If rock and roll and Bolshevism have one thing in common, it's a vivid sense of iconography. A small Soviet pin with the profile of Lenin and a lapel button with the visage of Lennon have much more in common than just the similar-sounding names. This is something that The Red Elvises seem to inherently understand, and one good reason why their musical perestroika of American rock filtered through Russian sensibilities is such an effective ripple on the current musical waters. Just the band's name almost says it all, and everything they play, do, and present to the public follows that theme of draping "R-O-C-K from the U.S.A." in the red flag of their Soviet Union roots. It's the flipside to the Beatles song "Back In The U.S.S.R." Of course, that's just the obvious answer.
But maybe it is just that simple. In this case, the cast of the tale is made up of three Russian immigrants to the United States: guitarist-singer Igor Yuzov, bassist-singer Oleg Bernov, and lead guitarist-singer Zhenya Kolykhanov. Match them up with drummer Avi Sills, an American of Russian Jewish extraction born here in Texas, and the result is Senator Joe McCarthy's worst nightmare: a celebration of the American rebel-rock tradition dyed in the deep red colors of Soviet-era symbolism. Touting themselves as "Kick-Ass Rock'n'Roll From Siberia" (Bernov and Kolykhanov actually hail from near Siberia), The Red Elvises translate surf rock and rockabilly strains into the Cyrillic alphabet, and then celebrate the eternal rock-and-roll dreams of pretty girls, fun times, and the dance party that never ends.
Because of the unique Russian equation they bring from the other side of the planet, The Red Elvises are like a 1950s throwback that's been catapulted into the dawn of the 21st Century. Hence The Red Elvises have that warm glow of the musical past, laced with the heady joy of the formerly deprived and repressed now savoring all that freedom has to offer in our postmodern times.
If the concept of perestroika had a musical theme song, The Red Elvises would be its ideal author. "The music is a cross," Kolykhanov says. "It's a big gumbo of the Russian kitchen and the American kitchen. We like the blues, but it's like we are entering through the back door, in the Russian way." Strains of Russian folk and klezmer music join hands across the waters with hot guitar dance and party rock in their sound. And the band's wildly theatrical stage show and look -- hopping about in natty '50s-style threads and coifs with a naïve enthusiasm -- even further accentuates the odd appeal of this bizarre yet, in a way, utterly natural mix of East and West.
It's as if the end of rock-and-roll deprivation they grew up with in the U.S.S.R. has fueled a delightful lust for all that the music represents. Kolykhanov recalls a primal musical experience in his late teens, when, "I saw AC/DC for about 10 seconds. That was the sensation. It was one of those broadcasts where they say, like, now, here's what's going on in the wild West. And they showed Bon Scott for like 10 seconds, and I was blown away, that was it," he recalls. Perhaps what the state-controlled media wanted to show were the strange and decadent evils of the West? "Exactly. But I took it all wrong; I took it literally."
The watered-down Russian version of rock had already secured its grip on Kolykhanov, who had cobbled together a guitar of sorts at age 13. "I made my first guitar myself out of the mailbox. I attached a neck to the mailbox. I wrote Beatles on it, and misspelled it, and put some strings on it," he explains. "The Beatles were the perfect music for Russians. Because of the melodies, and because of the shtick. They were clean-cut, but the music was awesome. Russian was never the land of rock and roll. It's pretty cheesy rock [over there]." Hence such inspirations for Kolykhanov as The Doors and Jimi Hendrix didn't quite capture the imagination of his peers. "Some Russians wouldn't understand the blues scales. It's like the European market, they like cheesy melodies."
But at the same time, they also adored the fruits of American consumerism, especially when aimed at rebels with or without any cause. "It was like this: Whoever got the Wranglers was the stud," the guitarist explains. "Whoever got the pack of Marlboros was the biggest stud. If you got the jean jacket and jeans, and like Addidas or Nikes or something like that, you were the really big stud."
All three of the Russian Red Elvises played music in bands and theatrical productions in their homeland, but felt the irresistible pull from the heart of the West: America. Bernov had met an American woman at a Moscow peace walk, and he made his first trip soon after to Los Angeles to visit her. Kolykhanov also began traveling to the U.S. at about the same time, even living for a while in Dallas, where he played with a progressive jazz band called Darwin's Law. The two Russians later met up again in Los Angeles, and started busking on the Third Street Promenade in Venice Beach, the oddball haven they now call home. "Jim Morrison said the West is the best. And it's about as far West as you can go," notes Bernov.
The two also did a stint in the supercharged Russian folk group Limpopo before joining forces with Yuzov back in Venice Beach, where The Red Elvises came into being playing on the Promenade. Their notion was to make rock and roll in the most primal manner. "As basic as possible," says Kolykhanov. "Not three-chord progressions, but one-chord progressions. You play too many notes, and people question it after a while -- where's the music?" But there was also the Russian flavors in their sound and even their look, underlined by Bernov's bright red, three-string, balalaika-style bass guitar.
Meanwhile, drummer Sills had also grown up about as communist as one could in the U.S.A. The son of what he calls a "hippie rabbi father," he started in music when, "in the middle of a commune in Northern California, I found the drums, or they found me. My first bar gig was at 13, and I've been playing ever since," he explains. He later drummed for Robert Cray and former Electric Flag keyboardist and singer Barry Goldberg, eventually landing in Los Angeles, where he worked in a klezmer band. The group's clarinetist also played with the Elvises, so when the Russian group's drum stool became open, Sills jumped in. And even though there's a great cultural and actual distance between where Sills was raised and the backgrounds of the three Russians, he finds that "the similarities are in the majority. Other than the different identities from the different countries we come from, and the different upbringing, everything's the same. We all work hard. We all create the same way."
The Red Elvises have certainly mastered the art of capitalistic marketing, as well as displaying an entrepreneurial do-it-yourself spunk. They've put out seven CDs on their own Shooba-Doobah Records with such evocative titles as Surfing in Siberia, Grooving to the Moscow Beat, Better Than Sex, and Shake Your Pelvis. Their packaging and comprehensive Web site proves them to be savvy propagandists in the best mix of the Soviet and American traditions, matching vivid iconography with lots of cool merchandise. Their Venice Beach street shows also helped win them a slot on that most American of prime-time shows, Melrose Place, and a gig doing the music for and appearing in the independent Mad Max-with-guitar film Six-String Samurai. The Red Elvises tour the country with as much relentlessness as they issue new CDs, and have found considerable favor here in the Lone Star State, notes Bernov. "Texas is one of our favorite places. People there really dig the music."
The Siberian surf sound certainly proves its reach to avid fan Monica Salazar, an Austinite who hails from Del Rio and generally tries to catch her favorite band on every date of their Texas tours. "They do all kinds of music, and they have something for everyone," she notes. "You see all kinds of people at their shows. It's not a 'scene.' It's a 'global village' type of thing." One thing she especially enjoys is the old-school, almost innocent teen dance vibe of a Red Elvises show. "You know how American bands can be uptight, because of all the rock-and-roll clichés? Well, they're Russian. They don't know. They're really open and unpretentious."
How can they not be? Coming to America has created a wonderment for the Russians that must approximate the naive thrill the young Elvis felt when he first started climbing the charts and the world became his oyster. And for The Red Elvises, the giddy sense of freedom and plenty is even more basic. When Kolykhanov first came to America, he recalls, "I used to go to the grocery store and just stare at the food for hours. I would go to the market, and go, wow, look at that orange there. Or like, look at this potato, it's the size of my head. It was like unreal." After all, in Russia, one stood in long lines to get the very simplest of foodstuffs. But Kolykhanov continues to thrive on the pleasures and bounty of "the weather, the people, and the cars."
That joy is reflected in the band's music and shows. Kolykhanov believes The Red Elvises are "a happy dance band; a good band to get drunk to." Perhaps like what I call a "beer band" -- after a few beers (or, maybe better, some vodka) they sound like the best band in the world?
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"I think we're like beer and cookies," the guitarist suggests.
"I guess we make good times. And people like that," posits Bernov.
"It's kind of contagious," Kolykhanov continues. "So that's what we spread: a good time across the U.S."
The Red Elvises perform April 14 at Club Clearview.