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Alexander Titov about Aquarium, Kino and Pop Mekhanika

An interview with Hannelore Fobo. London, 12 December 2018.

Alexander Titov presenting a gift by (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov – a personalised poster printed from Kozlov's collage "KINO“ (1985) with pictures of KINO members Viktor Tsoy, Yury Kasparan, Georgy Guryanov, and Alexander Titov Photo: Hannelore Fobo, 2018

Alexander Titov presenting a gift by (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov – a personalised poster printed from Kozlov's collage "KINO“ (1985) with pictures of KINO members Viktor Tsoy, Yury Kasparyan, Georgy Guryanov, and Alexander Titov
Photo: Hannelore Fobo, 12 December 2018
Exhibition of the collage at the Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, 2016 >> and the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 2018 >>

Video and transcript of the interview

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Summary: In the 1980s, bassist Alexander Titov was at the epicentre of the Soviet rock scene: he has played with Boris Grebenshikov's band "Aquarium" since 1983, was bassist with "KINO" from 1984 to 1986, but also performed with Sergey Kuryokhin's "Pop Mekhanika". In the interview with Hannelore Fobo, Alexander Titov talks about those
magical years and why he thinks that Kirill Serebrennikov's movie "Leto" does not represent this period.
More about Aquarium:
Interview with Alexis Ipatovtsev, 2019 >>
Joanna Stingray & Madison Stingray: Stingray in Wonderland / Стингрей в стране чудес, 2019 >>

- I have the pleasure to meet Alexander Titov, the bassist of the group Aquarium, but he also played with the KINO band. This is a gift to him which was made be Evgenij Kozlov, E-E, and here we see his pictures, and, of course because he [Alexander]  is a bass player, [the poster] has a little guitar, and – very important the certificate of authenticity. -  This is the original one, and this is the personalised one. I hope you will find a place …

- It will be in my studio.

- Alexander, you just told me that you are still playing together with Aquarium. It was your first group at Leningrad at that time, before you even played with KINO. Is this correct?

- Yes, it is. I started playing in the band in 1983, and before that I was playing in several so-called professional groups – which was embarrassing for me, because that was a completely different scene, and I wanted to change that. My connection to Aquarium was with two class-mates.

- Whom did you know?

- Sasha Liapin [Alexander Liapin – Александр Ляпин] and Diusha Romanov [Andrei Romanov – Андрей Романов]. That’s why I was always around the band, and when they found out that I’m looking for something, first they gave me the opportunity to record with them, and then, after that, in summer 1983, Boris [Grebenshikov / Grebenshchikov – Борис Гребенщиков] asked me to join the band. That’s how I started playing with Aquarium.

Sergey Kuryokhin and Boris Grebenshikov, Leningrad. Photo Hans Kumpf 1983.

Sergey Kuryokhin and Boris Grebenshikov, Leningrad. Photo Hans Kumpf 1983.

And I met Viktor [Tsoy / Tsoi – Виктор Цой] and many other guys, I was friends with Timur Novikov [Тимур Новиков] before he actually became involved in new art. He was just a friend of ours – we were all long-haired hippy guys.

- Are you talking about the end of the seventies still?

- Yes, the end of the seventies. Timur was our friend, and he was also … Oleg Kotelnikov [Олег Котельников] also is a very old friend from that time. My friend from school Misha Malin [Mikhail Malin; Михаил Малин]– my closest and only friend in all of my life, and a turning point in my life, because he was the one who told me that I have to start learning music, playing music.

- When did you start?

- On the bass I started when I came back from the service in the army, so I was twenty-one when I started playing bass. I played guitar as a child, but I didn’t think about doing anything serious, just when I went to the army, I decided that I want to be a musician – that I don´t want to continue studying in the Institute of Technology to become a chemist.

- Very useful.

- Very useful, yes, I know. But – not for me.

- I saw in the pictures that we have in Evgenij [Kozlov’s] archive that you played a beautiful bass guitar. It looks very professional in the pictures from 1984.

- The white one.

- The white one, exactly.

 Alexander Titov and Viktor Sologub The first Pop Mekahnika performance – 'PM 12˚, Leningrad University, 19 November 1984

Alexander Titov and Viktor Sologub
The first Pop Mekahnika performance – 'PM 12˚, Leningrad University, 19 November 1984 more >>

- Well yes, you have it. I still play it.

- You still play it? How did you get it?

- Well, to get it was a big thing, obviously, because of the cost. It was a very expensive instrument. We are talking about the range of that particular year. A friend of mine and of Yurik Kasparyan [Юрий Каспарян], a student in Finland, came for a student exchange to Saint Petersburg [Leningrad], and they persuaded him to bring this instrument, and he sold it to me just to fund his stay in Saint Petersburg. I actually scraped the money together from all my friends and for five more years was paying back …

- But it turned out that you had the right intuition to buy it.

- Well yes. It appeared to be the right choice for me, but then I understand now that it’s not only intuition. You can make an instrument play if you hold in your hand and  your head and heart – it’s all in you. You can make any instrument really play. It wouldn’t be as comfortable as the white one, or it will sound differently, but you can still get something nice out of any instrument. I have had many instruments since them and I think the instrument is just like a proper tool which has some sentimental value to you, and it has some other things – it is a beautiful piece of wood, of design, but without you, your heart or your ability, it won’t play.

- Is it still white?

- It has yellowed, because the top coat of lacquer, it just yellowed with time. I had to change it a little bit and restore it because the wood actually gets better with time, but the metal gets worse, and therefore I had to change the machine heads because they got broken at some point when I was in Germany  - I was touring with the band in Germany.

- I was told that when KINO was formed as a group they needed a bass player, and they somehow got you “on a loan” from Aquarium. Is this the correct interpretation?

- Well, I always stumble upon this interpretation because it is not quite correct. We were all friends and met on several occasions, and when it came up I told Boris [Grebenshikov], and Boris said, yes, of course,  if you can combine this, go and play there – I don’t mind. He didn’t “lend” me – he didn’t complain. [Laughs]

KINO. Alexander Titov (bass guitar), Viktor Tsoy (guitar), Gerogy Guryanov (drums), Yury Kasparan (guitar) Photos (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov, 1984

KINO. Alexander Titov (bass guitar), Viktor Tsoy (guitar), Georgy Guryanov (drums), Yury Kasparyan (guitar)
Photos (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov, 1984

- But you played with KINO not for too long, is this right? About two years?

- … two and a half years.

- Musically, the style of music you played – obviously you feel more comfortable with Aquarium?

- No, socially I was more comfortable with Aquarium, but musically KINO was very experimental for me. I loved experiments in my music, I was always trying to try different stuff. For example, a that time I was completely obsessed with this musician Mick Karn, a bass player from the band Japan, His playing was very weird. I tried to find out how he did it, but there was no information about him, so I was just trying to copy what he was playing, from the records.

- You got the records.

- I had recordings from tapes. I had some tapes with some albums, and I would try to copy that stuff. Sometimes it was a little bit strange because I couldn’t find out all the tricks he was using. Now it’s very easy to understand because he was using all weird detuners on his bass, and I visited this factory which in Surrey here, near London. I actually made friends with the guy who owns this record now. I guess that now it would be much easier for me to find out how it’s done and what he was playing. At that time it actually influenced my style immensely.

- Did you consider yourself at that time we are talking about, at the beginning of the 1980s, as a professional, or did you still feel that you …

- I never was a professional. Professionalism comes from education and school, all these traditions. I was never keen on that, I never studied any tradition seriously. I like a lot of different styles of music and classical music as well, but I never studied it academically. I was in a music institute for one and a half years, but I dropped out, because I was touring a lot. As I understand now, any school for an artist narrows his imagination. It makes him completely focused. He is playing stuff and he can be confident, but he will be stubborn, he won’t be open to any other forms of art.

- This reminds me of Evgenij Kozlov [Евгений Козлов] saying that “fortunately the didn’t accept me at the Mukhina Art School, otherwise I would be doing today what everyone else does.

- That’s what I’m saying. Your education always backfires.

- So you're saying that you learned to play by yourself?

- Yes by myself.

- And improved your technique by listening to …

- … by listening and copying stuff and trying to incorporate it in whatever I was playing. Obviously, being a self-taught musician, when you interpret stuff, you change it in a way it suits you, because you don´t hear it as clear as well-trained professionals. But through your interpretation you get further away from the original and closer to what you are, in any art.

- But the music you play, basically, was music that was written for the group Aquarium or for the group KINO.

- Yes, but it wasn’t arranged. Whenever we had a new song, for example, Boris [Grebenshikov] or Viktor [Tsoy] would bring a new song and play it on the guitar – the rest of the arrangement we would make ourselves. The end product is our input – how we actually felt it should be done, because no one had any idea about what we wanted to achieve and the result we were gong to have. We were all like amateurs. That's why we played it – we were hoping it will come together.

- At the beginning you just recorded your music on tapes and then copied the tapes?

- I still have the tapes which I actually digitalised. I gave the digital copies to Sasha [Alexander Tsoy|, because they belong to him.

- Is he going to re-release them?

- He said that yes, he wants to re-release them, but the thing is that in my case they were master-copies from the original, and they were used extensively for several years because I was copying for people. I actually lived on that money. I was selling them. Five for each. The point is that the tapes are worn out. But it appears that they are the only left originals.

- The master tapes do not exist any longer?

- No one knows where they are. What is more, Andrey Tropillo [Андрей Тропилло] who was recording Nachalnik Kamchatki, had all his original material somewhere, but at some point he started losing his mind and drinking heavily. He had a place where he kept all this, he was renting this place. For several years he didn´t pay accommodation – whatever it was, his workshop, so they confiscated everything including tapes, and no one knows where the tapes are now. Tropillo was the guy who actually recorded all of us.

KINO: Nachalnik Kamchatki [Начальник Камчатки] LP cover by (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov. Collage on cardboard, two-sided, 1984 From left to right: Yury Kasparan, Alexander Titov, Viktor Tsoy, and Georgy Guryanov.

KINO: Nachalnik Kamchatki [Начальник Камчатки]
LP cover by (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov. Collage on cardboard, two-sided, 1984
From left to right: Yury Kasparyan, Alexander Titov, Viktor Tsoy, and Georgy Guryanov. Reverse side >>

Boris, for example, was wiser, because he managed to make digital copies of all of his albums, from the original, while they were still available. And because Viktor died so young, no one actually cared about the catalogue at that moment. Everything went astray.

- You stopped playing with KINO in 1985?

- April 1986.

Did you ever return to concerts with them?

- No

- You met them on stage obviously, at the Pop Mekhanika concerts.

Pop Mekahnika 1986. Anton Adasinsky (left), Sergey Kuryokhin with jazz and rock sections.  Photo (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov

Pop Mekahnika, Leningrad, October 1986. Anton Adasinsky (left), Sergey Kuryokhin with jazz and rock sections.
Photo (E-E) Evgenij Kozlov more>>

- Yes. I think we still were friends. There was a little tension between me and Gustav [Georgy Guryanov – Георгий Гурьянов]. But at the end of his life we spoke a couple of times on the phone and we wanted to meet, but he was ill, so we actually didn’t meet. I think Viktor [Tsoy] took it very hard at first. He was very very upset when I left. I didn’t have much of a choice, had I. I started playing with Aquarium first, and then I played with KINO several years – I couldn’t combine it. I had to choose. Aquarium was my generation, and KINO was six years younger. They had a slightly different “Tusovka” than I had.

- What you call “social life“.

- Yes. I think that morally, it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t do it any other way. A difficult choice. Sometimes you think what could have been if you had done it the other way.

- But then you wouldn’t be playing with Aquarium today, probably.

- Yes. Or maybe I would.

- How many members, when there is an Aquarium gig today, how members of the old staff are still …

- Just Boris and me. Just the two of us. Cello player Seva Gakkel stopped playing in 1987. He then opened this club in Saint Petersburg – the TaMtAm Club. TaMtAm - The St. Petersburg Music Club >>

It was a big thing and he’s actually grown a lot of bands in that club. Thanks to him it was the biggest alternative musical scene in Saint Petersburg in the 1990s. He still writes music now, but he works as a stage manager in the A2 Club, one of the biggest life venues in Saint Petersburg.

- Let me return to the performance you said that was important to you, the Helsinki performance of Pop Mekhanika in 1995. You said it was the last one you participated, but also it was one of the very last ones [of Pop Mekhanika]. If we talk about the way it was staged, the dramaturgy, it was of course outstanding. It was not a spontaneous thing – it was quite well organised, and there were rehearsals, am I right?

- Yes, there was a rehearsal, there were a lot of different costumes and everything else which we brought in a truck from Saint Petersburg. These costumes were the property of Lenfilm, and Sergey [Kuryokhin] had an agreement with them, they lent it to him. We went there by bus. It was very funny, the whole trip there and back. Everyone was with their family. Sergey was with his little son Fedya, and I was with my wife… It’s a very very nice thing to remember.

- Like going for a big holiday?

- Exactly, all together, yes. A Magical Mystery Tour.

- I see. Because the perception of it – I know the description, I know some fragments of the movie and I know the description in Kushnir’s book, but it seems a bit – in my eyes it exaggerated some effects, he wasn’t present.

- He was just making it up.

- Even bigger than it was.

- I actually tried to read some of his books. He makes stuff up. He uses all the rumours instead of proper information. Maybe he is a good journalist, but he is not a truthful person who gives true facts or describes the whole situation the right way. He like to blow things up a little.

- It’s quite funny to read it, but of course … I’m curious about the fact because I know that in those years Kuryokhin got quite involved with the readings [writings] of Alisteir Crowley. I’ve done some research about it and this came from Alexander Dugin basically, but not alone. more >> He really had this idea of transforming everything maybe with effects on stage, but if you look at the Helsinki film, it looks more like pure fun.

- Yes.

- While the Petersburg performance with the speeches, is a bit more …

- Well I don’t know, I have to watch the Petersburg performance. You see, everyone tells about Dugin and his involvement with Dugin and Limonov and everything else. But for me Sergey [Kuryokhin] was the same Sergey always. Maybe he was involved with these guys, but it actually passed me completely. I didn’t meet anyone of them, I just remember one particular thing – when he did that programme on TV, when he called Lenin a mushroom. This was his only political sort of statement that is still with me.  

All this involvement with Dugin – everyone saying that’s a dark side, he went to a dark side, and he paid the price and died – bullshit.

- I understand. But I did read some of his comments he wrote for magazines in 1995 and early 96 about his vision how the world should be and how the revolution should be made up and how to combat the bourgeois. There was obviously in his writings this influence – it can’t be denied. more >>

- Could be, yes. But he was always very … увлекающийся. You know, very …

- Entertaining? Charismatic?

- No, not charismatic. He was charismatic, he was entertaining – he would like to try stuff, he was very exploring. That was one of his ways to try and explore some other sides.

- Don’t you think – that’s because I read a lot and it’s always difficult when you try to make up your mind about someone you hardly know – I hardly knew him. Many people were just completely charmed by him, and he was an excellent musician and very experimental, and he did a lot for the Leningrad scene. So you bear this in mind and then see the other side and try to somehow figure out a person without ambiguities, which there were, of course. But it seemed to me that maybe at one point he wanted to do something serious, something that would have a big impact on society – as he said: “The biggest show now is politics”. more >> He was not satisfied with the role that music could have in society.

- It might be. But we can just guess at the moment because we see – in fact, he didn’t achieve any steps in that direction. Except that gig in Saint Petersburg that you told me now with the speeches. It might have happened if he was persuaded [convinced?] and had followed that road for several years. Because to do this, he would have had to change his image completely, and to be not just an entertainer, but a politician, and try to earn some votes from people around him, to build up a followership, and all this crap. I don’t know whether he would have been successful on this political platform. I doubt it.

- Maybe he wanted to be a magician.

- He might have. Because part of his performance was always connected with magic, with tricks. He was a trickster, definitely.

- What did you experience on stage as you were playing with him in Helsinki? Was it just pure joy, you just enjoyed being there?

- Oh, it was very hot, I was dressed as a hangman, all covered with this big velvet, a coat and hat, and I had just holes for eyes. I was sweating inside. It was very difficult, but obviously funny, and from the outside, from the footage you can see that it looks hilarious, the whole performance there, completely mad.

- And musically speaking?

-  Musically speaking it was very rough sometimes. You know, I have it on my YouTube channel more >>, together with all this KINO clips and some Aquarium. Some of those guys who actually watch this channel look up this concert, as well. KINO fans don’t get Pop Mekhanika at all. They say “What the crap is that?”. They don’t get that fun.

- He was probably the only person who was able to…

- … pull together this scale of event.

- For a certain period in time.

- Yes, because as you said earlier – first of all, everybody liked him – loved him. He was the favourite of our company, of our friends, for may of us. That´s why when he was calling, anyone… no one asked any questions, everyone was happy to do this. Normally before the Pop Mekhanika we would have just a couple of hours rehearsal on the day – in the morning, with a sequence of acts so that we get it.

- Did you go to Liverpool [in 1989]?

- I didn’t go to Liverpool. Sasha Liapin went.

- And Stockholm [in 1988]?

- I didn’t go to Stockholm with him. It was that year I was in America, in the States with Boris [Grebenshikov], with his project, you remember it, Radio Silence. He was releasing it on CBS, and I was with him. We supported it with a tour, we toured the road with that. So I was away from the country for most of that year. I came back at the end of 1989, and that’s when I started touring constantly with Sergey. For a couple of years we went together – to Berlin, Amsterdam …

- … Liubliana?

- Probably, yes.

- I have – more or less – a chronicle of activities

- Italy …

- The focus was on the years between 1989 and 1991, isn’t it?

- Yes.

- … of touring abroad. And then there were few Pop Mekhanika performances in Petersburg and abroad, not many.

- Yes.

Alexander Titov and unknwon musician at a Pop Mekhanika performance in Nantes, France, 1991. Photo: Hannelore Fobo

Alexander Titov and unknwon musician at a Pop Mekhanika performance in Nantes, France, 1991.
Photo: Hannelore Fobo more>>

- And then we had these two important ones in 1995. I would say that basically Pop Mekhanika covers the eighties, the perestroika period.

- Yes, it started from 1984. I was at one of the first performances at this Erik Goroshevsky studio, near Chernoshevskaya. There is, I think, a footage of it.

- At the Erik Goroshevsky? I know about the university more >>. The Erik Goroshevsky was a theatre with performances of the New Artists more >>. Are you sure that …

- Or maybe it’s just photos from that one.

- And then they [Sergey Kuryokhin and Igor Butman] did a collaboration about which I talked yesterday – “Insect Culture” with the New Composers which I like quite a lot, because I’m a fan of the New Composers’ sound collages and voice collages more >>.

- You know that Yurik [Kasparyan] just performed with

- … Alakhov

- with Alakhov, a couple of weeks ago.

- And Alakhov came to Berlin. more >>

- Yes, I have seen the footage of that. And he also played with me when I went to Saint Petersburg. Whenever I go there, I actually meet with him, with Yurik, and he played me some of the tracks. more >> It was fun. The New Composers always had the sort of funny madness.

- In the eighties. And then … although, we talked to Igor Verichev lately and he says he’s now working only on sounds, phonemes – no words, because there are too many words in the world.

- In a way, you can agree with that.

- I would still like to ask you a last question – some last questions, because you have so much experience, so many years of playing with Aquarium, but also of following what’s going on in Russia. What would you say is the development, strictly the musical development of Aquarium? How would you describe it? Someone who came to a concert, say, in the eighties and goes to a concert today, would he experience the same thing or would he say… like Bob Dylan started to play with an electric guitar and people said – that’s not him any more?

- People always say different things. Boris also plays a lot of different styles, he tries to combine, for example, some Latino, and next he plays some reggae and then some rock music. He mixes styles a lot. And he had periods when he was just playing plain reggae. For a couple of years he was completely obsessed by it, feeling that to be very important.

Nowadays a concert, which is about four hours long …

- Four hours?

- Yes, we play for four hours. I would say, sixty per cent of it roughly is old songs, from the eighties, which are still very relevant today, people raving about them because the have incredible poetry and images.

- Do they sing along with you?

- Yes, they do. This is his heyday, his golden age. The other forty per cent – maybe twenty per cent of it – is new songs which are waiting to win someone over, and some of the songs from the nineties which we play as well. They have some definite flavour, as well. To me, they are not too close to my heart. My heart was with Aquarium lyrics and Aquarium music mostly in the eighties. Contemporary stuff touches me in a different way, it’s a different thing.

- What was the strongpoint of the eighties?

- You mean in general? Or for Boris, for Aquarium?

- For your feelings towards Aquarium. And maybe for your feelings towards KINO as well, because we are talking about the eighties. What was specific?

- I don’t want to sound too nostalgic, because I don’t like this nostalgia thing. It was something special at that period of time. We were lucky that we all experienced that for several years, that decade, because that decade in Saint Petersburg was very special. It was absolutely, undoubtedly, a magical time for all of us – for artists, musicians, for everyone from the alternative way of art. Alternative art bloomed in Saint Petersburg in that decade. So we were happy and we were the chosen ones because knew each other for many years, we had all grown up together. It was a very small closed community. Later more and more people from rural cities were coming to Saint Petersburg, because it was very special for them. For example Butusov [Бутусов], Shevchuk [Шевчук], Bashlachev [Башлачев], performers and songwriters. They were coming to Saint Petersburg because they were wanted to be part of this scene. But initially we were perhaps one hundred, all friends, we would meet at the “Saigon”, we had no mobile phones, we would meet at the “Saigon” every day for a cup of coffee and news, and whenever anything happened, we would go somewhere, do some stuff. No o ne had to work seriously. That was actually also a very important thing. We were all free as birds.

- It is interesting that you say “one hundred persons”, because I wrote a short description of that period in one of my articles, and I wrote “not more than two hundred, but this has to be verified”. more >> But I’m even more generous than you are.

- I am exaggerating – diminishing.

- One hundred or two hundred, the difference is rather small.

- Yes. It was a very closed community, very small, but very dear in a way. All went ballistic at some point, and we were so happy and very proud of it, because –compared to Moscow where nothing was happening at all. They also had this rock-laboratory, which was trying to grow some alternative music scene in Moscow. But it didn’t work. There was one band in Moscow, Zvuki Mu, and that was it.

- My very last question: have you seen the film “Leto” yet?

- Yes, I’ve seen the film “Leto”, and it’s just a – how do you put it ? It’s just vanilla, that’s it.

- It presents the very early eighties, or at least that’s what the director says.

- They try to present the early eighties, but it’s done with a hipster mentality, and it’s very narrow-minded, approximate. Nothing actually works. I don’t like the guy who plays Tsoi. I think that careen bloke who play Tsoi didn’t get it at all. I’m not saying that this film is useless. I’m saying that this film doesn’t represent us, and I’m saying that this film might be useful for younger generations to open something for them and try to dig into that period of time – which is helpful. But nothing close to …

- I know that Boris Grebenshikov also …

- Well, he was even more drastic about it. He read the screenplay, and he said, “it’s amazing, it’s not even close to the dialogues that our community would have had at that time”. We all had our words, our slang, and they should have   to kept it if they wanted that to be close to what happened then. Otherwise it’s a cheap interpretation.

- I must admit I haven’t seen it, just some fragments, but I thought immediately – this doesn´t look like the authentic eighties.

- It’s not about authenticity. They have these musical moments there, someone on a train starts singing “I’m a passenger” – this Iggy Pop song, and stuff like that. I didn’t dig it. I didn’t buy it.

- You know better.
Alexander Titov, thank you very much for your kindness and your patience. I hope we’ll keep in touch and you will be able to do many more performances with you band – and we will try to keep the archive. Thank you.

- Thank you.

Hannelore Fobo, 12 December 2018

Uploaded 30 December 2018
Last updated 10 June 2019