In an occasional series Louder than War puts the spotlight on some figures in the wider music industry who don’t often get noticed due to geographical, gender-based or other social / political considerations. Usually, those working at the margins are those who shape music for the rest of us, even if we rarely notice. One is Yaryna Denysyuk, hardcore punk singer and editor-in-chief at the online Ukrainian publication, Neformat. Neformat covers all Ukrainian music with the accent on Kyiv and bigger cities, mainly because musicians tend to live and create there. Denysyuk often writes about the music in her native town of Uzhhorod, situated near the borders of Slovakia and Hungary. We asked Yaryna to give us the low down about being a committed punk and heavy music fan in this fascinating country.

Yaryna Denysyuk of Neformat Interview – New Ukrainian MusicPhoto by Накипіло

LTW: You come from a city that is close to borders, tell me about how people travel between Ukraine and Hungary and Slovakia to see gigs?

Obviously now it all stopped because of Covid and most of the standard schemes disappeared, but in better times we had a few regular buses daily from Uzhhorod to Košice in Slovakia  and back, so it was really convenient. You could even work half a day, and then around 2pm take a twenty-minute walk to the bus station and then after a two-three hour trip over the border, be at a gig in another country.

In Košice there is a one really cool DIY place called Collosseum, which we would regularly vist before COVID, where tons of great punk and metal gigs happen. Here you could see everything – from smaller crowds for things like Stick To Your Guns to bigger crowds at bands like The Exploited. In better times, the club somehow managed to get so many great punk and metal bands, that we simply didn’t have the time and money to see them all. And moreover, it’s not the only interesting cultural place in Košice.

Getting to Hungary is harder and takes longer. Usually, it means getting to Budapest, and that means an hour drive to the border, then that border crossing is also slower, and then the journey to Budapest is a long one; at least a few hours if you go by car, and even more if you go by train. So you must plan such a trip in advance, and it is more convenient to stay overnight there. Because of this, Budapest is less interesting for me and my friends, although I know that many older metalheads like this music route more. With Košice you just get the bus, and around 4аm you’re back home. And the Slovak language is much easier to understand!

LTW: Why is punk or other forms of heavy music so important in Ukraine, do you think?

This kind of “heavy” music started growing in popularity in the 1990s, because the Soviet Union treated different parts of their empire differently. In Ukraine, they tried to prohibit all forms of free-thinking, and this included unusual musical forms and musical expressions. So generally, getting some Sex Pistols vinyl or organizing a punk band in Prague, Moscow and Kyiv were on different levels of difficulty and had differing consequences. And then it all burst out when we got our independence back, including some really interesting experiments with poppy dance music. But the usual lack of money and knowledge made its impact and generally, most of the popular music in the 2000s turned into low-quality Russian-speaking pop. Punk, metal and different experimental scenes from the 1990s never got enough money, but over time they lost that mainstream interest, too, and turned mostly into marginal or subcultural movements for those who “understand”.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that the internet changed that. Although the tastes of Ukrainian pop producers and general listeners got better, being, for instance, Jinjer, Stoned Jesus or 1914 in our country isn’t even nearly the same as being a top-paid pop singer like Jamala. I would even let myself say that punk and metal often don’t feel as a legitimate part of the music industry here. Yes, some big promoters can bring let’s say Cradle of Filth and gather nearly a thousand listeners, but in general the punk and metal scenes have a parallel infrastructure of smaller labels, clubs, organizers, often not known to the wider public. None of these organizations have enough fans of Ukrainian music to be financially successful, so they are either total DIY or work a lot with foreign bands and listeners.

Playing a punk gig or organizing a concert for some local death metal bands in Ukraine (and even running a media outlet about it all) feels more like a mission or life goal. You have some particular music interests, so you must basically organize the infrastructure, especially in those smaller towns, to protect it for new listeners. Often, you pay out of your own pocket. But I assume it’s not the worst way of spending your life and money! So generally, punk and other forms of heavy music in Ukraine are a lifestyle, a hobby, a mission to save this culture, and it feels quite noble after all.

LTW: What is being an independent music journalist like in Ukraine?

It’s a lot of fun I think, but it’s not for everyone. I started as a normal regional journalist, writing about everything; from local politicians to dog exhibitions. Leaving that job was a big relief for me, as I didn’t feel that my more serious pieces changed anything in my town; also it was a constant rush and trying to know everything and the general vibe of the texts was often more downbeat and sometimes tragic.

As an independent music journalist, I can work a bit slower and can reflect more on the whats, whys and hows. It helps me work towards becoming a real professional. Plus, I am working with my favourite topic – underground music. It’s like a dream job in this aspect, but I must confess that sometimes writing only about music seems a bit dull, especially when there are such serious political and social events in the country. Also being a music journalist and making media about music, of any kind, is something quite new for Ukraine, so it is a constant process of research and learning for me and my colleagues; even with popular or indie genres.

An interesting aspect of working with underground music is that you know a lot of your heroes personally. Sometimes it is for good, sometimes it interrupts your work, but we must simply learn to live with it. Obviously, there are the negative aspects – some random haters, some personal haters, general disbelief in journalism – but I regard it as a part of the job. Just analyse, make conclusions and move forward: that is my principle in most unpleasant situations.

Yaryna Denysyuk of Neformat Interview – New Ukrainian Music
LTW: I don’t want to ask questions related to your gender that may sound patronising (as I certainly don’t want to be), but is there anything you feel needs saying given your experience as a young woman running a punk and heavy music magazine?

I thought a lot about your question. I don’t want to sound like I’m saying sexism doesn’t exist, because it does, and I have experienced it, professionally too. So here is just one story. Just after graduating from university, I had a public quarrel (something I find horrible and not natural for me) with a man who worked at the benefits office. He was really mad that I didn’t accept their first job offer. It was a simple job at the post office, where no experience or knowledge was needed. That man had literally planned my life for the nearest 10 years. As he told me, I would work at the post office for a year or two, then I will marry and get the first kid and maternity leave, then a second one… He explained it all to me loudly in the crowded public room. So he got a loud answer back, about my actual plans for life.

But I knew what I wanted. I looked for jobs where I will be treated normally, as a human, not by my gender or sex. If there would be problems with this at Neformat, I would rather try to change the situation or leave this job. Our CEO and all my colleagues and freelancers treat me with respect, and I do the same. I can’t say I didn’t experience hate from random readers or musicians, but none of them literally told me that I suck because I am a woman. Actually, if I make a mistake, it’s more common to hear something like “all those music journalists are stupid/unprofessional/ sold out / subjective,” and so on.

Yaryna Denysyuk of Neformat Interview – New Ukrainian MusicLTW: Ukraine is a massive country, do you see any major differences in music tastes or styles when you look at the rest of the country?

The situation with scenes here is quite typical; you will see the same in the USA, I expect. But I would personally divide listeners and musicians/scenes.

Underground fans and listeners are basically similar everywhere. It is just the question of how many there are at any given place and time. All Ukraine’s musical life, including the underground one, is concentrated in the capital Kyiv. Many ambitious musicians tend to get there, as well as many talented artists, film makers and so on. And obviously, there are many more listeners in the capital with a wide spectrum of listening tastes. It all means greater possibilities for those who make specific types of underground music. For instance, a crowd for a noise party is much more realistic in the western city of Kyiv, whilst in a small town like mine, Uzhhorod, we are talking about 10-15 listeners at best. We have a few noticeable scenes in Kyiv, but none of them can be called the leading one. I would mention hardcore and techno scenes as the bigger ones, but the capital has a mix of it all.

Then there are other, bigger cities like Lviv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Dnipro. Although each one has more than a million people, they are really different. In these you can see certain developed music scenes; these sometimes had more musicians than actual listeners or concert goers. For example, Kharkiv is known best for its black metal scene acts like Drudkh and svrm, and others. Odessa is well-known for the old hardcore scene, concentrated mainly around one person – Left, who is in most of the local hardcore projects, and one and only More Music Club, great for all kinds of underground music.

Dnipro has a good young electronic scene thanks to the club Module, the label Dnipropop and the artist, Kurs Valut.

Then there are a few local phenomena like the scene in the electronic scene in Nova Kakhovka in the south of the country, which is a radically different place in terms of weather and geography.

Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine, is special. It somehow resembles Kyiv in that it doesn’t have one chief scene, but a number, if on a much smaller scale. Here we have some prominent bands and artists like 1914 or rapper Довгий Пес (Long Dog). If we talk about Lviv and the nearest western regions regarding the punk scene you will see some tendencies towards emo/screamo elements both in performers and their followers, whilst Odessa is more about skate punk. The punk scene in my town Uzhhorod, whether it is hardcore punk or grindcore, is more about social issues, in the lyrics. The metal scene due to its earlier appearance in Ukraine is quite evenly divided through bigger and smaller cities and towns, and it also works for genre diversity and listeners’ tastes. But getting a bigger crowd is easier in Kyiv or Lviv, as, for some reason, Odessa and Kharkiv are less active. Kharkiv also used to be the capital of rap music in Ukraine in the 2000s, and there are still many fans of rap music there, but it feels like the prominent and active rappers are now mainly concentrated in Kyiv or the western part of the country.

LTW: Yaryna, I’m going to put you on the spot. If you had to make an introductory playlist, what would it be?

To feel the variety of Ukrainian music, (but with an accent on the psychedelic scene) check label Robustfellow. And their physical releases are masterpieces.

Surrogate Rec. will show a punkier side of the scene. But it also has a good variety of Ukrainian releases over the past few years.

Personally I like the young label Світанок (Sunrise). Young people make trendy emo rap and post-punk, but in the Ukrainian language.

If I have to name some of the latest releases, October 2021 was a really good one for our scene.
1914 – Where Fear And Weapons Meet https://x1914x.bandcamp.com/album/where-fear-and-weapons-meet

Azathoth Circle – Siaivo – https://azathothcircle.bandcamp.com/album/siaivo

Mortal Vision – Mind Manipulation – https://mortalvision-ua.bandcamp.com/album/mind-manipulation

Cluster Lizard – Star Corsair – https://clusterlizard.bandcamp.com/album/star-corsair

Subscum – https://rotovaporojninarecords.bandcamp.com/album/s-t

Artem Bemba – Fried Autumn Leaves – https://artembemba.bandcamp.com/album/fried-autumn-leaves-2

IGNEA, ERSEDU – BESTIA – https://ignea.bandcamp.com/album/bestia?from=embed

Thanks Yaryna!

As told to Richard Foster.

This article is supported by the British Council’s Selector PRO programme

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Writer for LTW and Quietus, Published in Gigwise, Drowned in Sound, The Wire, Noisey and others. One-time proprietor of Incendiary Magazine. Currently PR and Communications Manager at WORM Rotterdam.

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