Like the bastard child of Cosmo Kramer and the Contortions’ James Chance, gangly Oleg Garkusha hops and jumps, fluttering his hands like a hummingbird at center stage. All the while, his bandmates in the Russian rock group Auktyon keep him aloft with their fervid rhythms and vertiginous melodies.
The storied Russian band has been making music together for over 25 years, but this is its big American showcase: playing at GlobalFEST, part of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York City. Auktyon played for Russian émigré audiences in the States, but tonight it’s time to convert the uninitiated.
The band takes the stage and gives one of its signature shows: a high-powered roller coaster ride through a fun-house of distorted harmonies and artfully awkward melodies. Song after song, they rev up to a loopy intensity. Drums and bass provide a powerful rhythmic foundation that’s prodded along by electric guitar and the bullfrog blasts of tuba and baritone saxophone.
Any American rock fan will immediately try to pigeonhole the band into some kind of mirror-image mold, as if Russia was some Bizarro world with an anti-Beatles and anti-Stones. Is Auktyon the Russian Talking Heads? They formed about the same time as Talking Heads, and if you want to paint them with an extremely unartful broad brush, they are both art-rock. But Auktyon isn’t about being tightly wound like David Byrne and company. Auktyon is about release—screaming, as Garkusha occasionally does, and pushing their rock up every hill in sight as fast as they can, breaking rules instead of splitting atoms for energy. These kids don’t use their indoor voices. Auktyon stands firmly in the “rock ’n’ roll ain’t pretty” camp.
In a recent interview, Garkusha said the band has never been political or, as far as he can tell, particularly Russian. “We’re not propagandists,” he says. But it’s not hard to see the band’s explosive creativity—not furious like punk, but more Jackson Pollack splatter—as a reaction against the gray, oppressive system that Communist Russia had become by the latter half of the 20th century.
Auktyon’s music has some echoes of the short-lived No Wave movement of the 1980s, during which musicians like the Contortions played edgy funk that was meant to move your body in paroxysms, rather than smooth moves or Electric Slides. When the core members of Auktyon formed during the reign of Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev, they were just kids building their own instruments and banging around in informal settings; there were no rock clubs or record labels to showcase rock bands. The band became part of Leningrad’s underground scene, but in the mid-1980s, clubs opened, notably the Leningrad Rock Club, and Auktyon’s popularity took off. Over the years, the band’s singer and guitarist, Leonid Fedorov, has emerged as the leader of the group, though he takes a somewhat secondary position on stage.
In the early years, the group worked with a visual artist, who helped them stage theatrical concerts, complete with audacious costumes, lighting and set design. For several years, the band included a dancer, Vladimir Veselken, and it has collaborated with Paris-based poet Aleksy Khvostenko, setting his words to music for two albums. While the group has moved away from elaborate theatrics, it is not hard to imagine them going there again at a moment’s notice: at GlobalFEST, one member comes on stage wearing circus-striped pants, brass/keyboard player Dmitry Ozersky is wearing a muscle T-shirt and suspenders that encircle his burly Buddha belly, and Garkusha is wearing white gloves and a jacket with rhinestones outlining the lapels.
As the band made its name across a glasnost-fevered Russia, it was able to travel abroad and develop a following across Europe. It released a steady stream of albums as a group, while the individual members made solo discs and ventured into other media. T