Electric Depths with Species of Fishes

  • Words
  • Katherine Rakitskaya
  • Photography
  • Mathilda Bernmark

Comprised of Vitaly Stern and Igor Kolyadny, the modest Moscow duo Species of Fishes experiments with dark esoteric ambient sound since 1993. Although their potency remains everything but conspicuous not only for the European audience, but also for Russians, over the past twenty years Igor and Vitaly have released fourteen albums across their music career, with the most recent arrived in 2016. One of them – Trip Trap – was recently re-issued on GALAXIID, the sub-label of трип imprint run by Nina Kraviz, which moves towards “experimental, ambient and psychedelia.” With their second album’s initial release in 1996, Species Of Fishes made a serious statement in the electronic music scene and became a kind of depeche mode in Russia: Trip Trap was sold out impressively quickly, in its time this LP was one of the most, if not the most popular electronic record in Russia in the middle of the 90s. Basically, there is almost no solid information about them and their work available for the wide auditory, neither online (the official site of Species Of Fishes offers a long subtle philosophy from the Leviathan and Bodler, all in Russian), nor offline. That’s why I am here with my rod angling for one of the duo out of deep waters.

My catch is Igor Kolyadny. He slips away from most of my prepared questions similarly to a fish sliding out of the hands. The first things I wanted to know was whether it does feel that Species of Fishes is now a part of the viral hype and current ubiquitous idolization of the 90s, especially those in post-soviet countries. Whether he is aware of Gosha Rubchinskiy’s name and rather nihilistic combinations of letters from the Cyrillic alphabet, banging from the every tenth T-Shirt in Europe, whose owners, however, are not even able to pronounce or translate it in general. Whether he has seen those kids behind Nina’s back on the Boiler Room videos and is ready to perform for the same audience. After a silent while caused by Igor’s deep sigh, I started thinking that maybe that was me who took the bait, and not reverse.

“I’m sorry for you to hear that, but we have absolutely no idea of what is happening in the scene today. It’s really difficult to deal with information nowadays, mostly because of the sanctions. We have almost stopped communicating with our western partners and European musicians. At the same time, we do not keep our eyes on what is going on in Russian music sector. We are not familiar with either new names, or popular places, or with events happening there. We are in a somewhat frozen state, but we are ready to wake up any moment and adapt to contemporary patterns and realities,” Igor explains. “Actually Vitaly does not use Skype, so that’s why I am talking for both of us today,” – that’s how far away from today’s trends and character tendencies of the modern age Species of Fishes are. Anyway, suddenly, 21 years later, it turns out that this music got its relevance back.

“Yeah, already twenty years have passed, and if it still interests somebody, moreover, when absolutely different generation is now interested in it, why not. In fact, Nina’s [Kraviz] parents should have listened to this album, not herself! It’s very difficult for me to explain, why this is happening, but it’s not bad. If there is an interest, they are more than welcome. The number of electronic music is growing exponentially, and in some terms it’s praiseworthy that young people listen to what was done in the 90s. I really hope that they will understand some essential things that originate from that time. This LP may allow them to plunge into the real atmosphere of the 90s in Russia, represented through our perception. Moreover, a place, where the music was produced, shapes its unique sound. Personally, I would not regard such comeback of this certain electronic music sound as something nostalgic, why so? After all, there have always been the same list of ‘classical’ records from many electronica artists, which were sometimes listened more and sometimes less, but there have always been something charming in them that others do not have, that special appeal, you know.”

Seems like every “rediscovery” of the sound can be compared with that crucial point, where the sine curve starts to increase slowly from its minimum, and Nina Kraviz’s decision to re-issue Trip Trap could be the best argument for this metaphor. Despite the fact that Igor and Vitaly have always tended to keep themselves highly isolated from the publicity, some big names of the underground scene know who they are – thanks to their first release in Netherlands (Songs Of A Dumb World appeared on the label Staalplaat in 1995) and to the interest from American and European distributors. Also, they were in touch with musicians from time to time. For instance, during the Britronica festival in Moscow in 1994, they managed to strike up several important acquaintances and partnerships with some British electronic musicians – both from old and new generations, from Richard James to Bruce Gilbert of Wire. Igor and Vitaly worked almost with everyone who visited Russia back in the days, but more behind the closed doors, there are more than twenty names on that list.

After Igor had mentioned Britronica, I couldn’t help thinking about its legendary failure. The festival for contemporary electronic music that took place in Moscow in April 1994, bringing to the Russian capital artists such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, Banco de Gaia, Seefeel, Transglobal Underground, Bark Psychosis, Ultramarine, Dreadzone, Alex Paterson of The Orb, Paul Oakenfold, and Bruce Gilbert of Wire. Despite being heavily supported by the British Council and British promoting craft, the festival organized and curated by a Russian music journalist and promoter Artemiy Troitsky turned out to be an unbelievable fiasco: apart from huge organisational troubles, empty venues, some artists misadventured a lot. For instance, Aphex Twin, got at least into two troubles while experiencing some post-soviet realities. Firstly, Richard D. James got drunk and, as follows, arrested for the hellbender. Secondly, he got terribly intoxicated after dining in one of the typical soviet eateries – a pelmeni or blini-something, which brought him into the basic ward of some basic terrible hospital (according to some rumors, they seem to have placed him in the corridor, since there were not enough beds). All this remained somehow obscure for the Britronica’s organizers. As a result, Aphex Twin was missing almost during the whole festival time, and was found only a few days later, completely done and messed up. After his arrival back to the UK, he said that he would never go to Russia again. Well, he seems to be stuck to his words.

“By the way,” Igor says returning me back from my thoughts, “Nina said that Richard James recommended her our album.” Wait, does it turn out that Nina Kraviz did not discover Species of Fishes by herself? Igor elaborates: “Well, such word-of-mouth recommendation is very natural feature of the music business. That’s how it normally ticks. It takes a lot of time and effort to dig deeper into the roots, that’s why with the time DJs and producers tend to dig more than gig. This is the life of musicians from our generation. It’s also a question of experience: godfathers of electronica abroad always closely monitor things happening in other countries. Even though Species of Fishes would not say anything to the general public not only in the West, but also in Russia, still, very certain people know about us, and as a result, Nina was attracted by the album, and here we are now. That is what we appreciate a lot.”

However, today’s reissue of the album is not for those who wanted to buy it back in 1996, but for a completely new generation. Igor and Vitaly are now going to face a young and progressive audience, also very international, which would appreciate a more precise explanation of the name “Species of Fishes”.

“You know, actually it’s very simple, once you grasp the concept,” starts the producer. “But first, listen to the first album of Alex Paterson of The Orb. They used a tape in Russian taken from a popular-science film about sounds produced by fishes, various species of fishes. There is a phrase [Igor slightly changes his voice and sounds now cold and even, like Brodsky]: ‘Some species of fishes have electrical organs capable of accumulating voltage in tens and hundreds of volts.’ The wot collocation we took out from it appeared to be scientific on the one hand, and musical on the other. Initially we kept the definite article ‘The’ in the English name [there are no articles in Russian, though] pointing on exactly these species of fishes with electric organs, but it dropped with time, so we’re simply Species of Fishes now.
A hint we wanted to give was not only that we produce electronic music, but also that we work a lot with different tapes and samples, such as excerpts from scientific broadcasts films and interviews with various lectures like comets collisions; random phrases taken out of the movies’ context; musical and sound collages and and stuff like this. It can also be phonetically attributed: the difference in English and American pronunciation of the word species stands for the fact that our music is built on the sound symbolism. At the same time, sounds reproduced by fishes do not mean anything specific, however, referring to futuristic and surrealistic forms.”

It’s been always a very niche music that Species of Fishes have been producing. In the 90s only an educated person familiar with current trends, not only in music and fashion, but also in philosophy and science, could easily understand what it was, and what exactly the album was connected with. That’s why such intricate reference to a particular style of music production looked more like a selection of its audience. Even when we take a brief look at Trip Trap’s tracklist or, more precisely, at the list of computer commands and codes, we need to solve an algorithm, since it tells a sort of special scenario of the human-machine-human model of communication. By the way, most of those commands put in the tracklist are retrieved from the computer game Dome. As Igor says, his long-time friend Vitaly was a big fan of it back in the days. Igor reveals more details about the reissued album:

“Talking about the album in general, it was quite conceptual, because of its prevailing idea at least: a human-machine communication, the growth of computer games, and new era of digital conversations. We were talking about a certain – programming – language that was being evolved for this type communication back to the days, and now it is still in use; how we can adapt this language to ourselves; which kind of voice commands and keyboard shortcuts are there for us. In 1993, it was all new for us, we were in the age of discovery, so we tried to represent the nature of this human-device-human conversation in musical form, imparting a non-linear and illogical composition to many tracks. Looking back to this album, I would not say that now we would have done some changes in it. Of course not. In the past we were using other instruments and devices, now they are different, and they produce a different sound by themselves.”

Britronica, which was mentioned earlier in our conversation, heavily reminds me on another Russian electronic music drama, which happened last summer in Moscow: the 2016 edition of the Outline festival was cancelled just a few hours before its opening. I was ashamed to tell my friends who landed that day in Moscow purposely to see the festival that something strange was happening: the festival was forced to close and was prohibited from moving to other venues in the city by government officials. It turned out into the huge mess, only Russian-speaking users of social networks could follow the updates on where to go and how to get their money back. Moreover, Moscow’s best clubs Arma17 and Rabitsa were similarly helpless in the face of destiny and also got shut by the state. Even parties in Propoganda club are now usually followed by the police raids. So what does the older generation of musicians think about these constraints in the scene and how different was it back in the day?

“I’ve heard a few stories about the Outline,” says Igor. “Well. That’s really sad that there are almost no possibilities for musicians and people who listen and dance to that kind of music. If the state cared about its youth and supported their interests, not only in certain aspects, it would be engaged and promote electronic music, but somehow it has not happened here. It was difficult in the 90s, and nothing has changed by now. It is very difficult for me to say something about things happening on the scene at the moment. Together with Vitaly, we are voluntary not insiders anymore, so we do not have any idea of what’s going on now. Since we have distanced from contacts with many musicians, honestly, we are wrong persons to inquire about the electronic music scene here in Russia now, we have a quite poor image of it. This question would have been relevant in 90s, when we were actively rotating in this subcultural circle. Then we stepped back due to many reasons. First of all, because of the crisis in the beginning of 2000s, not only economic one – there was a dramatic decline in music sales and general interest in any kind of non-mass music in the country. Many production companies were simply crashing one after another at that time, that’s why we decided to move away from it. Since then I have not seen any stable positive changes on the narrow electronic music market and in the scene here, especially in small cities. It is still unclear how to make profit with music that interests minority, which does not pack thousands of stadiums.”

Before Trip Trap was newly re-released in July 2017, last thing that Species of Fishes brought out was the album Bessonnitsa 2 (Rus. for “insomnia”) in 2016, a completely visual album made by a multimedia artist Vadim Epstein, who collected unreleased tracks that were not previously included anywhere. Bessonnitsa 2 was published on a four-gigabyte flash card. Igor shares a few words about what’s next to come:

“At the moment we are preparing a release for трип, and later we’ll think about the concert program. It’s much easier for a DJ to combine a release and touring, but we have to understand first, which parts of the album will be improvised, and what we need to record and master now.”

In case the previously unexplored post-soviet music manages to get under your skin, Igor has already prepared a list of names and groups, who also deserve that kind of attention Nina Kraviz gave Species of Fishes in order to honour Russian electronica: first of all, Alexey Borisov from “Thе Prospekt”, Angela Manukjan and Roman Lebedew from “Volga”, also Yuriy Orlov, his aliases are “Theodor Bastard”, “Cold Hand Of Moscow”, “F.I.O.” and “Nikolay Kopernik”. “I think the problem is that most of the musicians are like in the state of hibernation. But I’m sure that any flash of light and interest will awaken them,” concludes Igor.

published first in borshch 2