What can musicians actually do in the times when all the melodies seem to be written and all the genres are exhausted? Well,
Fashion can come and go, but the idea remains. The wave of gothic music popularity that overran Ukrainian informal community in the second part of the 2000s subsided, leaving the most devoted and keen fans behind. But even during the peak years rare old school lovers felt out of place among the mass listener, not really used to looking up music history more than 5 years back.
Still the only Ukrainian deathrock duo Old Cat’s Drama easily managed to turn their noble anachronism into an undeniable advantage. And while local gothic dark scene replaced one names and formats with the others, Herold and Divuar deliberately released an EP and an album, stole the scene on multiple continents and even represented our country at a Polish festival Return to the Batcave. Besides, between this and then, they brought old-school gothic music into Kiev techno clubs and are grimly determined to popularize their favorite music in Ukraine by any means.
Today Old Cat’s Drama tell us, what tricks help to achieve popularity in the west, why one needs to welcome hipsters to the gothic parties and how to discern gothic deathrock from any other music in two minutes time.
Herold: I became interested in old-school gothic and other related movements approximately in 2009, and discovered immediately that there was no such music in Ukraine. And even at that time I started realizing that it was a good time to do something myself. I wished we had some good old-school parties here, but I realized that no one would do it but me. The number of people who were aware of this music was extremely small.
Divuar: There were some goths here who didn’t know that gothic was. I remember some conversations at the parties: you tell someone “I have heard that Bauhaus has started recording a new album”. And the answer you get is “Who is it?” There were no such widely developed social networks like nowadays, it was harder to get information, besides, and the listeners were really lazy.
Herold: I had the idea to start my own artistic work and I have decided that I would play deathrock.
Divuar: Those days there were not a lot of people who would realize how that sounded. For instance, now hipsters are really into post-punk so everyone knows what it sounds like; still in 2008 it was almost impossible to find such people. A bass guitarist who would know how to play gothic rock, for example: it would seem so simple – boom-boom-boom-boom and that’s it, but as a matter of fact it’s not. Everybody can play metal, but not any other genre.
Eventually I became keen on Christian Death, the founders and benchmark of deathrock music, and created Rubedo Fails: I was just sitting at home with my guitar recording deathrock with Russian lyrics. There was no scene then and it seemed to me that Rubedo Fails was cool enough because it was deathrock similar to Christian Death, but in Russian with dark suicidal lyrics about death, acid eating you from the inside and so on. But I didn’t like the result; I have recorded a whole EP but have never shown it to anyone because it seemed to lack something to me.
Finally, I became acquainted with Herold and we decided to perform together. He had a couple of texts, I had a couple of guitar runs, so we just rented a rehearsal room for his birthday in 2010, invited some people and improvised a little. That’s how the first Old Cat’s Drama songs appeared.
Herold: In 2011 we released an EP Pretty Things, and it coincided with a huge wave of deathrock popularity in the CIS countries. It became clear that people listened to it here. In the Western countries, for instance, the situation differs: they have a small quantity of devoted fans, who listen to deathrock all the time. There was, of course, a popularity rise in the beginning of the 2000s, when Cinema Strange-revival occurred, but basically this movement remains unchanged.
Divuar: Deathrock is niche music, in the West it has its persistent listeners, who keep an eye on it closely. It was easy for us to find our listeners because there are very little releases in the world. Now, we can see on last.fm that we have more scrobblings than the last Chrysalis Morass album. And they are super awesome guys, who have been playing this music for their whole lives and have seriously influenced the scene. And it turns out that their new album is being listened less than ours. It’s not because they are worse, they just don’t pay much attention to advertising and social connections. In this old gothic crowd it Is even difficult to find out that a new important release was made, because this scene continues to live under the 80s rules: a new album was recorded, a 1000 of copies were printed and they are sold in the shops, and if someone digitized it – that’s a win! Old Cat’s Drama has its listeners just because our presence on the Internet is bigger.
Return to the Batcave festival in Wroclaw where we performed this year has its own label, where they release various gothic music, including big projects like Christian Death or Lebanon Hanover, for Poland and other surrounding regions. They released our album too. It’s not even a label, but a kind of a record shop: they don’t sign any contracts, we just send them our master-copy, they print the discs, partly sell them themselves and send us the other part – at this point our collaboration ends. Thus, for example, new bands, not signed with a label, should sent a physical copy of the release, not the digital one. It is the example of how orthodox this stage is.
Herold had the name from the very beginning, still he couldn’t explain it to me, but when the time passed I understood myself. I asked him: “Why Old Cat’s Drama?” and he answered: “You know, there is that old dying cat, and he has a drama. You have to feel it.”
Our first gig happened in a weird place with a weird bands line-up and even with the police coming. It was a funny story: before the concert we rehearsed two covers on Christian Death, and for me personally those to songs were very alike. As a result I made a playback of one song, and having launched it at the gig I started to play another one. I didn’t realize right away, what was wrong. But, even despite we weren’t truly ready to perform; the audience received us well, because no one else played that kind of music then.
Herold: We sound very different live and on the recording. More emotionally, defiantly, mad. We are planning a new EP right now, it’s going to be unusual, more rough, closer to Goth-punk – back to the roots.
Divuar: Our album Come and see is very gothic, I specially wrote rich orchestrations with strings, organ and so on. And now we want to create a complete antipode, gloomy punk-rock, proto-deathrock, as deathrock has appeared from punk music as a matter of fact. In short, punk-rock was performed in Great Britain and USA. In Britain it evolved or degraded – if you wish – into post-punk. It’s a matter of argument: post-punk is richer musically, but it is less emotional. And post-punk in its turn evolved into gothic rock.
In USA there was hardly any post-punk as it is, but deathrock became one of the punk branches. It’s horror themed punk music, where the strong emotional side is central. Hysterical, obscure, gloomy punk appears as a counter to calmer gothic rock. There even was a picture that said “Deathrock: actually you can dance to it, because gothic rock is not about dancing”. Well, it’s a true rock from a coffin. And, in my opinion, it’s not cold, because a strong emotional attitude from the vocalist.
Herold: Often the atmosphere is built on this attitude; it’s hard to imagine a competitive band without an individual vocalist’s style.
Divuar: In Old Cat’s Drama we have a clear division of responsibilities: Herold is responsible for the lyrics, vocals and the atmosphere, and myself – for the music. Duo is very convenient to operate, although writing studio albums is easier than practice. I can make some arrangements, Herold listen to them and then say – these will do, and those won’t. Then I find the time to make a few new arrangements, and then, wow – we already have an album.
Herold: We have tried to expand the band, but it is problematic. We invite session bassists for the concerts, that’s all. And we seldom perform, we are picky about events, as they say about us.
Divuar: One story heavily influenced me in the choice of parties. We played at a concert where there was a lot of bands in different genres, and on the poster we had deathrock specified. And then some journalist wrote in her review of the event that the vocalist with his Mohawk looked like a punk, and in general the music wasn’t anything like death metal. In general, it’s cool when people dig your thing, but not cool, when they don’t understand what is happening at all.
This April we were privileged to perform on the party hosted by legendary polish community Return to the Batcave. These guys are arranging parties with the traditional gothic music (post-punk, gothic rock, synth pop and so on) for already ten years, if not longer. Tomasz Woodraf, the community mastermind, has heard Old Cat’s Drama’s album and stated his willingness to release it in Poland. There’s a great friendship between us from that time. I’ve also been lucky to perform on Return to the Batcave events as a DJ twice – on Castle Party and Return to the Batcave Festival in 2016. There’s an incredible atmosphere on all of that parties. People are coming together from all over the world to enjoy their favorite music and they know for sure everyone around them are the same. It’s so unlike the rest of the gothic festivals where visitors look at each other down their noses. Everyone’s like one great family, no borders between. I made a lot of friends there and I’m so proud to have a chance to become the part of this magic that I’m going to come back there for sure.
Herold: The Polish trip was a true breath of fresh air. A hearty welcome along with a high-quality party did their part. We’re completely satisfied with the ride, despite all the troubles with the road and border crossing.
I’d also like to put a special focus on the community. There are many outer-directed people from different countries who know exactly why they come to party. A local scene support shows its result in full audience mad keen on what’s happening. And inspired with that atmosphere you admire to carry some part of it home – and certainly come back.
At home we love to play at private parties, for our friends: a garage, not more than 30 people, but they all keep up. Playing for an audience that does not understand at all, is hard.
Divuar: Once we played at a Gothic Festival. We arrived half an hour before our performance – and saw about five local Goths outside. We asked why they were outside, and while they were thinking, what to answer, we heard some screamo-emo playing behind the closed doors. And it turned out that there was another event in the same hall before ours, which should have ended by that time, but didn’t.
Herold: It was a very strange performance, under stressful conditions, with a deep feeling of failure.
Divuar: Yes, I even had my scarf stolen then, by the way. Another story from there: we left our hostel in the city center with a friend, all three fully dressed, looking, of course, quite exotically for Kharkhiv. We got into a taxi, and while explaining the route to the driver – I looked in the rear mirror of the car and there was a full mob of lowlifes running and screaming “Stop!” to us. Of course, we broke away from them, but anyway.
Herold: Still, it is more of an exception. In general, people responded well to our music then, we even went to St. Petersburg, appeared at the concert-reunion of Durnoe Vliyanie.
Divuar: Durnoe Vliyanie is a unique Soviet band, which in 88-89-th played post-punk a la the Bauhaus, only in their own way. In the 2000s, local Goths found their records and began to listen to them, and the organizers of the party could find the musicians and persuade them to act. No kidding, it was one of the best concerts in my life. They have an incredible give back, work with the audience is alike to Dave’s from Depeche Mode, and, besides, they play post-punk canon. And then, we were received very well too.
There appeared an outstanding band – Zoophagous Patient, that plays strange deathrock, and they had a great song Stop drinking! Go sleeping!
Herold: There are approximately these words in this song: when I feel bad, I stop drinking and go to sleep. And this plays on repeat all the time.
Divuar: They played it as part of their program, and then they were asked to play this song as an encore at half past four in the morning, just when everyone wanted to sleep.
Now there is a huge interest to post-punk and deathrock on the part of hipster youth, and it’s a double edged sword. Part of the party believes that the fresh blood is good; maybe someone will stay in line, and will run their projects. Others say that this subculture and aesthetics will roll downhill. Now I listen to the new post-punk bands and I understand that they are inspired by Joy Division, but at the same time Radiohead, Muse, and the others as well. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because the old post-punk, was different too: there were The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and those were completely different worlds – grim and gloomy.
Herold: Just turns out that some bands imitated others, and the nowadays ones have those copied. The result is a strange product that bears little resemblance to the original.
Divuar: There is a canon, and there is nothing wrong with doing something canonical. But when you take the canon as a simulacrum of the canon, it’s like the taste of soy meat with the taste of soy meat. Or chips with the taste of potatoes.
Herold: And when everyone copies each other, we have the chance to get a taste of chips with crackers.
Divuar: Now in Ukraine a gloomy post-punk revival begins, but primarily because the same revival began in Siberia. There exist a whole scene: Buerak, Chernikovskaya Hata and others, although in fact they are hipsters, who began to play somber music. And our hipsters as the dominant subculture are inspired by Siberians. So the new Ukrainian groups are not only of poor quality, but they frankly imitate those of Siberia that, in turn, copy Joy Division. On the one hand, the evolution in the country is good; on the other, this music seems quite plastic to me. I’m not saying that is a bad copy; but when there are a few bands, and four of the five sound like Siberian ones – it is quite another matter.
When we started Old Cat’s Drama, I wanted to make music like Christian Death and Eat Your Make-Up, but then we developed our own sound, and now I no longer need any references – I understand how it should sound. Probably, for any band it is important to find its own sound.
There are some good bands in Ukraine: Cold Comfort, Small Depo, On The Wane, Predsmertnaya Kadril. But in those underground conditions that we have, private or gothic post-punk scene is not very good: it would be so meager that it would be hard to work there. I do not see anything wrong with the fact that people from the outside listen to this music: it’s a chance to give them musical education, to show something new to them.
Herold: I’m throwing gothic parties and try to revive the current situation, to popularize this music to the masses. We are already invited to play at techno clubs, and it is a victory.
Divuar: If this music would be listened to by a hundred people in a trendy club, half of them won’t like it and they will leave, but another half will remain, and ten percent might get interested in it and keep in line.
Herold: Old Cat’s Drama was created basically like that. We have no one in this niche – so we will take it.
Divuar: When I first heard Swans, I haven’t even imagined that one can play like that. Can one build a whole song based on one chord? Or constant repetition? I like music that opens up new horizons: it can be prohibitively difficult or prohibitively simple but cool when having familiarised with the work, you start to realize new approaches. For me, Chelsea Wolfe, Coil, darkfolk were like that. And even if you do play the canon, I like that people are able to listen to underground and open new horizons.
Herold: We have a lot of listeners in the West, especially in South America – up to thirty new subscribers from there appear on our Facebook page in a week.
Divuar: For me is still a mystery why there are so many fans of the post-Soviet scene. This is a phenomenon.
Herold: Moreover, our song entered the Canadian radio airplay.
Divuar: And there was an interview with the British zine that wil be published in one hundred copies and partly sold through Ebay. We have no idea how they found us. But in the West they are very supportive of the music, they ask permission to put us in the rotation on air, offer advertising.
I myself in the past few years try to listen to music albums. For me, the album is holistic conceptual work. So even though we ourselves write songs separately, but try to make albums, carefully thinking through the order of the tracks, in order to get a wholesome story. And we would like to invite the leader of Predmertnaya Kadril as a punk specialist for our new EP. It should turn out interesting!
Translated by Rina Riedel
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