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Escape Velocity

The Importance Of Small Matters: Foresteppe Interviewed
Nikita Velichko , September 1st, 2016 07:50

The Russian ambient musician talks to Nikita Velichko about making music to accompany Soviet-era slideshows, releasing on reel-to-reel tapes and the importance of appreciating your immediate environment

Egor Klochikhin seems like the consummate self-sufficient musician. There's a distinct sense that the music he makes as Foresteppe feels very natural, both in the way that it comes about and the sources on which it draws. For a start, Klochikhin lives in Berdsk, a small suburb on the shore of the vast, 124-mile-long Novosibirsk Reservoir in central Russia, an area surrounded by woods good for both seeking out secret places and for making the field recordings on which his folktronica-like music draws extensively. His usage of curious local instruments — a toy hurdy-gurdy, penny whistles and the Russian gusli among others — makes his tracks feel even more tied to the place.

Then there's his label, ШАΛАШ – even if Klochikhin resists using the word 'label'. Its name translates to English as 'the hut', so called because, he says, it was made "from what we had to hand". In this case, what was to hand was a store of cassette and reel-to-reel tapes he'd been given by his father and uncle and used for ШАΛАШ's physical releases. The label has put out ambient music from an international roster, including Klochikhin himself, Kirill Mazhai, you c, Kitten Captain and Rusalka, but will disintegrate later this year when Klochikhin's stock of the tapes runs out.

The Quietus last saw Foresteppe at CTM Siberia last year. That performance had Klochikhin making use of diafilms, which are slideshows of images with captioned dialogue, reminiscent of a cartoon or graphic novel's storyboard, shown in sequence and with a text read out, that were popular in the Soviet era. The films gave his musical project an initial name and focus (he also released an album called Diafilms last year) and seem as good a way in as any to Klochikhin's work. How did diafilms first appear in his life?

Egor Klochikhin: In my childhood, when I was living in Novosibirsk, during school holidays I used to come to my grandmother in Berdsk. Back then, I already understood that diafilms weren't some kind of magic, but I still thought, "Wow, there is a photographic film, and it's showing something." Then when I grew up I became interested in diafilms again. The initial name for my music project was Diafilms, and I thought that I would just soundtrack diafilms, pinpointing the exact time they last and adapting to it. Now I've moved away from this hard peg, but thanks to diafilms I gained some reputation. On the one hand it's a great thing, because I now sometimes play concerts in Moscow and it's good to know that people listen to my music. On the other hand, when I'm reading descriptions of my music in programmes, I feel strangely alienated from my own music. You know that your music is yours, but when someone starts talking about it, something changes in your own perception.

How would you describe Berdsk to a person who has never heard of it?

EK: Nearly everyone who lives in Berdsk works in Novosibirsk in the daytime and goes to sleep in Berdsk at night. Its population mainly consists of old people, walking between five-storey buildings. Berdsk has no official status as a 'resort', but it's located on the shore, and so it's the only resort of the Novosibirsk Oblast. The historical Berdsk is at the bottom now, because it was flooded while the Novosibirsk Reservoir was being made.

How is Berdsk's environment different from Novosibirsk's?

EK: Berdsk is like one of the backs of the city. I don't have illusions about the place where I live. Once I was rehearsing at home, and someone outside the window started cursing aggressively at me to turn off the music. The situation is typical, but as far as it was really aggressive, I was loaded with unpleasant thoughts for the rest of the day. My room is my little world with vinyls, tapes, instruments. The environment is alright, but sometimes not that alright.

Do you have to live there or is it by choice?

EK: I feel comfortable. I was initially forced to go there, because I went to study in the university nearby and the road from the district where I lived in Novosibirsk took too much time. Now that I'm done with my master's programme, I work in the university school and have no formal bindings. But it just goes like it goes. What I fight with is a psychological complex of provincialism. It only matters how you live in the city, what you do there and what it means to you. You can move to Moscow or, say, Cologne and still lead a provincial way of life. Of course, in Berdsk it's more difficult to be a musician than in Moscow. But the fact that people who live here don't value what they have here makes me sad. You should find something good about it.

I've seen on your VK page a quote by the contemporary Russian composer Vladimir Martynov that I wanted to ask you about: "Changing humanity for the better is the question of the inner change. No changes from outside can change the deal. It's time to stop all these social and external transformations, which were common in the 20th century, and start the internal restructuring. But this is every person's individual question."

EK: Martynov is talking about political changes, about attempts to make Marxist and then Nazi regimes. Like, guys, see where it led us? The thing is that you can't free anyone — you can just get free. And you can keep on with all these formal changes, but radically you'll only be able to transform yourself. This idea doesn't mean that you should have nothing to do with the government, with your family and with society – you can influence these things not by making someone do something, but with your own example. The same story with ШАΛАШ — I don't do this as an example for someone, but people tell me it has turned out to be an example.

Why don't you think of ШАΛАШ as a label?

EK: It's more playing a label, like playing a game. For me, the word 'label' is connected with something solid, with an office and printings. There's a pathos to the word 'label', which seems odd to me. ШАΛАШ – the hut – was made from what we had to hand. A push to starting ШАΛАШ was releasing Kirill Mazhai's music. Kirill asked me to work on a sound a bit, and I had lots of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes, so why not start something? Kirill, as we joke, became the star of our label — some places, such as Fluid Radio, wrote an article about us after his album. I think we should stick together. We don't do much promotion, but if someone knows about the music of one musician thanks to the music of another, that's fantastic. I don't like conceptualising it: at first I had the word ШАΛАШ, and then I started thinking about it. This year ШАΛАШ will fade away, because I'll run out of the cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes that I had from my uncle and my father. I don't want to buy the new ones — the hut, I'll repeat this, is made from what you've found in the wood.]

You once gave a lecture about "the music of small matters". Is this topic important for you?

EK: Yes, and ШАΛАШ is also a small matter. It's always funny for me when I'm called an electronic producer or an ambient musician. I'm working on something so that I give it some form to interest the reader in the end. But I'm interested in going away from it, being in the boundary zone. Small matters are the same 'individual level' that Martynov is writing about. When you don't use instruments as traditionally intended, that's also a small matter in some cases. It's all manifested in a book, The Practice Of Everyday Life by Michel de Certeau. He writes that we are all immersed in discourse, the "invisible movements", and we do not own that discourse in any way. But we shouldn't be desperate about it, because nobody depends on anything, and we can interpret any discourse, dissolving it in our tactics. Once in my house I saw a woman who painted the numbers of the floors next to each elevator. She didn't have the stencil for 2. What would artificial intelligence do? It would say "error". And what did she do? She just turned 5 and got 2! She didn't think about overcoming the discourse of her stencil — she did what she did. A similar situation was when I was buying a small toy piano. The seller asked me what I'd do with it — she looked very surprised when I said that I was going to play it.

You've also said in a previous interview that childhood is very significant for you. Is this in the sense of childish behaviour?

EK: More youthful maximalism. I always say, "Become like little children" — this is the Bible, in the end. Keeping things uncomplicated is important for me. I don't like idle talk — I think you should only speak about things that are interesting for you with a person who is interested in them. I guess it's some form of escapism. You dig into it and try to distance yourself from other things. Then you put your inner experience into art.

Foresteppe's latest album, Around, recorded with the Saint Petersburg guitarist Bisamråtta, is out now on ШАΛАШ