We were never friends with the Kremlin.
Boris Grebenshikov may be unknown to many Western Europeans, but in Russia and the surrounding area he is a legendary rock star. When the first Russian rock bands emerged in the early 1980s, Boris and his band Åquarium were immediately one of the most popular formations, and he has continued to build on that success by writing a lot of excellent music over the years. However, since he strongly condemned the current war in Ukraine, he cannot return to Russia, which is why he is now on a tour in Western Europe. We had the privilege of asking him a few questions.
Dear Boris, thank you for this opportunity to interview you. You are about to embark on a European tour in the west playing symphonic versions of your work in Vienna, Paris, Zurich, Berlin, Prague, and even in the Belgian Hasselt. What is the purpose of this new tour?
To let this music live. To share it with people, so it might help them be.
Can we go back in history? We know that you and your band Åquarium have a long history. The band was founded in 1972, but it really became successful in the eighties. I am especially curious about the Leningrad Rock Club, of which you were one of the founders in 1981. Can you tell me how the club was founded?
Throughout the seventies, there were about seventeen attempts to organize a rock-club: a place, where we could play our music without being stopped by the police. All of these attempts failed, as they were refused by the authorities. I even took part in one of the attempts. So when the Rock Club came and we heard it was finally possible, everyone flocked there.
It is still a matter of discussion how big the influence of the secret police KGB was in the Leningrad Rock Club. You were present at the time and had contacts with all the actors, including KGB officers. Can you tell us what their role was?
It is said that the KGB gave a green light to the creation of the Leningrad Rock Club, so they could have all the usual suspects in one place. They foolhardy tried to keep everyone under control, but it proved impossible. Music became uncontrollable.
So when you look at what happened at the end of the eighties, it definitely shows that art is stronger than politics.
Åquarium, and the whole Russian rock scene, rose to phenomenal success during the perestroika time. For sure, we know that censorship ended and that you were finally able to earn a real living with making music. How did you experience the perestroika years?
It was fun. At the end of the eighties, we had to play stadiums, because otherwise we’d have to play eight to ten concerts in every city. Thank God in 1991 we broke up the band, and started to play smaller places under BG Band alias. Then in 1992 the band became Åquarium again. As for money, we just had enough to go on. And that was fun, too.
You were even more successful in the nineties, with albums as the ‘Russian album’ and ‘Navigator’. Why do you think such albums were that successful, and are still considered classics of Russian rock music?
Because people longed to hear something that was true to their nature, and ‘Russian Album’ and ‘Navigator’ were precisely that. Somebody called ‘Navigator’ the ‘Sgt. Pepper of the Russian countryside’. I don’t know how statistically successful they really were, but people still hold them dear.
As for me, I did not do it consciously – at these times it was all I wanted to write.
However, after the success of ‘Snow Lion’ in 1996, you chose to make more experimental music. You integrated electronic music, world music and various sorts of influences in a series of very eclectic albums. What drove you towards this eclecticism?
We were always like that. Åquarium is really an incarnation of Herman Hesse’s ‘The Glass Bead Game’. it’s just that in the eighties, we didn’t have a technichal possibility of doing this.
When Russia declared its ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine in 2022, you were one of the first personalities to denounce the war. You fled the country and even declared that your life was at risk in Russia. Can you tell us more about the reasons that drove you to leave Russia?
Actually the word ‘fled’ does not apply. I moved to London in 2019, way before the war. I prefer to work there. And for two years I lived in London and played concerts in Russia.
I moved to London for a very simple reason - it’s easier to get to the studio in Richmond from Chelsea than from St. Petersburg. It was all about music.
But I could still tour Russia before the war. After 24 February 2022, it became impossible. Touring is a bit inconvenient when your concerts are cancelled and every policeman can arrest you.
I’m pretty unpopular with the guys in the Duma. I can’t hold my tongue.
You were declared a ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian government, as were many musicians including Zemfira, Noize MC and your good friend Andrei Makarevich from Mashina Vremeni. How come Russia treats its musical heroes so badly? Is rock music dangerous to the current people in power in Russia?
Truth is always an eyesore to those in power. But we were never pals with the Kremlin.