After getting rave reviews in the U.S. press, the Russian art-rock band Auktyon is releasing its long-awaited “American” album this week. But does that mean they are set for a new, brilliant career in the United States?
“I feel good in America, it’s a great country. … Compared to this country, it’s more relaxing there, that’s for sure,” singer and guitarist Leonid Fyodorov said by telephone from Moscow earlier this month.
Based in St. Petersburg, except for Fyodorov who moved to Moscow in 2002, Auktyon is an eight-member group with a distinctive style that draws on rock, punk, world music and jazz. Its new album, “Girls Sing” (Devushki Poyut), was recorded last September in New York’s Stratosphere Sound studios with the help of some prominent U.S. musicians: Marc Ribot on guitar, John Medeski on keyboards, Frank London on trumpet and Ned Rothenberg on reeds.
Originally, the album was meant to be released simultaneously in Russia and the United States. But while the Russian release was launched last week with concerts featuring Ribot and Medeski both in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the fate of the U.S. release is unclear.
“The situation there changed drastically over the summer,” Fyodorov said. “Sales of CDs dropped, the famous Tower Records chain closed and I hear that Sony Records dropped acts that sell, I think, less than 5,000 copies a year. The record industry has collapsed, so no label seems interested in signing a band that’s basically indefinable. But honestly, I don’t care. What’s the difference if it comes out there or not? It will come out here, thank God, but who needs it there? Who needs a record sung in Russian in the United States?”
“Girls Sing,” out on Moscow’s Geometriya label, marks a creative breakthrough for the veteran band, one of the most important forces in the Soviet rock revolution of the 1980s, but still strangely relevant in 2007.
Although its songs have been used in films, from the art-house cult classic “4” to mass-market action movies such as “Brother 2,” and it has a wide fanbase — the popular St. Petersburg ska group Leningrad and New York’s Gogol Bordello both cite the band as an influence — Auktyon has not released an album of new material since 1993’s “Bird” (Ptitsa).
Fyodorov now describes “Bird” as a “boring” album that suffered from too much rehearsal. Over the past 14 years, Fyodorov has mostly released solo records and collaborations, often with St. Petersburg-based improv musician Vladimir Volkov on double bass.
“At some point with Auktyon, it stopped,” Fyodorov said. “I didn’t feel like we were moving anymore. But here we got a push from the outside, and it sent us into motion.”
That “push” was the opportunity to record in a U.S. studio with New York improvisers Ribot and Medeski, as well as Volkov. Ribot is a well-known guitarist in the city’s New Music scene, while keyboardist Medeski is best known for his work with the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood.
“We just sat and started to play. The first track was done in one take,” said Fyodorov, who added that he had no previous experience of having 10 musicians in the studio, recording live.
“The songs developed naturally, they developed as we played them. … The musicians were so great they just couldn’t fail. It was clear they wouldn’t let us down, and I selected more free-form songs that didn’t need written arrangements. We sat and played — it happened as it happened. Then we took what we liked. We didn’t use bad takes.”
The story of the album began in January 2006 when Auktyon performed at GlobalFEST, a high-profile two-day world music event in New York that showcases artists representing a wide variety of cultures, traditions and styles. Auktyon had toured the United States every year since 1997, but like many Russian bands, it had played mostly to audiences of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
GlobalFEST — which is heavily attended by music-industry insiders — gave the band its first real exposure to U.S. critics and producers. After Auktyon played the first night, trumpeter Frank London stopped by and suggested the idea of recording an album in New York with some local musicians. Fyodorov offered the names of John Zorn, Ribot and Medeski, and the stage for the collaboration was set, except for Zorn, who replied that he was not participating in any outside projects at the time.
On the heels of GlobalFEST, Auktyon enjoyed its first U.S. tour where it played at big venues for American audiences, rather than at small clubs for Russian immigrants, and the release of its first U.S. record: the compilation CD “Pioneer,” which came out on the Circular Moves label in June. With songs picked and remastered by Fyodorov, the disc spans the band’s entire career from its 1986 debut “Return to Sorrento” (Vernis v Sorrento) to its later collaborations.
The end result was that Auktyon received more publicity in the United States than any Russian band since 1989, when CBS Records released Akvarium frontman Boris Grebenshchikov’s album “Radio Silence.” Though recorded in English and heavily promoted amid the favorable climate of the perestroika years, the album failed to make a splash among U.S. rock fans.
It remains to be seen whether “Girls Sing” will have better luck. Max Milendorf, the album’s executive producer and Auktyon’s U.S. tour manager since 2000, said he was looking for a U.S. label to release the album and that he hoped to organize a large tour to coincide with its release. But, he said, the climate was unfavorable.
“The fate of this album in the U.S. is not clear to me at this point,” he wrote in an e-mail from Boston. “I don’t have any illusions about being able to appeal to a huge audience with this kind of music. The band will continue to have a cult following, but the abysmal state of the recording industry may make it difficult to sell many copies of this album in the U.S.”
Fyodorov admitted that it would be difficult for any Russian band, however good it was, to break through in the United States.
“I guess, in principle, it’s possible to conquer America, but it depends a lot on fate,” he said. “Actually, there’s one big problem: We live here. If you’re American, there’s no problem; you can go anywhere. But for us, just flying there costs a lot of money. … Still, there would have to be a quantum leap of some sort — both with us and somewhere else, outside of our control — for things to click, so that we’d be interesting to people there, and not just to a small group of our fans in New York, I mean, producers and people like that.”
Whatever happens, Auktyon can count on the enthusiastic support of at least a few Americans. One of them is guitarist Ribot. Speaking by telephone from New York, Ribot said he greatly enjoyed playing and recording with Auktyon, whose members mostly do not speak English.
“I thought they had really great energy, great players. I enjoyed the sessions a lot,” he said. “It had great punk shamanistic energy. … [The band’s members] have a very special mixture of improvisation and written material. It was mostly recorded live, what we did, and which was crazy, because there were so many musicians in a room. It made it hell for the engineer, but it was fun for us.”
But will Auktyon’s new album be interesting for the American public?
“I can never speak for the American public, because often if I like things, other people don’t,” Ribot said. “But yeah, I think that it would be interesting here to an indie rock and a New Music audience.”