Tag Archives: Ukrainian music

Dread in the Air: A Conversation with Kyrylo Brener of Ukrainian post-hardcore band, KAT

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.

L-R: Kyrylo Brener, Max Dukarev, Andriy Kasyanenko. Photo retrieved from the band’s Facebook page.

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.

The album cover of Поклик, the band’s latest release.

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.

A Shouts Interview With Igor Sydorenko Of Ukraine’s Stoned Jesus

Stoned Jesus. Image retrieved from the band’s Facebook page.

Continuing efforts to engage with Ukrainian artists and musicians in the midst of the Russian invasion that is now into its third month, I had the recent pleasure of connecting with Igor Sydorenko, vocalist and guitarist of Stoned Jesus—one of Ukraine’s most iconic reefer-shrouded outfits.

Now signed to the legendary international label of heavy-making oddballs, Season of Mist, Stoned Jesus carries the bitumen-soaked torch of sludgy, geological stoner rock.

Brandishing abundant low-end fuzz, loose yet patient song structures that build to monolithic crescendos, and Iommi-inspired riffs that are both celestial and subterranean, Stoned Jesus are unique in the stoner/doom metal scene with their simultaneous firm foothold in the realms of more progressive explorations.

Igor was gracious enough to answer some questions about his band and their current activity, which I’m excited to share below.

NY: Thanks so much for making the time for this, Igor. Pleasure to virtually make your acquaintance.

Igor Sydorenko: Sure thing, nice to e-meet you! Let’s go!

NY: Where are you based right now, and what are things like there as Russian aggression intensifies?

IS: I wouldn’t say it intensifies, really, quite the contrary—they’re pretty laughable in land combat, so obviously they have stalled. Now they have been using mostly airstrikes in the past week. I left Kyiv on the second day of the full-blown invasion and now I am in central Ukraine.

Our drummer, Dmytro, is in Kharkiv volunteering with the locals while the city is being obliterated by Russian airstrikes. People can simply Google pictures or videos to see the scale of destruction; it’s inhumane.

They never aim at military objects, they just bomb regular houses, schools, and hospitals like they did in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria. Sergii, our bass player, is in his hometown in central Ukraine, also helping as much as he can. The whole country is incredibly united at the moment. Russian TV would probably call this “nationalism,” lol.

NY: Psychedelic music seems to be very healthy and alive in Ukraine. Can you tell me about the scene?

IS: Yeah! We’ve been there since the very beginning (hence the ridiculous name of the band), and our first record is a 100% stoner doom album. But, you know, the more you grow as a songwriter, the more you progress as a band, the less you really think about the genre and its limitations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m following the new bands and I’m trying to listen to each and every new release here in the Ukrainian underground. I’m even curating a yearly music festival called Winter Mass—a festival for Ukrainian-only stoner/psych/prog/doom/post-whatever artists/bands. I would say, though, that a lot of great acts fall between genres, you know? So, for me, it’s definitely not about stoner or sludge exclusively.

I’ve always been pretty bummed out about the fact that many people can’t get past our name—they think we’re some joke weed act, not the prog-rock auteurs like I myself envision us in my head! But really, everything seems so small and unimportant now. I’m just happy a lot of people support us and our country; this is all that matters at the moment.

Stoned Jesus. Image retrieved from the band’s Facebook page.

NY: I read an interview with you where you discussed a bit of the gear you were using. The interview is a year or two old now, but as a gearhead myself, I’m curious about what kind of hardware you are playing on to get that thick syrupy sludgy sound?

IS: Hah, I don’t think much has changed since then. We basically use whatever is available; we don’t have our own backline or our own signature sound, and dare I suggest this flexibility makes us who we are. Give us any gear and a room full of people, and see these people get crazy soon!

NY: Before the war, what did a day in your life look like? What does it look like now?

IS: Wake up, morning coffee, and walk in the park. Then for the whole day I’m sifting through loads of emails and messages—as band manager I do all the paperwork for Stoned Jesus, including label and booking communications, interviews, merch, logistics, all social media, etc. I’m listening to a lot of music while doing all that, and then in the evening I can finally relax.

Sometimes I remember I also play guitar in this band, so I do play some, but right now I can’t play my guitars. I left them in Kyiv and can only pray they’re still there and that my flat isn’t ruined or marauded. I have to do basically everything else because the band needs to keep going. I do all I can to get it done!

Read also: “The Heart Is Supposed To Beat. And It Will Beat:” A Wartime Conversation With Ukrainian Rocker, Artem Dudko, From Straytones

NY: I recently interviewed Artem from Straytones, and he had very positive things to say about you and Stoned Jesus. He told me that when COVID started you began doing standup comedy? Tell me about that.

IS: Busted! Yep, I’ve been always interested in comedy, and with 2020 being such a gloomy one, I figured I needed a sort of therapy. Instead of going to a shrink, I chose to go to a local open mic, and somehow it worked, hehe.

So yeah, I’ve been doing this for almost year and a half now, and right before the full-blown war started, I was supposed to film my best 10 minutes of material! I wonder how this will change when we win and I’m back to the comedy…if I’m back. Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do when we’re through with this war.

NY: Can you share some highlight experiences from touring with Stoned Jesus? What’s life like on the road?

IS: I’m an introvert, so it kind of sucks for me, haha! But I’m also an exhibitionist in the creative kind of way, and I’ve always needed to share my art with people, so I’ve had to adapt. Obviously touring and playing music is heaven compared to the last two months, and it sucks our huge European tour for April had to be cancelled. Even if everything had been fine by April, we would still be needed here in Ukraine. At least that’s how we feel about it.

NY: What was one of your most memorable performances with Stoned Jesus? What made it so memorable?

IS: Opening for Deep Purple in Kyiv in 2018 was very emotional. First of all, this is the biggest audience we’d played to so far—almost 10,000 people! And second, this is my father’s favourite band. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2017, and I dedicated our set to him. Plus, seeing Deep Purple now actively supporting Ukraine warms my heart. We’re all on the right side of history here!

“It’s always very tough to laugh in the face of death, and I know thousands of Ukrainians have lost their friends and relatives since the war started, but no one can take our spirit, our will, away from us, and humour is a huge part of this.”

NY: When I talked with Artem, he spoke about how Ukrainian people are also keeping their spirits up and keeping humor in their lives during this time. He mentioned the widespread circulation of humorous memes depicting scenes from the war and light-hearted responses to some of the things that are happening. In your opinion, as a citizen, artist, and comedian yourself, what is the role or significance of humor in this time? How are you personally keeping your spirits up in the face of war?

IS: It’s vital. It’s also in Ukraine’s blood. We’ve been oppressed by Russians for centuries and misunderstood by many westerners for decades, so we have no one to rely on but our own people and our own spirit. And what else lifts your spirit if not something funny? Like a lame Russian army with their ancient equipment!

It’s always very tough to laugh in the face of death, and I know thousands of Ukrainians have lost their friends and relatives since the war started, but no one can take our spirit, our will, away from us, and humour is a huge part of this.

Besides, Russian propaganda literally begs to be memed upon on a daily basis—it’s so unrealistic and batshit insane! If anyone falls for it they should check their IQ immediately.

NY: What do you do outside of Stoned Jesus?

IS: Well, all of us in Stoned Jesus have always had to have a side gig or two in between touring because it’s tough to survive being an underground musician only.

Dima was working on a studio that is now being used as a shelter in Kharkiv; Sergii is an aspiring video editor (drop him a line if you need a 3D ad or something!), and I was flirting with stand-up comedy as you already know, while also writing some movie treatments and music reviews.

It all seems so distant now, but I believe we’ll return to our normal life soon, even though it will never be the same again.

NY: What would you ask of your international fans and supporters right now? How can people around the world help?

IS: Spreading the word helps the most. Unfortunately, many people (even politicians!) still believe that this is just a temporary brotherly quarrel, not a full-blown war with thousands of causalities already.

The way Russia wages this war—destroying hospitals and regular houses from the air, turning Mariupol into the new Sarajevo—must be scrutinized also.

Fighting the Russian fake news and conspiracies helps a lot as well, however absurd they are. And, of course, donating to Ukraine helps a lot. Our economy stalled due to the war and it needs time and assistance to get back to normal.

You can help out here: https://supportukrainenow.org

And here: https://war.ukraine.ua/support-ukraine

Just make sure you’re choosing a real Ukrainian charity, not some shady “organization” that registered out of nowhere a few days ago.

With the world’s help, Ukraine will power through! Slava Ukraini, and cheers from Stoned Jesus!

“The Heart Is Supposed To Beat. And It Will Beat:” A Wartime Conversation With Ukrainian Rocker, Artem Dudko, From Straytones

Band photo retrieved from Straytones’ Bandcamp page

At the time of this article’s publication, the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces has been going on for well over a month. In an unprecedentedly short time frame, millions of Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees, and millions more have been displaced internally. The names Mariupol and Kharkhiv now bring to mind the terrors that citizens have endured for weeks throughout this constant onslaught of cruelty and indiscriminate violence—weeks without electricity, heat, and water, with supplies running out and humanitarian corridors thwarted time and time again.

The name Bucha brings to mind images of streets lined with murdered civilians whose hands were tied behind their backs before they were shot in the head. The world looks on as the casualties and war crimes mount, as news (real news) of Ukrainian resistance inspires the support of billions of people around the globe, and as Russia scrambles to quell domestic dissent and widening rifts in the Kremlin in order to maintain a grip on its state-sponsored disinformation rhetoric.

While attacking smaller sovereign neighbor nations is an old trick in the book of autocratic tyranny, the scales of both the global disruption and global resolve in response to Putin’s ludicrous invasion are stark and chilling, and remind us how divorced from reality the actions and behaviors of tyrants are.

Whether in times of peace or war, art serves at the very least as the granular voices of a larger identity over time, and at most, as an utterly necessary spiritual and humanistic survival mechanism. At Shouts, we have been making a concerted effort to connect with Ukrainian musicians and artists to share their work and help promote them in a time of crisis and conflict. I have recently had the pleasure and privilege of connecting with Artem Dudko—guitarist and vocalist of the Kyiv-based psych fuzz band, Straytones, who was also a guitarist and lead vocalist of the hardcore band, Backchat.

From his family’s apartment in a Kyiv suburb, Artem and I had a Zoom call that spanned a gracious two hours and covered a wide range of topics including the war and its pretexts, the many forms of Ukrainian courage, humor, and endurance, and all manner of musical musings related to his projects. You can stream and purchase Straytone’s most recent release, Magic Green River Swimmin’ & Stunning Tarzanka Experience, here, where you will find that the summery sound of Straytones reflects precisely what the cover art portrays: an intricate riot of color, texture, melody, and psychedelic fun. 

Please consider doing the band the service of buying their work, and please share and promote their Bandcamp page as widely as you can! It is my utter pleasure to share our conversation with the Shouts community.

Nathaniel Youmans: The Straytones Bandcamp page describes your style as “Kyiv Psych Fuzz.” Tell me more about this scene.

Artem Dudko: “Kyiv Psych Fuzz,” obviously, is not a real genre. We decided to use this term because we thought it’s not as beaten as garage/psychedelic rock. There are really no other bands that would rely on the name Kyiv Psych Fuzz as a genre, so we tend to think that this should remain our own wheezing self-determination! Straytones’ music is quite unique for Ukraine. There are, however, quite a few bands that are more or less close to what we play, though most of them lay into the stoner/psychedelic/doom realm. Here’s a list of bands that we like: Somali Yacht Club, Stoned Jesus, Esquizet, Milktuth, La Horsa Bianca, Risin’ Sabotage, Shiva the Destructor, Sherpa the Tiger, Me`Leron, VOVK, Kasu Weri, The Tea Ship, Night on Fire, KAT, Small Depo, Ritual Service, Stars & Mellow, and Pree Tone, to name a few… 

Much of the psychedelic scene in Ukraine started somewhere around 2007-2008 (with bands like Slow Ride Home based in Kyiv), around the music-enthusiast forum neformat.com.ua., which was sort of an educational platform for those seeking new music in the dial-up internet era. This website and forum really helped a lot of Ukrainian musicians and listeners in pre-social media times. A whole community was built around that website and forum, and a scene started growing and evolving. Bands like Stoned Jesus and Somali Yacht Club also appeared because of Neformat, and then the rest became simple: more bands, bigger scene, better music, better festivals.

NY: What is the origin story of Straytones? How did the band come to be, and what’s your status right now?

AD: Straytones started in 2012, but in the first few years it was not really a serious project. My friend Denis, who also had a post-metal band called Uprising Fomalhaut, once showed me a live show of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and a few songs from the Black Keys, and we decided that we wanted to play something like that. So we started searching for a drummer, and found a girl named Marina on the same Neformat forum, who was looking for a garage rock band. Marina knew more than both of us regarding the real 1960s garage rock. We had one rehearsal, then went to the nearest bar, got some tequila, and Straytones were born.

It was a sort of back pocket project for me, though, because I was concentrating on the hardcore/metal band I was playing in, Backchat. With Backchat, we originally recorded the album in 2014, and released it five years later in 2019. From 2014 on, Straytones became the more relevant project for me, not only in terms of general activity but also because I started listening to older non-metal music. I was deeply interested by the 60s, by psychedelic, country, and jazz music—any kind of music that was not metal. I had been a metal guy since age 13 when I got my first Rammstein record, which was a gift from a classmate. In my 20s I started listening to softer, more sophisticated music—music with a lot of color. This is why, beginning in 2014, Straytones became the more serious band. We started to think about more serious concerts, and then we had some opportunities. In that time, some things changed—for instance, our bass player moved to Sweden with his wife. We became a trio in 2017—Marina, Vlad (who was a guitarist in Backchat), and me—and this is the real beginning of Straytones as a band that tours, plays, and records. 2017 is probably like the second birthday of Straytones.
We became much better as a trio, and in 2018 went on tour with Somali Yacht Club. Those guys live in Lviv, but that tour really bonded us together. We are still really good friends. In early 2019 we released an EP called “Beware Dark Lord, Here Comes Bell-Man!” and went on a small tour in Poland with Stoned Jesus, who are also friends and really good guys. Then in fall of 2019 went on our first headlining tour. This was the longest tour Straytones had done, more than 10,000 km; we drove to Spain and back, and there were plenty of funny and not so funny stories. Then, at the end of that period we played at Space Fest in Gdansk, Poland, in December 2019. 

After that, Marina said that she wanted to change her life, and she decided to quit the band and move to some place to live by the coast. She’s a good surfer; even Australians admire her! She succeeded; she’s in Panama now. During this war, she is on the informational front. She sends a lot of information, and tries to help in the way she can using the internet. After her, we found a replacement, Eugenia, who played with us up until November 2021. Now we have another person on drums but haven’t officially announced it yet.

Artem Dudko (photo retrieved from the band’s Facebook page)

NY: Are you and the other band members safe?

AD: Vova (bassist) and his family were able to move from a suburb of Kyiv that was under attack. Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel—as you know, what has been happening there has been fucking insane. He and his family managed to evacuate Irpin and send their son to Kamianets-Podilskyi, which is an old Ukrainian city with a medieval fortress. He and his wife and their dogs and cats are in the car headed somewhere. The last I heard from them was about 30 minutes ago on Facebook, and I know they are fine.

As for me, I’m still here. To be honest, I still think Kyiv is the safest place we can find. We’re somewhere between the central city and the outskirts. There are no strategical points nearby, which might be a good sign. We have enough products for a month. Pretty much everyone knows we don’t have to surrender Kyiv. This is the most crucial thing. This is the heart, and the heart is supposed to beat, and it will beat.
That’s why they keep bombing, because we haven’t surrendered. Russians were like “Okay bitches, you don’t want to surrender? Now we’ve got something to eat, now eat shit.” Right before we had this conversation I read the news that the convoy in Irpin, where our bass player lives, was bombed completely, which is also good news for us. So, Kyiv is holding on. I think now it will be a positioning war.

I am really proud of how well our army has been doing. The spirit that they have—this is the main weapon, and this is why Ukraine is still Ukraine and not a part of Russia, because we have this collective spirit. We’ve never been so bonded together as we are now. This keeps the ship afloat. This is why we will win. I want to believe that.

NY: What can you tell me about the general attitude toward Zelensky in Ukraine?

AD: When he was elected two years ago, he won with about 73% of the votes. That was probably the most democratic election we’ve ever had here in Ukraine. (Former President) Petro Poroshenko, who was elected right after the Maidan Revolution, lost the vote significantly. He was very much corrupt, and people understood this and so they wanted to vote for someone else. People voted for Zelensky even though he didn’t have a real political program. He was a comedian, as you know. But people voted for him because there was nobody on his list that they had seen before. His team was all new faces, and the people wanted this. They were tired of the same faces changing around. Then all of a sudden Zelensky started continuing in the direction of what Poroshenko was doing, and everybody was like “WTF? You were saying you were going to imprison him! Everything is going down the drain. What the fuck are you doing?” So that 73% shrank pretty much to 20%. He lost a lot of voters, then the war started.

I would say though, how he has acted has really brought back some respect to him from all over the nation—the world, really. The fact that he has stayed in the country, what he’s saying from the screen, what he’s doing out in the streets, what he’s saying to other leaders—he is acting quite nice, honestly. When I’m standing in the long queue for bread, I’m listening to what people are saying on the street, and many of them talk about how Zelensky has proven himself. Personally I was never really into him but what he is doing in this war is pretty good leadership. He actually acts like a leader, and I like listening to what he is saying. It calms me down and brings more confidence to the situation.

Volodymyr Zelensky presidential inauguration‎, 20th May 2019. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

NY: What is your life like outside of Straytones?

AD: I was and am the brand manager in the guitar department in the biggest distribution company that distributes musical instruments in Ukraine. I’ve been working with brands like Fender, Gibson, Marshall, Moog, whatever. So, that was my job. I really liked it and I still like it. I had a lot of accommodations abroad; I’ve been to the United States quite a few times, and pretty much all over the Europe. It was and still is very interesting, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to this business after this war will end. I’m pretty sure the company is going to shrink, but the question is will it disappear completely or no. This is what I was doing for a living.

I was also finishing repairs on my own apartment. I started changing everything myself, beginning from electricity to pipes to painting, making walls, whatever—it took some time. I was on the finishing line—I was waiting for the furniture for the kitchen. It was supposed to be the 12th of March (laughs).

I don’t know what to expect and I don’t even want to think about it yet. I want to cherish what I have, you know? Right now when I’m going to bed, I’m really saying thank you to the universe, to God, that I can still be in my own bed, man, and I’m wishing to wake up in it. So this is it. This is the lesson that I think every Ukrainian is now learning and going through: really cherish what you have, and live the day that you have; try to live in the moment, because it may be the last day of your life, literally. It’s not a joke.

Today, by the way, I’m feeling pretty much relaxed. I think my body and my brain were very tired from the emotional pendulum that I have been in from all the stress. And today, I’m feeling pretty good actually. Even now I’m talking to you and I’m smiling, which is pretty rare these days, honestly (laughs). Seriously. So, thank you for this opportunity to talk about something else besides the war news and just talking about music. It brings me back to feeling normal.

NY: At the very least, we know the world supports Ukraine, even if leaders are not necessarily meeting Zelensky’s requests for a no-fly zone and other big asks. The long-term future of Russia, though, is becoming very bleak in a very different sort of way. What are your thoughts on this, the future of Russia after the war?

AD: The aftermath for Russia after this war will be like pulling back not to the USSR period but even further. At least in the USSR, people had money, they just didn’t have enough products to spend on. There were no imports. People had money, they had education, they had free medicine, they had jobs. There were not many homeless people starving in the USSR either. So these were all pretty good things about the USSR, but at the same time, there was no free speech, only one political party—nothing much you could ever change. You just lived your life and that’s it. And there were no imported goods. Which is what Russia is becoming again now. Right now, we are of course seeing lots of sanctions on Russia. Russia will not have these imports going forward, and they also don’t have this support system that used to be the USSR. There will now be many Russian people without any jobs.

I think this will be a mix of the USSR and a mix of the Russia from the 90s right after it—a lot of gangsters, a lot of weapons, a lot of…bad shit. The 90s were a crazy time for both Ukraine and for Russia. To be honest, for those I hear about and those few people I know in some other cities in Russia, I am not feeling so good about their future. Maybe they will move out of Russia if they have the chance. Nothing good is going to happen for Russia for the next ten years at least. They will just be pulling back. And one thing that is different now is that in the post-Soviet 90s, nobody really hated Russia like they do now. Now it is very different. Now they have to rebuild the system inside the country while the whole world hates them for what they are doing to Ukraine.

NY: Other thoughts on the war, the future, and your part in all this?

AD: Most of the people I know, the musicians, were always against any kind of war, but in this regard some of them are willing to join the militia. Mostly they are into the volunteer movement. They know they don’t have any military experience. Some of them went to the military office asking, “Do you know if I can help in any way?” They exchanged phone numbers and the military basically said, “When it’s time, we’ll call you. Right now get back to your home and do whatever you can to support yourself.” This is the situation. Only a few guys I know joined the army, and not the militia.

I saw a video from a city close to Energodar and the atomic station, Zaporizhzha, the legendary home of the Cossacks. A huge square, full of men—everybody wanted to be given weapons even without military experience. I know people from Zaporizhzha and, trust me, it is like the Pittsburgh of Ukraine. It is a city of Steelers. Imagine a Steeler who wants to get a gun in his hands. They are tough. They will fight for sure. This is part of the Cossack spirit that they have. Really, it is. We remember this.

Of course, I don’t want to go to the front. Because I don’t think there will be use of me as a warrior. I’m not a military person. I can be a cook, I can do some medical things, I can help in any other way, but I’m not sure that I could shoot. But if fortune will give the weapons to my hand then I will have no other choice and I will become a soldier.

You cannot be ready for any of this until it’s already happening. Time will show. If it’s going to happen, if I’ll be in the training camp, if I will need to fight, I will do my best in order to fight best, to be effective in this, and to survive. This is all I can think about. If this is going to be the situation—that I’m already wearing the uniform and have the Kalashnikov, man… Not much to do, just learn how to use it more efficiently and stay alive. This is all you can do. I really hope it’s not going to happen.

Photo copyrights to Raquel Sousa. Retrieved from this page.

NY: What are your thoughts on the ability of art and humor to raise morale during a situation like this?

AD: Right now the art is to make a meme about the war, and Ukrainians are doing pretty fine with that. From day one, there have been so many memes about the war, and they’re still ongoing. This is something that also brings the spirit up because if you don’t laugh at the situation then you will be upset all of the time. You need the reflection—about the guy who stole the tank, or about the witch who was saying “your dick will never stand up if you do not get out from this city,” or from the guy who was taking the bomb with a cigarette in his mouth—all that stuff is in the memes now. And of course the Russian Military Go Fuck Yourselves, all those things, are also depicted in memes. There are plenty of them, and it is a really helpful form of art right now.

But after that, I am pretty sure there will be big exhibitions, there will be some movies about the war, of course. A lot of poems, some memoirs. A lot of songs, really a lot of songs. Regardless of genre, hip hop, pop music, rock music, whatever. The aftermath, culturally, will be very rich. I am pretty sure about that. Really, we cannot live without art.

NY: I want to try to leave on an uplifting note—how do you see Ukrainian music evolving in the aftermath of this war?

AD: Speaking of music specifically, I think many bands will start to write songs in Ukrainian. I was actually just thinking about how the Ukrainian language is very melodic. It’s like the second most melodic after Italian, you know? It’s not as harsh as Russian, even though we are from the same root of languages. Ukrainian songs are rare and the traditional songs are super nice. So I’m thinking about making a Ukrainian album, and I’m pretty sure that we are going to do that. I know that many bands that have been singing either in Russian or maybe in English—they will also try to go into the direction of singing in their native language.

The band KAT from Kharkiv has already started releasing singles in Ukrainian. They are a post-hardcore band, mostly. More into that area. The lyrics are sad, actually. Pretty pessimistic, but this is how they do it. This is their way, and they are pretty nice guys, really. They are fun, they are cool, but this is the kind of music that they want to put the depression inside of, the tensions you have inside of yourself, too. You’re supposed to listen to that music. You can find it on Bandcamp, too. I can send you the link. They are nice guys.

I can speak from Straytones specifically because I think we can make a postwar album that’s not going to be sad, in terms of music. You know, some of the country songs that have very sad lyrics, they usually are put in the pretty major scale of music, so I’m looking forward to moving that way, some sort of a garage-y 60s thing, but with more positive information—this could be about war or about courage or about some hardships or maybe about nothing related to the war anyway. I mean, this will still be a Straytones record; we will not play something like post metal anyway, you know, like something you listen to and just want to die in the bath with your veins slit and blood all over. It’s not going to be that. We are unique to the Ukrainian scene because a lot of bands, even not metal, but more of the psychedelic thing, the stoner music—they dance around the pentatonic thing, which is not a major scale at all. I was always trying to put it in a major way, in a more uplifting mood, you know? I think we did it very well with “Magic Green River…”

NY: Artem, this has been an honor. Thanks so much for taking the time to hang to chat! I wish peace and safety and wellness to you and all Ukrainians.

AD: Thanks a lot for this—how many…two hours of talking? This was like therapy for me. Thanks a lot man! Peace!

Here are some links to visit if you want to donate and support the Ukrainian military, its hospitals and other humanitarian organisations: