What's On:Living the Dolce Vita (03.2010)

The Sweet Life for Okean Elzy

After a three year break in which he steeped himself in his solo project Vnochi, had a year-long stint as a people’s deputy, and completed a PhD in Physics, Slava Vakarchuk has returned to what he does best – fronting Ukraine’s biggest band, Okean Elzy.

As the band is about to release their latest album, Dolce Vita, we tracked him down to ask what it’s all about.

How does it feel to get back to doing good old-fashioned rock since your solo project?

There is some fear associated with it. Not fear of success, the people will decide that, but fear of the year ahead. We have a lot of plans, and these plans are vast. I hope that we’ll be able to handle it all. We’ve got 70 to 100 concerts ahead, from Sakhalin in eastern Russia, to Moscow and Kyiv, to London and Paris, and San Francisco. The diversity of venues we’re going to play is also huge – from small clubs to arenas and stadiums. For one tour it’s not so easy to manage the logistics of such all this, and that’s a little bit scary. But we’re looking forward to it very much. I already have an intuitive feeling that this album is going to be something special for Okean Elzy.

What can we expect from the new album?

We wanted to get back to the roots with this album. It’s quite symbolic that spring has started in 2010, and in March 2000 we released our first album, Ya Na Nebi Buv (I was in Heaven). Actually, it was our second album, but it was the first to make Okean Elzy what it is now. It was our seminal album, the time of our birth. Later we got a bit experimental, bringing in different elements to our music. We had Model which had a strong dance feel to it, then there were Supersymmetria and Gloria which were more sophisticated. Then came Mira (Measure), which in my opinion was not our best, as it was something we did ‘cause we needed to do it rather than wanting to. There are some good songs on the album, and with time I have come to like it very much, but we don’t play a lot from it in our concerts where as we play all the songs from Model, for example. Having said that, Mira was one of our best selling albums, so time is the only judge. With Dolce Vita we’ve tried very hard to be natural. On this album it’s mostly just the five of us. The last two or three albums we invited lots of session musicians to play, and strings and orchestras, but on this one we only have two additions – the first is the solo on Jigsaw, and the second is a piano player who did a jazzy restaurant sort of thing on another song, because it had that sort of feel. So we’re really keeping it simple and natural on Dolce Vita. I like it very much. I don’t give marks to our albums ‘cause only time will tell, so I’m not going to say it’s the best Okean Elzy album, but I think it is.

You say Dolce Vita is getting back to the roots: What are the roots and influences of Okean Elzy’s music?

Our roots are in raw rock music. As for influences, there are plenty. But probably the most notable thing is what we were not influenced by, which is Russian Rock. What’s On readers might not know it so well, but the style Ruski Rock influenced the majority of bands from our generation, but not us. It’s kind of strange because members of Okean Elzy now come from all over Ukraine, with one from Serbia, so it’s not four guys from Lviv as it used to be, but I suppose the one thing that unifies all of us is our love of The Beatles. There’s never been a musician in Okean Elzy who didn’t love The Beatles. There are of course other bands, like Led Zepplin, the Stones, and Radiohead for example, but The Beatles is like our backbone.

Your music has a very definite western pop-rock sound to it. Were you influenced by some British or American bands from the 80s and 90s of that genre?

Not so much. When we were growing up, there was a lot of competition with these bands, but they had not yet become authorities people can worship. Take Oasis for example, in the 90s they were very fashionable, and they made some good music, but they’re still not The Beatles. The 90s were not as productive as the 60s or 70s, and the 00s were even less productive. There’s been good music, but it’s all over produced, and no real names have come from it. A lot of it is about production and marketing first, and the music comes second. Even when you talk about pop music, there’s no one like Michael Jackson now, or Madonna. You know, the new video by Lady Gaga? I don’t give a s**t. 

What are the themes of the songs on Dolce Vita?

There are two types of songs on this album. Firstly, there’s what I’d call classic Okean Elzy, and that’s songs about love and intimate relations, both up-tempo and slow.  Secondly, there is a smaller but very important part of our album, and that’s songs with more of a social focus. For example, the title track and a song called Ordeny (Awards), which are influenced by the world we live in. I don’t usually like writing these sorts of songs because I’ve never seen myself as a Bob Dylan, protesting against everything. But there comes a moment when you understand you can’t help but write about certain things. ‘Komu tut tyurma, komu dolche vita’ meaning ‘for some it’s prison, for others – dolce vita’. It’s basically saying that everything is the same for everyone, and it all depends how you see it. We all live here and you choose whether to make it a prison or a good life. It’s your choice. Also there’s the song about awards. I don’t like that there’s so many awards for things here now, you know, like man or woman of the moment, best company, best this or that. It’s very sad that people are so focused on absolutely useless things. I’ve also got a patriotic song on there as well, almost anthem like, called Sky over the Dnipro. I like it. It’s very Ukrainian.

Your songs are all in Ukrainian, and many people comment on the poetic quality of your lyrics. Where do you get the inspiration for your songs?

In the air. I can’t answer that question clearly. It’s very difficult to analyse. One song can be written for one reason, and another comes from somewhere else, but it’s something I don’t really understand. The moment you have the lyrics, you have them and it’s done. I can’t work in a way where I think I’m going to write about a certain topic, and sit down and work on it. Most of the words for a song come instantly, within half an hour, and then I work on them over a period of time to improve them. But most of it is immediate. The songs I value the most are those when the music and words come simultaneously. When you have to struggle for a good result, they’re often not as good.

Have you ever considered making Okean Elzy more accessible to people from the west by writing songs in English?

This has always been a difficult question for me, and it’s been a difficult choice for me for many years. Certainly, I speak English so I could do something. But as it’s not my mother tongue I can’t write as well in English as I can in Ukrainian. So then I have a dilemma – whether to produce a mediocre result oneself, or ask someone to do it for you. Neither of these appeal to me because while I’ve sometimes written lyrics for music composed by others, I’ve never sung someone else’s words. It would be a challenge for me, but I’m open to that. Maybe there’s not been a proper time for it so far, but maybe now is the time. I’ve been working hard on my English, so now I’m maybe more ready for it. However, the English language is very important these days, but it’s not everything. The music is the most important thing.

A lot of young people say they became very excited about Okean Elzy because you sing in Ukrainian, and use the language well. Do you think switching to English may be viewed as turning your back on them?

No, not really. Of course, some people might view it that way, but if we succeed and conquer a larger western audience then maybe it will be another reason to be proud, and they will forgive us. But I don’t think that’s the point. The point is more about my fear of doing something new. Maybe I need a kick up the ass, but certainly there needs to be something that makes me want to do this. I’ve always joked that in order for me to start writing songs in English I need to fall in love with an English-speaking girl, and while that’s a joke, there needs to be some trigger.

You’re well known as a patriotic man. How do you feel about the recent political developments in Ukraine? 

We need to go through this. We need to face all this political chaos because it is part of our democratic development. There are neighbours of ours who have this visible order, with no chaos and no instability, but they are just postponing the experience if they ever want to have democracy. We’re coming through this process slowly and painfully, but we’re coming through. Right now it doesn’t really matter who wins this election or that, because the country and the people living in it are not really ready for change. They want change, but they’re not really ready for it. If they were ready we’d have a bigger social demand for other leaders than those we have now. We had a choice, but we had to choose between something from the past and something from the past. Everything else is just a question of style. You can put an old woman in the most modern clothes, but she’s still not going to make it as model. More importantly, we should be asking: Are we ready? Are we willing and eager to face change, do it by ourselves and take responsibility? Are we ready to change our future by ourselves? I think we will be ready to ask this question in the next 5 years, and once we answer it we will then be ready to solve everything.

You’re obviously very passionate about your country. What do you hope for the future of Ukraine?

I have always and will always consider Ukraine as a part of Europe, mentally, culturally and certainly geographically. But I understand it’s going to take a huge effort and maybe a lot of time for us to come to the point where I would like us to be. It’s not so easy for us. If you compare us to countries like Poland or Hungary that, while having fallen under the blanket of communism, have a history of independence and being part of the western world...  Well, of course, these countries had a lot to do, but for them it was a comeback, a return. This is not the case for Ukraine. For Ukraine it’s more a process of acquaintance first. But no matter how long it takes, there is no other path for us.

You had a short stint as a people’s deputy in the Verkhovna Rada. How was that?

It was very long (laughs). One year. I found it very helpful, not as a career move but for understanding what’s going on in the political establishment of this country. There are two things I experienced there – firstly if just one person there has the desire to change something, they can do it. Just one person can make a difference. The second thing I found is that there’s no such person there now.

You recently completed a PhD in Physics at Lviv University. How did you find the time for that?

I had already devoted around seven years of my life to it, but had never completed it, so once I resigned from the VR I decided to devote some time to finishing my paper. It took me six months of hard work, but I really wanted to finish it and not just have it disappear.

You obviously keep yourself very busy. What do you do to relax?

Doing nothing (laughs). Meeting with friends, having a good meal, sometimes going to the cinema. I’ve always loved reading, and now I spend a lot of time reading books in English to help improve my language skills. I’m actually enjoying it now, and not just reading English language books because I have to. I also like sports, and I try and get to the gym as often as possible, and go swimming sometimes. Mostly, however, I like doing nothing.


Neil Campbell, What's On, Ukraine


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