Vorvan Are Making Russian Metal Great Again
Relations between Russia and the U.S. are about to get a lot more tense, complex, comical and downright ridiculous over the next four years. On one side of the fence, you have a man who wouldn’t know diplomacy if it was hanging off his nipples, and deals with criticism worse than a narcissistic teenager; on the other side, you have a man who's as competent at cloak and dagger as I am at chainsaw juggling, and whose opponents have found themselves mysteriously poisoned and dead. Considering all that, it’ll be interesting to see how long it takes before the dick-swinging devolves into a full-on sword fight on the international stage.
While the political fools play out their drama, let’s remind ourselves about the good that our comrades from over yonder have to offer: fast-as-light hockey players, vodka powerful enough to blind a toddler and killer metal. Enter Moscow’s Vorvaň, whose Once Love Was Lost topped my personal best-of-2016 list, but otherwise went largely unnoticed beyond Eastern Europe. This, my friends, is a crying shame, because not only is the band heavily influenced by the likes of Converge, Mastodon, Tragedy and Disfear, but the album — along with their previous EPs, Sailing the Vastness of Oceans and In Gloom — is on par with some of the finer works by those outfits. So, in order to right overlooked wrongs and submit a giant peace offering between two nations whose leaders are bound to be at each other’s throats for (hopefully only) the next four years, we tracked down vocalist / guitarist Eli Mavrychev to discuss Russian rock, Russian stereotypes and Russian Butz.
What can you reveal to us about the history of Vorvaň? How long you’ve been around, how you discovered the music you listen to and play, etc.?
Well, the band was formed in Moscow in 2009 after our guitarist Eugene [Cherevkov] left his previous project with the goal to play a sort of extreme music that was fast and progressive, contain elements of both punk and metal and have non-standard passages. He tried to start playing with different people until [bassist] Igor [Butz], Aleksandr [Fursov, ex-drums] and I joined him in 2011. We knew each other more or less before — Eugene and Igor were friends for years — so we quickly proceeded with developing and arranging material. A few years later, our friend Zakk [Hemma] joined the group as a drummer. We have all been fans of bands like Converge, Mastodon and Napalm Death, so I’d say they became our main influencers from the very beginning, but we never limit ourselves with any musical styles or genres. Throughout our history, we continue to experiment, keep on looking for new ideas and get inspired by different things.
What does the name of the band refer to?
"Vorvaň" is an old Slavic word for whale oil. Influenced by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, we found it a fancy name for a heavy band. [Laughs] The correct pronunciation is vór-vaɲ.
What’s the scene like in Russia for the style of metal / hardcore you play? Assuming it’s small, where do you find yourselves taking inspiration from, and how do you go over with metal / hardcore / punk fans in your homeland?
The scene in Russia is definitely not big. It’s mostly gathered in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, though it’s split in many communities with a rarely matching audience. Some mainstream bands actually do well, gathering full houses at their shows. But bands like us are definitely a part of the underground. We used to play a lot of local gigs, share stages with a variety of bands, small or big; some of them are — or were — just awesome, really worth listening [to] and supporting. But of course, as I said, being influenced by the Western music scene, Vorvaň finds inspiration only there. We’re fascinated by the level of live performance and sound of bands like Converge, Kvelertak, Oathbreaker and many, many more. And their records become something we truly love; that’s why I think we may be considered as “Western”-styled or -oriented from the quality perspective. Our core audience is definitely not represented by many people in Russia, but most of our fans are from there. Some hardcore / metal / punk fans are just not interested in the kind of stuff we play, or in us personally. Some have just never heard of us or seen us live. We just play what four members of Vorvaň like, not caring much about what fans expect us to play. That’s why we’re just happy to have any people at our shows, any people supporting us and buying merch no matter where they are located.
Famously, a few years ago, German / Swiss band the Ocean toured straight across the entire country, hitting small towns along the way, including parts of Siberia. Is doing a tour across Russia something you’ve ever embarked upon or even considered?
We’ve toured Russia many times, but only the European side, as the distances between towns are huge. Every show was arranged directly by us and local promoters — no touring agencies or anything like that. Most of the venues have horrible backline, fucked drum kit parts, dickheads as sound guys, tons of issues to quickly resolve, etc. So, we only feel comfortable if we bring our own gear and care about every detail by ourselves. Some towns have no place to arrange a gig on a Monday, which causes extra day-offs and hits our budget. As well, there’s the van rental. It’s way cheaper to buy and then sell a van, like we’ve done [a] few times. Making the tour become profitable is something not realizable, unless fans buy tons of merch at every place, which is rare for our scene. We’ll definitely keep on touring Russia — it’s always lots of fun, meeting nice people and seeing great places — but it’s never an easy or cheap trip, especially going across the country.
How did you manage to get Kurt Ballou, Brad Boatright, Meghan O’Neil Pennie and Armin Schweiger to contribute to Once Love Was Lost? Are you nice, charming, serious networkers or just really lucky?
Haha, I don’t know! We just dropped a few lines to people we wished to ideally work with. Of course, we provided our ideas and demos before they got on board, and we’re so happy all these guys were up to work with us. Kurt Ballou and Brad Boatright did a great job on ruling the final sound; Meghan [Punch, Super Unison] and Armin [Distaste, Afgrund] performed their guest vocal parts masterfully. We appreciate their help so much and are glad to have such experience. And we’ll definitely keep on using such collaborations in the future. Old and new ones.
How long did it take to write the new album? Going into it, was there anything you specifically had in mind about what you wanted to accomplish and achieve with the record?
It took us more than two years to finish the album’s writing and recording. We run our own small recording studio in Moscow, so fortunately, we’re never limited for time. After hundreds of hours of practice sessions, tracking and arranging, we made sure the record was done just the way we really liked and wanted. For the first time, we were actually keeping it in mind that we wanted the record to sound not just competitive, but exceptional. We’ve put all our efforts into Once Love Was Lost, and in the end, we’re surely happy about the quality, happy to let the people give it a listen. Achievements? For me, the best achievement is watching our band grow musically with every new work. We’re going step by step introducing the stuff we compose, and there’s still a ton of interesting ideas in Vorvaň’s pocket.
What’s the story behind the album’s title, and how does the cover art and booklet art apply to that? How long did it take, and how expensive was it to put together the 32-page art and lyric booklet that comes with the vinyl?
“Once Love Was Lost” is a line from the song “Celestine.” I think it reflects the concept of the whole album’s lyrics: the love and the beauty we have in our lives that we probably lose so often, something that we — people in general — don’t even value sometimes. Leading ourselves to destruction by taking wrong actions, being misled, forgetting that love should be the law. I was carrying and developing the ideas of the album’s concept and design since the recording was finished. Hal Rotter is a great artist from California, and the one we contacted with an offer to help us turn our musical and lyrical ideas into graphic art. In the end, we have this huge booklet with illustrations done by Hal. He’s also a musician, and I like the fact that he went through our songs many times during the album’s artwork creation process.
How would you characterize the process, experience and final product of a full-length like Once Love Was Lost against the recordings you’ve done previously?
I would answer shortly: All of our previous works are not even worth comparing to Once Love Was Lost. With this record, we tried to change our approach, open our new era.
Did you have anything to do with interfering in the American election, hacking Hillary Clinton’s email and riding Donald Trump’s wave to victory? Or do you even care?
We just don’t give a fuck about politics, bullshit in mass media and all those bastards that fight each other to be elected so they can manipulate people. This is not our type of game; we have chosen art and creation.
What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions that people in western nations have about life or politics in Russia?
Well, I don’t know … that not all the Russian girls are hot; we don’t only drink vodka and wear those furry “ushanka” hats; there are McDonald’s restaurants in Russia, too. And that communism is no longer here. [Laughs]
I’m going to assume that Vorvaň is a time-consuming hobby at the moment, but how much more of yourselves and your time and sacrifices are you willing to make to bring the band to the “next level”? What is the next level in your eyes?
Vorvaň is not a hobby for us; it’s a way of life. We put everything we have into it. For example, I moved to Germany to afford the band’s expenses and finish production, coming back to Moscow every month or so. We quit or change jobs, cancel private plans, sell gear and instruments; we do everything for the sake of the band. And we would like to thank our “fifth member” Danny, who is our roadie, merch guy, technician, main supporter and the best friend of ours. We wouldn’t be able to make a lot of things without his help. Our next level? We’re willing to hit the road more often to spread our music and work on our next release that’s going to conquer some more people’s hearts. [Laughs]
Tell us about the selection and recording of the Machine Head cover.
Igor was a big fan of Machine Head, and it was his idea to do a cover on one of their craziest songs, "Struck a Nerve," some years back, just for fun. We played it live a few times and after the Once Love Was Lost tracking was finished, we decided to record it as sort of an experiment. We did it quickly at our studio, slightly transforming the original version to the way we like. Our mate Max Gerasyonov took care of mixing and mastering. And after the release of it digitally, we decided to include it on the Once Love Was Lost double LP edition as a bonus on the D-side.
Is your bass player's name actually Igor Butz?
"Butz" is Igor's lifelong nickname, the name he is actually known by anyone and how he introduces himself. I bet the origin comes from childhood, as there's no real meaning.
What's the plan for the band in 2017?
We're working on the new stuff and re-composing the demos — still pretty far from the next record conception, but we're incrementally moving forward. And we'd love to tour Europe by mid-year. There are no booking agencies helping us, so we’ll see how many gigs we're able to book by ourselves with the help of local promoters.