If perestroika had a musical theme song, the Red Elvises would be its ideal authors. Touting themselves as "Kick-Ass Rock and Roll From Siberia," the Red Elvises translate surf rock and rockabilly into the Cyrillic alphabet, then celebrate the eternal rock dreams of pretty girls, fun times, and the dance party that never ends.
The Red Elvises are like a 1950s throwback that's been catapulted into the 21st century. They have that warm glow of the musical past, laced with the heady joy of the formerly repressed now savoring their freedom. The band was formed by three Russian immigrants: guitarist-singer Igor Yuzov, bassist-singer Oleg Bernov, and lead guitarist-singer Zhenya Kolykhanov. Match them up with drummer Avi Sills, an American of Russian-Jewish extraction born in Texas, and the result is Senator Joe McCarthy's worst nightmare: a celebration of the American rebel-rock tradition dyed in the deep red colors of Soviet-era symbolism.
"The music is a big gumbo of the Russian kitchen and the American kitchen," Kolykhanov says. "We like the blues, but it's like we are entering through the back door, in the Russian way."
True to Kolykhanov's words, the Elvises mate strains of Russian folk and klezmer music with hot guitars and party rock. And the band's wildly theatrical stage show and look -- hopping about in natty Red-baiting-era threads and coifs with a naive enthusiasm -- further accentuates the odd appeal of this bizarre yet utterly natural mix of East and West.
It's as if the end of the rock music deprivation that three-fourths of the band grew up with in the U.S.S.R. has fueled a delightful lust for all that the music represents. Kolykhanov recalls a primal musical experience in his late teens, when "I saw AC/DC for about 10 seconds. It was one of those broadcasts where they say, like, here's what's going on in the wild West. And they showed Bon Scott for like 10 seconds, and I was blown away -- that was it," he recalls. Perhaps what the state-controlled media wanted to show were the strange and decadent evils of the West? "Exactly. But I took it all wrong; I took it literally."
Watered-down Russian rock had already secured its grip on Kolykhanov, who had cobbled together a guitar of sorts at age 13. "I made my first guitar myself out of the mailbox. I attached a neck to the mailbox. I wrote Beatles on it and misspelled it, and put some strings on it," he explains. "The Beatles were the perfect music for Russians. Because of the melodies and because of the shtick. They were clean-cut, but the music was awesome. Russia was never the land of rock and roll." Hence such inspirations for Kolykhanov as the Doors and Jimi Hendrix didn't quite capture the imagination of his peers. "Some [people] wouldn't understand the blues scales. It's like the European market, they like cheesy melodies."
All three of the Russian Red Elvises played music in bands and theatrical productions in their homeland, but felt the irresistible pull of the United States. Bernov had met an American woman at a Moscow peace walk, and he made his first trip to Los Angeles soon after to visit her. Kolykhanov also began traveling to the U.S. at about the same time, even living for a while in Dallas, where he played with a progressive jazz band called Darwin's Law. The two Russians later met up in Los Angeles and started performing on the Third Street Promenade in Venice Beach, the oddball haven they now call home. Their notion was to make music in the most primal manner. "As basic as possible," says Kolykhanov. "Not three-chord progressions, but one-chord progressions. You play too many notes, and people question it after a while -- where's the music?" But there were also the Russian flavors in their sound and even their look, underscored by Bernov's bright red, three-string, balalaika-style bass guitar.
Meanwhile, drummer Sills had also grown up about as communist as one could in America. The son of a "hippie rabbi father," as he explains, he started in music when "in the middle of a commune in Northern California, I found the drums, or they found me. My first bar gig was at 13, and I've been playing ever since." He later drummed for Robert Cray, eventually landing in Los Angeles, where he worked in a klezmer band. The group's clarinetist also played with the Elvises, so when the Russian group's drum stool became open, Sills jumped in. And even though there's a great cultural distance between where Sills was raised and the backgrounds of the three Russians, he finds that "the similarities are in the majority. Other than the different identities from the different countries we come from, everything's the same. We all create the same way. We all work hard."
Indeed, the Red Elvises have mastered the art of capitalist marketing, as well as displaying an entrepreneurial do-it-yourself spunk. They've put out 11 CDs on their own Shooba-Doobah Records, with such evocative titles as Surfing in Siberia, Grooving to the Moscow Beat, Better Than Sex, and Shake Your Pelvis. The Red Elvises tour the country as relentlessly as they issue CDs, and listening to Bernov speak, it's clear that coming to America is as wondrous for these Russians as first climbing the charts must have been for Elvis himself. When Kolykhanov was new to America, he recalls, "I used to go to the grocery store and just stare at the food for hours. I would go to the market and go, 'Wow, look at that orange there.' Or like 'Look at this potato, it's the size of my head.' It was unreal." Even now, Kolykhanov gets awestruck by the bounty of "the weather, the people, and the cars."
That joy is reflected in the band's music and live shows. The Red Elvises are "a happy dance band, a good band to get drunk to," he says. "I think we're like beer and cookies."
"I guess we make good times," Bernov adds. "And people like that."