. Many sections of the music, I or Yana, we write for our musicians in advance. We think over them. We write down sheet music, for example, for the choir. Thinking over the arrangement. Most of the instruments you hear in the recording are played by great performers, but they play sections that we have prepared for them. Yes, this is rather the working of composers, not of rock musicians. You are right. This is our method.

Photo by Natalia Rybakina

Your music also includes so many different instruments, from traditional archaic ones to electronics. How hard is to select what instrument has to be played in each specific song to make it sound the way you imagined?

◁  In fact, we have our favorite musical instruments. For example, the Mongolian morin khuur, played by Yana, or the Chinese flute bawu, or the mountain Appalachian dulcimer, which I own, or the Belarusian cimbalom, or jouhikko and nyckelharpa in the latest albums. Their sound
reflects as much as possible the northern mood that we create, although these instruments are from different parts of the world. But at the same time, they are always combined with some other Tibetan horns like kangling or dungchen. Or with Buryat and Yakut mouth harps and with Russian gusli. Despite the difference in the origin of the instruments, they have something common – they were created by peoples living in the harsh northern regions. People that interacting with each other for millennia. But when we create something southern, as it was on the album “Oikoumene”, we turned, of course, to another instrumentation – it was music inspired by the authentic music of South America and Africa, and the Arab East. As you can see, it all depends on the task that we set ourselves. But this is never a recreation of traditional archaic music. For us, this is just a paint that can create a certain mood. One way or another, we make contemporary music. Yes, we don’t forget about the roots. But we shouldn’t be taken as an authentic folk band.

I remember there have been some misunderstandings with some reviewers about the role of electronics into your sound, so would you like to clarify what this role actually is?

◁  I don’t really remember which particular case we are talking about. But yes, in recordings, people often mistakenly consider real live instruments as electronic, and vice versa, consider electronic synthesizers as live instruments. This is probably a consequence of our era and the development of technology. It turns out that for some listeners it is not important how it was created, whether there was a live choir and a dozen musicians playing ancient instruments on the recording. They perceive it as a kind of remix or as a compilation of digital samples. But it also happens the other way. On the other hand, these are only illusions of perception. Sometimes it hurts me that someone did not hear, for example, a three-meter dungchen horn, which we recorded in live acoustic environment somewhere in a real cave, or in an abandoned building, they think it is a synthesizer. But maybe this is not so important. It is important that music works for emotion, giving birth for certain feelings.

One of the aspects I love the most in your sound is that web of microsounds and sound details you are able to create: where does this passion for microsounds and details come from and how have you shaped it into your own music?

◁  Yana is mainly responsible for the overall sound palette. This is an important part – melody and mood. And I love all those details – inverted samples, expanding scales and parallel harmonies, microtonal sounds and background noises that I think many our listeners may not hear. And sometimes I’m ready to admit that these details and layers in the sound are simply unconducive, but I think they give that unique opportunity that I appreciated in the recordings of my other favorite artists – when you listen to the recording for the hundredth time, and every time you find something new in it. And I am proud to say that no matter how you have perceived our sound, there is much more in it than you can hear for the first time. It’s like a double bottom box. There is a lot to dig and there are secrets to discover. I think our most faithful listeners are like researchers, paleontologists or archaeologists of our sonic universe, who find artifacts hidden there by us. This turns listening into not a passive act (as it is in pop music) but into something bigger. A shared experience of travel and living.

I believe Russian and Nordic traditional folk music have been so important for your artistic training. Being both the Russian and Nordic folk traditions so vast, could you please tell us more about what specific type of traditional folk music actually influenced you and where does it come from?

◁  As I said above, it would be wrong to attribute us as some kind of traditional musicians, since we are modern musicians and play modern music. In Russia there are wonderful musicians like Sergei Starostin who are trying to preserve the Russian musical tradition, there are many authentic musicians who painstakingly collect folklore in the villages and perform folk songs. This is an important part of the historical and musical memory of the people. And of course, we are inspired by these impressive research works, we also listen to Tuvan, Mongolian, and Buryat music. Chinese. Finnish. Norwegian. And we find all these peoples have a lot in common. Take, for example, such a musical instrument – Belarusian cimbalom. Hundreds of peoples have it under different names. Or the mouth harp, it is both a Russian and a Mongolian instrument, a Chinese and an Asian one. Or gusli is a Russian instrument, and Finnish too, with various modifications, and Vepsian, etc. Folk music has a lot in common in its roots. At one time we were fascinated by the Middle East, I traveled around it for many years. And also Africa, and Latin America fascinated us. But that was what we could use in our sound like colors in a palette. We should not be taken as carriers of a specific ancient tradition. Yana and I are just composers who create music for a movie watched in your head when you hear the music.

Beside traditional folk music, I believe you have a wider range of influences, being your sound so transversal. I would mention Bel Canto here, but I’d like to know more about your biggest influences as a musician, mentioning those artists who really had a strong impact on your musical activity.

◁  It’s not easy to describe, because we are probably the kind of people who can be called real music lovers. I can share my impressions of music with you. I really loved and love Igor Stravinsky, especially his “Symphony of Psalms”. I loved the work of Eduard Artemyev and Alfred Schnittke, especially that they wrote for movies. But at the same time, all my youth, when being a head of music label, I released albums, and when being a journalist, I wrote articles about experimental electronic and noise music. And this was reflected in our early albums. I still really love the Radian project and projects like Pan Sonic. I was certainly inspired by Coil and it was a great event – to be on the stage with Peter Christopherson within his last visit to Russia. I really loved Nurse With Wound, especially their album “Sugar Fish Drink”. And their “Rock ‘n Roll Station” album. I also liked the Zoviet France project with their “Loh Land” album. Of course, I was influenced by Massive Attack and Dead Can Dance, although I have always found this music too light, but at the same time sophisticated and truly great. Brendan Perry is perhaps one of my all-time favorite singers. I consider him a warm-hearted storyteller who has been telling me lullabies before bed for many years. As for Yana, her horizons are really huge, she listens to a lot of different ethnic music and post-punk, whose names I can’t remember. She used to like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, and she respects the classics as well as the very underground psychedelic bands. She and I both love FSOL, Bjork and Mum. I can also tell you that Laibach’s “Opus Dei” album was the strongest affect in my youth. I remember listening to it on a mono tape cassette player in the village and crying from the experience. I really cried, first of all because I understood that it was such wonderful music, and I would never even come close to it as a musician, I would never create something similar in grandeur and in power. And I still think so. And when Ivan Novak, the leader of Laibach, met me at one of the concerts, we exchanged with records, and he said: “We (Laibach) make World Music too, like you”. I smiled when heard that. I never thought about it that way. This is a very metaphorical remark, but this was a big event. When I was a boy in a village, when I listening to this recording on an old tape cassette player, during a thunderstorm, did I know that I will meet its creators? Unlikely. A similar thing happened with the wonderful Swiss band The Young Gods, when their keyboard player and I exchanged with discs, and he asked for my autograph probably out of courtesy, hardly knowing who I was. It was terribly uncomfortable for me to give him my autograph – because their album “Only Heaven” has a high end value for me in music. And I am happy that fate brought me together with these musicians, that I attended their concerts, that I communicated with them live. From the Russian bands, we loved psychedelic punk, probably completely unknown in the West, but had great importance here in Russia. These are no longer existing projects, as their leaders had died – Grazhdanskaya Oborona and Yanka Dyagileva. It was so-called “Siberian suicide-rock”, desperate and honest. That music played during the Soviet Union era had been giving us a breath of fresh air, had been giving us the opportunity to live and fight. They were the musicians who were the first and only who told the truth about Soviet life, who could do it without fear of persecution, and in the most poetic form, and who, after the advent of capitalism, did not hesitate to say that capitalism is also not our way, as well as the Soviet Union. Our way is different. And they were cursed and forgotten by the official mass media forever. But I and Yana – we remember them and love them. They gave us a sense of freedom. They gave us the belief that against the system even one man in the field is a warrior By the way, not so long ago the British band Massive Attack used the music of Grazhdanskaya Oborona and Yanka Dyagileva in one of their performances, made covers on their songs. This is a sign that great artists of completely different genres understand the meaning and significance of each other, and that everything in the world is interconnected.

Photo by Alexander Corvus

I can feel how spiritual your music is and how it holds something sacred, and the new album is no exception of course. What can you tell us about the spirituality and the sacred aspects of your artistic creation?

◁  I apologize, but we try to not talk about such things, it will be playing out of tune if we could try to turn it into words. It is untold, too deep for words, inexpressible. Let’s just feel it in.

Beside spirituality and sacredness, your artistic work has a lot to do with shamanism and magic: how, and what do these practices influence your artistic work and everyday’s life?

◁  Surely shamanism and shamanistic practices are great things for our inspiration. For many years I have been collecting historical texts about shamanism, from Siberian shamanism to American Indian shamanism. I also was attended Nordic mushroom psychedelic sessions and others. But this is just a way to live our life, in the sense that we could get to know and explore this world this way, but we have never ever used, for example, mushroom practices or any other drug practices to create new works.

I believe your artistic work has a lot to do with Tradition, a word that recently became “negative” in the eyes of those narrow-minded globalists who believe keeping traditions alive is a “fascist” thing. I believe this vision is so very stupid, as Tradition is where we come from and has to be kept alive, especially in arts. What does Tradition mean to you as an artist and as a person?

◁  This is an important notice – what you said. This is true. It is not clear why mentioning one’s nationality or one’s roots has become negative. As if we should be ashamed of it. But the future can not grow without roots and without knowledge about them. How can a tree grow without roots? Tradition for us is the foundation, the ground on which we stand. This is partly why we perform barefoot at concerts. This is also a metaphor. To stand on our own ground and sense this ground with our bare heels. This gives us strength.

Looking back to your whole career, I believe a big turning point for TB has been the “Pustota” album, especially after the cryptic and experimental early works. Do you see that album as a turning point in your history, and how has your artistic life changed after that accomplishment?

◁  Yes, this is probably our first song album, which was preceded by many years of searching and experimentation. This album also differs from others by the fact that many of the songs of it were played for many years at concerts before they were finally recorded. The album has a lot of that “concert” feeling, which we preserved in the recording. And also “Pustota” is the first album where so much space was given to Yana’s voice. She herself doubted this my decision at that time. But I don’t regret it even for a second. And yes, after this album we started to make completely different music from before.

For sure your artistic life changed as Yana took over the vocals. What is her training as a singer and what singers actually inspired her?

◁  Yana is a classic example of the musical original genius, self-taught. A person who sings with not only their vocal cords, but with their soul. As a composer and sound producer who had been working with various vocalists for many years, I can say with confidence: this is a huge rarity. Such vocalists are born one in a million, and they can be counted on the fingers of one hand in the whole world. Of course, my words would have made Yana blush if she had heard them. She considers it immodest when I say this. But I really have unconditionally believed in her talent from our first album with her, and I still believe. And I still have a feeling that what you hear on the albums is only one hundredth of what Yana can do in vocal art, we just can’t capture it. I heard her singing in improvisations and at some special moments, which then were not included in the albums for some reasons, including at her requests, and I still have a feeling of dissatisfaction because of this. I would like to reflect all facets of her vocal talent fully and in large works. And I also want to say about Yana that she is not just a vocalist, she is a full-fledged composer, whose musical decisions influence Theodor Bastard’s sound not less than mine.

In the past, Yana has been involved in that beautiful project called Shiva In Exile. What can she tell us about that experience and those years? Will there ever be a return for this project?

◁  Yana liked this experience very much. We worked remotely. I recorded Yana’s voice and sent it to Stefan, and Stefan made songs based on her ideas. They also had released a mutual album under the project name Spiritual, which was also very warmly received by the audience. But at some point Stefan had begun to live like a hermit somewhere in the deep wilderness of Germany. We tried to offer him concerts, we tried to make even a concert line-up, but he did not want. Years later, I have begun to understand him better. After all, I live in the deep wilderness of Karelia too. This experience gives a lot, much more than concerts. As for memories, Yana always speaks warmly about Stefan and about his project. And we still do not lose touch with him.

Speaking of different projects, you have been pretty active with PC games soundtracks: what can you tell us about this side of your artistic work?

◁  We have recorded five full-length soundtracks for computer games so far and we are currently working on a sixth. We are me and Yana. Our creative tandem is inseparable in this too. We complement each other in sound and in ideas, and I definitely can’t imagine doing something separately from each other. As for soundtracks, these are mainly indie and author’s games, which are very close to us in concept, in their invented worlds and in sound design. We undertake only what is truly close to us. I think that video games and music in them are on the verge of the birth of a new multimedia genre, this is such a convergence in art, our time gravitates to which inevitably. Music for games gives Yana and me a lot as for composers, it is a huge experience. We record choirs, battle drums, synchronous noises, and various instruments that are new to us. This experience then gives a lot for the creating of our albums within the band. So we take the music of soundtracks very seriously. This is an important facet and milestone of our creativity.

As I said, your sound is very transversal, so I believe you can easily find estimators from many different scenes, but for sure you have many among the darkwave/goth fans. What’s your relation with the dark/gothic scene, and what are the main differences between the goth and the folk audiences?

◁  It’s a difficult question, maybe we do not pay big attention to confession that our public belongs to. For us, they are our people, our listeners, and if they come to the light of our music, it means that they find something in it, and the fans of neo-folk, classical, gothic, and punk-rock are equally close to us.

At the moment it is hard for a band to organize a tour, due to the “pandemic” times we’re living. So, what are you doing to keep promoting the new album, and what are you planning for when all this will be finally over?

◁  This pandemic year has been extremely productive for us. We have recorded one soundtrack for a computer game. Very global and serious soundtrack. And we have proceeded to another one. We have released a new album within Theodor Bastard. We have signed a contract with the label Season Of Mist. We have made the music video “Les” and a few more video works dedicated to the North. Definitely, even without concerts, we have something to do. We work on sound almost seven days a week and with great dedication. Concerts even somehow interfered with such work, and we are happy that this pause has arisen. But as soon as the pandemic passes, do not hesitate, we will return with the presentation of the album “Volch’ya Yagoda” and with new, not yet released songs.

Alright, last one. What I completely dislike of contemporary “pop” music, being it trap or what else, is the fact that both music and lyrics reflect the mediocrity and the ephemeral “glory” of everyday’s life, while I believe true art should be able to bring you to places you cannot physically reach just by closing your eyes, like your amazing music does. Do you also believe art should be able to bring the listener to unreachable worlds, and why?

◁  Yes, this is the very truth itself. The language of music is special and universal. For example, living in a distant and beautiful Italy, you can understand and feel us – the guys from Karelia who sing in languages which you do not speak. Why it is possible? Because this is the main power of music. Whoever uses music in a different way, probably do not understand that they are striping their art of a great power. But everyone to his trade, and we cannot judge them. Just the abstraction in art is close to us, and we desire that music will be a springboard to the inner and to the outer cosmic space. What else, besides music, can take you to other worlds?

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