Published on April 7th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron


Interview: Mpala Garoo

During a recent interview with Siberian psychedelic band Radio Polska One, I asked what kind of music the members were currently getting into. Among a handful of recommendations was Mpala Garoo, a home-studio project of Moscow-based multi-instrumentalist and film student Ian Kubra.

A quick search on YouTube turned up a track from his 2012 album Ou Du Monde, entitled Open Way Up High. Sheets of rippling, intertwined guitar delay unfurled in my headphones, the cascading notes lapping gently like waves on the shore of the hidden cove pictured in the video. I could almost hear echoes of laughter and the screams of paddling children. Before last notes had faded, a digital copy of the album was extracting into iTunes courtesy bandcamp and a long-suffering credit card.

Not long after that I found myself speaking with the man himself over Messenger—the beginning of a conversation that spanned two weeks and a wide range of topics, from Pussy Riot and the relationship between art and authoritarianism to the legacy of Egor Letov; of water, dreams, and the secret undulations of New Weird Russia.

Thoughtful and articulate, Kubra shines a light on a thriving underground scene in Moscow and beyond where young artists, musicians, composers, and filmmakers continue a DIY counter-cultural heritage that first bloomed from the ashes of the Soviet state—a heritage that Kubra’s Mpala Garoo is now firmly part of.

391774_229545950457427_513749393_nBNU: When did you first realize you had a talent for composition?

I think it happened when I got into an art school at the age of 10 and attended piano classes. Besides learning how to play classical pieces, I became interested in jamming with myself on piano and even tried to write down the chords. So piano was the original instrument for me.

Piano classes changed to synth classes a bit later, but as a teenager I started to get more and more into “extreme” music and playing electric guitar was the next step. I’ve tried to form bands, but all of them were very short-lived. However, I got the feeling that this ability to write songs is very natural to me and it is a good, and also the quickest, way to communicate with the world.

You either manage to catch yourself in that musical condition or not, and when it’s gone—everything is useless.

Why do you think your collaborations were short lived? Is it that you have a strong vision for what you want you music to sound like?

I think it is a matter of friendship as well as a matter of sharing the same vision. It took some time to find the right people, and one of the most prolific collaborations was made with people who were definitely more than just session musicians. It was not about taking a professional attitude to music, not at all, just sheer joy and fun of making music together without any ambitions or goals—being on the same wave, you know?

There was a moment of musical community we called “New Weird Russia” (akin to New Weird America), and for me that embodied for some time this kind of attitude, completely underground and spontaneous. It was the time when Mpala Garoo was born and like-minded musicians started to release their music on tapes.

250085_126938750718148_7901915_nMy vision is ever evolving, and since I’ve gotten a Tascam Portastudio, I don’t feel like I need a big studio. I don’t like polished sound and working on material for too long, as music is something that is very “here and now” for me. You either manage to catch yourself in that musical condition or not, and when it’s gone—everything is useless. It can’t last long. That’s why I feel uncomfortable playing the same songs in a live setting over and over again.

Improvising is the cure, but it requires full engagement with the other musicians and the audience.

So inspiration for creating music is spontaneous, but friends can help pull it out of you?

Experience is like when bell suddenly tolls and leaves you resonating for a while

Friends add another dimension to it, I think. Inspiration can grow from very intimate impressions and experiences. Experience is like when bell suddenly tolls and leaves you resonating for a while, overwhelmed by some feelings you could not live through until they are brought to light in the form of songs or tracks. But the interesting thing is that it also works the other way—you create resonance or rhythm from potential emptiness, and then it leads you somewhere, leads to some experience.

What is New Weird Russia exactly? It’s a collective of artists? Is there a large audience for this kind of music in Russia or are you finding interest from overseas?

New Weird Russia is gone, transformed. It was a very spontaneous free-form jam movement towards utopia. It was pointed inwards. I’m glad that some musicians continue making something (like Love Cult—they are the most prolific) and that they are gaining more attention. Its trace is left on tapes. Somehow it was synchronized with a similar kind of music made overseas, so most of it has been released in the U.S. or in Europe. I think here we had several hundred people interested in NWR.

Your last album Ou Du Monde, and some of the tracks on your earlier albums, contains a feeling of water and the sea. But you live in Moscow. I wonder where your love of the ocean comes from? Are you creating dreams or nostalgia?

Ou Du Monde was my last officially released album. Since then, there have been two more albums La Main Lachee (2013) and Radio Purusha (2014) that will be released on the Brazilian label Proposito Records soon. They are much more “dry” and deserted.

Dreams are like bread and wine, they keep me alive

I never lived by the ocean and I’ve been to the sea only few times. I can’t explain why there is such a strong connection to ocean in those tracks. Earth is two-thirds ocean, so maybe it is just a release of unconscious delight I’ve never even experienced except than in sound. And water has a direct connection to the dimension of soul. There is nothing nostalgic about it, dreams are like bread and wine, they keep me alive and they give a sense of movement when you can’t travel physically.

What song first moved you deeply?

It was probably not the first one, but I remember very well that impression from the song Fishing the Sky by Appleseed Cast. It was not sad at all; rather it was exceptionally moving, full of vastness and joy.

What was it like growing up in Moscow?

I grew up in a Moscow suburb called Zelenograd (means Greentown). There was good air and real forests that gave a special kind of chill. It is also a place for the electronics industry, so I guess maybe it somehow influenced my interest in both nature and electronic sound.

418922_343127559099265_630258520_nTo get to center of Moscow takes an hour’s train ride. And it was like diving into great chaos with completely different energies—it gave a sense of thrill and it balanced that calm life in the suburbs. So it was like being able to move from the edges of the wheel to its hub.

The Internet has made it possible for people around the world to listen to and to experience music made in the Soviet era. The music of this period—particularly Egor Letov—is inspiring. How much of the music of that era affected you, and how is it regarded in Russia today?

Funny thing, but the first Soviet music I discovered was vintage surf and random weird bands like Stuk Bambuka v XI Chasov. In recent years I’ve gotten more into that ’80s-’90s-era music and feel excited about its sound and aesthetic, mostly psych, post-punk, and New Wave bands like Nochnoy Prospekt, Zvuki Mu, Auktyon and so on. There are also many interesting Soviet composers like Edouard Artemiev, Alfred Schnittke and Sofya Gubaydullina, but that is a whole other conversation.

So that kind of music has a special kind of energy, it’s a lost vibe, and it has a kind of purity that affects me a great deal. It’s like our unconscious analog childhood that still shapes many musicians here, a place to retreat from modern digital madness. So thanks to the web, it’s going through a second life.

The authoritarian state is like a natural enemy for art.

Recurring cycles are also something that I think about in connection with that. Maybe that’s why the hunger for analog is so strong. It’s kind of like the true wine for the musical community today; it provides a sense of time and longevity, not just following every current western trend.

248045_126943244051032_6517279_nDo you think authoritarian repression inspires better, more vital art? And do you think Soviet punk and psych would be as well regarded today if it had not been made with personal risk to the artist?

The authoritarian state is like a natural enemy for art. And for me, it is still an open question whether it is a necessary enemy, which makes artists stronger, or it is just kind of “bad luck” situation. Unless we are talking about special periods of time when a real burst of energy happens, when one cycle ends and the other begins, and it shakes everything up and down in human consciousness.

Reality of state and reality of art are two different realities in which still exist a strange interdependence. If statesmen are wise enough, they realize that the state’s wellbeing depends on the work of artists—it is a position well practiced in ancient societies—because artists take care of immaterial values and reflect the human condition. If the state becomes violent to its own artists, it is slowly killing itself, and it appears as a very clear enemy—and that simplicity of outer evil gives an artist a certain kind of concentration which could affect his or her abilities.

If the state becomes violent to its own artists, it is slowly killing itself

But every situation is special and it is hard to compare the repression of the ’80s to nowadays. Letov is someone that’s close to being a prophet, breaking through the dying body of the USSR to the fresh air of the universe. His music has the imprint of that agony.

However, if we consider such musician as Klaus Wiese, for example, it is completely clear that he works on the level where the existence or not of state authoritarianism has no meaning at all.

I would say that the more real and evil you consider something is, the more it becomes such. And if you attack, it will react violently, like in the Pussy Riot situation. The state likes to keep its image, and even if the real tradition is gone, it needs to maintain the illusion of those “traditional values” because it doesn’t require anything except obedient following.

The state likes to keep its image… it needs to maintain the illusion of those “traditional values”

Artists try to explore everything on their own, taking their own risks, and that’s where their power lies. Soviet punk and psych would lose a certain part of its joy and madness if we try to imagine it [out of this context]. It has a special relationship to death and its poetry.

254237_144963825582307_6965936_nI think music has power to change society in very gentle way—by changing the mind mood of a real person. Again, a good example here is ancient China where music and ritual were activities that shaped society’s spirit. But now it seems like total utopia. Most electronic music is mostly design, nowadays, not ritual.

The ritualistic side is being kept by good musical events that are absolutely necessary to let the people feel a certain kind of unity, emotion, and transgression, to be dissolute for a night in what I would call zeitgeist, to experience a “little death”. It could be loud and eliminating like a Swans show, or something gentle and tender such as neo-classical or ambient stuff, it doesn’t matter.

What is your approach to songwriting? Do songs develop and evolve organically, or do you start with a vision of the finished work and go through the steps to arrive at the song you imagined?

My songwriting approach differs, but mostly I need to be completely driven by the process. It’s hard for me to leave it until the song is born in its basic form. If I leave it, I may return to it several times and change details, but if I stop at some moment, the backbone of the song could be gone. Caring too much is just as dangerous as not caring at all.

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I think the songwriting process is very much about letting go of something; there should be certain kind of lightness. I’m not neglecting the method of ready vision, by the way. I would like to make an album at some point based on such a vision.

What is your current label situation, what projects are you working on, and where can people listen/purchase your music?

There are going to be two releases this spring on Proposito Records. In this period I’m kind of taking a break from concentrating on music (I haven’t played live for almost two years also!). The thing is that really interests me a lot now is singing, so I hope to work on it and make album where the voice would be one of the main instruments.

From time to time we jam as Kon Tiki Gemini with my friend in the St. Petersburg forests, last time we had a wonderful winter improvisation but left it unrecorded. I’m also making psychic sample-based tunes under the monikers Shen’ Ming and Koja as well as some acoustic songs—these can be heard on Soundcloud and heard/purchased on bandcamp.

Check out more from Mpala Garoo on bandcamp and follow on Facebook.

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Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.

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