Friday, March 6, 2015

Make Punk Not War

I’ve been playing in Victims since early 2009.  In that time I’ve got to travel to some really interesting places and I’ve played some amazing shows.  In a lot of ways, I’ve realised many of the dreams I harboured during my days with Speedhorn.  Not just the travelling so much, we did plenty of that with Speedhorn, but more the type of shows we’ve played.  Sure, we played some monumentally big festivals with Speedhorn, before a sea of people that rippled off into the surreal.  But the thing is, my dream when I was a kid was not playing those kinds of shows, it was playing on a floor in a tiny room full of likeminded people, all going nuts.  I can genuinely say that my favourite show with Speedhorn wasn’t Ozfest, it was a house show in Bradford.

I’ve played a lot of those kinds of shows with Victims this last six years, house shows in the States, punk squats in Europe, as well as some great DIY Fests, but one dream of mine has still not been realised; Russia and the Baltic states.  Everyone who knows me knows I have a bit of a thing for Russia and the old Soviet, I suspect that it stems from my childhood obsession with football and teams with exotic sounding names from Eastern Europe like Spartak Moscow, Dynamo Kiev and Skonto Riga, for whatever reason I find the territories behind the former Iron Curtain fascinating and it’s always been a dream of mine to go and play there one day.

We’re very privileged in Victims in so much that we have a regular flow of emails coming in offering us shows.  The situation this last few years, namely that three quarters of us have become fathers, and add to that the fact that we’ve just so happened to relay our paternity leave, has meant that we’ve had to politely decline the majority of shows that come our way.  It’s not just the time away that is the reason behind us knocking back shows either, it’s the fact that the added responsibility of having kids means that we can no longer just fuck off and play shows and come home with nothing to show for it, or at least, we can no longer afford to come back with debt for the sake of playing shows.  We’ve been offered tours a couple of times this last year in South East Asia for instance, which of course would be incredible, but the fact is it would cost us a lot of money to travel there and play because their isn’t the economy in that part of the world to make it possible for us to at least cover our costs.  Victims going to Asia on tour would be an amazing experience albeit a very costly one and right now, with young kids at home, we can’t afford it.  Maybe by the time our kids leave home and we’re in our late fifties we’ll be able to take that gig...

Russia though, well that’s something different.  I think we’ve had at least four offers this last two or three years to go there and play and if it was up to me we’d have been every time, or at least, we’d have gone once.  It seems that the scene in Russia carries with it a bit of a stigma though.  The other guys in the band simply aren’t interested and I’ve often had my enthusiasm for the offers knocked down with, “Gaz, if you want to go to Russia you’re gonna have to go there as a tourist”.  I think Andy was there with an old band in the Nineties, although he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it so much.  He just shakes his head and grumbles a no at me.  The worry is that apart from the country being a little well, you know, corrupt, there is a strong Nazi presence in the punk scene.  This is nothing I can vouch for either way since I’ve never been there.  I’ve heard it a few times from reliable sources although the understanding is that it’s gotten better over the years.

That’s not to say it’s not there.  My friend Ove went there filling in on drums with Massgrav a few years back and he told me all about it one day over the counter at Sound Pollution.  Ove told me that the shows they did went really well, all soundly organised and well attended, the crowds were really into it and they got paid.  I was delighted with the report, thinking immediately how I would use it as a source of encouragement next time we got an offer.  But in the midst of my delight, Ove added a postscript:

“Everything went fine until the last show, which was some place in the middle of nowhere a couple of hours drive from Moscow... We’d played the gig and it was good, a load of kids bouncing around to the set.  Then afterwards whilst waiting to get paid, the guy who had booked the shows and travelled with us came up to us and said that we’d have to wait at the venue for a while because a bunch of Nazi’s had turned up and were hanging around outside waiting for the punk kids to leave.  We asked him what were we gonna do and he just said, totally unmoved, “Ah it’s ok, pretty normal, they can’t get in so we’ll just have a disco and get drunk and sooner or later they’ll get bored and fuck off””.  And it seems that indeed they did.  Sooner or later...

This unfortunately confirms some of the fears over on this end.  For me though, despite this, I still really want to go.  I’ve come across Nazi’s before and I’ve been fucked over by promoters before and I get that it’s a risk, but I figure the likelihood of being killed in Russia if we went to play there is pretty fucking minimal and whatever shit happens would simply provide great writing material.  Sometimes it’s the crazy, scary stuff that makes the best stories.  The other guys don’t necessarily agree.  Although Andy has been making noises of late that he’s heard it has gotten better and maybe he’d be willing to give it a go, if it was through a referenced, reliable source.

This year I got as close as I’ve ever come.  We received an email inviting us to headline a punk festival in Ukraine, offering to pay flights and accommodation.  To my surprise it wasn’t kicked into touch directly, the guys all said it sounded interesting.  There was just that little thing called The War that was going on but Andy mailed the guy and asked him about the dangers of going there and received an email back assuring us that where the festival was being held was a long way away from the conflict.  Ukraine is a big fucking country after all.  After a lot of uming and ahing we went ahead and accepted the offer, the promoter even throwing in five hundred Euros extra.

There were a lot of bands from the Baltic states and Russia playing the bill, with only us and our mates Reproach from Belgium coming in from the West.  As much as the worrying shadow of the war was looming I was still really chuffed that we were going to Ukraine, finally I was going to play a gig in this part of the world.  A fucking dream coming true.  The nearest I’d been previously was a two hour stop over at Kiev airport with Jen on the way to Thailand, which was pretty cool in itself.  Totally old school place where the line for the customs took almost the entire time allotted for the stop over due to the fact there was just one old, worn out lady who looked like she despised the lot of us working and the system they were using was from an era many moons before the digital age.  It’s just this kind of thing I love.

As the weeks went by the tensions in both the country and the Victims camp steadily rose and I noticed that I received the same slightly worried reaction every time I told friends or family that we were off to Ukraine in May.  With the situation intensifying all the more on the Ukrainian-Russian border Andy mailed the Swedish embassy in Kiev asking for advice.  They wrote back saying that they weren’t warning people to stay away from the region we were travelling to right now but they couldn’t guarantee how it would look in a couple of months time.  That was enough for everyone, for me too.  As Johan put it, “I’ve got a family to think of and as much as it would be an amazing experience to go to a place like Ukraine and play I have a lot of respect for war and don’t want to die”.  Johan’s words hit home to say the least.  As much as I love playing punk and travelling to places you’d never hit up on “holiday”, I have a beautiful little girl to think of and putting myself into a risky situation just to play some songs is grossly negligent.  Last time I checked Reproach’s web page they had a list of upcoming gigs for the year up, the Ukraine festival conspicuous in its absence.    

I guess if I ever do end up going to that part of the world then it will indeed have to be as a tourist.  Maybe not when there’s a war going on though.

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