A prayer to nihilism
PVTP frontman Alexei Nikonov talks about the genesis of his band’s new album.
Published: October 31, 2012 (Issue # 1733)
Punk-rockers PTVP (Posledniye Tanki v Parizhe) will showcase their new album ‘Ultimatum’ at Zal Ozhidaniya on Thursday, Nov. 8.
Alexei ‘Lyokha’ Nikonov, songwriter and frontman of PTVP, one of Russia’s most radical bands, describes the group’s new album “Ultimatum” as “most hard-edged and insolent in its nihilism.”
According to Nikonov’s album notes, it is “an attack on daily routine [and on the] opportunism of those who surround us and [on the] conformism of those who are being surrounded; war against narrow-mindedness and servility; war against Philistinism and indulgence; our Ultimatum.”
“Ultimatum,” made available for free download on Friday, is the band’s eleventh album. PTVP’s first disc in two years, it is a departure from “Poryadok Veshchei” (The Way Things Are), the 2010 album described by Nikonov as PTVP’s “pop album.”
“This [“Ultimatum”] is obviously not a pop album, there are no hits here. We consciously made a point of not having any pop songs, even if the songs are short — 2’30” and sort of radio format — but this is all, of course, a parody of radio format,” said Nikonov, 39, sitting in the corridor outside PTVP’s rehearsal room Sunday.
“All the songs are punk, hardcore and there’s none of the mysticism of the last album, there’s no romanticism at all, for sure. I think it’s a sober, neo-realistic album. I would even call it naturalistic and odious enough. Consciously odious.”
The album’s subject matter deals with aspects of contemporary Russia’s protests and repressions.
“If you call this ‘elections,’ I fuck the system,” Nikonov sings in a song called “Zhizn za Tsarya” (A Life for the Tsar), while the chorus goes, ‘Who did you want to dupe?’
“It’s a reaction to modern reality, an ultimatum,” Nikonov said, although he admitted he had no idea what was going on in the authorities’ minds.
“Unfortunately, we’ll only be able to find that out in about 20 years,” he said.
“Recent events point to that; you can’t calculate the authorities’ next move, they’re so illogical and unpredictable. They could be panicking, or they could all have gone mad, it’s not clear.”
The title song, however, is an invective-filled diatribe apparently directed at a fictional girlfriend. “It’s a love song, the only love song on the album,” Nikonov said.
“It was also intended as a joke; it’s a love song, but love is shown from the other side. But it is love as well, this string of foul words and things like that. I’ve been criticized that it’s not lyrics, but simply a stream of bad language. But I think it’s enough to listen to any argument between people who live with each other, and it would be something like that.”
Nikonov said he was more inclined to compare “Ultimatum” to “Zerkalo” (Mirror), PTVP’s ninth album, released in 2008, than to “The Way Things Are.”
“It’s quite like ‘Mirror,’ not heroin-like, as ‘The Way Things Are’ was,” he said. “’The Way Things Are’ was taking a rest from something that had started to happen. Getting ready.”
According to Nikonov, he started writing songs for the album 18 months ago, before Putin and Medvedev announced in September 2011 they would swap jobs, and before mass protests sparked by widespread electoral fraud.
“It was before the December protests, for instance I wrote ‘Chto Delat’ (What Is to Be Done) in spring 2011, and when we started to record the album last spring, I got scared and chose not to write lyrics for half the songs as I was writing them,” he said.
“I sang some words in English and deliberately didn’t write the lyrics, because I realized that they could become dated due to the political situation. That’s why half of the lyrics on ‘Ultimatum’ were written by me about a month ago. In that respect, it really is a new album.”
Nikonov followed the protests of the past year closely, despite being bed-ridden for two months due to an inflammation of the trigeminal nerve when the demonstrations were at their height in early December.
“To me, the turning point was that boxing match, when I saw Putin get booed,” Nikonov said, referring to a video of Putin getting heckled by the crowd when the presidential candidate showed up at a Moscow stadium in November 2011 to congratulate Russian martial artist Fyodor Emelianenko for beating America’s Jeff Monson.
“I saw it on the Internet and realized that it was the beginning of the end for his reign as a tyrant. Like in the book ‘Three Fat Men’ [a 1924 revolutionary fairytale by Yury Olesha]. You have to reread it to understand it. There’s no need for Marxism or [anarchist theoretician Pyotr] Kropotkin’s ideas. It’s all on the surface as it is.”
The rapidly changing political and social situation demanded a direct answer, according to Nikonov.
“I didn’t want to limit myself to cryptic statements, as the Russian intelligentsia and musicians like to do; I wanted to make a straightforward declaration,” he said.
“But there’s still a lot of literary references, there are nods to Lermontov and Coleridge in [the opening track] ‘Situation,’ there’s also a song called ‘Night of the Long Knives’ — if you think about the historical situation, it can be approached from a totally different angle. But it’s a punk, hardcore album; I stress that once again. In contrast to the previous one, where the guitars were transparent, where the sound was airy, we didn’t care about that [on ‘Ultimatum’]. What was important for us was the message and this aggressive, fringe sound. We were told that fans would turn their backs on us, but we didn’t care. We wanted to do something different: An anti-‘The Way Things Are.’
“If ‘The Way Things Are’ is a nighttime album, this one is a daytime one, like Nietzsche’s ‘The Dawn of Day.’ A sober one.”
The song “Chto Delat” (What to Be Done) refers to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 revolutionary novel of the same name that he wrote when a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.
“Of course, it’s a parody of a well-known novel and is a portrayal of a present-day nihilist, from my point of view,” Nikonov said.
“If the old one slept on nails, this one keeps a Molotov cocktail in his pocket and a DIY newspaper. This is a song about a hero of our time. It’s also a parody of Lermontov, like ‘I had a dream in a valley of Dagestan…,; that kind of stuff. I am in a period when I rely more on Russian classics, rather than on French ones, I’ve grown up.”
Despite being punk and straightforward, ‘Ultimatum’ was the result of hard and elaborate work, according to Nikonov, with Igor Karnaushenko as a recording engineer and Yasin Tropillo — the son of the St. Petersburg production legend Andrei Tropillo, and the band’s “talisman” — as producer.
“We went through three or four studios while recording it,” Nikonov said.
“We thought we would not spend much money on the album, but in the end we spent a lot. Maybe more than on any other.”
Alongside Nikonov, PTVP (Posledniye Tanki v Parizhe, or Last Tanks in Paris) features Yegor Nedviga on bass, Anton Dokuchayev on guitar and Denis Krivtsov on drums. The band, now based in St. Petersburg, was originally formed in Vyborg in 1998.
Unlike many bands, which have started performing protest songs in the past few years, PTVP opposed the regime as soon as Putin came to power, with the band’s 2001 album “Hex@gen” linking the 1999 apartment building explosions in Moscow to the Kremlin, and with gig flyers featuring the image of Putin complete with a Hitler-style moustache.
Nikonov was inspired by the post-Dec. 4 State Duma election protests, when hundreds of ordinary people rather than the usual political activists came to Gostiny Dvor on Nevsky Prospekt to express their anger over the rigging.
“It was something real, but then some charlatans appeared. I don’t know who they were, whom they represented; they appointed themselves [leaders],” he said.
“The ‘democrats’ who appeared immediately joined forces with the nationalists, and some indistinct movement appeared that represented I don’t know whom, and it was headed by some odious figures.
“I don’t think that the people who got indignant about the elections saw those figures as an alternative. The funniest thing was when I heard on the radio, ‘And with us is leading opposition activist Ksenia Sobchak [the daughter of St. Petersburg’s late mayor Anatoly Sobchak and a celebrity television presenter]. I recalled perestroika at once, with everything that followed. It put me on alert, to put it mildly.
“The ruling class won’t give anything away. It may change one party for another, put one actor in place of another, swap one presenter for another, but this is no democracy and there is no freedom of speech. This is a circus. I don’t think people want this kind of democracy at all. At least that’s what I think, as a representative of the people. Thus, we’re coming to the idea of direct democracy, rather than representative democracy.”
PTVP’s response to the Kremlin’s recent treatment of protesters — including the imprisonment of two members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot and 18 of the May 6 protesters — is songs called “Stukach” (Snitch) and “Trety Otdel” (Third Department), named after the office created in 1826 by Tsar Nicholas I to fight political dissent using a broad network of spies and informers.
Alongside stadium rockers DDT, PTVP took part in a Pussy Riot Fest charity concert in St. Petersburg last month.
“It was an act of solidarity, we had to support them as a punk band, even if we’re not big fans of this kind of creative work,” Nikonov said.
“Repressions are growing, [the women] should be released, but what can be done about it now that the trial is over? I can’t imagine what can be done within the legal system in Russia to change the situation.”
Despite apparent flaws in the Russian protest movement and the authorities’ firm attitude to ignore protesters’ demands and punish protesters, Nikonov said he had not lost all hope of change.
“It only means that legal means have been exhausted, but there’s plenty of illegal methods,” he said.
“People’s patience won’t last forever. Having said what they wanted to say, now they’ll wait a little longer. Now that [the authorities] have raised municipal housing charges and public utility fees, let’s see what happens next.”
PTVP will perform at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8 at Zal Ozhidaniya, 118 Naberezhnaya Obvodnogo Kanala. Tel. 333 1069. Metro Frunzenskaya /