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Alexis Ipatovtsev about Aquarium's Leningrad Period
An interview with Hannelore Fobo
Saint Petersburg 31 March, 2019
• Alexis Ipatovtsev / Алексей Ипатовцев is a journalist and media manager of the band "Aquarium". He has been part of Aquarium's “inner circle” since 1984 and is now taking care of Aquarium's archive.
• Hannelore Fobo is an independent German curator and researcher on the Leningrad parallel–avant-garde–underground–subculture of the 1980s and the Saint Petersburg 1990s, with a focus on art and music. Recent articles discuss the ASSA Gallery, (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov, Sergey Kuryokhin and Pop Mekahnika, New Composers, Timur Novikov and Vladislav Mamshev-Monroe. See list of articles >>
The interview was recorded on video and has been slightly adapted to the written form. All comments in square brackets are editor’s notes.
The following is a list of Russian names of musicians and other people related to the “parallel” culture mentioned in the interview. In a conversation, full names are often shorted. Latin transliterations are indicated with alternative spellings.
Аквариум / Aquarium band members: Борис Гребенщиков – Boris Grebenshchikov / Grebenshikov (While the first spelling with "shch" correctly reproduces the щ consonant, the simple form “sh” is more common in international contexts.); Александр / Саша Титов – Alexander / Aleksandr / Sasha Titov; Дюша / Андрей Романов – Dyusha / Andrey / Andrei Romanov; Всеволод / Сева Гаккель – Vsevolod / Seva Gakkel; Алекcандр / Саша Куссуль – Alexander / Aleksandr / Sasha Kussul.
Others: Евгений / Женя Гапеев – Evgeny / Yegueni / Jenya Gapeev; Андрей Бурлакa – Andrey / Andrei Burlaka; Сергей Чернов – Sergey / Sergei Chernov; Cергей Афонин – Sergey / Sergei Afonin; Дмитрый / Митя Шагин – Dmitry / Mitya Shagin; Aнатолий “Джордж” Гунитский – Anatoly “George” Gunitsky; Андрей Макаревич – Andrey / Andrei Makarevich / Makarevich.
Part 1: Aquarium's Magnitizdat Records
Alexis Ipatovtsev in his apartment. Saint Petersburg, 31 March 2019.
Well, they call me “The Media Director” of Boris Grebenshikov [the founder and frontman of Aquarium], but I can simply say that I am taking care of the archives of Aquarium and I’m helping Boris with everything that has any relation to music distribution: YouTube, iTunes, publishing, etc., as well as all the press stuff. I’ve known the guys since early 1984, I was part of the group of people around Aquarium.
1984, you say, but the band started much earlier, didn’t it?
Yes. Boris says that he founded the band with his friend, poet Anatoly or George Gunitsky in July 1972, but until the early eighties – approximately – very few people knew about them. They started to be known when they invented a very interesting cultural phenomenon called “magnitizdat”. We have all heard about “samizdat”, when people started self-publishing books. They started to self-publish records.
Boris Grebenshikov. Photo: Hans Kumpf, August 1983
I think they were the first who started to imitate the normal process of putting out records. Having an album with a fixed order of songs, having a cover for this record, and having a sort of underground distribution for it, which means that there were people copying the record in question, sticking a cover to it with glue, and giving or selling it to other people. And these other people would then re-copy it, and that led to the fantastic phenomenon observed by the end of 1986, when there was still not a single official Aquarium record in any shop – the band managed to fill the Yubileyny Hall during 8 consecutive concerts. [Yubileyny Sports Palace, Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.] We are talking about a total number of 56 000 fans!
O.k., so we should just explain one thing: when we are talking about records, we are talking about a recording, but normally people would associate the word “record” with a vinyl record, which was produced in the Soviet Union only by the official record label Melodiya see introduction >>. So in this precise case, of course, we are not talking about a vinyl record, but a tape.
I can show you one. This is the record called “Tabu”, 1982. It’s a copy that Boris Grebenshikov made himself from the original master tape recorded at Andrey Tropillo’s studio.
The Soviet company “Muzfond” sold this box containing a reel-to-reel tape with a compilation of Western music by Smokey, Pink Floyd, Al Bano and Romina Power, and others. The music was erased in order to produce a copy of the “Tabu” master tape. The box still shows the original “Muzfond” cover “стерео Магинтофильм” /stereo Magnitfilm. The back cover is available here>>
Box with a copy of the master tape of Aquarium's recording from 1982 "Tabu".
No, it would have been of a smaller size, with about twenty minutes of music on each side, just like a vinyl record. And it was supplied with a photo on the box containing it – somewhere I still have the pictures for this album.
And it was a tape.
A reel-to-reel tape, like this one, and then you make a cover so that it will look like an object.
Two Aquarium magnitizdat albums from the early 1980s. The one on the left is Aquarium’s first studio album: “The Blue Album” [Синий альбом / Siny albom], released in 1981. On the right – Aquarium’s “Radio Africa” album, 1983. Instagram picture by aairapetov
So the Tabu copy is a very expensive object, today. It’s a collector’s item?
This one is a collector’s item because it is the first copy from the original master tape. From this copy of the master tape I would be copying to cassettes. In 1984/1985 I started … Boris gave me all the magnitizdat records of Aquarium and asked me to make copies. I took care of this for about a year and then Sasha Titov carried on in 1986. Read the interview with Alexander Titov >>
In other words, we call it a “record” because the product is the result of a recording process – an album.
This was a real phenomenon. I think the credit should be given to Aquarium that they found a way to become known across the country without really touring, because they were not going out of Saint Petersburg. They would go to the Rock Club see introduction >>, they would play at some concert halls a couple of times per year, but mostly they had “home” concerts. Giving concerts outside of Saint Petersburg and Moscow was very very rare. The only way to become known was to make a record, and then by word of mouth, people started to know you.
If I understood you well – because we talked about it a little while ago – you started the business of recording, live recording, in 1984?
No. The spirit of the time was that once you discovered there was another, colourful, non-Soviet life just next to you, you wanted to be part of it and you wanted to do something. I was just a student studying mathematics at university, boring scientific stuff, and next to me were all these people – Tsoy, Kuryokhin, Grebenshikov, Mike Naumenko Read the text about Kirill Serebrennikov's movie "Leto” (in German) >>. You want to be part of it. I was not a musician, so what could I do? I said, “Look, I have a fantastic cassette-deck”. My father gave it to me, it is a very good one. I remember when Boris saw it he was like “Oh, great. You should make some recordings with this”.
Top: a Pioneer CT3000 cassette deck. These decks were first produced around 1979.
Yes. It’s a Pioneer from the end of the seventies, isn’t it?
That's when they started to produce it. A common friend of ours who used to work at CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research] bought this one in Switzerland. He brought it here in 1984, and he then gave it or sold it to us the next year, so I had it approximately in 1985. As soon as I had it, Boris said, well, you should copy not only to reel-to-reel tapes, you should copy to cassettes.
So you carried that cassette deck along with you?
Let me just finish this. I remember the first copy I made was a cassette – Boris gave me a cassette, it was an ordinary Denon cassette with The Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street” –, and he said, “please, can you make a copy of Den’ Serebrya [“День Серебра”, Day of Silver], our current record.” It was in 1984. And I didn’t have this Rolling Stones record! Therefore I first copied The Rolling Stones to another cassette, and then I made a copy of Den’ Serebrya, and that cassette was to be given to Andrey Makarevich in Moscow [frontman of the rock band Машина Времени/Mashina Vremeni/Time Machine]. That’s how I started my …
… Your career
… as a “recorder”, in the room next door, where my Dad is now. And then, progressively, the band started to tell me “Why don’t you record concerts with this fantastic cassette deck? That would be great.” So from, I would say, November to December 1985, I would go to all the Aquarium concerts, and all these concerts were recorded not on Denon, but on chrome dioxide cassettes.
I hope you had more than one chrome dioxide cassette to record.
We had to send somebody to Beriozka – the shop for the foreigners – who would have dollars and would buy them for us, and then we would buy the cassettes from them. We had no right to go there, Soviet citizens were not allowed to visit the shops for foreigners. I had I think five or six of those. They were very expensive. I remember I had to borrow money from a friend of mine, and this is how I lost half of the recordings, because he claimed back those tapes he had paid for... It was very difficult to get good quality tapes and not the ordinary Denon from the ordinary shop.
The result of my recordings was the Desyat’ strel album, which was finished in early 1986 with an additional studio recording – the famous song Gorod that everyone calls Gorod Zolotoy [Город золотой, Golden City]. Someone somehow managed to arrange for a single recording session at the studio of the Radio House, and after that the record was distributed all over the country.
And you made the copies.
No, Sasha Titov made the copies.
How many copies could one make from a master tape before the master tape was completely ruined?
I never saw any master tape completely ruined. What I know is that when I took over the recording process in late 1984, early 1985, Boris gave me the first copies from the original master tapes kept by Andrey Tropillo at his studio. I had two reel-to-reel tape recorders, one of them belonged to Boris, the other one I don’t remember, it was probably also Boris’s, and I was copying to reel-to-reel tapes. But at that time my focus was already on cassettes, because the times were changing and more and more people started to have cassette recorders. Then we encountered the problem that the photographer who printed the photos for the record covers was printing them for reel-to-reel tapes. How can you adapt the cover for cassettes? I never saw any cover adapted for a cassette and I was not doing cassettes with a cover. So we were back to the sheer recording – not an object, not an art object, just the cassettes.
Be that as it may, Desyat’ strel was Aquarium’s last magnitizdat album. In 1987 they were granted the first recording contract with Melodiya, and the next record was released “officially”. [The first Melodiya compilation of Aquarium “magnitizdat” songs, “Åquarium”, was released in January 1987 see introduction >>, and the first studio recording took place the same year. The record, released in spring 1988, was called “Равноденствие“, Ravnodenstive / Equinox.]
A real vinyl record. So this one that you are showing me [the vinyl record Desyat’ strel / Ten Arrows] – this is a new edition?
Десять Стрел (Desyat' Strel / Ten Arrows) with a cover by Alexander Florensky of the "Mitki” group. The album is one of five LPs from Аквариум – Собрание Естественных Альбомов. Том II / Aquarium – Collection of Natural Albums. Volume 2. Box Set, Compilation, Released September 2014.
Yes. By the way, the cassette I'm holding in my hands is the only one of those five Desyat’ strel cassettes still alive. It’s from December 1985, and it was used for the 2014 release of the vinyl record. In fact, Desyat’ strel was first released as an LP in 1991/1992, then there were a couple of CD versions, and now it is part of a new collectible edition. I haven’t even opened the vinyl record yet. Anyway, that’s what the musicians had on their mind. They wanted to have records, but it was impossible to produce them. I think the phenomenon of Russian rock is simple. They wanted to be like normal musicians all over the world, which means booking recording studios, making records, putting them out, distributing them, working them up the charts, becoming famous or just being respected. Just being normal people. And it was impossible. But then, if it is impossible, we will be like kids! We will create our own world where we will be playing. The official position in life won’t mean much. You can be a night watchman instead of a member of the Academy of Sciences, and still be a star and be respected. So they created a parallel culture.
Were these unrecorded cassettes or tapes expensive by the standard of those times? Or where they easily – I mean, were students able to …
I can tell you. A standard Denon cassette that you could buy in an ordinary Soviet shop would cost nine roubles. In other words, you could buy four and a half cassettes with a student’s stipend.
Well, but then they might also do their copies and resell them. Did the students do that?
Private apartment in Leningrad equipped for copying records to tapes. Kozlov took this picture in 1979/1980. Copying Western music was an illegal but profitable business. The gentleman in the right corner wishes not to be recognised. Photo: (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov
Yes. But you have to explain to those modern people that when you copy from tape, you get the noise of the tape, which means its not like copying from CD or digital files where you can copy from copies indefinitely. With tapes, there is a limited number of “generations”.
I remember the noise.
So if you have a third, fourth, fifth copy of a copy, you can hardly listen to it any more.
Talking in terms of capitalism – I mean, obviously, the musicians had to make some money with their albums, they had to make a living. But those people who bought the recorded tapes would also make money.
For me, it was not doing business. I was doing it completely for free. Boris would give me blank cassettes or cassettes to be erased and said, “Please, can you record one “Tabu”, one “Siny Albom”, one “Desyat’ Strel” or whatever, – oh, sorry, “Desyat’ Strel” did not exist at the time, so it was something else – and I would copy them. What he was doing with them later I don’t know. Maybe he was selling them, maybe he was …
I mean, if he was selling them, it’s o.k., because he is the musician, but if those who bought them from him would resell them – he wouldn't mind?
I don’t know. At that time … it was important to eat, of course. But there was not much desire to earn a lot of money because you could hardly buy anything – there was not much in the shops. You could give one underground concert, and Boris gave a lot of such concerts in the apartments with Sasha [Titov| and Dyusha [Andrey Romanov] and Seva [Gakkel], and at the end of the concert everybody would give one or two roubles, you know. There would be about thirty, and sometimes up to fifty people. Then the guy organising the home concert – who risked imprisonment because of private entrepreneurship prohibited by law – would take some percentage. The rest would be distributed between the musicians. Then you have ten or fifteen roubles – and you can have two or three concerts per month. It’s a very small income, but you can survive on it.
I was just putting forward this question because I recalled today the problem of “illegal download”. But I think copying music wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was to produce it.
The most important thing is that the Soviet Union, together with the Eastern block and with North Korea and with Cuba, carried out a unique human experience when according to the dogmas of Karl Marx, they decided to ban private property, ban competition, ban market economy. Never before and never since has this existed. We are talking about a very precise and unique situation in world history when the country was completely closed – exchange was minimal. A Soviet citizen couldn't travel at all. Only foreigners could come here. Each of you coming at that time was perceived as a messenger from outer space. This bridge linked us with the world where there were David Bowie, Bob Dylan, The Beatles – our heroes. You would bring records, you would bring posters and so on. This is a very precise and unique phenomenon that can hardly be compared with anything we’re experiencing now.
I understand. So now we see this beautiful compilation of records which are – I don´t know whether they are all from the eighties …
…Desyat Strel is from 1986 [Десять Стрел/Ten Arrows], Deti Dekabrya [Дети Декабря/December's Children] is a previous record also from 1986 – they are the last magnitizdat editions. Den’ Serebra [ΔΣ, День Серебра/Day of Silver] is from 1984, Ikhtiologia [Ихтиология] is another one from 1984, but not with the original cover. Radio Africa [Радио Африка] had a black and white cover when it was released as magnitizdat in 1983 – they coloured it now.
Аквариум – Собрание Естественных Альбомов. Том II / Aquarium – Collection of Natural Albums. Volume 2. Box Set, Compilation, Released September 2014. The box contains the five records originally relaeased on tape between 1993 and 1986: Радио Африка (Radio Afrika/Radio Africa), Ихтиология (Ikhtologia), День Серебра (Den' Serebra/Day of Silver), Дети Декабря (Deti Dekabrya/December's Children), Десять Стрел (Desyat Strel/Ten Arrows).
So it’s out finally – not finally because they released it on vinyl before, but now it’s a real compilation.
The funny thing is that some records were released on vinyl even by Melodiya, like Radio Africa – they still censored a couple of songs when they released it, so it was not a full edition. [Ipatovstev refers to the Melodya version of “Radio Africa” from spring 1988.] Aquarium published “Desyat’ Strel” on vinyl in 1991, and that’s about it. After that they stopped doing vinyl at all, they switched to CDs. Most of Aquarium’s magnitizdat recordings were first released “officially” and put on the market on CD. Only with the recent “Vinylomania”, the maniac desire for vinyl, a company proposed us to put out our entire catalogue on vinyl – six boxes altogether. They make them in Germany on heavy 180 gr vinyl. It’s hard to make the recordings sound good, and they were remastered especially for vinyl by Jenya [Evgeny] Gapeev who is a big fan of Aquarium.
Аквариум – Собрание Естественных Альбомов. Том I, Том VI / Aquarium – Collection of Natural Albums. Volume 1 and 6. Two out of six box sets with 5 LPs each. The six boxes were released between 2014 and 2018.
|Uploaded 8 May, 2019
Updated 10 June 2019