Saturday, February 25th, 2017
In a funny quiet street, a hop skip and a jump from Battersea Park, we pick up The Jack Wood from their shoot.
Looking for the door, we see the band smoking outside. Sasha (lead vocals and lyrics) waves the flag for Eastern Europe in a big Siberian Hat. She has a tattoo on her jugular that says VOID with that 3D fresh, black inked sheen. It happened two weeks ago in St. Petersburg after a gig. The tattoo parlour owned by their friends, the band Ditch Ditch Ditch.
Dennis (guitar and music) with pomade slicking back his hair, piercing and I mean piercing green eyes almost like a vampire, wears a leather jacket. While Nikolai, the strong-silent-type drummer stands bemused in a giant black coat and boots. His thick, black moustache puts Nick Cave’s to shame.
The grey cold of a Saturday morning is phasing as the promise of walking over Albert Bridge and coffee fuels our shoot in the park.
“We were backstage with one band who was completely sober but then when they went on stage, they pretended they were wasted. It was like, what the fuck? Why are you acting?”
Your latest album is called Ritual. What are some of your rituals?
Sasha: Breakfast of Champions, Dennis: Coffee and Cigarettes.
Sasha: I also have talismans out when I write. They change but I always put them out on a piece of black velvet and I have a silver ring from Israel that stays permanent.
How do you feel about your association to Pussy Riot? (Sasha used to sing with the band).
S: The difference between them and us is they talk about Religion and Politics and we talk about Religion and Sex. D: We sing about human beings, not politics or a cause.
What bands should we be listening to that are coming out of Siberia and Russia?
There’s a strong silence.
S: Everything is so sugary and fake. Problem with the bands that call themselves ‘underground’ is that they are trying to create music that everyone likes. They are like turtles in their shells. They’re not going on stage to die. Every time you go on stage, you go on stage to die or please, don’t go on stage at all. We were backstage with one band who was completely sober but then when they went on stage, they pretended they were wasted. It was like, what the fuck? Why are you acting? If you’re sober just be sober.
Nikolai, the drummer is most animated when he spots a French bulldog being barked at by its owner in a thick London accent, “PERCY! PERCY! PERCY!” He starts to get the knack of his one-eyebrow-raised pose for the camera.
I struggle with the fact that at gigs these days you can’t escape the people who just stand there with their phones, experiencing everything through their screens. What’s it like to be faced with that when you’re on stage?
“We are called The Jack Wood because when Dennis was a child, he had a dog called Jack and he buried him in the woods.”
S: At every gig you always have the people standing, watching not moving, then you have the people with their phones but in the front, the people forget who they are and about their phones. Whatever they are doing we will always give it everything.
Dennis is the master behind the music and Sasha writes all the lyrics. Nikolai is their modest drummer who melts it all together in a cacophony of lo-fi punk turned, tight, hard-hitting chants about sex and ‘the demons inside’(S).
Their First Demo, Old Suitcase is a sort of ode to American Road Blues/Rock and the pursuit of making music. Madonna’s Hollywood gets a great lyric sampling in Jacky Wood. ‘Everybody loves my Jacky Wood. How could she hurt you when she looks good… Shine your light now…’ There’re moody beats, organs and great instances when Sasha’s Eastern European accent pokes through on Sun in my Bottle to close the 7 track inception of the band. The LP title is befitting as Sasha was about to get on a train to Moscow, saying goodbye to Tomsk, (East Siberia) but a mutual friend forced the childhood friends to reconcile with booze and music.
Dennis: We had been friends since school but for one year, we hated each other. Then our friend said look, Dennis has all this music, you have to hear it. We went back to mine and at 3 am she heard my music and said: Wow, that’s what I want! – and in three hours, the demo was finished.
What’s it like working under those conditions versus working in a studio?
Dennis: We make it different ways for each album. Like for the 2nd one (Jack Wood, 2012) we recorded it by ourselves in a big building in a big hall with lots of strange, strange, reverbs.
[You can hear all this when you go back and listen. Works so well with Sasha’s purring into the mic, “I’m not going to teach you.” Lustful Wolf and Live in the Wood blasted out to an audience of no one. Fever and Devil belted out like a decree to the crowd not seen.]
D: Now the last two we made in the studio. (Deus and Ritual) This was very interesting because as musicians you’re making something new and something deeper.
Dig deeper and below I won’t let you down
(9th track Deus)
With their 4th Album, Ritual there’s a real progression to their sound that follows nicely from Deus. Also a further connection to a ritualistic time; with nods to traditional Siberian music. Especially in the song Keep on Going that asks how much further do you want to go? The first track, Silver Gun (Ode to Weapon) it’s almost like a Henry Vaughan poem. Lyrics weaving between simple guitar until the drums kick in and there’s a definite graduation of a sound that hits deeper than before. Ritual is seen even down to the artwork by their longtime friend – Anton Gorbunov. Creating their own shamanic symbols (which I think they should have as flash tattoo artwork as well).
Nikolai: You can always make better. Even after concert people come up to me and say, oh you were fucking great! And I think, I don’t know.
D: We just don’t want to be a Lo-Fi punk band forever. I want to make it more interesting and atmospheric. In the studio, you can do this. Funny because Sasha says she wants to make a Lo-Fi very punky recording next and I don’t want to. I want to make music like the band OM. They started off as this really heavy black metal band to something that is more spiritual – something spiritual with no metal at all. (jokingly) So now we are going to do different recordings for me and for her.
So it’s like you’re at a musical tipping point…
Dennis: We always have a battle with each other. And that’s the way to make something interesting. With two people always push, push, push their feelings and what they want to do, in this battle we’re making something new, for us.
I know that Nikolai joined you later after you had difficulty with your first drummer. How did you all meet?
Sasha: It’s a very long story. We tried playing without a drummer for a bit and we found that it’s too tender, not interesting. Dennis: Not good at all
Sasha: You feel nothing without drums because drums are the heartbeat of your music. We are called The Jack Wood because when Dennis was a child, he had a dog called Jack and he buried him in the woods. One night, we get really drunk, again, and so we decided to find the grave of this dog. When we were children we drew a map and we went there at night and of course, we just got lost, drunk and we couldn’t find any dog and we were really far away from town, then we were standing on the road and a car stopped. The driver was Nik and he just said “What are you doing here guys” – ‘Oh we’re trying to find our dead dog’. He said he would take us to the town and he was just serious, really serious and silent like a serial killer in the forest at night and we asked him, ‘What are you doing in the forest at night?’ And he said “Oh, I’m just trying to find bones to make drumsticks.” and we said ‘OH, are you a drummer?’
And did you get your bones?
Dennis: But then we got each other.
You talk about religion and God, demons and devils in your music what is the significance of that?
S: I didn’t know I was talking about these things until I saw my lyrics. Sex and religion for us are like brother and sister. I think the aesthetic of saints, it’s sexy. You don’t say that Jesus is sexy because Jesus is a saint but I talk about demons and when you give all your demons to the crowd, of course, it will make you think about the other side, God and Saints.
D: That is what is more fundamental; not about Jesus Christ or Krishna or anything like that. It’s about more fundamental things for us and for everybody. Like demons inside of us, you can believe in whatever but demons are in everyone, so it always comes back to human beings.
Also the fact that you can create a performance – speak to the crowd and they respond to you like you’re a saint or a messiah and sometimes you have that power over a crowd…
S: Yeah, sometimes they are screaming that I am a goddess and it’s really strange, because of course, when I’m on a stage I don’t understand, I’m not thinking I am a goddess. Once between songs, a girl screamed that she became a lesbian because of me and I think, oh well ok I am happy for you.
Dennis: It works only when you are not fake on the stage. When you really open yourself that’s the main point of how it works. We saw a lot of bands on the stage they are just making some performance and we saw it as a fake and it doesn’t work. People don’t feel it.
You cannot talk about the band and not focus on their live performances. Everything they say about their openness and authenticity on stage is felt through every note and every twist and turn they make when they play. While Sasha writhes with expert movement attached to each lyric and feeling behind it, twisting the mic lead around her neck, controlling her voice precisely with an intense power.
She flattens and curves pulls at herself and pours water at one point all over her head as she chants, ‘faster faster faster, keeps on going’. They do go to die on stage and there’s a respect and love for each other that facilitates the music. The dialogue between each of them, Nikolai often looking to Dennis, Dennis looking to him, both trust what Sasha is doing. Dennis works hard to create an invisible barrier between him and Sasha when she approaches too close to his guitar with her intense sexual energy. It still can’t help two E strings being broken! The careful build-up of each arrangement seeps in and only makes you want to move. There’s a section of the crowd that are the old true British punk rockers, clearly with their ear to the ground, trying to find that sound that first got them on the dance floor doing the pogo. You see their satisfied look when they think they’ve found it. There is no doubt that the crowd were blown by their sound and all that they gave.
I asked Nik what he thought of it afterwards and he asked:
Nikolai: Why are the English so …. fluffy?
I suppose we definitely do appear fluffy compared to bone scavenging killer rock musicians from Siberia.
They admit, that to give these open performances, true sex and rock and roll lifestyle, they need to take a break and they had stopped for a year.
Dennis: To fix our health! It’s not romantic to be a junkie.
Sasha: I like that in our country, what I think is romantic now and what people want is a family. I know that in Europe many people decide that they don’t want to have a family and they want to work and work and work. I think that it’s really cool that, maybe only in Russia young people are thinking about it. Making a strong big family for themselves. I think it’s not bad.
So to Siberia, the Woods and the many, mini open-hearted, Jack Wood rebels to come.