Vadym Krasnookyi, Mad Heads XL band leader, talks about trends in music, concerts in small towns and the Ukrainian language as an element of national security
The band Mad Heads was born in 2004 as a trio of guitar, double-bass and drums. The newer, XL part, included wind instruments which added new tints of ska, reggae and folk music to their crazy rock-n-roll drive. This ultimate blend has been firing clubs and pubs as much as it has festivals and stadiums for almost two decades now.
I have never worked a day in a “normal job.” Actually, I had so many choices other than music in life. I graduated from the welding department of Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, so I could have easily become an engineer. But music had been my passion since early childhood. I didn’t think of it as a profession for a very long time because my parents would have nothing to do with it, especially rock music, which I liked most of all. It was even funny to think of rock-n-roll as job in the reality of soviet Ukraine. Still, I found whatever I did to earn a living was connected to music. At one point, for instance, I was a radio DJ.
I remember the first money I earned from music. We played on Andriyivsky Uzviz during a ‘Kyiv Day’ celebration. We used to hang out there with other rock fans and on this particular day people started throwing some money into our hat. We weren’t actually doing it to earn anything, it was just for fun. But I remember clearly that we then spent all money on beer and the party went on. In the mid 1990s, we began to play more or less professionally and people started paying us for what we did. We were young, lived with our parents and didn’t need much. Affording new guitar strings was quite enough for us.
At one point, we played our ‘alternative’ music to what was then ‘alternative’ music. We were totally anti-pop and nonconformist. Nirvana was everybody’s idol of the alternative music scene back then, but we played something that was quite different even from that. I guess that’s why the only member of the band that has stayed from the beginning is myself. I kept looking for people who could help me implement my creative ideas and lived the same lifestyle. In 1994, I found the drummer and my younger brother was old enough by 1996 to start playing double bass. That made our trio of soul mates.
The only thing you can be sure about in the years of independence is that Ukrainian music has emerged and turned into a part of real life. During the first 10 years of independence people didn’t really understand why we didn’t sing in Russian, although we used to sing in English mostly. Still, we always presented ourselves as a Ukrainian band.
If people listen to rock-n-roll, it means we’re pop musicians. But, the genre we play is actually rock music. What’s more, our style is non-typical even for Ukraine. Actually, we started a certain style which newer and younger bands later followed.
FROM PUBS TO THE STARS
Ukrainian rock music is just a group of Ukrainian musicians playing that style. I’m not sure there is something born exclusively in Ukraine in the style that makes it totally different and unique from everything else. I mean, musicians here often integrate ethnic motives into rock music but that’s not a purely Ukrainian trend. It’s rather an echo of the global trend that combines ethnic and national elements with modern music. Yet, as long as all this is not popular abroad, we can hardly talk of Ukrainian rock music as a cultural phenomenon. Therefore, we need our own Emir Kusturica or Goran Bregović who would reveal our uniqueness in a way the audience abroad would understand.
Music makers in Ukraine are the real national producers. Those who produce steel and shout out they are feeding the country are in fact less important than musicians are. The latter create intellectual property, a long-term investment, unlike just some metal stuff. Sadly, the world still thinks of Ukraine as the land of a few sports celebrities and Chornobyl. Meanwhile, we have such a huge musical reserve that it could easily turn into a big part of our national exports, such as reggae and ska for Jamaica.
Local musicians are afraid to experiment. They keep looking back at what’s being played in Moscow or around the world. Getting something non-typical to TV or radio through the censorship of musical bureaucrats is next to impossible. Unlike local radio stations that are more open to experiments and innovations, large networks in Kyiv often work with well-tested playlists from other countries, primarily Russia.
No hit song – no pop artist. That’s rule No1. Popular music is all about popular songs. The rest, including scandals, charm and show, is of course important yet a secondary element. There should be a hit song to serve as a musical reference to the performer. Clearly, a hit song and a good song are two different things. Hit songs are like viruses: they multiply in geometric progression. The best option is for a good song to become a hit song but that’s not always the case. There are no instructions on how to make a hit song. If often takes a good combination of a catchy phrase with a message and a catchy melody that sticks in the listener’s head. And, of course, it’s important to never stop discovering new things in yourself.
Pubs that play live concerts are the key drivers of progress in music. It was the pubs in Kyiv and all over Ukraine where music began to develop. Never mind that it’s music with beer. Rock-n-roll has grown from it. Whoever wants music without beer can go to the philharmonics. Any young band all over the world begins its career in pubs. They start with playing covers while looking for contact with the audience and their own unique style. The main thing is to have these stages, even if they’re tiny. I remember the first 10 years of independence and our life when every suitable concert hall was for disco parties only. I’m happy now to see so many places where people come to get something different. We often perform at pubs for the sake of experience and communication with the audience. That’s where the new Ukrainian music culture is being born. That’s where the alternative live show business is emerging.
Any music traces back to folk art. This is true both for classical music and popular music. Lately, though, the only progressing musical elements include the quality of recording and concert show technologies that should be powerful enough to impress the audience. American and British rock cultures that have been the models in pop music have virtually exhausted themselves. That’s why world music has been growing more and more popular. The artists are trying to find something in other cultures. The only matter is how to use and present these ancient roots. You can put together a choir of women wearing traditional outfits and singing songs the way they did 300 years ago, but that will only appeal to few people. It’s also hard to make rock music of the same quality as the Americans or the British do. Rock-n-roll is their tradition and they will immediately hear you’re not a Brighton-born band. And American rock music is based on country music, although we rarely hear or understand the connection. Rock musicians only began selling more records than country performers a few years ago in the US. That’s the power of the folk tradition in a country that is a symbol of rock music.
OWN VS FOREIGN
The language is what makes any voice sound interesting. Apparently, singing in Russian is much more profitable for producers because it covers a huge market. Ukrainian pop musicians singing in Ukrainian in the mid-2000s were a temporary phenomenon that faded away quickly. Still, some people have always sung in Ukrainian and always will because it’s a matter of self-identification. Because it’s something only we can do and something we can do only here. When Ukrainian artists switch to Russian, they have no reason to stay in Kyiv from any perspective. They’d be better off moving to Moscow which offers a much bigger market and much more money. An artist who wants to be a Ukrainian one will keep singing in Ukrainian.
The language is as important in terms of national security as gas is. A country that speaks a foreign language opens its doors wide for the country whose language it speaks. Isn’t it better though to have your own fuel than import it from somewhere else? The same thing is with the language. We should pay a high price to use a foreign language. The nation that speaks its native language will surely protect the state, and Russia, for instance, realizes this perfectly well. That’s why it invests so much into developing the Russian language abroad.
Most Ukrainians never hear live music. Synthesizers or dumb phonograms replace everything. The audience sees no difference between a record and live music because they have nothing to compare it to. Moreover, they have no idea how much fun listening to a good live band can be. Sadly, this is yet another signal of the extremely low level of culture in Ukraine. Whenever we come to a town to perform at a celebration, we see that the locals have just one concert per year and the performers are someone the organizers choose rather than the audience.
It takes American bands 3-5 years to learn what Mad Heads has learned in Ukraine over 20 years. Ukrainian musicians have little experience playing live concerts. Still, a musician should play at least 100 concerts per year, even if it’s in pubs with only 50 clients. The endless jamming sessions in underground studios and homework can never replace a real live experience. Rock concerts are the connection with the audience in the first place. Western musicians have much more opportunities than we do. Any band that has ambition in another country has so many clubs to play in. Even beginners can play 100 concerts if they do it right. But self-pity is not a way out for us. Since we live in a different environment, we have a chance to come up with something totally unique and exclusive.
Musicians are often in the limelight. They must have a firm civil standpoint. The artists who support some politicians and their platforms can do so if they vote for the politicians and want others to do the same. The problem is when the artists don’t like or care about politicians or politics, yet they sing to support them because they get a good paycheck. That’s a moral handicap.
I’ve been thinking of adding a DJ to my band for a while now. I haven’t found one so far. And I’d like to try and play our music with a symphonic orchestra. But we have this specific musical basis I would like to stick to. I know nothing about music outside it; I mean music that’s totally different from rock-n-roll. I wouldn’t stand in front of the mike for two hours and just sing without moving a finger. It’sjust notmything.