Back in January of last year, I first made contact with founder/drummer Jora (aka George) Valchuk of the Ukrainian band Atomic Simao, and he eventually agreed to participate in an interview by e-mail to go along with a review of their digital-only 2013 releases Nodo and Sphyro. At the time, political pressure on the Moscow-leaning Yanukovych administration was just beginning to turn into street protests in their home city of Kiev. Soon, however, those protests turned into violent confrontation and eventually Russian troop invasions, and then a real hot war broke out. So we’ve had to wait some time for things to settle down a bit before getting this piece put to digital paper, but it’s just as well, as the Greek label Cosmic Eye (cosmiceyerecords.blogspot.com) has just now released their first album Nodo in a limited-edition run of 350 copies (200 in colored vinyl, the rest black).
Both albums to date were recorded at Driben Indie Records in Kharkiv, in the eastern part of Ukraine. Time and travel limitations meant that these albums were actually made with a revised lineup, including guest appearances from the Kharkiv-based Janovsky band featuring Givotnoe; Artyom Janovsky and Ray Listratenko on guitar, and Vova ‘Givotnoe’ Sytnik on keyboards and pads. The current lineup, now based solidly in the Ukraine capital, is as follows:
Jora Valchuk – drums
Dima Dudko – sax
Nikita Gavrilenko – bass
Jenya Sophiychuk – guitar
Andrey Volkoff – keys, pads, samples
Andrey “Bart” Dvoryashin – percussion, Korg Kaoss pad, vocal samples
with Sophiychuk returning to handle guitar duties after being an original member some years ago, and Dudko and Dvoryashin being newer members on saxophone and percussion/samples, respectively, adding new musical voices to yield the current larger ensemble.
So with the vinyl reissue, I can now take a fresh look at Nodo as a “new” release, even with an older lineup. OK, I’m still working from the digital files, because I don’t have a vinyl copy in front of me. Sadly, my turntable is not even hooked up to anything at the moment (I need a new mat for it anyhow). I can at least tell you that the vinyl album includes only five of the six tracks included in the digital version, leaving off the superlong Asteroid Masterpeace (clocking in at 17 1/2 minutes) by necessity. But then if my information (via discogs.com) is correct, the vinyl Nodo includes slightly longer edits of four of the other tracks, roughly an extra minute each, making it a 44-minute album. And then it’s still possible to get the missing track in digital form with ease via the Bandcamp site, here: http://atomicsimao.bandcamp.com/track/asteroid-masterpeace
Nodo opens on arguably its highest note with Voodoo Chillum, an 11-minute freaky feast for the ears. The similarity of this title with that of a certain famous old Jimi Hendrix tune is not coincidental, as roughly three minutes in, we first start to hear the famous Voodoo Chile riff gently inserted in the left channel, though slowed down considerably. Meanwhile, awesome freak-out style guitar histrionics are going on in the right channel, meaning that this is not a true cover of the song, only an instrumental jam borrowing that one signature riff. Some quieter passages highlighted by heavier fuzzed-out bass guitar are interspersed later in the epic track. Stoned & Spontaneous is moved up in track order to fill out the rest of Side A with a similar length. Starting out as a mid-tempo jamming piece with echoey guitar in left channel, it picks up briefly in mid-tune with more urgency. It features a steady rhythm-backing throughout, and hosts a cool mix of psychy sounds; a swirling mass of sonic buzzes, bleeps and blares.
Do What You Do is a slowish, grungier, more chaotic, piece overlaying chugging riffs in the left channel with really nice Hendrixy soloing in right channel and more wild synth f/X. Beauty Does Not Belong To Anything starts out as more downtempo, textural stuff, and then gradually picks up pace, offering up a mix of jangle guitar and psychy fuzz guitar. The 8-minute (plus) Dancing Emptiness wraps up the vinyl reissue version, a mix of groovy rhythms, noises, sporadic guitar noodly bits, etc. It has an unfinished jam feel, more sound collage than true song, perhaps even qualifies as musique concrete. For me, Atomic Simao was a purely serendipitous find on Bandcamp via an ordinary keyword search on a certain combination of terms (such as “space,” “psych” or “krautrock”), as I often do to discover new bands. It doesn’t often lead to a major discovery, but every once in a while, a real gem comes out of nowhere to surprise me. Atomic Simao is such a band.
While the impressive debut Nodo comes across like a 45-rpm Acid Mothers Temple record accidentally played at 33 rpm (i.e., same freak-out style, less frantic pace), the sophomore recording Sphyro is (dare I say it?) more polished and groove-oriented. I won’t include a full review here for the sake of brevity, but with a total of 15 tracks, there are many more ideas presented here in shorter form. A few new voices have been added, including Dima Dudko on saxophone and a couple of tracks with some limited vocal parts of the chant style, but no actual lyrical lines. Both Korai Orom and the Ozrics (when John Egan “fronted” the band) have had similar vocalizations over otherwise-instrumental tracks, so then Sphyro tends in this direction and a bit away from the Hendrix/AMT-ethic of Nodo. Usually, I prefer the latter hypno-groove rock to psych freak-out stuff, but I think Nodo is actually the better album by a small margin. That said, the two long jams (“13″ and “I Know Cause You Know”) are really growing on me, and are actually more polished and impressive musical works. Fans of Korai Orom and the San Francisco jazz-krautrock jam band Mushroom would dig this stuff for sure. Though you really needn’t take my word for it… you can head over to Bandcamp (atomicsimao.bandcamp.com) anytime, and check them out for yourself. Jora tells me that Sphyro is slated for release soon on CD, and perhaps vinyl thereafter, so look out for that.
Back in May of 2014, Atomic Simao travelled to the Russian capital to participate in the Moscow Psych Fest with other noteworthy regional acts such as Vespero and Polska Radio One. A compilation album of tracks was organized to promote the event, and Atomic Simao contributed two songs, one a previously unreleased recording entitled Awakening, which you can also hear at their Bandcamp site. Jora tells me an additional track called Sleepy Meadows was recorded at the same time and is awaiting future release.
The band is currently planning their third studio release and doing concerts here and there. While we wait for that, you can (and should) hear one of their concerts (Live at GogolBARdello) at their SoundCloud page, here: soundcloud.com/atomic_simao
OK, without further ado, here is my E-nterview with Jora Valchuk (drums), Dima Dudko (sax), and Ray Listratenko (guitar) of Atomic Simao (Kiev, Ukraine). Of course, Ray is not currently playing with the band, but was a major player on the Nodo and Sphyro recordings and they may collaborate more in the future when circumstances allow. And he and Dima were kind enough to add their voices to my virtual conversation with founder/drummer Jora to help round out this interview portion.
Aural Innovations (AI): Atomic Simao is an interesting name. What does it mean? Simao looks Portuguese to me, in fact there’s a well-known soccer player with that name. Coincidence?
Jora Valchuk (JV): Partially coincidence. Simao is really the surname of a Portuguese football player. I’m not really a fan of his talent. He’s just a good player who once upon a time even played for FC Barcelona, but regardless of that I just love his surname, that’s all So the name is just two words that sound nice together.
AI: How did the band start? Did you all come from other bands?
JV: I was dreaming about starting a band while I was playing as a percussionist in a band called “DoZa”. I was looking for musicians to play experimental music without any borders. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. There were a lot of jams in the garage with different people without any idea of what it’s gonna be in the end. But one day we had a gig in Kharkiv and some of our members couldn’t come and so we spontaneously asked Artyom to play with us on guitar. He was playing at that concert with his band Janovsky featuring Givotnoe. And he agreed to play. After that gig we found a lot of common musical things between us and we decided to collaborate with each other in spite of living in two different cities (Kharkiv and Kiev). So the first Atomic Simao line-up was: Artyom – guitar; Jora -drums; Vova – electronica; Andrey – guitar loop.
Ray Listratenko (RL): We all came from different bands. As for me I was playing in rock group called The Wind. We played acoustic ballads and new-age themes. That then transformed into electric psychedelic rock. Now I am deeply involved in loop technology. Discovering more space in hidden melodies.
Dima Dudko (DD): As for me, I was at the first Atomic Simao gig as a listener. And later after a rehearsal with the band called DoZa (who I played with then), I dropped by another concert by Simao. There we jammed and I was invited.
AI: Did you have similar musical background, or more diversity? What other styles were involved? Did you have formal music training in school, or are you all self-taught?
DD: Some styles and bands we like are in common. We played a lot together with Jora and Bart before Simao. There were some common bands we played in. Later, the sax brought some jazzy notes into stoned Nodo-style Simao music That was after Nodo. I think we can call ourselves self-taught.
JV: We all have very different musical backgrounds. As for me I am self-taught drummer and was raised and influenced on break-beat and acid-jazz music. I think everyone brings a unique part of himself into our sound. Maybe this is a recipe!
RL: When I was a kid, my parents took me to a musical school to study accordion. I remember I was crying, begging them to stop torturing me
AI: To my ears, it seems like many of your songs must have started out as freeform jamming. Is that accurate, or are your songs more composed than that?
JV: Our first two albums we’re totally free-jamming music. But now we’re in process to release new material with new members. Third album will be more structured. A lot of drive-y funky space music with trippy saxophone sauce! It will be more organized and very diverse in comparison with our first albums.
DD: Even if some of them are actually composed beforehand, such a composing process is still a kind of jam-like type.
AI: Do you record “live” all at once in the studio, or through overdubbing to a rhythm track?
JV: It comes spontaneously. Totally improvised stuff. I can compare it with the “catch a wave” feeling, when everybody feels each other without a glance. But yes, we make overdubs when it’s necessary, for example, some band members re-recorded almost all their parts when we all came back to Kiev after the Kharkiv trip to record at Driben Indie Records.
DD: I like the approach of combining these two methods. That’s about us [in a nutshell].
RL: To record “live” all at once takes a special state of mind amongst all of the bandmates. You are not able to explain to everybody how he might sound or what to play next. The truth is you have it or you don’t have it. Personally I felt such an inspiration for only the second time in my whole life thanks to all the people who took part there. I think it’s pure magic.
AI: Between your two guitarists on Nodo, Artyom and Ray, it seems like you have a nice mixture of textural stylings and/or circular guitar licks combined with freak-out echo-guitar soloing a la Hendrix or Acid Mothers Temple. Have they been playing together for a long time, and how has their “chemistry” as a unit evolved?
JV: Artyom and Ray played before together and they also have a psychedelic/ambient/space-rock project called ‘RayJa Expedition.’ I think they perfectly complementary each other. You can find it in VK [the “Russian Facebook”] at http://vk.com/rayjaexpedition
RL: Artyom is the most comfortable guitar player I ever played with! You can improvise with him almost on the go and it all transforms into a beautiful melody.
AI: Now you’ve added saxophone to the mix, with the addition of Dima, so there’s even a new lead instrument involved. How does everyone now combine their various riffs and solos without “stepping over” one another, so to speak? How does everyone communicate their intentions to each other when playing either in studio, or on stage, and how do you and the bassists adjust to what they’re doing?
DD: Usually I try to solve this problem due to my habit of listening to the soloists in the band while I’m on the stage/rehearsal/studio. If there’s a place for me at the moment I play. Let’s say that instruments in the band are voices, then sometimes I get a chance to take part in some kind of a dialogue (Q&A for example) or play the same phrase/melody with the guitarist for example, even when it’s getting really loud and messy and it seems that there’s no place for an additional instrument. But sometimes it’s possible to get carried away and to forget about others It happens. The two guitars plus sax period was tough But there were more possibilities and variety. Sphyro is a good example.
RL: When you play such kind of music you can always feel when there is time to step in and when it is time to support somebody who struggles while soloing
JV: The main thing is to listen to each other and then you’ll have a chance that it’s gonna be music, not sonic-gibberish. I think that the saxophone added a lot to our music. Now we have a sound very similar to sex between psychedelic and jazz music!
AI: I hear you will soon re-release your first album on vinyl in Greece [now available!]. Is the recent trend back towards vinyl amongst underground bands also present in the Ukraine as it is elsewhere?
DD: I think so, yes. Because a couple of underground bands I know in Ukraine are also getting vinyls released lately.
JV: I can remember The Crawls. They released their album with Nasoni Records on vinyl. But it’s not a trend for the Ukrainian scene. It’s more like a pleasant surprise.
AI: How did you end up recording your albums at the studio in Kharkiv?
DD: It began with our Kharkiv fellows and I guess the reason was that this studio was a kind of popular place to record. In addition, some very popular Ukrainian performers were their clients. Then the place itself is interesting and cozy Interiors, animals, etc.
AI: Have you been able to put together traveling tours outside of Kiev, or are you mainly focused on doing individual shows and festivals here and there around the capital?
JV: We had a lot of gigs in Kiev and played shows in Kharkiv, Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy. Also took part at Moscow Psych Festival in Russia, and had a gig in the famous St. Petersburg club ‘Griboedoff.’ And had two shows in Gomel, Belarus. Now we have plans to arrange our first European tour.
AI: How is the climate right now in Ukraine for underground (specifically psychedelic) music of this nature?
JV: I’ve discovered some good bands for last two years. Such as The Curse of Wendigo, Somali Yacht Club, Dreadnought, In Submarine, RayJa Expedition. A lot of talented people here in Ukraine we haven’t heard yet, but we will!
DD: I think even psychedelic-like bands can be found in most of the large and medium cities here. Especially ones where different styles of music can be combined and associated with psychedelia. And overall, underground music I’m sure is widespread in every place throughout Ukraine
AI: When we first made contact, the political situation in Ukraine just involved street protests there in Kiev. Since then, of course, it turned into a real “hot” war for control in the east. How has this turmoil affected your daily lives, and what impact has it had on continuing the band? Has there actually been anything good come of the whole tragic situation?
DD: Thank God we are all alive and got the opportunity to go on with our music. Some of our current and former bandmates were rooting for the protests and some were against that. And some of us even managed not to quarrel about that and maintain normal relations between us. We were meeting different people in the eastern cities when we were on tour in the spring there. There were different points of view, but everywhere we met a community that was good to us and enjoyed our music. Even in Moscow in the end of spring we were met with hospitality at our gig. People wanted to hear us there for a long time. We met our fans, friends and relatives there. We wished peace to everybody from the stage. Those were good moments.
AI: Sun In Everyone is a track on your newest album, Sphyro, and you [Jora] sometimes use the pseudonym Sun Everyone for yourself (as you are credited on the Nodo album liner notes). Is this a concept that is important for your views on life, or anything spiritually?
JV: No it’s not The dudes decided to name a song similar to my ‘vk’ account nickname. The truth is that these words belong to Socrates: “Sun is in everyone. Just let it shine.”
DD: That track is one of my favourites. We thought the name was very appropriate and fitting A warm track and sunny sound plus a bit of philosophy.
AI: Where do you see the band heading in the near future? Have you thought of adding actual vocals, with written lyrics to some songs, or will you stay primarily instrumental?
DD: The sound of the third album will be different. A couple of other members added and yes, a tiny bit of vocal phrases.
JV: We added vocal partially to our third album, which we’re hoping to release in March-April, 2015!
AI: Do you have hopes of making the band truly a financial success, or are you in it mainly for the artistic expression and creative outlet?
JV: Of course it would be nice! But it’s not the main thing for me. We love the way we exist, the way we create our music, the way we joke about our music. These things really make me happy !
DD: Financial success is actually not the goal, but who knows
Stream and download Atomic Simao’s albums at: http://atomicsimao.bandcamp.com
The vinyl edition of Nodo is available at the Atomic Simao Bandcamp site and through Cosmic Eye Records at: http://cosmiceyerecords.blogspot.com
Review and interview by Keith Henderson