The Beast Within: an interview with Asian Women on the Telephone

Words by kristel jax

Text by Kristel Jax. Moscow. In a basement club near the Kremlin, a recording of howling wolves moaned through thick fog. A boy beside me said something in broken English; I asked him to repeat it and he said “The music—it’s mostly about wolves.” Asian Women on the Telephone are a startling phenomenon to behold live. Their homemade costumes are always changing and evolving, and their sound lies somewhere between experimental punk and junkyard machinery. For the trio of drummer Nikita, synth player Max and vocalist/bass player Nastya, it’s the sound of their inner beasts.

 

Is there a meaning behind your costumes that ties in with the music, or are you just going with ideas that you think are cool?

N: Just to hide our identities and feel comfortable on stage, and to create a distance between us and the audience.

M: From the beginning AWOTT wore simple masks bought from shops. Then we started to make our own masks.

N: They were quite simple in the beginning, handmade, and then things got more complicated, and bigger, and expensive. There’s no meaning, it’s pretty much accidental. It depends on the material we use and what we can afford. Mostly it’s pretty simple: duct tape, wire, foam rubber… we had to look for these words in the dictionary when we went to the United States because they were always asking us about the costumes.

Where have you toured to so far?

N: Around Russia—lately it’s getting better and we plan to tour more in Russia, which a few years ago was really hard for us to imagine. Other than that we’ve only done a big tour in the United States so far.

I hear talk about AWOTT’s popularity outside of Russia compared to within, but you seen pretty connected to the scene here in Moscow too. How have you seen the Russian DIY/experimental scene changing in the past five years you’ve been performing? 

M: There’s lots of bands but… they exist for one or two years.

N: Yes, I don’t know if it’s a problem, but it is what it is. There are lots of nice bands and projects which don’t last too long. It’s a pity sometimes to see.

Why do you think that is? That might be the case in any city or country…

N: I don’t know, maybe something in the mentality. They don’t see—it’s hard for them to struggle to get an audience. It’s not easy, it’s not like there’s a scene as populated as New York, for example, where you can play every neighborhood and get your audience. It’s difficult, but I think it’s getting better, in terms of the experimental scene. It’s getting more attention.

The title of your new CD, Volk-8, where did that come from?

Max: At first we planned to name the album Volume 8 because it’s our 8th album, but then we decided to name it Volk-8.

Nikita: Our bandmate Nastya had a good explanation for it. It was like every album is like a child but at the same time it’s like an animal—a wild thing. “Volk” means “wolf” in Russian.

A boy at your show told me that your music is often about wolves.

N: There are many many characters in the songs, different animals, and we often call the songs by their animals; moose, walrus.

M: All of the animals we mention are on the cover of the new album. Cranes, fish, dogs…

As a non-Russian speaker I can’t understand what your lyrics mean. What are you singing about, besides animals?

M: The basement of human consciousness, which is something Nastya’s mama said. “You’re a liar, adult man!” and then, “the walrus, he’s like a man…”

N: “… and man is like stone, which hits you on the head.”

I wanted to ask one question about the Pussy Riot trials; you’re both Russian punk groups who wear costumes and challenge norms here. Are you connected at all to them, and do you have any thoughts on what happened?

[Max speaks in Russian]

N: He says you can’t speak about it without touching Dostoyevsky.

M: Tolstoy…

How so?

N: We know them in person, the girls behind the cage… behind the masks. I don’t know if anybody knows the exact number of people involved in the band. So we know some, we know those who are in jail right now. It’s a big big question, a big issue. It’s like there’s too much covering the face of it, too many rumors. Like masks. I will just speak about my personal attitude toward the action. My first reaction was that it was weird; I like some of their songs and videos very much, but the last one which led to this legal process, at first I was kind of like “fuck, that’s weird”—I couldn’t ‘get it’ right away, couldn’t understand my feelings toward it. Then as the process grew I also grew more and more sure about my feelings, and I think it was right; what they did was right, because it’s brought a lot of important questions and issues about Russian society to the world. Not only Russian society: this all goes in the vein of what’s been happening in the world with the protest movement.

I can’t speak for them, this is just my personal view. But I support the whole idea. What I like most is when they were saying the last words in court; it was so cool that they were speaking so freely and so bravely about things most would never dare to say so openly, and it all was translated into a great amount of media with all the issues they were touching… it was really a big moment, I think.

Do you think AWOTT has any similar goals to Pussy Riot as a band? Or is your music more inward and less political?

N: It’s not political on the cover, but maybe inside. It has this… fire… of changing things, and maybe turning some things upside down; playing with it. I had this in my mind for a long time. I mean all these questions and answers, I’m always ready to… to hold a speech at the court.

M: Higher, higher.

What?

N: I mean if I was asked by a higher… by the face of God. I would know what to answer then.