Written by: Paul Gleason[Images provided by Fuzz Club Records]
2015 has been a very good year for psychedelic rock fans. Indeed, The Black Ryder, Sonic Jesus, Tame Impala, Moon Duo, Tess Parks & Anton Newcombe, Elephant Stone, The Earlies, Loop, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Telescopes, The Soft Moon, and Jacco Gardner have put out some of the best records of their careers.
10 000 Russos’ self-titled debut album, which came out on July 20, is of their ilk.
Featuring the hypnotic drumming and singing of João Pimenta, the inventive feedback-driven guitar work of Pedro Pestana, and the groovy punch of André Couto’s bass, the Portuguese band, with their 10 000 Russos LP, have created an ominous and textured sound that’s all about feedback, drones, and dance. Falling somewhere among Neu!, Suicide, My Bloody Valentine, and The Velvet Underground, 10 000 Russos is an utterly compelling and utterly unique listen.
Pestana was kind enough to talk to SEM about the history of 10 000 Russos and the making of their debut LP.
SEM: Thank you for speaking with me today, Pedro. My first question has to do with the formation of 10 000 Russos. How did you meet André and João?
PP: Hi Paul, the pleasure is mine. Well, João and I have known each other for almost 10 years, if I’m not mistaken. We used to go to more or less the same concerts. Then, we met André in 2013. His band, Dreamweapon, played the same stage that we did in Milhões de Festa. We immediately thought his bass playing would really fit in, but he only joined us in early 2014.
SEM: How and why did you form 10 000 Russos?
PP: João and I formed the band in 2012. We both had other musical endeavors we liked (João with Green Machine and ALTO! and me with Tren Go! Sound System), and we wanted to try something else and see what we could do together. João was mostly a frontman but wanted to play drums, and we started from there.
In my case, I wanted to pursue another approach to playing, so I stripped my pedal board down to the bare essentials (Muff + delays) to force myself into finding something else. The result was in our first release back in 2013.
SEM: What were your first practice sessions like?
PP: Our first rehearsals, as far as I recall, were mostly experimental, working out how our sounds could fit together. We jammed a lot, and that is still how we build songs today. It differed a lot from what we do today. It was way more chaotic; there was more noise improvisation connecting songs together, and it was way more speedy and noisy, while keeping the repetitive mantras. Our first rehearsal with André was great; we wanted a change of scenery, and we made a bunch of new songs right there!
SEM: What did you immediately notice about André’s bass playing and João’s drumming and vocals?
PP: João’s approach to drumming and vocals is quite his own. In many ways, he has this shamanistic role, keeping the steady beat all the time and using his voice now and again. With André, there was an immediate change.
Fortunately, we were all either unemployed or close to it at the time and could spend hours playing in our first month together. Since all of our songs came out of jams, it was quite a prolific time. It was a real change of direction for us as a band and in our own ways of playing. We adapted to each other pretty fast and noticed our roles had changed a bit. I didn’t need to play like I used to because André could fill that space. We could pursue different directions instead of doing more of the same.
SEM: What do each of them bring to 10 000 Russo’s sound?
PP: Interesting question that. Personally speaking, I tend not to separate too much João’s drumming role from his vocal role. His mic is constantly picking up whatever he’s doing on the drums, and his effects are always on, so you get this extra layer of sound all the time. And his drums and vocals work in a sort of symbiotic way. He has all the rage, guts, and showmanship of a rock ‘n’ roll frontman channeled through a drum kit. He’s not the groove; he’s the drive.
André’s bass playing provides the ground and also gives us the groove at the same time. He usually has the clearest view regarding song structure and is less anarchic than us in this field.
SEM: How about yourself? What does your guitar add?
PP: Before the bass came in it used to deliver the drone, the howling, and the melodies at the same time. Nowadays, I can play “less” and go for other types of sound, licks, and soundscapes. There is even room to play rhythmic games with the drums.
SEM: What were/are some of the bands that the three of you enjoy listening you and find inspirational?
PP: I believe the most consensual bands would be NEU!, Suicide, Dead Skeletons, or Beak. The Fall is also quite consensual. Nevertheless, all of us listen to different stuff all the time and that, I believe, is our major strength.
SEM: Please describe your first live performance.
PP: Our very first live performance as a two-piece band was really really noisy. There weren’t any actual songs; we had a narrative written down, and the idea was to go through a sequence of zones or areas rather than play “closed” songs. There were 10 people in the room. Amazingly, no one left.
Our first concert with André was very very different; there was no stage, and there were 200 people practically on top of us dancing all the time, so it was pretty groovy!
SEM: Perhaps I’m being presumptuous, but I hear 10 000 Russos as an inventive amalgamation of dark psych rock, experimental rock, noise rock, and dance music. I’m wondering if there’s any precedent for this kind of music in Portugal.
PP: Perhaps I’m being presumptuous as well but, as far as my modest knowledge goes, I’m not aware of any incursions down this path. I hope I’m not being unfair to anybody around these parts.
SEM: What the current music scene like in Portugal? Are there any other bands like yours?
PP: This is actually a very interesting generation of musicians in Portugal. There are a lot of good bands and projects all around like Dead Combo, Black Bombaim, Sensible Soccers, The Legendary Tigerman or Killimanjaro – with whom we played a mini-tour in Spain last week. These past years have been fertile, with good bands and musicians all around!
SEM: Let’s switch gears and talk about the 10 000 Russos LP. As a fan of bands like Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and The Velvet Underground, I’m always interested in music that includes beautiful guitar feedback. Would you please talk about how you approached your use of feedback in terms of the arrangement of “Karl Burns”?
PP: Yeah, me too! Guitar feedbacks are awesome and mind cleansing. I’ve been working with feedback for almost as long as I’ve started playing. I love the unpredictable side to it. I mean, feedbacks of whatever source are not an exact science; it’s not like you can exactly repeat it every time. A knob out of place by even a millimeter can radically change the response you’re going after, especially if you are using analog equipment. Digital fx are way easier to control but where’s the fun in that? There has to be room for unwanted events, and, fortunately, we all feel the same about that. Then, it is just a matter on how you deal with them. Do you counter them? Do you hold your own and go after it, even if it’s not what you intended in the first place?
Feedbacks keep you aware all the time, and you either surf with it or you fall from a great height. It’s possible to control the flow of the feedback, and there’s a language to it – very close, actually, to electronic music. To control them, I always feel that you have to loosen it up a bit, like, if you constrict your sound too much, nothing will happen; if you don’t constrict it at all, it just goes wild. The sweet spot for manipulation is somewhere in between.
In the particular case of “Karl Burns,” there’s a specific point in an analog delay – Electro Harmonix Memory Man, to be more precise – where you can get this kind of siren sound; then it is a matter for the ear and hand to tune and play it.
SEM: “Karl Burns” very effectively works as a piece of drone and dance music. At what point in the writing of the song did André and João come up with their groove?
PP: To be honest, I don’t remember who first started playing what was to become “Karl Burns.” I believe it was actually André that came up with the bassline, and then we joined in. “Karl Burns” has this slow junky and sexy drive to it, and we did what we felt the song asked for.
SEM: “UsVsUs” is also a very rhythmic piece. I’d like you to address the guitar riff with which the song begins. How did you come up with it? It’s very original and really serves as bedrock for what the other guys do in the song…
PP: I never called it a “riff” before; I always thought of it in terms of layers. It’s just one note played with a volume pedal. I used a trick I learned from jamming with another drummer, Tito, a few years ago. While João and André are playing a 4/4 measure, I’m dividing it in 5, countering counters the steadiness of the 4/4 beat without losing the latter too much. Indian musicians often say that the hardest measure to play is 4/4 because it’s very tricky not to make it boring. “UsVsUs” actually turned out closer to 90s’ dance music played with instruments.
SEM: Please talk about the production of João’s vocals on this track and the rest of the album. Even though the vocals aren’t on top in the mix, they’re very emotionally evocative and sound cavernous, desperate, and lonely. Why did you guys do the vocals in this way?
PP: The vocals are just another layer in the songs. The whole of the song has to make more sense than the individual elements that build it. If it doesn’t need to be in your face, then it doesn’t. Traditional mixing practically dictates that the vocals are supposed to be in your face and that they have to be the most distinguishable element of a song. We are going for repetitiveness, deconstruction, and mantras: things have to come in and out and have different perspectives and points of listening.
João’s vocals are also very sparse in most of the songs. They come out here and there, and by prolonging those events, we can go to darker places that some songs ask for.
In “UsVsUs” the vocals are very masked by all the rest, so when they come out, it’s like there is some sort of interference, like it’s fighting to come out.
SEM: Would you please use “Barreiro” as a way of talking about André as a bassist? Your feedback opens up room for him to be melodic and ominous in a way that recalls great players like Peter Hook…
PP: Indeed. The bass is the boss in this one. It came totally from him. In fact, it’s the bass line that frees the space for feedbacks, crickets and machines, and not the other way around. I’m pretty happy that I managed to record guitars without strumming even one string!
This is a song about the decay of deindustrialization and its ruins; it had to be kind of eerie and, at the same time, have some sort of reverberation of old, rusty, and abandoned industrial machinery.
André’s playing and tone choice were very well thought out on his part; they keep the drone coming in waves, coupled with the higher-pitched melody. He usually goes in search for the lower end in most his bass playing, but this song needed a different approach. The beat would be time, the bass the narrative, and the feedback layers the surrounding environment that would lead to such a dismal dystopian vision.
SEM: “Baden Baden Baden” is a powerful, guitar-driven song in which your guitar simply soars. João’s drumming is also very “up.” It shows another side to 10 000 Russos. Was this song composed in a way different to the other songs on the album?
PP: “Baden Baden Baden” was a completely different tune all together. It came from a completely different lick that we used to jam upon, which was going nowhere. Usually, our first tries with a certain theme are the ones that serve as a base and guide towards what the song should become. In this case, we threw a lot of stuff away until we completely reinterpreted the riff and something else was born.
SEM: How do audiences react to “Baden Baden Baden” when you play it live? I can only imagine the reaction that your extended guitar outro gets…
PP: I believe they react well. Nobody has thrown bottles at us… so far.
SEM: How much improvisation went into that outro when you recorded it?
PP: There is a certain degree of improvisation both live and in studio in all the songs. Live, we play most of the songs that are in the album a bit differently.
Songs evolve, but we like to record them in their early stages. There is a form and structure, of course: specific areas where you should go in a given cue or time, but what you do in the in-betweens, when you are trying to work with the principle of uncertainty, you always have to leave some room for whatever can happen.
SEM: “Stakhanovets/Kalumet” clocks in at 13:35. How, in your opinion, do 10 000 Russos manage to keep listeners engaged for the entire song?
PP: I believe a listener can answer this question better than any of us in the band, but if you are in a trippy groove, you’ll probably feel engaged all the way.
These two songs bind together in a special way. “Kalumet” didn’t exist before going into the studio. We had another song that was supposed to go to the album – “Battle of Montevideo” – but when we were doing a take of “Stakhanovets,” we just didn’t stop playing afterwards.
When listening to the whole take in the studio, it made sense to keep these two together. Conceptually, it goes from all-out war to the remains of battle to finish in the peace pipe.
SEM: What’s next for 10 000 Russos? Live shows? Another record? Both?
PP: All of it! Well, we’ll keep working on new songs, for sure. That’s what we like doing. This month, we’re going down south to do some sessions in an ancient cromlech, and we’ll play in Reverence Valada, followed by a few shows with the Magic Castles. Afterwards, in the autumn, we’ll be working on going on an European tour.
SEM: Thank you, Pedro.
PP: Cheers, Paul! Abraço.