Russian hour

DDT has survived both Soviet-era freedom and Russian repression.

THEIR CHEMICAL ROMANCE Veteran rockers DDT slay the fans back home in Russia.

THEIR CHEMICAL ROMANCE Veteran rockers DDT slay the fans back home in Russia. Photograph: Vladimir Dvornik

Russia still has its secrets. When glasnost offered the West its first glimpses behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-’80s, we watched as comrades plugged in guitars and synthesizers. New wave, punk and prog had already found their way into the Ruskies’ hands like black-market Levi’s. A taste of the road, once forbidden, must have been sweeter than Coca-Cola. Bands such as Akvarium and Zvuki Mu wooed crowds across Europe and the U.S. Why then did their amplified cries of freedom die down when the Soviet Union fell? Whatever happened to Russian rock & roll?

“You have to imagine,” explains Yury Shevchuk, the 50-year-old founder of the legendary band DDT, “that people who had been playing free basement shows for ten years were tremendously naive when they had to confront promoters and their promises. Freedom was anarchy. Many talented people died; they didn’t know how to deal with this new lifestyle—money, drinking, drugs.”

The USSR lost many talented musicians as the suppression of rock subsided: Singer-songwriter Aleksandr Bashlachev committed suicide; Zoopark’s Mike Naumenko drank himself to death; and Kino’s Viktor Tsoi was killed in a car accident on his way to deliver the studio tapes of Cherniy Albom (“the black album”). So poor he couldn’t afford even cab fare in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Shevchuk remembers virtually nothing of DDT’s first trip to America in 1988, save for a shiny black limo and the towering glasses of vodka with which MTV execs toasted their arrival. “In that haze,” he says, “we couldn’t really understand what was happening to us. The period was like a disease we had to go through; there were a lot of growing pains.”

DDT’s current five-city U.S. tour—its first in six years—has been comparatively discreet. The group’s Hammerstein Ballroom show sold out through word of mouth weeks in advance. Faced with the prospect of mainstream publicity, promoter David Gross of Metpo half-kidded, “Is there any way I can talk you out of writing about them? I’m scared there’s going to be a line around the block.” (He’s added an acoustic show at Hiro Ballroom.) At home, though, allowing info to spread quietly through networks of fans seems to be the norm for the 27-year-old band—arguably the most popular Russian rockers of all time.

Formed in the city of Ufa, DDT won a local newspaper’s contest in 1982 for its song “Ne strelyai” (“don’t shoot”). A thinly veiled critique of the Afghanistan occupation, it attracted the attention of the authorities, and DDT was banned like other ideological toxins. Hitchhiking from city to city, the group gave concerts in secret, moving between apartments, bomb shelters and kindergarten classrooms. “We would hop off a truck and talk to someone on the street, who would recognize us immediately,” Shevchuk explains. “They’d put us up for free, feed us and help organize a concert. It was really easy and really pure.”

DDT’s music—an odd mix of new wave, classic rock and metal—knitted together neurotic guitars and loping basslines beneath Shevchuk’s dark vocals. Politics aside, some of the angst sounds like the by-product of primitive equipment. Early albums like Svin’ya na raduge (“pig on a rainbow”) could be made only by standing around a tape recorder.

Everything changed when perestroika loosened strictures on art. Shevchuk re-formed the band with new personnel in Leningrad, the center of the rock scene, and DDT gave its first official concerts in 1985. Seven years later, the group’s popularity reached new heights with the radio-friendly Aktrisa Vesna (“actress of spring”). The near collapse of the new Russian state meant that even stars “had to think about physical survival,” Shevchuk remembers. “Food was scarce and basic needs were very hard to meet. We had to clean up and get serious about making art.” Meanwhile, popsa began taking over the airwaves; by the end of the decade, most independent media had been shut down by the government. Russian rock didn’t die with its early heroes, but it was forced back underground.

Now self-recorded and -promoted, DDT still attracts arenas full of fans throughout Russia and other former Soviet republics, and it continues to voice its criticisms through Shevchuk’s poetic lyrics. Moreover, since marketability hardly matters, the band has been free to alter its sound from album to album. DDT’s acclaimed 2005 release Propavshy bez vesti (“vanished without a trace”) fills prog rock’s epic structures by blending thumping hardcore, breezy electronica and strident Russian folk. That might seem impossibly kitschy, a criticism long leveled at many Eastern bands, but the synthesis sounds organic. Unsurprisingly, there’s little in the way of official information on two new albums scheduled for this spring; like in the old days, you’ll just have to keep your ear to the ground.

DDT plays Webster Hall Sun 27 and Hiro Ballroom Tue 29.