Red scare

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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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Rob Patterson

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