In my attempts to connect with Ukrainian bands since the full-scale Russian invasion began on February 24th, several things have become clear. Many of these bands are well-connected to one another, and are largely one gigantic network of friends and companions, despite a sometimes cavernous distance between their tastes and styles of music. Given the current circumstances, this also means that safe havens in western and southern Ukraine have seen among the shifting tenancy of millions of internal refugees, many displaced musicians from all around the country, from Kyiv to Kharkiv to Odesa.
Another thing, too, has become clear: each and every one of them I have contacted has made reference to a little-known album that is quickly becoming a profound soundtrack to the ongoing horror and dread of Russia’s all-out assault on Ukrainian existence that has now spread into its fifth month.
This album of which I’m speaking explores themes of impending societal collapse, psychic destitution, viewing power struggles in a contested region from a birds’ eye view over years of conflict, watching your familiar life dissolve into destruction, taking inspiration from the tragic existences of poets whose lives were cut short, and feeling both the survival-insistence on your own identity as well as the unrelenting forces of dehumanization that can make living in a war such an unbearable paradox. On a conceptual level alone, these are strong themes that could elevate a well-executed albums to zeitgeist-status, but Kharkiv-based post-hardcore band, KAT, has reached another level with a razor-sharp 2022 offering that is poised to become one of the most essential albums of the year, in Ukraine and further afield.
KAT is Kyrylo Brener (guitar), Max Dukarev (bass, vocals), and Andriy Kasyanenko (drums). The band’s brand of post-hardcore finds that elusive balance so sought after in the subgenre: catchy and angular riffage executed with precision and a sustained tense atmosphere of exploration. A tight yet expansive sound, a haze of feedback and fuzz behind the driving basslines, guitar riffs reminiscent of the likes of Fugazi and Nirvana, and plangent vocals screamed or sung entirely in Ukrainian.
Not to judge a book by its cover, but the album art alone is enough of an invitation to know you are in the throes of a well-wrought and intentional work. The album cover shows what was once an opulent and lavish feast of exotic foods and indulgent ceremony that has decayed, over the span of several weeks, into a deeply atmospheric reckoning with the omniscience of decay—of beauty and richness dissolving into death and the kind of life that consumes death, while remaining equally mesmerizing in the process of degradation. In a sense, the first visual gesture of the album puts you in the right frame of mind to apprehend the music: that in dissolution you find beauty and strength; in rot, you locate the soul’s boundlessness; that in putrefaction, you insist on imagination and, yes, even joy.
But you will be hard-pressed to find joy in this album, and for good reason. KAT’s Bandcamp page dedicates the album as follows:
“These songs are dedicated to those who defend Ukraine from the Russian occupiers. These songs are dedicated to those killed in the war. These songs are dedicated to our ruined city. These songs are dedicated to everyone in Ukraine, because there is no person who wasn’t affected by the war. You can destroy our cities and kill our people. But it is impossible to break the will and the spirit.“
The band released the album during the peak intensity of Russia’s brutal, senseless invasion. And they recorded the album in a studio in a forest three hours outside of Kharkiv (Spivaki Records) that, since March, has been occupied by Russian soldiers.
To release an album during a war is no small achievement, and to have written an album several months prior that, across the board, is being described as prophetic in light of the past months of horror in Ukraine is nothing short of allegorical. Self-described as a small act not even very well known in Ukraine, Kharkiv-based post-hardcore trio, KAT, is making waves with their newest album, “Поклик,” which is the band’s first album whose lyrics were written entirely in Ukrainian.
Guitarist and primary lyricist behind this harbinger album, Kyrylo Brener, joined me via Zoom in Lviv—where he was watching NBA playoff games in a Green Bay Packer’s sweater and relocating to a room without windows as an air raid siren shrieked out in the streets—to discuss the band’s prescient and blistering new album, its context, and the reality on the ground in Ukraine.
NY: Where are you based now and what is the current situation like?
KB: Right now I am in Lviv, where I’ve been living since about mid-March or something like that. It’s the closest thing to normal life in Ukraine right now. Shops are open, you can go get a coffee, have a beer, take a walk, play soccer, for example. Usual activities are present here, and people are trying to live normal lives and get back to work. My bandmates left Kharkiv several weeks ago for southern Ukraine. They stayed in Kharkiv much longer than me, volunteering and helping out.
NY: Can you describe the experience of recording an album shortly before a full-scale invasion, and then releasing the album in the midst of it?
KB: To be honest, everyone in Ukraine had talked about the possibility of an invasion since about October, at least. Even then, it was really stressful to live in the kind of environment where you read the news every day and it says a full-scale war is probably going to happen in your country. Although, no one actually believed it would happen, to be honest. Everyone thought it was crazy, even for Russians, that they will not get anything from this.
We didn’t write lyrics about this specifically, but something, this feeling of global dread, was in the air. We started writing lyrics for this album in the summer of 2021. Usually it’s me who comes up with the idea and basic structure for the lyrics. Then Max, the vocalist, adjusts the lyrics to the rhythm of the song and his voice, so we work in a pair on the lyrics. This process took maybe 7 or 8 months. For the last couple songs, the lyrics were finished after we had already finished the instrumental parts. Those songs were more involved/affected by this feeling of dread. As 2021 went on, this feeling of dread became bigger and bigger. So when this war started, I listened back to these lyrics and thought of them on very much a different and deeper level. Some things I listen to and they seem prophetic, which is very strange to me since I wrote them and I don’t consider myself a poet. This is the first time that has happened to me, and I’ve been playing music for about 15 years. With KAT, in our previous albums we have tied to the themes of war and injustice, speaking of Russia-Ukraine relationships. Even the old albums, as I listen to them now, sound very actual right now to the state of things.
NY: Tell me about the recording process for the album.
KB: We went to a very beautiful record studio in the Kharkiv region. This studio is lost in the woods, about three hours by car from Kharkiv. It’s a very small village where you have basically five houses, no grocery stores, and among the woods you have this record studio and a second house where the owner lived. I don’t know how to describe it other than maybe the most beautiful experience of my life. You live in the studio in nature, and all of your time is spent talking about music, writing music, etc.
Why I wanted to bring this up is that this region is one of the most affected regions by war. Particularly this village and the nearby city of Izyum, which is a very strategic and important point for Russians. The area has become a heavy battlefield. We talked to the owner of the studio, and he basically didn’t respond for something like a month, and I was very glad to hear that he was alive. Currently, he is in Kyiv, but he said the studio is occupied by Russians and they are living in it. Taking into account that the battlefield tensions run high there, I don’t know if the studio will survive. I hope so, because I would say this studio is the best in Ukraine. Beyond the nature, they have very cool amps and gear in the studio. I just hope it will be fine, but with Russian soldiers there, who knows.
NY: You mentioned that this album came into existence well before the war. Can you describe some of your inspirations behind this album, and where your art brain was at the time of its inception?
KB: In this album in particular, I went to a bookstore to buy two or three books from different poets, take them home and read them, and find inspiration. The initial idea behind this album, by the way, was to dedicate it to dead poets. Not just Ukrainian poets, but dead poets around the world. Because usually poets are people who have, let’s say, interesting or tragic lives. Often they die young, many of them have mental health issues. It’s interesting to see the context behind the lyrics, behind the poem. It’s not just the words, it’s the person behind them. You can always understand their word choice better when you know that.
The first song, “The Letter, was inspired by Vasl Stus. He was a very famous poet here. As I said, he had a very tragic life. In the 80s, in the USSR, he was a Ukrainian-speaking poet, a nationalist in the good sense. He was very much oppressed by the government, and eventually he was sentenced to 20 years or something in the gulag, where he died. For our people, he became this symbol of struggle against the Russian government. Once in the bookstore, I bought a book of Stus’s letters to his son. It was just a collection of letters he sent to his son from the gulag. I imagined a copy of a letter he might send to his son, and these are the lyrics of that song, “The Letter” (Лист).
A couple songs were also inspired by the Polish poet Rafał Wojaczek. Again, it was a coincidence that I bought a collection of his poems in the bookstore. He also died very young, 24 or something. He had some issues with mental health and alcohol addiction. The themes of the album are about Ukraine, fighting for our identity, this war with Russia that’s been going on, but in some lyrical way, many of the words and sentences I wrote were inspired by his poetry. The song about the Donbas, “Атлантида” (Atlantis) was inspired by movies. Throughout our whole career as a band, almost all the lyrics I’ve written were either inspired by poetry or other books. For example, our album “Guernica,” was inspired by the famous Picasso painting after the bombing in Guernica during the war in Spain. My idea was to take some parts of this enormous and complex picture, and try to represent them in the song. At the same time, we tried to talk about Ukraine in this song. War is probably very similar everywhere; anyone who has lived through a war can understand the experiences of people in war.
We have a close friend in the city of Chernihiv, which was hugely bombed by Russians in the first month. He was in the city the whole time. He hid, he didn’t have enough food, didn’t have hot water. He’s fine now and the city is not occupied. He said that once he got internet, he listened to our album, Guernica, and he said he felt each and every song deeply because the lyrics are about bombing and surviving bombing. Of course, when we wrote this album five years ago we had no idea that this would be the case with the album in real life.
To be honest, I never really want to write about stuff like that again. I would concentrate on something different on our next albums. I think we’ve said enough. Maybe we need to focus a little bit on something else other than war and dehumanization.
NY: Can you talk about some of your personal experiences relating to the war?
KB: In my work, I had a coworker from Mariupol. I remember we discussed with him the state of things before February 24th. We were all kind of scared, living in Kharkiv and Mariupol, thinking we probably need to move somewhere. Then when the whole thing started, he was unable to move in the first days, and then it became very dangerous. No one could guarantee that you won’t die, that’s just the truth. I was in Lviv, it was middle of March I think. He called me from Mariupol with a very bad connection. He got my number and said “I’m fine. Tell the guys at work I’m still alive.” But he said that it’s hell, a total nightmare: people are drinking from puddles because there is no water and starting fires in the streets because they have to cook some food, all during the bombing and missiles. There are so many corpses in the street, and no people to bury them. He said, “I don’t know how to escape, maybe I’ll escape through Russia.” There is a chance to escape through Russia for people in eastern Ukraine who have a lot of relatives in Russia. For example, I have a lot of relatives in this country. That was the last time I heard from him. To this day, I don’t know what’s happened to him. Maybe he escaped to Russia, maybe he died, we don’t know.
I have relatives in St. Petersburg, and through the last 8 years, they were really pro-Ukrainian. They mentioned to us that things are very bad in Russia, especially, for example, you can see it by how they treat kids. The daughter of my uncle, she’s 9 or 10. The last thing my uncle told me is that in the school her teachers had her write an essay or a letter of support to Russian soldiers. Absolute propaganda. They are afraid to post this stuff and say anything online, too, so they are thinking of moving to another country.
A second example, a very different example, is my aunt, my mother’s sister. They live very close to Kharkiv, like two hours away by car in Russia. And even before the war, she called my mother and said she’s seeing a lot of military stuff going on in her city, building a hospital for soldiers, etc. She was very afraid and terrified. At the same time, she is under the Russian propaganda, trying to tell us we have Nazis here. My mother told her, “What are you talking about? You think we’re Nazis?!”
Kharkiv is a Russian speaking city. There are some historical reasons—it wasn’t always like that—but anyway, at this point in time, about 90% of people in Kharkiv are Russian speaking, and no one had been oppressing them. I’ve switched to Ukrainian sort of as a protest to what’s going on. I consider Ukrainian my native language, but either way, I identify with both languages, and no one here was in any way oppressing Russians. Not at all. You could speak Ukrainian or Russian, whatever you want. My aunt told us we have some Nazis and that Russian speaking people in Ukraine are being oppressed, and we just said, “Who do you believe, your relatives or the television?”
It’s very surreal when your relatives don’t believe you. I don’t know how to explain that. In the first days of the full-scale war, we tried to convince people we know in Russia about what’s going on. And already, a lot of shit was put in their heads, and I don’t even know how to turn them away from it. They can call you and say, “We are so worried about you and terrified, and we just want peace,” but at the same time, they can say things like, “But you have Nazis in Ukraine and NATO will only oppress Russia.” They can say all kinds of shit, but it is so exhausting that I don’t even want to argue about this right now. To be honest, I don’t speak to them anymore.
At the same time, I discuss all these things with many of my friends… For example, Russians who are consuming this propaganda, just like Trump-supporting people believing everything Fox News says—they don’t have a right to not have information. We don’t live in North Korea. You can choose the source of your information. So if you’re watching, say, Fox News and a bunch of pro-Trump shit, that’s the choice you made. If you’re Russian, if you listen to your state-sponsored TV station, you chose to do that. And you can choose the opposite. You can read different sources. Even in Russia, there are different sources. There is a choice. The problem is that these people don’t want to, and now we have this situation.
None of this will go away for many generations. Definitely not in my generation, probably not even in the next. This hate toward Russia will grow, and will be—I don’t even know how to explain it. And, again, for what reason? Russians now occupy, like, three regions in Ukraine, and not even the whole region. There is so much loss and devastation on both sides. For what reason? There is none.
NY: How do you see Ukrainian art and music and culture evolving after this war?
KB: Every great tragedy brings great explosions in culture. You can see it in Germany after World War II. We can see it in history after all wars, really. This huge trauma for all generations needs to be relieved in some way. You need to express yourself and your feelings. If we can understand we can live in a peaceful country, we will see a great growth in the music scenes in Ukraine. The difference now is how connected is our global society.
I agree that lots of musicians will switch to singing in Ukrainian. No one, NO ONE, will keep singing in Russian, that’s for sure. A lot of bands will also switch from English to Ukrainian. Starting from this point in time, our bands will switch to Ukrainian, I am pretty sure. We will see a lot of great bands and great albums. Especially if the west will put some money not just into the economy of Ukraine, but also in cultural stuff—some grants, some clubs, stuff like that. This will also help bring young people into music. Bands like us, guys in our 30s, will continue expressing ourselves and what we went through during this time, too. So, I expect growth all around.
NY: What kind of toll has this situation taken on you and your family?
KB: Psychologically, I am always asking myself, “Why me, why am I here and not there?” At the same time, everyone said that if you can work, work, because the economy is struggling right now and it helps when people can pay some taxes, because so many people lost their jobs when the war started, like my parents. They both lost their jobs and moved away from Kharkiv. I’m very far from them. They don’t have any money, so I’m supporting them and a couple other relatives from Kharkiv. Still, you can’t help but think, “Why are there some people hiding in shelters and I’m sitting here with my laptop drinking coffee?” It’s always a battle inside your head.
Everyone in Ukraine, everyone in the safer areas, knows what I’m talking about. What everyone is saying, including the therapists, is, if you can, live your life, because if you’re living your life, you can help. You can help the army; you can help refugees. I am a lucky person because I have an IT job that I can keep working at. A lot of people, whole families, have moved and don’t have any money or any things and are living in huge shelters for refugees. They don’t have food, and can’t go to the store to buy any. They go to places where volunteers give food out. If you can help, then that’s very good. Everyone here in the western part of Ukraine, the safer parts, are trying to help as much as we can on different levels.
I would not say that what is happening right now is fueling my creativity process, but I am feeling the need to express this experience and these tensions somehow. Right now I’m trying to put myself into some sports activities that relieves the stress. I am jogging, and listening to music, and as for now, I’m okay. Obviously I want to play music again, I want to write new songs. I don’t expect to return to Kharkiv in the near future. Maybe the guys will move to some other city closer to me and we can at least play together again. It’s hard to predict right now.
NY: What, if anything, would you like to broadcast to the rest of the world about the current crisis in Ukraine?
KB: We are all used to the idea that you can die right now. There is a chance. In some cities the chance is low, and in some it’s high. So we have to think about it in a pragmatic way, and just need to know that that can happen. That’s why I really hope and pray, not that I am a religious person, that every one of my friends and relatives will be safe and we will see the end of the war. That’s the main thing for us right now.
Sometimes I look at our planet and our societies and I don’t have any faith that we actually have the humanity. But to the world outside of Ukraine watching or reading about what is happening, just try to think about what’s important in life, and what it means to be human and a part of a global society. That’s it, really.
It’s horrifying, seeing what is going on in this war, and walking on the street thinking that people, any person around me, could do this harm to another person. I don’t know why there is so much evil and hate and cruelty inside of people. I can see it; it tears me apart, and I don’t know how you can cure those people. I can’t call them people, and I can’t call them animals because animals wouldn’t do this.
When you imagine this victim could be your girlfriend, your mother, your friends, your brothers… We need to think again about our planet and our society and why in 2022 we have this stuff happening. Of course, there are other wars and lots of people suffering. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have any power to influence, and have to focus on small things that can influence the life close to you. That’s all we can do as small persons, so let’s do at least that.
Kyrylo, it’s been an honor and a pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thanks for being part of Shouts!
Thanks so much for this talk. It was really great to meet you and discuss these things, Nathaniel!
Cover photo retrieved from the band’s Facebook page. For updates on the band follow KAT on their online platforms.