They’re Russian, they’ve got a tasty collection of old Soviet synths, and their ‘Tschak!’ album is a terrific blend of analogue grit and psychedelic goodness. Get ready for the latest gnews on Gnoomes
Perm. Around 700 miles east of Moscow. Population just shy of one million. One of the largest, most extensive cities in Russia, stretching 43 miles along the river Kama.
In the early 20th century, Perm was a prime target for both sides in the Russian Civil War due to its munitions factories. Between 1940 and 1957, the city was renamed Molotov after Soviet leader and Stalin supporter Vyacheslav Molotov. It was also known as “The Gateway to the Gulag”, with the horrors of the gulag labour camps now on display at a nearby museum. Throughout the Second World War, it was vital for the production of artillery and other weaponry for the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Perm became a closed city, shut off to foreigners until 1989 and “hidden” on all Soviet-made maps.
Things are a bit less grim these days, of course. But only a bit.
“Once we went for a drive and the police stopped us because we were smiling,” says Sasha Piankov, vocalist and synthesist with Gnoomes, Perm’s finest electronic psych band. “It was Friday, it was the end of the week, and they stopped our car. They asked us, ‘Why are you laughing, guys? Why are you smiling? Why are you so happy?’. We were like, ‘Whaaaaat?’.”
Gnoomes are currently on tour in the UK. It’s the second time they’ve been here and this trip follows on from the success of their acclaimed ‘Tschak!’ album, a record full of fuzzy, rippling, trippy noise rock and sharp analogue synth grit.
‘Tschak!’ opens with ‘Super Libido Wake’, which raucously drones into existence and is underlaid with an Area 51 alien whine. ‘Cascais’, by contrast, is slick and groovy. There’s also an otherworldly ambience hidden between the frantic oscillations – tracks like ‘In The Park’ and ‘ADSR Eurograph’ are dreamy soundscapes, but still underpinned by thumping basslines. Gnoomes’ brand of shimmering psychedelia echoes throughout the record.
So what influences do the band draw on when they’re making their music in their distant Russian city
“I’m influenced by Aphex Twin,” says Sasha Piankov rather bluntly, before turning to his bandmates Pasha Fedoseev and Dima Koniushevich to see if they have anything further to add. Pasha and Dima don’t speak any English, so after some back-and-forthing in Russian, Sasha declares that Aphex Twin is their answer for today.
“But tomorrow maybe it will change and the day after tomorrow maybe it will change again.”
Apart from Aphex Twin, there must be some broad genres or general areas of music that Gnoomes channel in their sound, mustn’t there? After some more deliberating in Russian, they come up with a list.
“Krautrock, shoegaze, some dub music, some experimental music,” says Sasha. “And psych-disco. And Korean pop. Anything. But at the moment, we’re into Krautrock a lot. I especially love Harmonia and Cluster.
Those two are my favourites. I like their approaches to making music and the power of their imaginations. I’m interested in how they used synths and effects, because this was in the early 1970s and it was very difficult to make electronic music, to get a unique sound. To do that, you have to switch on your imagination.”
Gnoomes’ appreciation for the early days of electronic music doesn’t stop with their love of 70s krautrock. Back home in Russia, they have a pretty nifty collection of Soviet-era synths that they record with. Sadly, these old machines are too clunky to take on tour with them.
“They are too heavy to carry and they detune all the time,” Sasha explains. “But we still have some samples of these synths for when we are on tour. We converted them into wav files and downloaded them into our sampler, so we’re blending Soviet sounds with the modern ones. We’re trying to mix them.”
And they’ve got a couple of very 21st century pieces of kit to help provide those modern sounds.
“We have a Moog Sub Phatty and an Arturia MicroBrute,” says Sasha with a grin. “I’m using the Moog for bass parts and the Arturia for synth leads and maybe also some drones.”
Soviet synths aside, Gnoomes don’t seem to feel much of an affinity with their native country. They are clearly glad to be here in the UK, to escape the chains of Russian heteronormativity, albeit only temporarily. But while they’re keen to emphasise how much they love being able to express their individuality, it’s all a bit odd for them.
“We feel something sort of creepy about the kindness of people, the clean streets, the brick walls. It’s so cosy. It’s not something we are used to, you know, these hipster places – barber shops, coffee shops – and this cosy vibe.”
So what’s the vibe in Perm? What’s the music scene like in their home city?
“Russians are into dark and sad music,” says Sasha with a gloomy shrug. “There’s a metal scene in Perm, with lots of death metal and black metal. There’s also a lot of Russian punks. But the psychedelic scene? I think it will flourish at some point. The wave of popularity of psychedelic music is slowly building in Russia.”
Russia, of course, is not known for its tolerance of anything that deviates from what it means to be “Russian”.
Which, according to Gnoomes, is “straight and drunk and manly”. How does a cool electro-psych band fit in with that, then? Turns out, not very well. Sasha specifically highlights that merely looking a touch more flamboyant than your average Russian citizen is enough for the police to bother you.
“‘You’re wearing a hat, you’re wearing a denim jacket’,” he mocks, laughing and pointing to his rather shaggy bandmate. “You have long hair, you’re looking very suspicious’. It happens sometimes like that because there are not many hipsters in our city. And they all look suspicious to the police. So if you look normal, then you are normal, and you can do whatever you want. If you want to drink a lot, that is fine. Drink whatever you want.
Drink vodka, drink every day. You need to be straight and drunk.”
Moscow punk group Pussy Riot have regularly made the headlines for their anti-government (specifically anti-Putin) statements. Do Gnoomes see themselves in a similar vein, as a force of counterculture in Russia?
The trio glance at each other and converse in Russian for a few moments before answering.
“We’re not into politics,” asserts Sasha. “You can be quieter and you can do your own stuff. You don’t need to shout. We don’t want to shout to show our feelings.”
Do they think there will ever come a time when people who are different to the norm, people with alternative attitudes and outlooks, will be accepted in Russia?
“Maybe in 100 years time,” says Sasha with a frown. “The problem is Russian people are used to living like that. It’s not getting worse, it’s not getting better, it’s just like that. But that’s the point when the arts and your imagination works, because when you are struggling with something, you start to work, you start to move, and you try to imagine a better world for yourself. That’s how Gnoomes works.”
A small point perhaps, but what’s a band from Russia doing signed to the London-based Rocket Recordings? Gnoomes say that “a spam attack about two years ago” is wot dun it. Which is somewhat amusing, given the recent developments in Russian-American politics. Drummer Pasha apparently sent hundreds of emails to hundreds of record labels in the hope that someone would get back to them.
“We were very happy when Chris Reeder, our label boss, replied to us. We really believed in our material and we were planning to release two tracks ourselves – ‘Roadhouse’ and ‘My Son’. We just wanted to try that, to see if maybe someone could notice us. Chris told us he wasn’t really into listening to new music, so I don’t know what happened. He just opened his email, listened to our tracks, and he was really surprised. He immediately answered us and it was like a fairy tale because we weren’t even dreaming about releasing our music here in the UK.”
Do they reckon having a band name that starts with the letter “G” helped them to get signed?
“Yeah, Rocket have three Gs,” laughs Sasha. “Gnod, Goat and Gnoomes.”
Looking ahead, Gnoomes are planning to start recording their third album as soon as they get home.
“We want it to be a dance record, but still a Gnoomes record,” declares Sasha. “Walls of sound, lots of noises, lots of repetition, but we want the crowd to dance.”
It doesn’t sound like they want to stay put very long when they land back in Perm, though.
“We’d like to tour for a long time. To have more experiences, to communicate with different people. That is what makes us happy.”
Interestingly, the name Perm is derived from the Finno-Ugric phrase “para ma”, meaning “far away land”. And “far away” seems to be how Gnoomes want to keep Russia.
“Here’s a funny fact about touring,” says Sasha. “When you’re touring, you wake up in a new place every day. And then when you come home, you wake up, and you don’t know where you are. So you feel a little bit scared by that until it sort of passes by. It’s a psychedelic experience.”
‘Tschak!’ is out on Rocket Recordings