|An irascible Skrypka and a late-blooming Elzy dominate rock scene (27.01.2002г.)|
The rise of Okean Elzy to the top of the pop scene in Ukraine came slowly. While musical acts like V.V. and Ani Lorak speak of "overnight fame," Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, the dynamic lead singer for Okean Elzy, readily admitted that the group's climb to the top progressed deliberately.
"We stayed together because we wanted something; we wanted this; we couldn't live without it," said the Lviv-born- and-bred musician, speaking of the band's recently obtained success.
Mr. Vakarchuk, who completed a degree in theoretical physics (and is now working on his master's degree) before shifting gears radically and taking up a career in music, said that during the first months after the members of the band came together they practiced daily, three to four hours at a time and sometimes even more, and did little else.
He explained that the idea for a band came about as a lark from conversations he and his roommate, Yurii Khustochka, today Elzy's bass guitarist, had while the two unemployed students laid about their Lviv apartment and discussed all sorts of topics, mostly soccer and the 1994 World Cup being played at the time, but also music.
"It took me about six months before I realized that this was serious," said Mr. Vakarchuk, who had long been a music devotee and had even composed songs but had no previous musical training.
The name of the band with its pleasant lilting sound came somewhat later. While rumors have floated about for years as to the name's origin - that it derived from the lead singer's beloved Persian cat, Magic Peace Elise Sheridan, or more mystically that it represents the tears of the figure Elzy, the metamorphosis of the sensitive soul of the lead singer in combination with his Alice-in-Wonderland-type alter ego- in fact, the origin is much more straightforward.
"It is simply a beautiful name. There is no deep, hidden meaning," explained Mr. Vakarchuk, who considered simply Okean at first, but realized immediately that there were other acts with the same name. When another band member suggested throwing in the female moniker, Elzy, the group liked the sound of it and Okean Elzy stuck.
Their first ounce of success was achieved in 1995 when they played a New Years concert before the Lviv Opera House at a time when they were still little known and neither fully prepared for nor accustomed to a large audience.
They achieved tangible success in 1996 with the release of their first hit, Novyi Den (A New Day), which received extensive airplay on Kyiv radio. After that a Kyiv producer convinced them to move to the capital city where they released their first album, the well-received "Tam De Nas Nema" (Where We're Not Found). The indelible influence of The Beatles, a band that Mr. Vakarchuk has long respected, is clearly evident in the production, as are other influences, such as the singing of the late Freddie Mercury of Queen and a rhythm section at times reminiscent of Led Zeppelin.
The album was a hit in Miensk and Moscow, as well as in Kyiv, and put Okean Elzy among the elite acts of the rock music scene here.
Mr. Vakarchuk, who speaks fluent English, almost ended up in Canada, which would have meant no Okean Elzy had his original life plan succeeded. He had thought about making the trans-Atlantic move in the early 1990s to pursue physics, but decided against it after he found that Canada was looking to fill jobs in the social sciences rather than in the pure sciences.
To this date neither he nor the band have visited North America, although the band is developing a plan to do some promotion there. But they have been to London, where they played several dates in 1999 at the invitation of Ukrainians living there.
They succeeded in pleasing the English crowd, as they do wherever they perform, with charging rhythms and tasteful guitar lick and with Mr. Vakarchuk's delicate, slightly warbling tenor and lyrics that speak of lost love and the irony of fate.
They do not have an English-language repertoire as yet, which is considered by most a necessity for success in the West, but then their lack of Russian language songs has not restrained their popularity in Moscow or Miensk either.
"If we sang in Russian, we would only have been one of many Russian-language groups," explained the lead singer. "In St. Petersburg and Moscow they know what I am singing about, and they like it."
Mr. Vakarchuk downplayed the lack of many Ukrainian-language groups on the Kyiv scene and compared it to the situation on the Irish musical scene. He explained that in the last few decades a disproportionate number of rock acts that have achieved superstardom in the world who began their rise in London originally hailed from Ireland. He cited U2, the Cranberries and Sinead O'Connor as examples.
"They do not sing in Irish very often, but the whole world knows they are Irish," said Mr. Vakarchuk, who added, "in Ukraine the situation with the language is much better than in Ireland."
Mr. Vakarchuk's stage persona - assertive, dominating, ambitious - belies a certain bashfulness offstage. But the nervous energy he effuses when performing is evident also as he sits in the band's offices in downtown Kyiv for an interview, nervously fidgeting, his fingers and feet seemingly always in at least a gentle state of agitated motion.
What he is not bashful about is his contribution to the band's success. "Maybe I am a bit too self-centered, but the other members have nothing against it," said Mr. Vakarchuk, who admits that he dominates the band's songwriting and also shapes the music to a great extent.
He quickly added that the other band members are just as invaluable as he is.
"Where I am the heart of the system, they are the circulatory system. Without it the heart is not needed," said Mr. Vakarchuk.