Party like a rock czar
Thank you again, Ronald Reagan.
As the man who singlehandedly brought down communism and knocked the Iron Curtain off its rod, raining blows upon the head of the evil Mother Russia, the Big Gipper’s legacy continues to grow exponentially as we in the West are still in the midst of uncovering and comprehending the full extent of the late president’s greatness.
So it’s not suprising to learn of yet another unintended consequence of the post-perestroika peace dividend brought on by the end of the Cold War: Red Elvises.
Billing themselves as “surf rockers from Siberia,” and “your favorite band,” the group arrived in the United States like a wayward ICBM loaded with a nuclear-tipped gulag-full of good times, catchy riffs and mismatched animal print pajama pants that would give fashion goon Joey Buttafuoco a run for his money—if he actually had any.
The difference is, of course, that the Red Elvises are in on the joke. They’re too talented to be a gimmick, and it’s not even gimmick that the band’s brand of “rockenrol” pushes. They’re neither laughing at themselves nor with themselves—they’re just laughing.
Red Elvises are cored by Ukranian-bred lead singer and guitarist Igor Yuzov along with Muscovite Oleg Bernov, who plays the giant, red, custom-made electric bass balalaika, a triangle-shaped vernacular Russian folk instrument whose form suggests a special guest appearance by early 19th century Russian writer Alexander Pushkin on Star Trek.
With a Sgt. Pepper’s-cover worth of rotating band members, current incarnations of the Red Elvises include Russian Elena Shemankova on keyboards, guitarist Beth Garner, and (America’s Siberia) Minnesota’s Adam Gust on drums.
“Sometimes we invite more musicians to play with us, sometimes not,” says Yuzov, regarding the variable lineup. “We keep it loose … whoever wants to hit the road and come play with us, they do.”
Fresh off recording their latest effort titled Drinking with Jesus, a performance by the tight Venice Beach-based punk/polka/folk/surf-rock outfit is no stranger to the occasional conga line. Philosophically, this is what Drinking with Jesus is all about.
“Actually,” says Yuzov, “the new CD is aimed at people who like Jesus and like drinking.”
In the years after communism, Yuzov and Bernov have gone from busking on the Santa Monica Promenade to playing the spectacular Live8 charity concert in Moscow last year, helping to raise awareness about the problems in Darfur. They’ve starred in a Heinekin commercial in Europe and once guest-starred in an episode of Melrose Place.
With a mazurka of style and energy, Red Elvises explode into an instant party. Their song catalog includes titles like “I Wanna See You Bellydance,” and “Rok Eraund Ze Klok.”
“Strip Joint is Closed” is a torch song for musical arsonists. “Memoirs of a Phuket Geisha” melds the literary with the libidinous. Still, Red Elvises are more A Prairie Home Companion meets Tom Waits than they are Gogol Bordello. Their drunken vaudeville is at once campy and cultural, but not so self-centered.
“We play whatever we feel like and don’t take ourselves as seriously [as Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz],” says Yuzov, who says it’s nice to see other “Russian” bands make it big. “Sometimes people will come up to us after a show and ask if they can have our set list. … We laugh,” he says. “We don’t have one.”
As far as songwriting goes, Red Elvises’ job is made easy, as there are literally hundreds of English words that rhyme with “Stalin.”
“Like ‘Lenin,'” says Yuzov.
Growing up under the iron fist of communism meant that Western records were at a premium to young Yuzov and Bernov.
“You’d have to go to this place in the park and stand in between trees so the police couldn’t see you and take you to jail.” He laughs, then says goodbye.
Red Elvises have left the building.