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17 August, 2011  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Keyboard Player Turned Pianist

Dmytro Shurov speaks about his desire to be a Ukrainian Elton John, musicians' shining eyes and bench-sitting as a national pastime

He is of that sort of people who are “not of this world”, “forever young” and can see what is hidden from ordinary men. Meet Dmytro Shurov, one of Ukraine's most famous rock pianists and a musician of the highest caliber. Now the frontman and leader of his own band Pianoboy, Shurov has worked with nearly all successful Ukrainian and Russian bands (Okean Elzy, Zemfira, Boombox, Esthetic Education, and so on).


I never had any other choice but to become a musician. I started taking music lessons at age four. My father is a poet who can play several musical instruments. We lived in a tiny apartment which despite its small size routinely accommodated crowds of visitors. But being a shy child, I usually hid behind the door. Then I took lesson from a female pianist named Zeltser. After three months she emigrated to Israel, but in the meantime she managed to stir something deep inside of me through her lessons. For instance, she explained note duration using an apple and cutting it into two, four, eight parts, etc. I never thought about anything else but music.

I recently started thinking about the profession of a pilot. I simply love flying. Now I'm going to take a pilot training course. I am not dreaming about my own plane – flights over cities are off limits for private pilots anyway. Incidentally, the mere thought of a parachute jump makes everything inside of me twist. It would also be interesting to be a sea captain.

I was bored in music school so I quit. When I went there, my music idols – Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and others – were not part of the school curriculum. I honestly said to my parents that I did not really enjoy my studies and they, surprisingly, said okay. And then they bought me my first keyboard – a small device that didn't even have internal memory. This meant that after I composed a piece, it had to be written down on paper, because as soon as I pulled the plug, all the sounds and melodies were gone. So while working with this contraption, I had to do everything simultaneously: compose tunes and record them on tape. I started this at age 11. Fairly soon I started attracting good clients – largely local singers (in Vinnytsia – Ed.). The climax of my career at the time was a 30-minute accompaniment for a folk dance group. I'm horrified to think now how I managed to do it all in one day. There were no equalizers or other convenient technical gadgets, and every drum beat had to be entered manually.

I studied at the Kyiv National Linguistics University, which is often called a true music institution. I studied in the Department of Practical Psychology. This is an ideal place for musicians with its relaxed atmosphere. I studied with Kasha Saltsova (frontwoman of the Krykhitka band. – Ed.), Artur Danielian (Faktychno Sami band. – Ed.) and the guys from the Shchastia band. So the university really was a rock 'n roll institution. When I seriously started thinking about going to the USA to do my studies and become a jazzman, I was contacted by Yura (Khustochka, the then bass guitarist with Okean Elzy who invited Shurov to join the band. – Ed.). Now in Pianoboy I am a jack of all trades – I have to do everything that has to be done to produce, promote and sell the music.

The eyes of a musician always have to shine. When they become dull, his value as a professional takes a nosedive. If you have talent and you know how to work, you'll always find a place for yourself.

There are two things that may hinder an artist in his development.First, his complexes. For example, a lot of my friends who are musicians do not respect or understand simple things. They fail to grasp that it is much more difficult to compose something simple than something complex. It took me years to realize this. But now John Lennon’s album “Imagine,” which is as simple as the nose on your face, is the best example to me of a music soul expressed. More specifically, most drummers fail to understand that a simple rhythm organizes the band and the band shouldn't play up to the drummer just letting him do drum fills one after another all while winking at people in the first row. Second, there may be a chronological mismatch. It sometimes happens that in his creative activities an artist is several years ahead of the prevailing taste and so all his efforts fail. This is a universal problem, not peculiar to Ukraine, but no less painful for that.

To me, every concert is a highly important event for which I always thoroughly prepare. I try to have things run smoothly to the point of automaticity. For example, I'm willing to invite a sound engineer from a different country to make sure there is good sound at a particular performance.

There is a huge difference between a keyboard player and a pianist.A keyboard player is a participant in something like a dance project who comes up with a cool three-note tune and just turns the volume up or down. In contrast, a pianist is a person who at the very least plays a real instrument or a device that most closely approximates one. Back when we produced “Model” (the third studio album of Okean Elzy released in 2001. – Ed.), I completed the transition from a keyboard player to a pianist. Since then, I have always played the same piano parts using real instruments. It's hard and cumbersome, and carrying a 30-kilogram instrument to all my concerts is a burden. But it's worth it. That is precisely why I am a pianist. I’ve earned the right to be called that with the distance I have covered so far, with my hardships and the callouses on my fingers from playing glissandos.

Ukrainian musicians are more interesting than Russian musicians.I don't know what this can be attributed to – mentality, character or proximity to Europe – but the fact remains that in Russia nearly everyone plays the same way. They are not nearly as creative as our musicians.

Most of the people I'd have liked to play with have already died.I was once deeply stunned by Omara Portuondo (a Cuban singer. – Ed.), so much so that I had the idea of joining her on a tour first as a cleaner in order to eventually replace her keyboard player. Trust me, all the greats begin their paths this way. Incidentally, as I played with the idea of becoming a jazzman, I seriously considered whom I would like to join. I wanted to be with Thelonius Monk (an outstanding American jazz pianist who is one of the founders of bebop. – Ed.) in Memphis, but he was gone by that time. I seem to have worked with all the interesting musicians in Ukraine now. In the past while I was most impressed by Serhii Babkin.


The Ukrainian music market only has room for just one performer or band per niche.And this is a huge problem, because it holds back the development of a market itself, as well as that of musicians and listeners. Let me give you an example of Esthetic Education. At one point it created a certain niche for English-language Ukrainian pop rock music. Now, when this band left, the void was filled by Gorchitza Live Project. And that's it; there are other interesting performers in addition to them, but only this band is known. I would frame this issue in even broader terms: the problem is not only that niches are so small here but also that musicians immediately set the goal of fitting in one of them instead of coming up with something interesting and different of their own. I hope that Pianoboy is now creating a new niche when the songwriter performs his own songs and plays an instrument at the same time. You can say that I'm trying to become a Ukrainian Elton John – in the musical sense.

There are many more music events in Russia, and that is the reason why so many Ukrainian musicians go there. It is not a question of patriotism but simply about the existence of such events. Russia simply has more money and fans.

Every performer has to go through festivals.He must play in the rain and have lighters and bottles thrown at him. I was even once hit in the head by an umbrella at a Russian rock festival when Esthetic Education, where I played at the time, was for some reason scheduled to perform before Alisa — whose fans are not exactly polite. In most cases such incidents are caused by mistakes like this when organizers determine the order in which bands will perform. In other words, the bands are scheduled to play based on the time of their arrival/departure rather than their music style.

I consider myself a Ukrainian artist.Ukrainian is a much more convenient language for writing texts; it is more melodious and harmonic. Just like English, by the way. And in general, composing songs is like an extreme moment when all the unnecessary things are pushed aside and only the essentials remain. I am interested in our time and our territory. It is my land, so I can send out a signal that will be understandable here. I will have as many listeners as there will be those who will perceive and accept this signal.

The Western-oriented Ukrainian bands are largely those that perform essentially dance music and don’t pay so much attention to the lyrics.They work primarily on their sound. As far as folk ensembles are concerned, they are a local cultural phenomenon and very interesting outside their own national territory, even though world music is now in fashion.

The Internet crosses borders to a large extent. If you like music, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. In classic Okean Elzy times there were some special TV strategies for promoting songs to the point that if a video for a song was not made in time for its release, everything had to be put off for a year. Now things are much simpler: you post your recording on the Internet and will start receiving phone calls the next day with proposals. And then you set out on a tour to promote your music – and earn money, because for us, only concerts bring any real money.

A music video must have a conception. I fundamentally fail to understand music videos that cannot be described in one phrase: this video clip is such and such. Unfortunately, most Ukrainian performers instead produce a series of flickering frames. I think Boombox’ video to “Polina” is an example of a good music video. I hope our new video “Vidma” is like that, too.

A corporate party is a good thing if you control it.At corporate parties, the money aspect should not prevail over everything else. A musician should clearly realize where he is going to play, for whom and for what. Why accept an invitation to play on Railroad Workers’ Day if you will see an audience of 50 retired people who have never in their lives heard of you or listened to your music? These options should be dismissed by a manager, but as I said, we don’t have one. So that may be the reason why we rarely play at corporate parties – as soon as I smell a rat, I turn down the offer.

Business and music should walk hand-in-hand in the development of a music project rather than being opposed to each other as is often the case.


The audiences in Kharkiv and Kyiv are totally different.In eastern Ukraine people give much less thought to who is performing but listen more to the music itself. As soon as they hear the first notes, they begin to sway and follow the flow of music and relax. It is more complicated to play in Donetsk. In contrast, in Kyiv things are totally different. The Kyiv audience will take stock of you during the first three songs to see who is on stage, what you wear and what you look like. During the next one or two songs they will finally start paying attention to the music as they think to themselves: So what are you going to surprise us with today? Moscow offers a similar reaction only with a longer evaluation period.

The weirdest audience is in Siberia. I performed there many times on tours with Zemfira. They have winter for the better part of the year and a carpet of snow covers everything. Initially, Siberians are just as cold: when you play, you don’t feel any feedback. It’s not clear whether they are listening to you or not. You are simply standing there…their eyes tell you that they like it, but they are motionless. You nearly jump out of your skin to somehow stir them, but it’s all in vain. And then the concert is over and an explosion of emotions erupts. Siberians are willing to keep running after the bus with the musicians, give you their last shirt and carry you on their hands. In other words, it’s hard for them to express their emotions to begin with, and then they simply explode.

In the past several years, the Ukrainian audience has grown in quality and shrunk in numbers. I remember a period with Okean Elzy when halls were always packed to capacity and an absolutely otherworldly atmosphere prevailed at performances. But people did not hear the music – rather, they just enjoyed finally having concerts. It was like raw meat – good to look at but not to eat. Now there are fewer listeners, but they understand music itself much better. A knowledgeable Ukrainian audience is something incredible. The Western musicians we invited to the Moloko festival totally agreed.

Too many Ukrainians simply cannot afford to go to concerts.As long as Ukrainians are largely forced to wonder whether they will be able to buy food for themselves tomorrow, music will not experience rapid growth here. All Ukrainian musicians are having the same problems due to this factor. Because of this we need to discuss every chair on the technical rider a hundred times and count every penny in our and other people’s pockets.

Our people are used to sitting on benches.As I leave my apartment in the morning, I always see 10-15 people aged from 15 (I earned quite a bit of money at this age) to 60, perched on benches near our building. As long as Ukrainians keep sitting on benches with wistful looks in their eyes, Ukraine will be the same as it is now. If you are so averse to doing anything, go to India, to some ashram where you will be fed just for repeating aura-enhancing mantras. In light of our mentality, I am afraid that we shouldn’t expect colossal changes in the near future.

I am not interested in politics.Instead, I worry about environmental issues. I plan to tackle certain environmental things as soon as I have the resources. I am not going to organize some club concerts as is the custom in Ukraine, because it’s sheer madness. In contrast, if electric cars appear in Ukraine, I will definitely buy one and will promote them. I will not go on any political tour to support any candidate for any money.

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