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Blankenberge: Shoegaze Is Everything

Image courtesy of Blankenberge FB page
7 February 2022

Photo courtesy of Blankenberge

Blankenberge is a shoegaze/dream pop band based out of Russia’s imperial capital of Saint Petersburg. Yana Guselnikova (vocals/guitar), Daniil Levshin (guitar, synth), Dmitriy Marakov (bass) and Sergey Vorontsov (drums) came together in 2015 out of a mutual love to create sonics palettes doused in reverb and drenched in drone that set the foundation for ethereal harmonies that soar.
The story of Blankenberge started in early 2015 in Barnaul, a small city in the south of Siberia. Daniil and Yana having returned from an inspiring trip around Europe, started composing several songs with some local friends. They named their band Blankenberge as a homage to a town on the North Sea coast of Belgium that left a lasting impression on the pair.
Also in 2015, Daniil and Yana decided to move to Saint Petersburg in search of more opportunities to develop their music. They not only found the sheer grandeur of the city inspiring but also the other members of the band who would help them hone their sound. Blankenberge performed regularly in Saint Petersburg and released their first self-titled EP on 12 March, 2016. The EP’s free-formed post-rock compositions with intensely melodic passages, heavy droning and a pure shoegaze sound, immediately drew in very enthusiastic reviews from shoegaze blogs all around the world.
In July 2016, they were involved in a cover project called The Cure in other voices where they presented a dark and noisy shoegaze version of Pictures of You. Shows in Saint Petersburg and Moscow followed and the band immediately started composing new songs. The writing and recording process would take another year and a half. After teasing with first single We on March 12, 2017, Blankenberge released their debut full-length album Radiogaze (Elusive Sound) on June 30, 2017. The album instantly won over the ears of shoegaze listeners worldwide with Yana’s swooning, soft vocal delivery over a hazy swirl of loud droning guitars that swell and subside much like the sea that inspired them.
Building on the stir created with their debut album, Blankenberge self-released their stunning sophomore effort, More on April 10, 2019 alongside the album’s first single Right Now. Those in the know took notice with the band even seeing rotation here in the U.S. on KXLU’s Part Time Punks radio show in Los Angeles.
The band had plans to tour Europe in April 2020 that would have seen them traverse the Czech Republic, Germany, France and the Netherlands in support of More before the pandemic put the kibosh on those plans. Undeterred, the band released their third LP, Everything on November 14, 2021 with the vinyl version selling out within minutes. As the pandemic drags on, Blankenberge continue to devote more time to creativity with discussions of another LP and independent label in the near future. My sincere thanks to Yana and Daniil for their time. Here’s hoping they find our shores soon!

JAMES BROSCHEID: поздравляю! I am loving your third LP, Everything! What was it like writing and recording the LP during a global pandemic? How did your approach to this record change compared to your past work?
 
YANA GUSELNIKOVA: Thank you. Yes, the approach was changed a lot. Me and Daniil recorded guitars and vocals at home and drums and bass were recorded by Sergey and Dmitriy without our presence and support just together with our sound engineer. We didn’t rehearse any of these songs before the recording, we started rehearsing just after we already recorded it. So yes, it was very different and challenging for us.

DANIIL LEVSHIN: We used to finish the songs together at rehearsals, but this time all the tracks were written entirely at home.

JB: Can you give us some background on the band? How and when you met and who is in the band?

YG: I met Daniil long ago in Barnaul, a Siberian city where we lived then. He played guitar in several bands, I played guitar too and just started to sing. We moved to St. Petersburg together when we already had some ideas for the future band. We met Daian (ex-guitar), Dmitriy (bass) and Sergey (drums) here in St. Petersburg.

DL: We met the guys in 2015 in Saint-Petersburg at the concert of The Fall of Troy. Dmitriy moved from Yaroslavl. Only Sergey is originally from St. Petersburg.

Photo courtesy of Blankenberge FB page
Photo courtesy of Blankenberge

JB: How has your experience with Mikhail Kurochkin on (second LP) More informed your decision to work with him again on Everything?
 
YG: Mikhail is one of not many sound engineers who knows this genre and easily finds the right sound that we need. We knew how to work with him and we were happy with the previous result so we decided to continue this collaboration.

JB: What does Mikhail bring to the Blackenberge sound that produces such wonderful results? And Vladimir Nosyrev? Does St. Petersburg have plenty of resources for bands to record as far as studios, producers, engineers, pressing plants, etc?

YG: We have not so many resources here. Especially for music like ours. Vladimir Nosyrev worked with Pinkshinyultrablast, so we contacted him because he knew what we want to get. Not so many sound engineers in Russia know what shoegaze music is. We have trouble every time when we have a show in Russia. They tend to make vocals too loud, it is typical for Russian music to not value the music behind the voice. We met Mikhail Kurochkin when the guys from our ex-label Elusive Sound recommended him to make a mastering for the (first) LP Radiogaze with him. It was perfect, so we recorded instruments for (second LP) More with him, but vocals with Vladimir Nosyrev, because he knows how to do it really well.
 
JB: How does St. Petersburg, a city steeped in history and arts/culture, inform/influence your work? How does it differ in feel from Moscow?
 
YG: We have never lived in Moscow so it is hard to compare. I think me and Daniil moved to Saint-Petersburg just because we had some friends here. It is also a popular city for migration from smaller cities of Russia now so a lot of interesting people come here to develop their art.

JB: Can you talk a bit about the music scene in St. Petersburg? I am familiar with Pinkshinyultrablast (named after the Astrobrite record of same name) but outside of that band, can you recommend other Russian bands (shoegaze or not)?

YG: Now we are really into our own music. I personally don’t listen to much music, especially new. We have some bands here in Russia, for example Life on Venus, Shark’s Tears, Aerofall and Motorama. They are all from different cities, not only from St. Petersburg and Moscow.

JB: What are some common misconceptions you have seen/heard that the west may have about the music/scene in St. Petersburg? Or even Russia in general?

YG: There is a misconception that people only create music and art just in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I guess people from other countries can’t imagine that there is a life outside these cities. Just woods, bears and snow.
 
JB: What is it about shoegaze that fascinates/inspires you?
 
YG: For me it is the melancholic mood. I hear that in all shoegaze music and it is very close to me, my thoughts and feelings. Also such music is usually very soft and ethereal that reminds me of the sounds of wind and the ocean. It’s fuzzy and reverberating sound. It’s softness. Its opportunities for implementing any experiments with sound.

DL: I like hearing a sense of universal calmness and love in my guitar noise! I am inspired by the melodic noise and distortion of the sound, so shoegaze is the basis of our sound.
 
JB: Has shoegaze/dream pop started to catch on in Russia yet? Those genres seem to be finally getting the recognition they deserve these days! What kind of music is popular in Russia, in general?
 
YG: It is hard to say because we don’t listen to too much new music now because we are busy composing our own music. But it seems like Russian musicians tend to create a new sound that is not similar to any other country’s music and they try to sing only in Russian language, it is getting more popular now.

Photo courtesy of Blankenberge FB page
Photo courtesy of Blankenberge

JB: I liked what you said about Russian music and the creative impetus to create sounds that are unique to the country. I don’t know how many reviews I’ve read where Blankenberge is compared to Slowdive! Does not singing in the Russian language ostracize the band in any way from people in your country? Short-sighted patriotism tends to isolate rather than embrace I find!
 
YG: I believe that it is ok that Russian musicians try to sing in the Russian language because it makes their music very special and different from the music of another country’s artists and that is a good thing. For example, I like some German, Japanese and other country’s bands that have lyrics in their local language and it sounds fantastic and unique.
I chose English for our band’s songs because I feel more comfortable singing in English (I don’t have perfect Russian pronunciation and I like my English pronunciation more). I also think that shoegaze in another language is not shoegaze itself but another genre, e.g. “Russian shoegaze” because language is very important for sound.
I see that we have a smaller audience here in Russia because our songs are in English. Most of the people like to understand what a song is about and like to sing along but the amount of Russian people who can speak English is not very big. On the other side we are known better in some other countries for the very same reason.
 
JB: I understand the band’s name came from a town in Belgium that you and Daniil visited back in 2014 or so. What was it about Blankenberge that connected with you so strongly?
 
YG: The sea. We saw the sea for the first time in our lives and it was an amazing experience. Our sound reminds us of the sea so we connected these two things together and named the band like this.

JB: I understand the connection between the sea and shoegaze. I remember making a compilation for my wife when she went to Southern California and it was nothing but shoegaze/atmospheric artists. I was dating her at the time and she said she had never heard anything like it, sitting in the sand for hours just listening with headphones and meditating while watching the tide roll in and out. Why do you think shoegaze is the perfect companion to our hearts and souls for our connection to the natural world?
 
YG: I believe that all these atmospheric genres like shoegaze and post-rock are like classical music in the world of rock music. When we are listening to it the music brings us some philosophical mood and we are more open to see the beauty of nature and think of some things that are somewhere above our daily life.
 
JB: How did that trip throughout Europe from your then home of Barnaul, Siberia inspire the move to St. Petersburg? My wife and I are wanting to visit St. Petersburg someday – she LOVES Tolstoy!
 
YG: The move was an unexpected thing, we just decided to try to go to a bigger city to find better jobs for a living and better opportunities for developing our music. St. Petersburg looks like a European city with its great architecture in the city center, it is very beautiful.
 
JB: What are you listening to and/or reading now?

YG: I’m reading Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome Klapka Jerome and my favorite thing to listen at the moment is the compilation KID A MNESIA by Radiohead.
 
DL: I am now re-reading Harry Potter for the 15th time! Basically I only listen to my own music, I don’t always have time to listen to something else. And if I listen to something else, then these are mostly old albums. For example, I recently listened to 65daysofstatic (by) _Wild Light_(Superball Music, 2013). This is very good!
 
JB: Daniil, I love the minimalism of your art. What is the inspiration behind the newest record’s cover art?
 
DL: We wanted to keep the concept of geometric minimalism as it was in the previous albums. The background color was taken from a Fender Jaguar Surf Green guitar and changed a little. This is my favorite guitar color! For the choice of the color of the “tree leaves”, we were inspired by stained glass windows and mosaics. I am inspired by Wes Anderson’s films and modern architecture. I like simple forms and bright color combinations.

Photo courtesy of Blankenberge FB page
Photo courtesy of Blankenberge

YG: The idea to put a tree on the cover appeared when I was thinking that during the lockdown we all should stay at home, in the same place for a long time like a tree that is never moving from its place.
 
JB: Is Blankenberge any closer to touring more in Russia and hopefully in Europe/United States? I think you would be well received on both continents! I would be happy to be your driver in the states!!!
 
YG: Thank you so much! It is very pleasant to know that we not only would be well received in the US but also have someone who can help us, it is really amazing and encouraging! It is a pity that we still have these complications with COVID and also the political situation between our countries is not so well. We can’t even receive a U.S. visa here in Russia, the only option is to get it in another country and it works just if we have some special invitation, (e.g. invitation for work in the US). We also don’t plan on touring here in Russia because of the COVID restrictions, especially because they change the rules very often. So we decided to concentrate on creating new music for now and release it in physical formats by ourselves and even to establish a label here in Russia.
 
JB: Could you provide some insight behind each of the tracks that make up Everything? Maybe some writing/recording stories and the influences behind each track?
 
YG: The music for the title track Everything and the song So High were composed in late 2019. Then the pandemic began and Daniil was temporarily unemployed partially because of the pandemic for that moment. That was the time when the music for the rest of the songs appeared. I composed the lyrics at the end of 2020, almost all of it was inspired by the pandemic this or that way. I tried to get rid of bad thoughts about our tour being canceled and that we should stay home and skip some interesting events, etc. I tried to convince myself that it is all for good and we can redirect our energy to other good things, to create some new music and to learn something new (you can hear the words Distract yourself, Do anything… in the song No Sense – that is what it is about). I still do the same thing, trying to find interesting things in life mostly staying at home. So we are planning another album to come sometime soon!

JB Did the band find it easier or more difficult recording Everything remotely in terms of creative input from each band member? In other words, once recording started, was the band afforded more time to be able to absorb song ideas and come back with input or is that better achieved in a live rehearsal setting?

YG: The most difficult part was not the composing itself but the recording. The recording process was more difficult and took much more time than we used to spend on this.

JB: With full-time jobs do you find it difficult to find balance between your professional lives and being in Blankenberge? I imagine the band is quite a release from “normal” life? A lot of artists over here have done exactly the same thing you did – use this period of isolation to keep creating. There has been so many great releases over 2020 and 2021 … Blankenberge included!!!

YG: I find it hard to find balance between my job and the band because I am a perfectionist and try to be good in everything I do. The most perfect time for creating music is a vacation or the time between an old and a new job that we have sometimes. Anyways we spend almost all our free time discussing or making something for our band and it is very fulfilling to create something like we do!

JB: It would be remiss to not bring up the current political situation between our two countries and get your take on it. It is easy to think that our leaders represent us as citizens and we judge accordingly but more often they can be completely disjointed from their constituents! What is it like living in Russia during these times and what do the people think of us in the United States? I was surprised to learn you cannot even get a visa for the U.S.
 
YG: I guess it is very hard to be a politician and I hope they have some good reasons for doing what they are doing. I tried to learn more about the current political situation recently because we had another parliamentary election in 2021 but it was a disappointing experience. Nothing can be changed so easily in such a big country as Russia, especially because people here are used to having no interest in politics after the USSR where it was all controlled by the leaders not people. We hope that we will be able to get a visa and tour the U.S. sometime this decade. We think very positively about your country, especially knowing so many good people from there!

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