What can musicians actually do in the times when all the melodies seem to be written and all the genres are exhausted? Well,
We had an electric guitar, a banjo, a washboard, a drum, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored gadgets, and also cowboy hats, a cow skull, a whole pub of beer and full house of friends. Not that we needed all that for the southern party, but once you started playing americana, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me were the covers. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than Johnny Cash covers. And I knew we’d get into that pretty soon.”
Zwyntar band concert teaser
What happens when you mix two cultures which at first glance seem like polar opposites – Americana and Ukrainian tradition? Now add to that country and gothic, a smidge of archaic folklore, and on top of all that – singer-songwriter format with a hint of shamanism. When several people with equally strong creative impulses join forces to convey extraordinary concepts in an extraordinary way; their joint effort may result in an unprecedented, unpredictable product. Allow us to introduce you to Kyiv’s own Zwyntar.
Once upon a time, a boy named Eric – who at the time fronted the only Ukrainian dark cabaret ensemble, The Kubrick Cats – developed an interest in classic Americana. He was most drawn to the darker, solemn aspects of the culture – the gloomy writing of Melville and Steinbeck, classic bluegrass along with newer genres like alt-country; in short, everything that people collectively refer to as “American Gothic”. Around this time, Eric also first picked up a banjo – and in this moment, the idea that would become Zwyntar was born.
A long time passed between the dissolution of The Kubrick Cats and the formation of Zwyntar but eventually, after infinite lineup and creative direction changes all the chaos and searching led to the creation of the optimal semi-acoustic ensemble: banjo, electric guitar, bass, washboard, and tom-toms topped with disquieting, undead vocals. That final stroke was provided by Sasha Kladbische (aka Alex Graveyard), herself an established figure on the Ukrainian alternative scene, a bard and explorer of parallel dimensions. Zwyntar had found its permanent lineup.
It’s quite hard to give an accurate description of Zwyntar’s music. On one side, it follows all the tenets of Dark Country with its fetishized elements of North American folklore: dusty roads and bullet-ridden cowboy hats, ghosts and revenants, soul-hunters and the absolute inevitability of God eventually cutting you down. On the other side is the unexpected complement of Ukrainian lyrics and vocal styling and Ukraine’s own flavor of folkloric darkness. All of this is drawn together by the strumming of a banjo and the eerie scraping of a washboard, a sound not unlike nails scraping the inside of a coffin.
We spoke to Zwyntar members Eric, Sasha, and Divuar about their use of universal archetypes, fear of death (and conquering that fear), and the organic stitching together of two distinct mythologies.
Eric: My former band, The Kubrick Cats, had a song called “American Gothic”. The meaning was basically, you don’t have to dress in black rags to understand how bad and dark the world is. You could be walking around in some courtyard somewhere, without knowing that someone buried a corpse there 10 years ago. Death and violence is not always this dramatic thing – when you think about it, we are walking over corpses every single day. Death and decay is intertwined with every aspect of life, and this is both natural and strange.
Sometimes I see confusion at our shows. People think they’re coming to hear some upbeat cheerful country music, and find themselves in this darkness – but usually after a while, people start seeing some charm this in this dichotomy, they get into it and start dancing.
We enjoy not quite fitting into a niche, because that gives you carte blanche to do anything you want musically. You don’t have to conform to any standards or expectations. I would like to leave an impression, to play in a way no one else has played before. You know, genres evolve in a cyclic manner – every genre returns to its roots, but having picked up something from all its other iterations along the way. This is why being in your own niche, being the only one doing this in your country is a great opportunity to use whatever element you want from whatever source you want. Perhaps in the next evolutionary phase, someone might borrow something from our sound – and so ad infinitum… until the universe collapses.
Eric: I think of concepts – words, phrases – for songs every day. Some of them end up being usable. It’s like the tide coming in and out, sometimes leaving something behind on the shore. A feeling will begin to build around some phrase or word, and I try to understand whether or not this is what I want to say. If it is, I make a song out of it.
Divuar: We like using intuitive imagery. Things that don’t need to be overly verbalized, spoon-fed to the listener.
Sasha: The use of archetypes is a foolproof technique, in any art form. The listener has a need to identify himself with someone, be it the hero, the villain, or the observer; he wants to extrapolate the content of the song onto his own experience. This is why I like Erik’s texts – they are full of archetypes. It is tacitly understood what is being spoken about, although nothing specific has been named or said.
Eric: Our song “Black Tree” draws on Black American folklore – the hero is a little black boy who sees a white man in a tree while walking home at night. The man beckons the boy to him, and when the boy comes closer, steals his soul. If you look through my lyrics, a pattern will emerge of this universal tragic hero – a sad character plagued by bad luck. Still, the chance of redemption is always there.
Divuar: I believe mysticism is meant to be perceived as a complement to daily reality, not something separate from it. I like stories, worlds which are irrational, where absolutely abnormal things are perceived by all the characters as totally commonplace.
Eric: Another big source of inspiration for me is Mexican retablo art. This is a purely Mexican Catholic phenomenon. When something bad happens to a devoutly Catholic Mexican, they make a small drawing of this event and bring it to church as an offering of gratitude. Usually these situations are simple, something like “I was almost hit by a car but the Virgin of Guadalupe gave me a sign and saved me”. But sometimes, the themes get dark and weird. Things like “I was drinking with my cousin in the cemetery for three days straight, and then skeletons climbed out of the earth began chasing us” or “My cow was stolen by a UFO”. The drawings, of course, will be equally interesting. One of my absolute favorite retablos is one made by a man called “Raulito”. It depicts a man in a lacy pink woman’s gown chasing bats out of his house with a broom. He thanks the Virgin Mary for helping him get rid of them – “I live alone and am very weak, and the bats scared the soul out of me because I have been a homosexual since my childhood. But the Virgin helped me…”
Eric: Further in the supernatural vein, the band also has its own mascot. It’s out magical little creature named “Byasha”.
Divuar: Byasha says a lot about the band. It’s simultaneously silly but really, really horrifying. A chthonic horror.
Eric: It’s a really Lovecraftian story. Or rather… Turgenev-esque. Turgenev has a novel, “Bezhin Meadow”, in which a nobleman gets lost riding around his property at night and comes upon a group of kids sitting by a fire. The kids are all telling scary stories about the spirits of the drowned, things like that. On paper it’s all the usual folkloric horrors, the coffin with wheels, red hand, green eyes, and so on. But one of the stories is really blood chilling. It stays with you, you feel unease when you remember it. It goes like this:
A man is riding his horse over a dam under which a drowned man lies. It’s pitch dark, cold, the wind is howling… and suddenly he sees a little ram standing on the dam. He feels very strange – there are no sheep around, and suddenly, for some reason, this little ram is standing here in such an odd place. On top of all that, his horse starts going crazy. As he tries to calm it down, the man decides to take the ram with him, since it will probably die if it stays here, in the middle of nowhere. Trembling with fear, he picks the animal up and gets into the saddle… the horse starts going completely wild, bucking and foaming at the mouth. The ram turns around and looks right into the man’s eyes – something animals don’t really do with humans. The man starts petting it, and trying to calm it (but really, more to calm himself) imitates a sheep’s noise and repeats “Byasha, Byasha”. The ram keeps looking at him, straight in the eyes. And suddenly, in a human voice, says back to him: “Byasha, Byasha…”
Eric: This episode is interesting not only because it’s very unique in Russian literature, but also because it intersects with Black American folklore. It’s this real, authentic, dark American Gothic – except with a little ram instead of a zombie or voodoo priest. These weird legends, where a person finds something totally unexpected and weird in their regular surroundings, very often arise in agricultural societies. If someone’s cow gave birth to a two-headed calf – well, that must mean the land is cursed and has to be sanctified again.
Sasha: One of the masters of horror, I don’t recall who, once said that real horror isn’t a werewolf climbing through your window or something like that…true, deep horror is pencils sticking out of the asphalt in the middle of the street. Why pencils? How? Why is a sheep speaking human words? The totally inexplicable. Ukrainian mythology in general, more so than Russian, has more parallels with American folklore. Villagers’ superstitions which couldn’t be stamped out – not by Communism, not by anything else. And it’s funny – everyone knows they’re just scary stories…but the irrational fear is still deep in your soul.
Eric: After all, there’s quite a bit more freedom here…and only a free mind could come up with these sorts of things.
Sasha: There’s also the fact that American culture is, in part, a mixture of Celtic and African heritage. All these scary tales root back into some archetypal fear.
Eric: Fear of the incomprehensible, fear of the dark, fear of that which is different. You know what’s the easiest way of making someone capable of hating and killing another man? Just make the opponent a “subhuman”.
Sasha: I think the main appeal of our band is that in these modern times which are so heavily soaked with darkness and death, we present this death in a funny, almost silly way. When we sing about the valley of the shadow of death through which we will all walk one day, it’s not a death sentence – more like a fantastic, over-the-top Western Gothic adventure. Finding yourself in hell with two colt 45s. I think that when people hear these songs, in this hopeless zeitgeist we have now, the gallows humor makes it a little easier to cope with living in this world of terrorists, murderers, and tragedies.
Eric: We are performing Sasha’s song about Johnny. Johnny is wandering through the desert with only a revolver in one hand and a cross in the other…
Sasha: And the final words of the song are “When Johnny comes around, there’s no beast worse than him in the valley…” Sometimes in life, a man who meets with insurmountable horrors and survives can in the end himself become worse than those horrors. This is a big part of what we talk about.
Eric: When you fear everything, you can go insane or turn into a pathetic, spineless being. The fear of death is one of the most universally crippling fears we face. This is why it’s so important to express it in ways which can be laughed at, to strip away that paralyzing dread.
Sasha: For me, Jay Munly is American Gothic personified in music. His songs are beautiful and melodic, but at the same times deal with irrational and frightening things. He combines them in such a way that their coexistence seems realistic and almost natural.
Eric: And of course, the American Gothic is soaked through with the tradition of the Old Testament and its ideas of absolution. Biblical language is a universal part of this American culture and especially in this kind of music. Everything is based in ceaseless toil and faith, a dismal earthly faith.
The human relationship to the earth and attachment to it plays its own role. A piece of land of your own, which you worked your whole life and the generations after you will continue working. Again, it’s really interesting to see all the parallels that can be drawn between, for example, Texas ballads from the Alamo era and Cossack songs.
Sasha: One time we received a wonderful comment about our music – that it felt like a fantasy about Cossacks who spent their time fighting demons in Ukraine, got tired of it and emigrated to America – but found the same demons there. And now they sing their sad songs about it. Of course, our music contains elements of Ukrainian culture overlaid onto Southern Gothic Americana.
Eric: I would like for Ukrainian music, and culture in general, to continue evolving, spread out. But it seems that right now this is often being done in a strange way… sometimes it leaves a bad taste in my mouth with its inauthentic, dumbed down peddling of “Ukrainiana”…
Sasha: There is a stereotype about Ukrainian culture that it is backwards, rural… all one big village. To which we say – ok, we’re a village! A fucking awesome village. And our folklore is amazing, and we are proud of it. There are still grandmas telling stories in our villages, stories they heard from their grandmas, stories which are 700 years old dating back to the hordes and the Cossacks – our oral tradition is still alive and that is amazing!
A friend was telling me about a recent Shrovetide celebration in Russia where they burned Hitler in effigy, following the ancient Shrovetide ritual to the letter. There is no artificial conditioning powerful enough to destroy deep, primal, archetypal folk beliefs. They will come out anyway. Once they burned the death goddess, now they burn Hitler… and so on.
Divuar: When we were writing “Sin”, the song just came out of thin air. We just began playing. It was something shamanic.
Sasha: I call it “poetic mead” – where the Skalds drew their inspiration from. There’s something that flows through you, and begins speaking through you. Of course, there has to be a certain level of skill and experience. The key is really riding that wave, truly believing what you write: when you enter that state, you experience ecstasy. Not only at that point in time, but you feel it again and again every time you practice or perform the song. You feel an archetypal voice speaking through you. Listeners enjoy this sincerity, something they are able to believe.
Divuar: When you create sincerely, you get onto a certain wavelength, an altered state which persists during the writing process, during practice, and beyond. And when you perform live, it really becomes a kind of ritual – there is an entire audience who is participating in it and resonating with you.
I think with Zwyntar we are at a place where we understand what is and isn’t good for the band. When I begin working on a new song, I can instantly feel if it’s going in the right direction or not.
Sasha: It’s awesome to play in a group where all your bandmates are their own individuals. Each one of us is a “thing in itself” – we don’t need to create personas. After all, if some material you bring to the table is deemed unusable by the others, it can always become a part of your solo portfolio.
We have a communal creative process: one of us writes a verse, someone else continues, and then we all argue about the music until we reach a consensus. The final result that emerges is something that we are all equally happy with.
Eric: In the past I sometimes acted like a despot to my bandmates, telling them what to do and not to do. With Zwyntar, I don’t allow myself to do that. They all know what to do perfectly well by themselves. Besides, our communication is very effortless. This comes not just from a long time of playing together, a physical habituation to our songs – but from a shared mindset, a unanimous understanding of our goal.
Translated by Alexandra Koroleva
What can musicians actually do in the times when all the melodies seem to be written and all the genres are exhausted? Well,
We had an electric guitar, a banjo, a washboard, a drum, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored gadgets, and also cowboy hats, a