Do you know Katie Melua?
Personally, we have never met but she is cool and I like her music. ‘Album no. 8’ is great. We have mutual music business friends in the UK and like her I have also played concerts and recorded music in the UK that has been played on UK national TV and radio.
You are native Georgian. If you ask someone in Germany or Ireland about pop and rock musicians from Georgia, there is usually only one name: Katie Melua. What is the music scene like in your home country?
Actually, there are many Georgians on the worldwide scene, we love to sing and play music and are a very creative and artistic nation. George Balanchine founded American contemporary ballet. Gia Kancheli was a most admired composer for me, I knew Gia who was a great personality and a huge talent. There are also many great internationally known opera singers from Georgia. One of them was a dear friend and mentor to me, Mr. Zurab Sotkilava with whom I even had a mutual project called ‘ZURAB SOTKILAVA AND BLAST’ (like U2 and Pavarotti). We performed several big concerts and festivals all over Russia. As a matter of fact Georgia was considered the Hollywood of the USSR back in old Soviet times. When Western politicians visited Moscow the Communist leaders invariably took them to Georgia to showcase the talent there – I remember festivals in Georgia visited by such big figures as Bob Dylan and Ray Charles…Georgia was not just another Soviet Republic in USSR, it very much had its own unique character and many USSR citizens did not even consider it to be a socialist state. Basically the rock scene in the USSR got its break through from Georgia allowing musicians from Moscow and Leningrad to perform openly at music festivals such as the Black Sea Jazz Festival, Tblisi Jazz Festival, Tblisi Open Air Festival and the Tblisi Rock Festival. Georgia to this day is home to many modern bands such as ‘Sky Diving Penguins’, ‘Badford Falls’ etc which in my opinion deserve international exposure.
You lived in America for a while in the 1990s and also made music there. Was the civil war in Georgia the reason why you left your home country?
No, it was to experience America and American rock and roll music first hand. Living in an area of conflict, music seemed to be such a peaceful yet powerful weapon of change and hearing it first on smuggled LPs as a 12 year old changed my life. I identified with it completely. I put together my first band when I was 16 and after Gorbachev’s Perestroika kicked off in 1986, my college band Beaubeat became very popular in the Moscow college scene and in 1991 an American promoter visiting Moscow heard us and invited us to the US to do a tour. I played all over the US in many different bands for six years and experienced the rock and roll life. Nothing to write home about, just an ordinary story of a young musician struggling to make it big, except that everyone took us for, and sometimes referred to us as, commie-pinko punks. That’s a great name for a band 🙂
There was something going on with Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic label. Would you like to tell us about it?
Yes it was a unique and unforgettable honour for us. Living in the US as a band was no bed of roses and in between gigs to make a living we dug roads and other manual labour in (ironically!) the State of Georgia for a living. We were struggling to get by, like many musicians, but after a simple phone call to Atlantic Records we met with Mr Ertegun. Originally from Turkey, Ahmet traces his ancestry to Trabzon—just like Bob Dylan, by the way—and Trabzon borders Georgia, my home country. To cut a long story short, Ahmet was curious about us, liked us and our music and helped to record and release one of our songs, ‘One Man War’, produced and recorded by Alan Shacklock (an English musician, composer, arranger and recording producer, who has worked with Roger Daltrey, Mick Taylor and Jeff Beck etc. His 1972 song “The Mexican” is considered influential in the early development of hip-hop). I am very proud that this song was successfully played for a while on state Georgian alternative radio stations. It was a fantastic experience I wouldn’t change for anything. It showed me the great possibilities playing music offers to live your best life – it increases confidence, widens social contacts and breaks down international barriers.
After that you went back to Russia. The country was still in a radical change after Perestroika, there was a lot of crime and corruption. How did you deal with that?
The band split up in 1994 in the US for individual personal reasons. I continued my musical journey playing all round the US in different musical styles for two years and in 1996 I returned to Moscow. Back then Russia was a hotbed of crime, and Moscow was crazy, the nightlife was just like Chicago in the 1930s or Las Vegas in the ‘50s with gangsters and shootings on the streets. I didn’t even recognise the city I had left only a few years before but at least had a booming music scene that was both new and fresh. Using all my US musical experience I formed the band BLAST which very quickly became extremely popular on the Moscow music scene. All kinds of people loved us – gangsters, students, rich guys. In 1997 we were signed by an English music promoter Mark Gee visiting Moscow to the Manchester label ‘APOLLO.G’ records and released our first album ‘PIGS CAN FLY’. The album did really well in the UK and Russia We began to tour extensively in the UK and Russia.
At the end of the 1990s you founded the band BLAST (Blast Unit Moscow) in the Soviet Union, together with your old friends Gia Iashvili, Alexandre Hlup Yarchevsky and Igor Meshkovsky. You were the most successful Russian Indie-band band for a while. Are you still in contact with them today?
Yes, we’re all still great friends with such great memories. ’SKY DIVING PENGUINS’ is Gia’s band nowadays by the way. Hlup and I continue to collaborate successfully.
You have played many festivals with BLAST, you have been on tour together with Blur, Franz Ferdinand or Razorlight, you have toured halfway around the world and were the first Russian band gigging in South Africa. What is your most beautiful and your most exciting memory of this time?
Since we released our first album as BLAST ‘PIGS CAN FLY’, as mentioned above, we toured constantly in the UK, Europe and Russia and played many international festivals. We were on the same bill with bands like Blur, Razorlight, Franz Ferdinand, Supergrass, Suede, Beady Eye etc. But the most delightful memories are of two huge concerts that we played; firstly the Oppikoppi Festival in South Africa supporting the main act Badly Drawn Boy in front of 100,000 people in 2001. Secondly, supporting Deep Purple in the packed Olympic Stadium in Moscow in 2010.
You even had an indie/rock – music club in Moscow. To what extent did the Russian scene differ from the West European or American scene/club scene back then?
I am still co-owner of one of the best music venues in Moscow, ‘IMAGINE CAFÉ’, formerly ‘KRIZIS OF GENRE’.
Let me explain what, in my opinion, is the difference between the Russian and western music scene: whilst in Europe, the UK and the US acts becoming successful at club level can progress higher in Russia, meantime great musicians singing in English stay at club level as the Russian music business is primarily about acts singing pop and rock in Russian. This is a challenge for us but also an opportunity to grasp as we have so many great, talented, musicians over here.
In summer 2013 you released “Rollercoaster Ride”, the first single from your sixth album “Krisis Of Genre”. Then the album was released. Although the album went well, the band split up. What were the reasons?
We did really well with this album ‘KRISIS OF GENRE’ produced by my friend and amazing producer ‘Youth’ (Martin Glover). It sounded really fresh and contemporary at this time and the UK media loved the album so no wonder we were all over the radio in 2013-2014: BBC1, BBC2, BBC London, ABSOLUTE Radio, PLANETROCK, XFM, and so on and so forth. Euronews and Reuters rolled out stories about us and I spent most of 2014 in the UK. Unfortunately, in my opinion, there were a few management mistakes which failed to take us further. We seemed to be going in circles, putting in a lot of effort without progressing. The band broke up and later in 2014 I became a solo artist, focusing on my own career because I had lots of unfulfilled songs and ideas.
In your career you have always worked together with well-known producers. Graham Pilgrim produced the third Blast! album in 2005. Killing Joke’s “Youth” Martin Glover you have already mentioned, he produced “Krisis Of Genre”, with Ian McNabb from The Icicle Works and Ciaron Bell you worked together on your solo album “Rude Beggar”. How did these collaborations come about?
One night in 2014, at an event hosted by Alan McGee in Liverpool, I met up with Ian McNabb (Icicle Works). I had known him from Alan McGee’s events in Liverpool where I played. We went on to get to know each other better and became good buddies. Ian offered to produce my solo album, and that is how ‘RUDE BEGGAR’ was recorded in 2014 and hit the stores in March 2015. In 2016 I supported Ian on his UK tour which was really successful and exciting for me. It gave me great confidence in my music and provided huge encouragement to progress as a solo artist.
Your new album “Yet” was produced by Tim Palmer. A producer legend who has already worked for Robert Plant, David Bowie and Ozzy Osbourne, among many others. How did this constellation come about?
When you are in this industry, you meet lots of nice and talented people—you make friends with some, and even become soulmates and creative collaborators. One such person is the young and very talented Moscow producer Ilia Mazaev, who has become integral to my musical endeavours. In 2018 I recorded a new single entitled ‘BETTER HOME’ (which will be featured in the next album). I produced this with Ilia who happens to be very good friends with Tim Palmer. So Tim did the mixing and also added a few bits to the record. We were very happy with the result and all of us felt it was the perfect match so we decided to do the album with Tim.
How was the collaboration between you and Tim? Did he give you artistic freedom or did he have a strong influence on the musical content of the album?
Basically it went like this – we were recording the song, sending it to Tim, then Tim would provide advice and maybe add a few musical ideas to the song, then once the song was finished Tim would mix it. It was a really artistic, relaxing and very creative collaboration. As a result, we made an amazing, mystical, in my opinion, album that we named ‘YET’.
What does “Yet” mean to you? What do you want to express and what do you want to achieve with this album?
Firstly, it was great to record it in Georgia in SVAS studios owned by my best friend and collaborator Ric Berie, which overlooks the Caucasus Mountain gorge. I feel such musical inspiration when I go there. And to reunite with my great musician buddies with whom I played in the US in the 1990s meant a lot to me. Making the album ‘YET’ was such a natural and organic experience, the process flowed like a mountain river. The album sums up all my life and musical experiences. As a musician I think it’s a great piece of art and of course I want to share it with the world.
Are there any plans to go on stage with “Yet” as soon as this is possible again?
If the pandemic allows, I plan to tour Europe, the UK and Russia in 2021/22 to support the release of ‘YET’.
Do you have a concept how to perform your music live on stage?
I have great musicians in my band and our performance concept is very simple – to get on stage, play well and enjoy the music we are creating together. That is what audiences expect from any band. For the bigger stages we will incorporate contemporary Georgian ballet performances, choreographed by a top Georgian director, especially for the show. Audiences will experience not only great music but an exciting visual show as well.
Did the pandemic have any influence on your musical development?
It’s a dreadful situation for the whole world; the world is changing and of course it had a significant impact on my song writing and the new songs.
What do you wish or hope for the future?
When we were recording the album ‘YET’ there was no sign of the coming pandemic but it happened. Now listening back to the album I can clearly see there was an underlying sense of uncertainty when we were creating the music. Generally, in the future, my hope is that we realise how fragile and precious human life is and we will come together as humanity.