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Doomsday disco: why Belarusian band Molchat Doma is more than just a TikTok meme

Belarusian band Molchat Doma exploded into the global music consciousness after their song, Sudno, went viral on TikTok. But despite its universal appeal, the trio’s new album, Monument, is firmly rooted in both time and place — and Belarus in 2020 is a country screaming out for a voice.

13 November 2020
Images: Stas Kard

It is a short hop from simmering malaise to fraught, overboiling tension. Since they started making music together, Belarusian trio Molchat Doma have epitomised that churning disquiet in their sound and aesthetic, transposing the kind of fidgety post-punk that springs up amidst disillusioned youth — in northern England under the grip of Thatcherism, in a 9/11-scarred New York — to their own increasingly unsatisfying post-Soviet existence. The difference, in this year of years, is that their music has come with a backdrop of multiple urgent crises. Even as the still exhaustingly real presence of a pandemic continues, and all the uncertainty that flows with it, the country’s capital of Minsk is in the thrall of unrest, as pro-democracy protests against the Lukashenko government continue into their fourth month. Belarus’ murmured discontent has become a scream, but Molchat Doma is offering an alternative to wallowing or escape: a chance to revel in their doomsday disco.

“Here, you seem to only have one path in life: school, maybe university, and then work. There’s nothing else there”

With their new album, Monument, the group delivers just that — in fact, there are literally songs called “Obrechen” (“Doomed”) and “Discoteque”, and “Utonut” (“Drown”). It would be almost cliché if it wasn’t all so frighteningly prescient. Molchat Doma lean into that, from song titles to careening basslines and moody, moonlit synths. They teeter on the precipice between professionalism and humourless self-seriousness, landing in a sweet spot that nails the gloomy, 80s-indebted sound of mop-topped goths and the abstraction of their disenchantment, all mixed with just the right amount of tongue in cheek.

“It’s not really about us, this intensity and emotion. It’s about the life that surrounds us. Here, you seem to only have one path in life: school, maybe university, and then work. There’s nothing else there,” says Pavel Kozlov, Molchat Doma’s bassist, over Skype. His hair pulled back in a ponytail under a red cap, an array of piercings peppering his nose and ears. He is flanked by his bandmates — Roman Komogortsev (guitars, drum machines, synths), in a tight beanie and long rough sideburns, and the somewhat enigmatic, handlebar moustached vocalist Egor Shkutko — in a van just after rehearsal.

The band laugh and smoke as they chat. “We don’t feel the need to connect with the darkness you might hear in our music,” says Komogortsev. Instead, they aim to render the feeling of going nowhere. More than once, they mention the Soviet-era prefab housing that remains omnipresent in Belarus, a lingering sign of a social history that is already supposed to have disappeared. The blocks and their hollow, unfulfilled promises are echoed in the din of the band’s monochromatic snares and in the name Molchat Doma itself, which means “houses are silent”.

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Monument was written and recorded earlier in the year, mainly in a state of lockdown. That dictated much of the creation process. “It’s easier here now because there’s no official lockdown,” says Shkutko. “But when it first happened, it was actually a good thing for us. Our tour was cancelled; festivals that were scheduled didn’t happen. So suddenly we had all this free time.”

It wasn’t all positive. “[Covid-19] touched me personally,” says Komogortsev. “Members of my family actually contracted the coronavirus. I had to be in quarantine and couldn’t meet the other guys to practice or record together for some time.”

Despite these obstacles, the album is an evolution for the band in scope, audience and fidelity (even if they are modest about it on this call: “we didn’t really feel any changes”, they say). Songs on their first two records — S Krysh Nashikh Domov (From the Rooves of Our Houses) and Etazhi (Floors) — boomed from under a thick transistor radio-like fuzz. Monument is tighter and more direct. Everything is permeated with an unease, some of which is surely related to the circumstances it was made under. In the aforementioned “Obrechen”, Shkutko’s lyrics, sung in Russian, roughly translate to: “Longing to be embraced/ Revel in a touch of tenderness/ You know I will fight/ Sieges, seizures, do not break.”

“Obviously something will be lost in the translation,” says Komogortsev, “but I feel non-Russians can still feel it, and that’s what’s important. Perhaps [non Russian-speaking fans] won’t understand everything directly, but they still have a connection to the music, and learn to feel it. There’s a kind of magic there.”

Shkutko adds: “We don’t write just for Russian speakers. It comes naturally. We don’t really speak English, and we want to express ourselves clearly, and the best way we do that is by speaking our own language.”

This is important, because three years and three albums into their career, Molchat Doma have reached a level of exposure to a western, non-Russian speaking audience unprecedented for a hard-working underground band from Minsk. That’s thanks to a series of viral videos featuring their song “Vessel” (Sudno) that’s bounced from TikToks perpetuating stereotypes of eastern dreariness (“In a sense, they’re right – it is dour!”) to clips of hanging bats. These posts have racked up millions of views, and places Molchat Doma in the welcome position of being able to reach a much vaster audience. It’s the strength of their style, with the added kick of good luck that comes with savvy Gen Z-ers latching on to it. “Russian doomer music” (as the band was dubbed by Pitchfork magazine) can be added to a list of 2020’s viral soundtrack, along with ambient compositions of Jazz Age ballroom samples and Russian cereal commercial jingles.

“Judging by the [TikTok] videos people were making [with our song], they missed out on the whole idea. The music and rhythm were important, but the meaning was totally lost. It wasn’t our song anymore.”

“We had never used [TikTok] before. I hadn’t even heard of it!” says Shkutko, laughing. “I installed the app after this happened to us, just to see what people were doing to our song!”

Kozlov continues: “It was a positive thing. We got a lot of exposure. But at the same time, judging by the videos people were making, they missed out on the whole idea. The music and rhythm were important, but the meaning was totally lost. It wasn’t our song anymore.”

It would be easy to dismiss Molchat Doma’s sound as a thin retread of the angsty post-punk bands that they will so often be compared to. The ominous synths that open the album are reminiscent of The Cure’s A Forest, a comparison only cemented by the eminently danceable Utonut. The melancholy and tenderness that infuses the music later in the record, especially on “Udalil Tvoy Nomer” (“Deleted Your Number”), has more than a hint of Morrissey and Marr about it.

But that would disregard the lineage of bands from which Molchat Doma have evolved in their own post-Soviet space. While chatting, the three bandmates credit acts like Notchnoi Prospekt, Kofe, Alyans, and Bioconstructor, all fruits of the sparkling and streamlined cold wave that emerged from the fall of the Soviet Union. They dealt with many of the same issues facing young people in the New East today, mostly stemming from a failed experiment for something new and modern that, once gone, seemed to leave little hope for a progressive future. It’s there sonically too, in the deadpan vocals and militant rhythm, surfing on a wave of synths.

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Yet something that is even more pronounced about Molchat Doma’s music, is that underneath the restlessness, there is hope. Pushing even further back than those key cold wave influences, you’ll find Viktor Tsoi and Kino, a vital, near-legendary band from the tail-end of the Soviet era. Tsoi and his bandmates’ fingerprints are all over Monument, especially when the glammy, hammy, camper side of Molchat Doma springs forth. Kino’s Khochu Peremen (I Want Change) has become something of an unofficial anthem of protest in Eastern Europe — most recently in Belarus — although it was fans’ own interpretation, rather than the band themselves, who imbued it with that significance. That they are so sonically connected to Molchat Doma is proof that expressing rumbling agitation through culture and art can go a long way to instigating transformation.

“These bands and songs are still sadly relevant,” agrees Kozlov. “In a sense, it seems like the people who are in power are changing but the regime is still there. It’s because of that the people still play it and it’s become an anthem…”

Shkutko finishes Kozlov’s thought: “The title alone lends itself to that. Changes. We Want Changes. People do want change.”

Monument is released on 13 November via Sacred Bones.

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