Late one evening last summer, Sergei Shnurov was wobbling outside a bar near Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg's main drag, when he was approached by a police officer. Situations that begin this way often end with money changing hands, but in this case the cop was merely starstruck--he wanted to meet Shnurov, the front man of one of his favorite bands.
Shnurov's response complicated matters. He tossed a handful of balled-up rubles toward the cop, either as a drunken antic or political comment--in Shnurov's case both are equally likely. One of Shnurov's handlers, a representative from his record label, Shnur'OK, picked up the bills and apologized to the embarrassed officer, while another distracted Shnurov. In the meantime another fan left his garbage truck in the middle of traffic and ran up to shake Shnurov's hand.
Leningrad has become one of Russia's most popular rock bands in the past two years, and Shnurov's role as a national folk hero speaking the language of post-Soviet dissent has caught the attention of Russian authorities. In late 2002 Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov banned Leningrad from performing in the city, officially because of Shnurov's obscene lyrics. Shnurov has his rude moments--"You call me cunt face / Yes, I'm always drunk / I grab your ass / With my hairy hand," he sings on "Dikiy Muzhchina" ("Wild Man")--but his criticisms of Russian president Vladimir Putin couldn't have helped; a video for one Leningrad song depicts Shnurov and Putin as competing pieces in a board game.
Shnurov's reply to most questions about his political leanings is "Ask Khodorkovsky"--meaning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed Russian oil tycoon awaiting trial on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement. Many Russians believe Khodorkovsky's imprisonment was, at least to some extent, a product of his anti-Putin activism. Watching Putin on TV, Shnurov says, is the equivalent of watching a disappointing porn movie. "The scene starts and the people meet," he says, "but then with Putin, the action is always in the shadows."
Shnurov, who's 33, is newly famous, and success has created some contradictions for him. He routinely mocks the old Soviet regime in his lyrics--Leningrad's name alone is an upsetting reminder of the past for many Russians--but insists he dislikes making grand political statements in large arenas. ("The smaller stages make it easier to meet girls," he says.) Shnurov has the wrappers from wads of rubles lying around his apartment, and he gets to tour overseas--Leningrad's Chicago appearance this Friday is part of the band's fourth U.S. tour--but he dons an olive-green hat and jacket for a Cuban revolutionary look and still sings lyrics portraying himself as a bum.
Shnurov's key talent is tapping into 21st-century Russia's collective anxiety, but his strongest loyalty might be to his recent pledge to drink daily for the rest of his life. He's obsessed with remaining grounded, but that doesn't mean he's about to reject his celebrity.
Most chart toppers in the former Soviet Union import formulas from their European or American pop counterparts. The Moscow-based girl-girl duo T.A.T.U. called in British synth-pop mastermind Trevor Horn to define their sound, while the faces of countless clean-cut boy bands crowd the covers of teen magazines hanging from subway kiosks. Leningrad's music is scruffier, rooted in ska punk but with room for Russian folk and hip-hop; live, the band takes on big-band proportions, bringing up to 15 musicians onstage. Shnurov dislikes the ska-punk tag, though; he prefers to describe the band's music as "a Russian hay wagon with a jet pack."
Shnurov studied at an engineering and construction institute in the mid-90s, but soon after he was working as the program director at a Saint Petersburg radio station. He also began to write and perform songs with a political bent; Leningrad, he's fond of saying, was founded on June 12, 1997, the seventh anniversary of Russia's independence. Saint Petersburg's music scene was moribund at the time. "We were listening to everything from Alla Pugacheva [a Russian Celine Dion] to Prodigy," he says.
In 1999 Leningrad's first album, Pulya ("Bullet"), combined simplistic rock melodies with Shnurov's noisy, overpowering vocals. But on Mat, released the following year, Shnurov began to cement the group's identity. The title refers to the linguistic system in Russian by which obscenities are created, a layered process that produces endless combinations of curses; the results are harsher than mere swearing. Mat was rarely spoken and never published in the Soviet era, and the few authors who chose to use it, like the controversial dissident author Eduard Limonov, could publish their works only outside the country.
Though Shnurov's affinity for mat ensured limited radio and TV airplay, it was key to the band's early popularity--it's Shnurov's natural lyrical mode, and his way of thumbing his nose at the last remnants of Soviet-era self-censorship. "Yeah that's right, I'm a bear of a fellow / Balls, beer breath, and five o'clock shadow," he sings on "Dikiy Muzhchina," and he revels in pairing English pop cliches with Russian obscenities: on "Come On Everybody" he rhymes the title phrase with "Dvigai zhopoi suki blyadi" ("Move your asses, you whores").
His political songs tend to be sly, oblique riffs on cultural touchstones. In a deliberate subversion of a Brezhnev-era patriotic song, "My Address Is the Soviet Union," Shnurov responds in "WWW" to a corrupt cop who asks for his address with the refrain "My address today is www.leningrad.spb.ru," replacing the old selfless nationalism with snotty individualism--and, of course, also serving Shnurov by promoting his band's Web site. The song was the biggest hit from Leningrad's 2002 breakthrough album Piraty XXI Veka ("Pirates of the 21st Century"), and that chorus has become a popular drinking anthem in Saint Petersburg.
By 2002, Leningrad was playing to 100,000 fans outside Moscow at Russia's largest music festival; on its own Leningrad now regularly sells out Saint Petersburg's Yubileiny Sports Palace, which seats 7,000. For the second straight year, the band is up for Best Russian Band at the MTV Europe Music Awards, which air November 18. The network recently followed the band to the French Riviera, conducting interviews with Shnurov amid the pricey boutiques and restaurants of Cote d'Azur, a popular vacation spot for wealthy Russians. Tickets ran approximately $250, well out of reach for the average Saint Petersburg resident, who earns $250 a month. Shnurov became somewhat sheepish while talking about the concert, but he's unapologetic about wanting to make money. "A fear of deficit is still alive in the Russian soul," he says. "And if you want and cannot get, then you want these things very much."
The band's success has prompted some familiar music-industry legal headaches. In July, a subsidiary of Leningrad's old label Gala Records was ordered to pay 100,000 rubles to Shnurov for licensing Leningrad songs without his permission. Gala and Leningrad parted ways shortly after the incident, but Shnurov is surprisingly easygoing about the matter. "The problem [of piracy] has become better, and in comparison to people who get their pensions, I'm happy," he says. "By the way, I've stolen some melodies myself."
True enough, references to Ennio Morricone and Django Reinhardt pop up in Leningrad songs; the song "007" on the band's 2000 album Dachniki riffs on the James Bond theme. But daily drinking hasn't hurt Shnurov's productivity. In addition to Babarobot--an absurd Zappa-esque musical set in a Soviet-style factory--he's composed music for several movie sound tracks, and, in what he calls a "quest to find the new underground," he's formed Diode, an electropop band. (Shnurov may have some odd ideas about electropop, though; one of his bandmates told me that Diode's heavily influenced by Rush.)
Shnurov also works with Shnur'OK, which signs Saint Petersburg acts exclusively. He's more interested in bolstering the city's music scene than in turning a profit, however. "Leningrad is the only band we have that makes money," says a manager at the label. "I think one other band might make a profit, but I'm not sure."
Like any rock star, Shnurov has found that success has changed his social patterns. In Saint Petersburg, one bar was described to me as "the place where Shnur used to drink." The place where Shnurov now drinks is the Office, a tonier haunt catering to expats who've never heard of him. The few Russians who do drink there keep their distance from him, seemingly aware that he's trying to be left alone.
We spoke there recently, and he was complaining. He's learned of companies that are selling cell phone ringtones of Leningrad songs without his permission, his relationship with his wife has become rocky, he's hungry and needs more vodka. The third problem is relatively easy to solve, so he leaves the Office to pick up some take-out sushi and a bottle of Russian Standard Platinum. As he does so, I ask him whether being wealthy is a burden. Shnurov thinks about the question for a moment. "My mouth allows me to drink until death," he says. "Even without money."
When: Fri 11/12, 9 PM
Where; Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie