Shaking up the swamp
The Avant Piter indie music festival returns to the city this weekend.
Published: June 8, 2011 (Issue # 1659)
The Brighton-based indie rock band British Sea Power will headline Avant Piter on Saturday evening.
Avant Fest, the music festival showcasing Russian and international indie rock held in Moscow since 2004, returns to St. Petersburg this year for one night only — called Avant Piter and headlined by British Sea Power — at Kosmonavt on Saturday, June 11.
Launched by the Moscow-based promoter Maxim Silva-Vega in 2004, the festival featured St. Petersburg events in 2004 and 2005 at the now-defunct Red Club and the Sergei Kuryokhin Modern Art Center, respectively. In 2005, Avant Piter was headlined by the British post-rock band Hood.
Held for the eighth year running, this year’s event will bring the Brighton-based indie rock band British Sea Power, which released its fourth studio album, “Valhalla Dancehall,” earlier this year.
Also performing will be Chinawoman, a Russian singer/songwriter from Toronto, whose work was influenced by Nico, Leonard Cohen and Marc Almond, as well as a vinyl record collection of Soviet pop that belonged to her emigre parents, a ballerina from the Mariinsky Theater and an engineer from Leningrad (the Soviet name for St. Petersburg).
The St. Petersburg event will also feature the Frozen Orchestra, an acoustic trip-hop band formed by St. Petersburg-based Swiss singer/songwriter Tamara Lee and Richard Deutsch, an Austrian guitarist of Metamorphosis fame.
“When we started organizing the festival in the mid-2000s, the idea was to expand the musical mentality of young people and develop a new music scene,” Silva-Vega says.
“There was no Russian indie music scene, no such phenomenon at all at that time. There were only some bands and some artists. Many things have changed since then, and now they say we have an independent scene in Russia. What it is actually like, though, is quite another question.”
But according to Silva-Vega, Russia still lacks what he calls a “festival spirit,” something that Avant was also founded with the intention of developing.
“The festival spirit, in our view, lies in a diversity of music, in the creation of an audience interested in diverse types of music,” he says.
“I think we haven’t got there yet. Not just us — nobody in Russia. People here only go to what they’re accustomed to. Our goal was to get people interested not in something well-known, something old, something they already know, but to make them go to something new and interesting. Strictly speaking, the festival is intended to help people to discover new things.”
The Avant project is more than a music festival, encompassing concert promotion, a record label and a club in Moscow specializing in indie music.
“It’s very important to comprehend all these activities as a whole,” Silva-Vega says.
“The festival is a culmination, a celebration, when people who don’t know each other meet, listen to each other’s music, mix and learn something, but our goal was to cultivate this atmosphere of openness, interest and tolerance throughout the entire year.”
Silva-Vega, whose Spanish communist grandfather fled to Moscow when General Francisco Franco won the Spanish civil war in the late 1930s, began his music activities by promoting the Barcelona-based band Refree’s concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in February 2004.
In May that year, he promoted the first, one-night Avant Fest, and two months later, launched the Avant club project, then based at the 35 MM film theater in Moscow.
According to Silva-Vega, he financed his first efforts from his salary as a journalist with a Spanish news agency in Moscow.
“To be honest, I came across this music purely by accident,” he says.
“But it was interesting for me to learn new things, and the new encounters and impressions thrilled me so much that I realized I wanted to share this experience with other people,” he says.
“It’s no secret that Russia divides itself from Europe or the West on the whole; this idea of bi-polarity, about us being different, it doesn’t die; it exists through the centuries,” Silva-Vega says.
“The uniqueness of our destiny notwithstanding, I think that insularity is sometimes harmful. It was by being in touch with other cultures and mentalities that great Russian culture was born. Take Pushkin.
Chinawoman, the daughter of emigres from Leningrad, will perform.
“To develop and regain your own identity and peculiarity, you should not be in a closed world, but just the opposite — by correlating your world with other cultures and taking something from them. These are things that are obvious enough, but we often forget about them.”
Avant Fest and the concerts set up by Avant help to open up Russia a little, Silva-Vega believes.
“It’s absolutely crucial for this country to ‘open a window on Europe’ all the time,” he says.
“To shake up our swamp, so that people see something new and start thinking in new, diverse ways, to overcome uniformity. So that people get an interest in others, and if not love them, then at least try to understand and get to know them. There is a dire lack of that here. So we have this sort of socio-political aspect.”
The music featured at the Avant Fest cannot usually be heard on Russian television or radio.
“It’s important for us to have young people get in touch with art, rather than with the cheap mass culture that is promoted by the media,” says Silva-Vega.
“[Officials] preach from their bully pulpits that it is necessary to develop culture, but nothing is done to develop this culture, while television is given over to making money from the basest human instincts. It’s enough to turn on NTV television channel, or even MTV.”
But despite the lack of media attention shown to the genre, audiences of indie rock and more artistically creative kinds of music are growing, with fans and interesting bands appearing even in small towns.
“This audience can’t be compared to the audience of the MuzTV Awards, because we lack this kind of media and financial resources, and we don’t appeal to the masses,” said Silva-Vega.
“But on the other hand, [the fan base] isn’t that small, if we consider not only those who come to the event in person, but also those who are with us from a distance.
Russia’s main television channels are state-controlled and have been repeatedly criticized for being used as propaganda tools to influence public opinion.
“We are exactly the opposite: We want everybody to think for themselves and rely on their own thoughts rather than on what they are told on television,” Silva-Vega says.
“That’s why our audience is largely an Internet audience. They’re active people, people for whom what they have nearby is not enough, who need something more.
“I think there’s a lot that can be done, especially in the regions where people need this cultural product far more.”
During its existence, Avant has brought acts including Devendra Banhart, Mudhoney, Explosions in the Sky, Xiu Xiu, Trail of Dead, The Horrors, Spiritualized, Patrick Wolf, The Rakes, Shitdisco, Young Knives, We Have Band, Arab Strap and I Am Kloot to Russia.
“Because we’re independent, there are only two factors that we take into consideration: Our preferences and our financial possibilities,” Silva-Vega says.
“But even with our financial resources, it’s a great pleasure and privilege to organize such a festival and to invite artists whom you find worthy and interesting, and who represent truly outstanding examples of contemporary music. It’s very gratifying to follow your own, even subjective preferences, and to not be dependent on the market.”
In Moscow, the Avant Fest will be held from Friday to Sunday at Avant Club, which moved into the former factory-turned-art center called Art Play earlier this year.
Avant Piter, featuring British Sea Power, Chinawoman and the Frozen Orchestra, will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 11 at Kosmonavt, 24 Bronnitskaya Ulitsa. M: Tekhnologichesky Institut. Tel. 922 1300.