Strange for a sinister, industrial, post-punk band from Minsk to attract the attention of millions of teens via TikTok, but then it is 2020 after all. Belarus synth group Molchat Doma got together in 2017, but this year have very much piqued the world’s interest. Here they speak to David Renshaw about using delicious, addictive synth sounds to soundtrack the oblivion.
Photos by Masha Svyatogor.
In times of great personal or political upheaval it can be tempting to want to escape to the past. There is a sense that, having already made it through unharmed, we’d all be safe from harm in the fuzzy days gone by. Nostalgia is nothing new, nor really is the millennial yearning for a past they weren’t alive to experience. Molchat Doma, the austere post-punk band hailing from Minsk, Belarus, however have found themselves the benefactors of a particularly specific niche within this ongoing trend: TikTok teens who wish they could escape their hardships and transport themselves to mid-’90s Soviet Russia absolutely love them. The band are not a retro throwback, having only formed in 2017. The following year they released Sudno but it wasn’t until this year that it appeared on Spotify's Viral 50 charts (reaching No. 1 on the U.S. chart in early May) and soundtracked over 100,000 TikToks. Such is the band's unlikely reach on a platform best known for Gen Z dance challenges that one TikTok teaching people more about Russian poet Boris Ryzhy, from whom Molchat Doma quoted the lyrics “Living is hard and uncomfortable/But it is comfortable to die”), has over 1.8 million views. Speaking to Pitchfork, Jakob Akira, a 22-year-old college student explained the virality thus. “A lot of kids in their early twenties like to alleviate the stresses of modern-day capitalist society by entrenching themselves in a very romanticized version of Soviet Russia and what society might have been like in the ’80s.”
Talk to the band about this breakout viral success, however, and they’re less enthused. While they’re happy more people are hearing their music, frontman Egor Shkutko worries that “the idea of the song has been lost” and that “people just like a sound that gives you something to do on TikTok.” He may have a point about the disconnection between algorithmic hits and the artists they can often dwarf. More pertinently, however, Shkutko and the band claim the TikTok trend of glorifying the “Soviet vibes” of their region fails to recognize the harsh realities of life in the region. The Soviet lifestyle is “exotic, especially to people who have never lived there,” they suggest. “We will never do that though because we don’t believe it.” Asked what people need to know about Belarus before they jump to romantic conclusions, the band says simply “It’s fucked up,” a damning but diplomatic indictment of their home country.
In August Belarus was gripped by mass protests following the re-election of longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko. He was first elected in 1994 but activists have rejected his latest re-election, claiming the vote was rigged. A summer of protests in Minsk, in keeping with a year of civil unrest across the globe, were filled with stories of violent clashes between protestors and the authorities as well as police using rubber bullets and tear gas to brutalize opposition voices. In September opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, one of three women who fronted the Coordination Council, accused agents of Belarus' state security committee of kidnapping and endangering her life. "They threatened to kill me," Kolesnikova said at the time. "They stated that if I refuse to leave the territory of Belarus voluntarily, they will get me out of the country anyway – alive or in fragments."
Understandably, Molchat Doma are unable to speak about the political situation in their country out of fear for their own wellbeing. Saying that it is “fucked up” is about as direct as they can be without compromising their safety. It’s clear, however, that external forces have played a role in shaping the band’s cold-wave sound. “It’s easier to name songs of ours that aren’t depressing,” Shkutko offers up at one point. Speaking through a translator (none of the band speaks English), he is telling me about the new album Monument. It’s an album that sits alongside 2017 debut From The Roofs Of Our Houses and 2018’s Etazhi as a masterclass in mope, a collection of lovelorn post-punk and synth pop filled with the kind of gloom and despair that has turned dark corners into a spotlight for everyone from The Smiths and Joy Division to Molchat Doma’s Soviet forefathers Kino, Alyans, and Biocontructor. Molchat Doma are flirting with a more uplifting sound on the new album, referencing early Madonna, Yazoo, and Depeche Mode when they mention Discoteque and the sinister yet alluring bop Ne Smeshno. Looking to Monument for any insight into Belarus’s geopolitical landscape, however, will only bring you back to the helpless mindset of its three creators. “There’s an anger on the album,” bassist Roman Komogortsev reasons. “An anger at the world around us. Our outlook is ‘Fuck it.’ We don’t care too much about global issues. You can’t think too much about the thing you cannot change.”
This feeling of helplessness is the crux of the so-called “doomer” movement, a loosely connected group of individuals with a pessimistic outlook on life that congregate online to collectively shrug their shoulders at the latest apocalyptic headlines of political upheaval and a climate in crisis. Molchat Doma are big among the doomer community and their music regularly features on playlists with titles like “Songs to contemplate your existence to” or YouTube uploads featuring the Wojak meme. Also known as Feels Guy,” Wojack seems to sum up the average doomer; lonely and remorseful with a blank outlook on life that often hides the true feelings they wish to bury. Shkutko says he feels a distance from the movement based on his age; "This is more of a youthful, teenage phenomenon and does not quite suit us," he explains. "On the other hand, the tendency of the doomers is some kind of sad, incomprehensibly dreary state that every person experiences from time to time. And our music is perfect for that."
Recorded partly in lockdown after a world tour was pulled due to the Covid pandemic, Molchat Doma view Monument as an opportunity to move away from the narrow image painted of them through their viral success among doomers and Tik-Tokers, while acknowledging that they will always have a bleak vein running through their music. They say a self-imposed lockdown (Belarus has one of Europe’s lowest reported coronavirus death rates but the band wanted to err on the side of safety) left them "emotionless" and that they struggled to create without the impetus of the wider world. "People always tell us there is a darkness in our music but we don’t really see it," Komogortsev says at one stage of the conversation. This point is somewhat undercut when he goes on to say, matter-of-factly, that "the color we think of when it comes to our music is grey."
The color grey comes up when we talk about Molchat Doma’s love of brutalist architecture and its use in their artwork. The band used the gravity defying Hotel Panorama, an Instagram favorite located in Slovakian ski resort Štrbské Pleso, on the cover of second album Etazhi. Monument, meanwhile, features a dramatic rendering of the Workers' Party Monument in Pyonyang, North Korea. The band are keen to distance themselves from any political links to the vast sculptures of a hammer, sickle, and paintbrush and offer up the fact that “it looks monumental and we wanted to show that this album is monumental,” as the reason for choosing the image. Like Molchat Doma’s music these brutalist buildings are strange and beautiful, a reminder of what the future looked like in the not too distant past. Offering shelter and safety amid a turbulent landscape, there is a feeling of safety in the simplistic structures that resonates throughout the austere sounds that ring out from the trio’s drum machine and guitars. Shkutko sums up the architects behind these buildings as “completely fucked up but in a good way.” Molchat Doma know the world is fucked up, too. They’re ready to soundtrack the oblivion.