Interview with the Devil: Tovarish
Recently I got to sit down with Dimitri Myshkin, Tovarish vocalist and friend of the Toilet. Tovarish is a dark ambient band melding blackened soundscapes, propaganda tracks, and droning instrumentation into a potent and spellbinding concoction. Presented here is my conversation with our striking comrade.
Dimitri, Tovarish’s EP that’s up on Bandcamp is called Red Hearts in a Dead World. Is that a nod to the now-defunct Nevermore?
The nod was unintentional. The name “Red Hearts In A Dead World” comes from the clinging to something like an idea or belief or feeling that is already dead and gone. After the fall of communism in Russia, there were still people who believed in it, despite it’s clear failure. Even today, there are people who lived through Soviet Russia who still want to return to the old ways. To want something with all your heart, but to know that you can never have it is incredibly sad and withering.
Dimitri, the vocals you do in Tovarish are less overt and more atmospheric. I recently saw a picture of Tovarish performing where you were wearing a gas mask. What set-up do you have for producing vocal effects live?
We’ve experimented a lot over the years with the simplest and most effective live setups. Like most noise groups, there’s tons of stomp boxes and wires everywhere—Roman, our guitarist, even makes some custom units of his own design—but we each control just a subset of the live apparatus. The mask is the front-end of the vocal signal chain. It’s connected to 3 feet of corrugated tubing with a mic duct taped to the end. This does two things. Firstly, it isolates the vocals and reduces some of the feedback typical of using live vocal FX. Secondly, it creates an extra 3 feet of artificial esophagus shaping the sound before it hits the mic. So it already sounds somewhat monstrous and filtered before any FX, plus you can squeeze and manipulate the tube to get different noises out of it.
The mic at the end of the tube goes first to a volume wah, which is mainly just an added layer of feedback control, then to a harmonizer pedal shifted down 2 octaves, and finally it goes to the on-stage mixer where Ivan, our electronics master, EQs the signal and blends it into the reverb of the auxiliary bus, shared with drums and synths, which makes it all sound like it’s a unified atmosphere and also adds some nice distortion if we clip the input.
One downside is that it’s not easy to communicate with each other or with the audience when your face is obscured and your voice is distorted; I rely on hand signals and head nods to communicate with the other guys. The other downside is that the mic has been in the tube for years, and we’ve never removed it—we try not to think too hard about how much fungus has grown on it after years of hot breath and spit raining in this dark rubber tunnel.
Your vocal apparatus sounds a bit like some of the equipment Tristan Shone uses. Do you have any plans for working other devices into your sound or stage show?
I’m happy with the sound we are able to currently achieve, but we’re always experimenting. Roman built his own baritone guitar and Ivan is always finding old effects pedals to use. Since we’re not on the level of someone like Tristan in terms of making equipment, we rely on scavenging and trading.
We’ve actually made a concerted effort to reduce the amount of equipment we use live. What used to take multiple vehicles to get to a show now just takes one. Our setup is very different now from when we first began about 5 years ago. I think our first show had live drums, a laptop, and a lot of amps. I held a microphone instead of it being directly in the gas mask tube, which really didn’t work. We reduced the amps, got rid of the laptop, and ditched the live drum set for a Wave drum which created a whole other host of problems like feedback. Now we use old electronic drums that don’t contain tiny mics like the Wave drum and achieve the same sound.
It’s been a lot of trial and error and some people have had to suffer through that live.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen at a metal show (one of your own or another band’s)?
At our last show, in the middle of our set, Spanish pop music started to play. We had no idea where it was coming from. It was a basement show, but the music wasn’t coming from the house or outside. It wasn’t any of our samples and it wasn’t a cellphone ringing. We shut off the microphone and sound board and still the music was playing.
One of Roman’s homemade pedals was somehow picking up this radio station and it was broadcasting through his amps. It was the first time that ever happened, and it happened right in the middle of our set. He unplugged a few things and was able to get rid of the music, but it was hard to recover after something like that.
The imagery your band uses is pretty dark, even by metal standards. Are there any artists (in music or elsewhere) that have had a big influence on you?
We’re all fans of history and politics. There are so many events and people and places from Russia and the Soviet Union to draw upon for inspiration. Wars, famine, space, innovation. It’s all so interesting and different. We have a song titled “Laika” named after the stray dog from Moscow that the Soviets shot into space. There are pictures and video of her. This poor creature, with no home and no one to love, was sent into the abyss with no intention of bringing her back. A sacrifice for science. It’s cruel and heartbreaking. There’s no need to make something up to come across as “dark and scary” when life is already dark and scary.
In terms of music, we draw from bands like Khanate, Celtic Frost, SUNN, Nortt, and others. We typically play our live sets with a video playing behind us. We have a few different videos, actually. One is a collection of riot footage from various protests across the globe. Another is old Soviet propagandha cartoons. The one we have been using most recently is a combination of all sorts of Soviet videos ranging from space footage to World War II footage. It adds another layer to our live show that draws the listener in, locking them in place, and sinking them into the ground.
The idea to use a live video, at least for me, came from seeing Red Sparowes live. I watched them, transfixed on the video playing behind them during their set. It was like they were providing the soundtrack to an art house movie. I wanted something like that.
Bands that combine both an audio and visual element often mistify me. Do you think Tovarish will ever move further in that direction, perhaps by exploring other media?
Why does it mystify you? I find it far more engaging than just staring at some people turning knobs and stepping on pedals. Maybe you can think of the live music as a soundtrack for the video?
We have occasionally used a fog machine, but we cannot use it in Rhode Island. Following The Station Nightclub fire during a set by Great White that killed 100 people, Rhode Island banned pyrotechnics at concerts. A fog machine isn’t a pyrotechnic, but gets put into that category anyway. We understand the concern of seeing smoke at a venue, especially in Rhode Island, and refrain from using it.
Who’s your favorite Russian author?
Dostoyevsky. I derive part of my name “Myshkin” from his novel “The Idiot”. “Crime And Punishment” is one of my most favorite novels. It captures the torment and suffering one must go through in order to achieve salvation. Life is serious and full of suffering. One cannot laugh until they have truly suffered. I think Dostoyevsky captures man’s frailty and uncertainty very well. He reminds us how small we really are.
Do you have any tips for helping aspiring would-be metal vocalists regarding techniques for improving their extreme vocals?
Practice breathing techniques and work from the diaphragm. Don’t force anything, that’s how you get hurt. If you can’t do lows, don’t do them. Find what you’re good at and stay with it.
Warm up by actually singing. It doesn’t matter what you’re singing as long as it’s for an extended amount of time. Sometimes I sing Misfits songs just so I get warmed-up in a few different ranges.
Tovarish is obviously inspired by Soviet propaganda. What led your band to take that stylistic direction?
Soviet history has always been interesting. Growing up, it was always US versus the Soviets. The Cold War, the Space Race, the Miracle On Ice. It was an “us versus them” mentallity. They were the big myserious bad guys and once the Soviet Union fell, the veil was lifted. We now have all kinds of video and audio to use for Tovarish. The artwork, the videos, the radio broadcasts are all different from what we are used to in the West.
Another reason is that fascist themes and symbols pop up in metal and extreme music. Perhaps they are trying to be “shocking” or “edgy,” but it’s questionable at best. We don’t want any part of that. We went in the opposite direction.
How would you like your band to grow artistically?
The inclusion of Roman on guitars has really opened up Tovarish’s ambient and atmospheric side. With our first album, Da Tovarish, we weren’t sure exactly where we were going. We didn’t know what kind of band we wanted to be and it shows on some of the songs. On Red Hearts, we started to go in a specific direction, somewhere between extreme noise and doom, but were still missing something.
Now we have much more focus with concrete ideas of who we are, what we want to sound like, and where we are going musically. We have always been loud and ugly. Now we have some beauty to alleviate the constant extreme, but it also serves to make our harshness all the more disgusting. It’s the right direction for us and we are going to keep straddling that line of beautiful depression.
How much touring does Tovarish do?
Tovarish doesn’t tour extensively because we all have full-time jobs. It’s also a bit difficult to tour with the type of music we make. I can’t see doing what we do at a bar on a Tuesday night in, say, West Virginia. Who knows. Maybe I’m wrong.
We are currently content with playing one-off shows. While we mainly play shows in the Providence area, we have ventured out into Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. We also have standing invitations to play in New York City which we hope to take advantage of next year.
When can we expect new music from your group?
Our third album, still untitled, is completely recorded. We’ve actually been sitting on it for a while making little tweaks and adjustments. We actually have Yoshiko Ohara from Bloody Panda doing guest vocals on a song called “Whisper Campaign”. Her vocals are incredibly haunting. We’ve been lucky enough to do a couple shows were her and it’s always great to watch her live.
The next step is to take care of artwork and layout. We’ve tentatively found a well-known label in noise/industrial circles and we’re very eager to work with them. We’re planning for an early 2015 release. You can actually listen to a demo of our new song “Order 227” here.
I’d last like to touch on your comment that often the most horrifying events imaginable can and do happen in real life. Would you say that the Tovarish ethos is a projection of your worldview in a way?
There is no hope. There is no salvation. There is only Tovarish.
Still wondering what a world with only Tovarish sounds like? Imagine the soundtrack that will be playing when your beloved homeland collapses, when your family and neighbors turn on each other as traitors, when the emotional unrest and spiritual turmoil at the heart of civilization collapse into a maelstrom of panic and decay. Dimitri and his comrades have tied together a noose of blackened atmospheres, droning distortion, unintelligible vocals heralding imminent doom, and foreboding news broadcasts, and they are graciously offering you that noose to escape the inevitable culling to come.
If you like Sunn O))), Nihil Novi Sub Sole, and Spektr, you’re in for a treat here. You can stream the chilling debut Da, Tovarish and three tracks from Red Hearts in a Dead World on the band’s bandcamp. You can also check out “Order 227” below, and let me tell you, I’m very intrigued with where the band is going. In my humble opinion, “Order 227” is the band’s best song so far, upping the aggression with even more abrasive vocals and anchoring your despair with a more Martial sonic aesthetic. Get pumped for the new release.
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