Rock Around the World – Leonid Fedorov Live
Written by Hardee Duncan
Photos by Justin Vela
“I know how much that camera is because I saw it at Frys,” volunteers the young man with the Eastern European accent. “That’s $500.” We’re outside a small San Francisco club, part of a slight crowd of young men and women with accents.
“Actually, more like $2500 all together.” My friend and photographer Justin mutters.
“Wow!” The man exclaims. “You could buy a motorcycle for that!”
I ask him if he is a fan of the artist who will be performing tonight.
“Not really,” he responds.
I tell him I’m writing an article, and he asks me if I’m Russian.
“Not really,” I respond.
He asks me if I’ve got Russian blood.
Not sure I want to answer this one. Maybe we should just continue talking about Justin’s camera.
“Kind of,” I say.
“I knew it. Me, too.”
Maxim, my newly acquired Jewish friend from Minsk, retreats back to his cigarette and Justin and I continue into the club, where the musician Maxim isn’t really a fan of is about to begin his set.
Leonid Fedorov was born in Leningrad in 1963 and by the late 70’s was writing and playing music with his first group. Assuming its final form in the early 80’s, the band took the name Auktyon and were soon installed as a major part of the burgeoning Leningrad rock music scene. By the mid 80’s the band had recorded its first studio album, and Leonid Fedorov, their guitarist, lyricist and frequent vocalist, was on his way to becoming a towering figure in the Russian rock and avant-garde scenes.
Russian music writer Andrei Burlaka describes Auktyon’s music as having evolved from “80’s punk and post-punk, through new wave, ska, reggae, through the ethnic music of Southern Europe and the Middle East, and through fusion and acid-jazz.” While many of these more “exotic” musical styles often have negative connotations, Fedorov’s music is truly a staggering hybrid of diverse influences. Yet together they form a singular—and captivating—body of work.
While Auktyon is still very active, nowadays you can often find Leonid Fedorov working on one of his many side projects, such as at this San Francisco show. Billed as a collaboration with the stand-up jazz bassist and multi-instrumentalist Vladimir Volkov, owing to visa issues the concert ended up as a solo affair.
The club was half-full, the almost entirely Russian crowd a spectrum of ages, from middle-school children debating whether or not the music tonight rocked as much as Slipknot (their findings somewhat inconclusive) to full grown adults devoutly singing along with every word. A young woman asked for a sip of my beer, and for lack of a better response, I consented. She would later be observed making out with multiple women, screaming along to songs, trying to clamber on stage, falling down, and then, rather incongruously, standing alone outside the club after the show, seemingly sober.
Leonid Fedorov took the stage. He sat down, acoustic guitar in hand, and with little warning, took off. He played a range of music from his large repertoire—from Auktyon classics to his more recent avant-garde solo work—all of them permeated with a powerful sense of urgency. Alone, Fedorov’s ferocious guitar work had only his fierce voice to challenge it. Later, he was joined by, of all things, a tuba player, who brought what passed for a modest decorum. But even solo—maybe especially solo—Fedorov’s music is an intoxicating cacophony. His voice the unreliable yet powerful narrator you feel might not deliver you home, but you always trust nevertheless. Leonid Fedorov plays music with the raw excitement of punk rock, the voice of the great Russian bards, and the words of the contemporary avant-garde poet.
Before the show I sat down with the venerable performer to talk about his illustrious career and what the future has in store.
NM: How did you first get involved with some of the American musicians you worked with, like Marc Ribot?
LF: At Global Fest in London.
NM: What are you working on now?
LF: (Shrugs) Medeski (of Medski Martin and Wood) and I just did an album based on the Khlebnkov poem “Ryazin.”
NM: Who were musicians you loved growing up?
LF: At the beginning…Queen, Rush, Pink Floyd… Nazareth, Led Zeppelin. After that, the Beatles, the Doors—that was already later. The Police, and I don’t remember the others.
NM: Mostly Western? Russian music as well?
LF: Well, yeah. Western music. There was no Russian music. Or if there was, I didn’t listen to it.
NM: Was there a moment when you decided you wanted to become a musician?
LF: From childhood I always wanted to play music. There wasn’t a particular moment. At some point I told my dad to buy me a guitar, which cost 7 rubles and 50 kopeks, and to bring me to the music school for lessons. That was in the 7th grade. I think I was 14 years old.
NM: Were your family into music?
LF: No, no one played music. My father’s cousin was a musician. I just learned through music lessons and by listening to records.
NM: How was the music scene in Russia when you first started playing in bands? How is it different today?
LF: I think the musical atmosphere 10 years ago was better in Russia, just like it was everywhere. The atmosphere is not that great even in America today. But of course there are more opportunities now. Ten years ago, we didn’t even have instruments, we didn’t have any information, rock music was forbidden. Jazz as well. Of course, we had contemporary music, but it was all underground. Today contemporary music is still on the margins and the more interesting stuff rarely gets to the top. Unlike in America, 90 percent of Russian musicians are not able to release their own music. They don’t have the opportunity, except maybe on the Internet. There’s no music industry in Russia, or at least not in any normal democratic form. They play the popular artists on TV, but more serious and interesting music is left in poor condition. For example, my friend Vladimir Martynov, a composer. He’s very famous now—but what does famous mean? In my opinion, he’s the best from the contemporary avant-garde. But he made an opera and the premiere was in New York and London. Not Russia. There’s practically no chance that we’ll even hear that opera in Russia in the next few years… (Shrugs)
NM: Is it getting better for musicians or worse?
LF: I don’t think it’s changing. The only thing that has changed since the 80’s is information. Now we have the Internet and free moving information. So information is better, and it’s better that we have instruments, and the opportunity to publish—but better? I can’t say. In the 80’s and the 90’s music influenced society. Not just music, art, too. But now its only important to a smaller group—thank god we have them. Because most people are not interested in art at all. Auktyon is still lucky, because during perestroika we were popular and therefore we stayed in the memory. But a lot of the interesting young musicians and artists today are only famous in the narrow arts scene, and they don’t have the opportunity to go beyond that. We [musicans from perestroika] had that social hook, all the avant-garde and rock—and art in general—had an underlying motive. And I don’t expect it will get better in Russia or in America—already a bunch of venues have been closed. Like Tonic, for example, in New York.
NM: Who are you listening to now?
LF: A lot, hard to say, many different. Medeski Martin and Wood—in general the American avant-garde. Earlier I liked a lot of Romanian Gypsy music, but now I listen to more accademic and classical music. (Pause) Ceramic Dogs—Marc Ribot. No one new.
This article appeared in the online journal of Russian pop culture donoschik.com
Rock Around the World is a new series that examines the assertion that rock and roll music exists outside the city of Seattle, Washington.