For over a decade, Mad Meg, who describe their distinctive and one-of-a-kind sound as a “Russian-American Punk Chanson Noir Band from New York,” have been playing by their own rules and growing a grassroots fanbase for their bonkers and distinctive noise. The only description this author can offer is if you took The Ex, The Slackers, Sparks and The Dresden Dolls and mixed their music with aspects of polka and Russian traditional music, you may have a good starting point.
The current line-up, comprised of Ilya Popenko on vocals, Dan Veksler on guitar, Igor Reznik on bass, Ruslan Baimurzin on drums and Jason Laney on whatever else they need, talked to Post-Burnout, to discuss their formation, how they found their sound, the impact of New York on their music, their lonesome but funny lyrics, their latest album Who Deserves Balloons and Medals? and more.
I guess the first thing I’ll just ask is how you guys met each other?
Ilya: Well, I guess most of us – the ones who speak Russian – we met just through being part of the Russian-speaking community in New York. And actually, Jason, who is not a Russian speaker, he also met us through a Russian-speaking community in New York! [All laugh] So, I guess…so, I’ve known Igor for maybe 20 years? Something like that.
Igor: I stayed over in your house. That’s how I met you. I was in another band.
Ruslan: Yeah, he just snuck in the door at one point and broke in and was like, “Can I stay in your place?” And Ilya was just like, “Alright. Just…yeah. The couch over there.” [All laugh]
Igor: Kind of!
Ruslan: Because nobody opened that door that night, except Ilya.
Igor: And look where we are!
Ruslan: So, yeah, we’ve been friends for a long time. Actually, Dan. Dan, he’s the first guy that I played with, you know? And then we met, years later, and joined in the Mad Meg. But when I got to America in 2007, two months later, I actually played with Dan in the other band, which was named Cuckoo. Then I met Ilya maybe a year later?
Igor: You met me, and, through me, I think you met Ilya.
Ruslan: Well…you…[Overlapping discussion]
Dan: I don’t know if we need to get into all of these confusing…[All laugh]
Igor: Well, I just want to set the record straight! [Laughs] [Overlapping discussion]
Dan: Maybe we should just get it straight with ourselves first, and then we can tell it to the press!
Ruslan: Yes, that’s right! But, you know, I took it like too straight, and when I get a straightforward question, I try to answer straightforward. [All laugh] But, yeah, you’re right. So, yeah, then, please try to settle this out for us.
Dan: Well, yeah, it’s true, Ruslan and I played in a band together in 2009 briefly, and that was before I joined Mad Meg. I believe it was also before he joined Mad Meg. But…
Igor: Oh, yeah. It was before Mad Meg! [Laughs]
Dan: But of the people here, on this Zoom, I’m the last one to have joined, so I’m certainly not the expert on how the band came together. But…
Ruslan: [To Dan] So, basically then, you and I, we started this band, right? [All laugh]
Dan: Basically, we started it! We could probably…we could even credit [Redacted], who was the lead singer of the band…
Igor: We fired him! Don’t write about him! [All laugh]
Ruslan: So, yeah.
So, what year was it? Because I had 2011 as the beginning year, would that be correct?
Ilya: That sounds about right, yeah. Ruslan and I were like the original two out of three members of Mad Meg, and then…That was my first and last band. I had not played in any bands prior to that, and Ruslan and I and one more guy, we got together and formed that little venture, which spiralled out of control over the years and grew into something much bigger than I had originally thought it was going to be.
So, what was the original intent, I guess, in starting the band? And was the music you were aiming for what it turned out to be?
Ilya: Well, musically, it’s still pretty much…we still sometimes play a couple of songs that we started with, eleven years ago.
Dan: [Singing] It’s just the same old song!
Ilya: Uh, yeah. Yeah, I was just, like, recording my own songs in my room and I would post them on MySpace, and that’s how the guys heard my stuff, and they just approached me…the bassist approached me and he’s like, “Why don’t we attempt to play them live?” And we started playing them live.
Igor: Because MySpace was still a thing back in 2011! [Laughs]
Igor: It’s still around, you know?
Ilya: I don’t know. My profile, like, I can see the link but it’s not…it’s, like, empty. There’s no information there.
Yeah, so when it came to the original core of the band then, obviously it just expanded from there. Because the music you make is so eclectic, I mean there’s many different elements coming in. I was just wondering…did it start as a traditional guitar, drum and bass kind of operation and then, eventually, you just started bringing in additional instrumentation?
Dan: I think it’s the opposite; I think it started out as more unusual kind of line-up and then it became more standardised. Yeah, I think they had…before I joined, they had, you know, horn sections and whatever…who knows what? And sometimes it’d just be Ilya and Ruslan, just drums and guitar. It started out as much more of a punk band and then we’ve gradually become a bit more professional, I don’t know. [All laugh]
Ruslan: Professional band! But if you’re talking about the last record, which is Balloons and Medals¸ I think part of the success of this album [is] because we didn’t play a metronome. I think there was…because, you know, something about it. When we play, we just have this natural rhythm, which we feel it. Like we all, one heart, and feel each other as musicians. And that’s why when we’re going to the recording place, we’re losing it, you know? We start to adjust to metronomes, and then we figure out [that] the timing of metronome is kind of killing of it, whole while. And a couple of times, we said, “Fuck it!” Can I say “Fuck” in this?
You can say what you want, yeah. [Laughs]
Ruslan: Alright. We said, “Screw it…” [Aaron laughs] “, let’s play without it.” And I said, “Yeah.”
Igor: And that’s how we got our sound. [Laughs]
Dan: I was never really a fan of the metronome. I mean, you know, I never use a metronome, but it’s generally…
Ruslan: Yeah, because it’s just a feeling!
Dan: Ruslan has it in his earphones but the rest of us aren’t aware of it, really, so, yeah.
Ruslan: Yeah, like now, I have headphones but there’s no metronome, but they’re thinking there is one…
Dan: He’s not listening to a metronome! [All laugh]
Ruslan: See? They’re thinking! But normally I just listen with music in it.
Dan: Sure, but you’ve got it synced…so, not a metronome but it’s a complicated…
Ruslan: Yeah, yeah. I mean something is happening because we’re always rehearsing and playing live without metronome and then we just…you know, when we go to a record studio to record our songs, and it’s kind of killing the vibe.
Ilya: Well, with all due respect to Ruslan, I don’t think the presence or the absence of the metronome is [Laughs] the reason behind it…
Ruslan: No, no! Of course…of…I said…I said…
Ilya: I don’t think that!
Ruslan: No, no. I said “Partly.” I said the part, the little part. I didn’t say, “The main thing.” But some of the songs, like “Monkey Boy,” there were no metronome; we just went on feeling. And “Beyond Repair” too. And, yeah, it’s kind of…it’s changed because when you listen to the record, you feel it, the timing is different than in the…it feels different; it’s more, like, natural sound. More natural.
Igor: I think, like…
Dan: I think it’s mostly about the shoes; it’s mostly got to do with the shoes we wear.
Ruslan: Which shoes?
Dan: Well, it’s the shoes we all wear, you know? And our socks also, maybe, a little bit.
Igor: Uh…I think…
Ruslan: I don’t remember which shoes you had on. Which shoes you had?
Dan: Well, you don’t have to worry about it. My shoes are like your metronome. [Laughs] They’re just for me.
Ruslan: There’s no shoes! There’s no metronome!
Dan: Sometimes I’ve got no shoes. You know, sometimes I’m wearing no shoes.
Igor: So, to answer the question, [All laugh] we’re all very different, and I think that the fact that we kind of all bring our own musical taste to the arrangement process; we arrange…you know, Ilya writes the songs and then he brings some version of them, and then we arrange all together. And just the fact that we all listen to very different music, and we all have very different influences and [are] different characters, that’s probably what you’re hearing. And a lack of metronome and different shoes. [Laughs]
When it comes to doing the band, which can go up to an eight-piece, I assume you’re people who have regular jobs and, like, getting people’s schedules as adults can be kind of a tricky thing to do. I was wondering, yeah, how adaptable are you guys to like each other’s whims of life? Where it’s like, you know, maybe this guy can’t be at this show, or I don’t know. How do you adapt to having so many members, I guess?
Dan: Well, we have a requirement that everybody in the band has to be a ne’er-do-well.
Dan: And that’s part of it.
Ilya: It’s definitely challenging, but luckily most of us have kind of flexible schedules. But it’s definitely…it’s difficult to find the time to get everyone in one room and there’s, like, six of us. I don’t think it’s an eight-piece.
Dan: I mean, we definitely spend a lot of time together, though, considering…I mean it’s true that it’s very difficult to get a bunch of adult people together in a place like New York, et cetera. It is very difficult, but I think all of us, basically, have organised our lives around this band in many ways, you know? So, it’s not as much time as we’d like to spend together, but I think it’s actually still remarkably a lot of time. I mean, yeah, that’s what I think.
Yeah. When I was looking at some of the cultural differences between you guys…I mean, I have it written down here, influences from Russia, Mexico, Austria, France, Puerto Rico, Kazakhstan. I was wondering, do you think the cultural differences play any aspect into the music or do you think it’s just more about the connectivity in being in New York City together?
[Ilya and Ruslan talk simultaneously]
Ilya: Sorry. Go ahead, go ahead.
Ruslan: No, you go ahead. Go ahead.
Ilya: Well, the band as it is right now, it’s a little more…it’s a little less multicultural as it used to be. So, five out of six of us, we can speak Russian. So, we come with…even though we’re from different countries, we can kind of come from a similar background. But maybe not musically but kind of from…we have a similar heritage. Except for Jason but he fit in really well.
Yeah. So, when it comes to what you guys write about, what sort of influences what…I guess when you put pen to paper, what you sing about? Not necessarily just the music but just specifically the lyrics, I guess?
Ilya: Yeah, I guess it’s a question for me. I mean, usually around…I write about stuff that worries me. Like, in a lot of cases, those songs are therapeutic, right? Where they’re ways to complain about stuff that bother me, you know? About, you know…some songs are about certain fears or wanting validation or you know…
Dan: Or dildos.
Ilya: Or di…well, that song is about the fear of people basically, you know?
Dan: A lot of those songs are about anxiety and misanthropy and fear of people and things like that. But they’re very touching and self-ironic as well, so there’s definitely a lot of darkness but there’s also humour and it’s a heady, distinctive sort of personality that those lyrics have.
Yeah, talking about your new album, which is called Who Deserves Balloons and Medals?, it’s like it does kind of weave…it has a very, I found – this is just my impression of the album – but it had a very, at times, sort of isolating atmosphere to it but, simultaneously, it felt like throughout it was always sort of punctuated with humour and kind of…I don’t know. I think it did a really good job of blending the humour and the melancholy, as you were talking about. I was wondering, because I think Tolstoy gets referenced on the album and stuff, do you think Russian literature or anything like that or that kind of tradition in anyway influences how the album comes out?
Ilya: Probably. I mean not consciously; I don’t quote Tolstoy in my songs. And in that particular song, he’s there just for…I just thought it was a cool rhyme, to be honest with you. Like, it doesn’t have a lot of weight. [Laughs]
Dan: Well, I would disagree. I would disagree. I think it has a lot of weight and that’s a very strong lyric, but the author of that lyric – as very often is the case – is unaware of the significance of it in any conscious way, so it’s best to not even ask him about it, because what’s he supposed to say, you know? I mean, he doesn’t know where…
Ilya: Yeah. I guess I misspoke; it is…it does have weight. It ended up there kind of randomly but once it’s in a song it acquires a meaning.
[…] I think with all good literature, it moulds a lot of themes, but it seems to be a continuous whole, it doesn’t feel jarring when you go from dildos to Tolstoy. It feels very thematically sound, I guess, or it feels like there’s a continuity throughout. Was that something that was important to you guys? Because the album feels in a way…in a lot of ways, it feels very – and I don’t mean this in a bad way – but it feels very slapped together, in a kind of anarchic way where it…it doesn’t seem wholly organised in a rigid sense, yet when you look at it as a whole, it feels tight and consistent.
Ilya: I would actually disagree in the sense that, I think this is our first album that is actually kind of conceptionally sound, and, to me, it feels like one piece of art rather than a collection of songs, which was the case with our previous records.
Dan: But do you mean that it has more like a sort of postmodern eclecticism about it? Kind of like The White Album or something?
By “slapped together,” I mean it has a loosey-goosey kind of feel to it. It feels like the arrangements could just break apart at any point. I don’t mean this in a bad way, I understand it could be read this way, I think it works. I think it had a very unique vibe to it.
Ruslan: We told you, there’s no metronome! [All laughs]
Igor: Anything could break apart!
Ruslan: And it works!
Jason: [Joins the Zoom call] Hello, everyone.
Ilya: Jason’s here.
Dan: This is Jason. You should ask Jason about this; he’ll have something to say.
Ilya: Jason will answer this question.
[To Jason] What I was asking is, the album has this vibe to it, that the album could fall apart at any given point, and it feels very loose in that sense, but I think it’s so…it’s very tight in the sense that when you look at it as a whole picture, everything comes together so smoothly and it comes together like a nice little bow. I just wondering how you guys weaved that?
[Long pause, then everyone laughs]
Dan: We can’t hear you, Jason.
Ruslan: Is he here? I don’t see him. I don’t hear him.
Ilya: I can see Jason; I cannot hear, no.
[This continues for a while until Jason unfreezes]
Jason: So, for the most part, our process…you know, Ilya, he writes the songs and he comes usually in like a very basic form – it’s just guitar and his vocals or maybe he’s recorded a small demo – and then we get to work, running just any idea that anybody has. We try it, and try to get it at least to a point where the idea is realised, even if it’s not the idea that we use, and then it’s just working it until everyone is satisfied and, you know, that’s not as easy as it sounds because we come from very different musical traditions, so to get something that makes all of us happy, like, it’s got to be a very specific thing. It’s a puzzle that we’ve got to figure out how to put together.
Dan: As far as the album feeling like it’s about to fall apart, I mean I don’t… – I think I speak for all of us when I say – I don’t know if we can really relate to that exactly, just because, to us, I think we’ve become a lot tighter, in our terminology, whatever that means. So, like, the trajectory that we’re on is becoming tighter, so… [Overlapping discussion]
Ruslan: But I think Aaron means something else; he doesn’t mean, like, technical stuff, he means something on the feeling of listening to the music. [Overlapping discussion] And I think this present…comes from Ilya, because Ilya sometimes sounds like he’s about to break apart or something. [Laughs]
Dan: But also, maybe it’s possible that it’s a kind of New York thing, you know? Because New York will definitely influence your sense of…what kind of sound you’re making, and that’s a very chaotic environment. There’s a lot less purism here, you know, among musicians and consumers of music than there is in Europe, potentially.
Jason: I’ll also say for us, I think we go…there’s a lot of bands that, you know, they are genre specific, you can listen to them, and you can say, “Oh, that is rock n’ roll. That is country. That is alternative rock,” you know? You can get more…chop up into all the little niches and genres or whatever, but we’ve never…we have our sound, but we’ve never been able to find the label of, like, “Oh, yeah, this fits right in with all these…all these other musicians because they sound kind of similar,” so maybe that’s part of why…
Ilya: We also tend to change stuff. Like, we have a show coming up this Friday and instead of spending time, like, running the set, we completely rearranged two songs. [All laugh] And they sound nothing like they sounded, like, two weeks ago and that, you know, that makes us really happy. [All laugh]
Jason: Well, it makes some of us feel really happy!
Dan: Truth is, we all feel very differently about that, because, for me for example, I don’t think there’s anything abnormal about that and I wished that we did that a lot more. On the other hand, Jason, I think, feels differently about that, you know, and everybody has their own perspective.
Ruslan: Well, Jason just wants more rehearsal for this, and he’ll be happy too. He doesn’t really [feel] happy about…to do this, like, spend twenty minutes on a song and perform in two days. [All laugh]
Dan: Yeah, well, you see, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, so that’s what I think.
Ruslan: Yeah, that’s because when you play music and you have this feeling that you’re about to fall, you know, it’s something…it’s something that becomes different.
Dan: Well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that probably also the loose feeling is a reflection of the dynamic between these personalities, because we’re all really quite different, you know? Like, we’re not from…even though we’re from the same…we’re all from the Soviet Union, except for Jason like Ilya said, but, you know, we’re all from totally different crucibles, kind of, in a way…
Sure. Yeah, I think you articulated the commotion in my brain. [Laughs] Jason, one thing I wanted to ask you specifically was how do you think Mad Meg differs from the other bands that you play in?
Ruslan: That’s a good one.
Jason: I think…
Ruslan: I’ve been meaning to ask him the same question for years!
Dan: We’re better, I’d say.
Ruslan: Ha! Get this!
Jason: I’m trying to think of what the answer to that question would be. [All laugh]
Ruslan: [To Aaron] You got him!
Jason: I mean, back to the previous topic, you know, Mad Meg has more of a willingness to kind of just try things, to experiment, even if it is with not a ton of rehearsal or you know, we’re going to try and put things up on stage or whatever. But, honestly, at the end of the day, musicians are musicians and even though we came from a culturally different place, the process kind of doesn’t change all that much. Like, at the end of the day, it’s managing personalities and egos in order to get the best possible sound that everybody can be happy with. And it doesn’t matter if they’re Russian or Texan or New Yorkers or Chinese or Bolivian or whatever else, it’s still…they’re still musicians. They have the things they want to do creatively, you have the things that you want to do creatively, and sometimes you’re on the same page, sometimes you compromise. I don’t know. I think, honestly, it’s pretty similar to any of the other projects that I play with.
Ruslan: Well, thank you so much.
Dan: [To Aaron] Do Irish people get along very well together, or do they get…I mean, how does that work, in general?
Eh…none of the bands I was ever in got along very well. [Laughs] I’ll say that much. Em, yeah, I don’t know, I can’t speak for everyone else’s experience. [Laughs] So, yeah, does that somewhat improvisational, almost jazzlike kind of willingness just to shake things up stop you guys from potentially getting complacent as musicians?
Ilya: I’m sorry, was there a question? I think I missed it.
Oh, sorry. Yeah, I was just asking does that somewhat improvisational aspect to the band kind of prevent you from getting too comfortable in your positions, in the sense that things can change on a dime; you have to constantly be on your feet and be on the top of your game.
Ilya: Eh, well, we…there’s some improvisation but it’s not…it’s not, like…we have certain parts in each song where improvisation is kind of welcome, right? And the rest of the part…the rest of the thing is kind of…
Ilya: …the other parts are more rehearsed, you know?
Yeah, I guess just the final thing I’ll ask is what do you guys have planned, coming up?
Ilya: Let’s have Igor answer this. [All laugh]
Igor: [Laughs] There is no future!
Dan: Sure. Let’s make sure there is a future first, then we’ll see.
Igor: I’m trying to put a tour to Mexico and Europe at the moment, so that’s in the works. We are arranging new songs, that’s also in the works. And might be doing Miley Cyrus covers soon. [All laugh] Maybe! You heard it first here! And, you know, this record is still kind of getting some traction, so we’ll see where that takes us.
Ruslan: And we actually have really cool new songs, which we’re excited to work on, and we have this kind of inspiring thing to work on new songs, so maybe in the future we’re going to have maybe a new album, hopefully.
Ruslan: But, yeah, that’s the little plans for the future.
Jason: And we have a monthly residence at…
Igor: Yeah, that’s right.
Jason: …one of the coolest clubs in New York, a place called Nublu 151, over in Alphabet City. We’ve got our third show with them this Friday, and you know, we’ll be back as long as they keep having us.
Igor: And, you know, it’s worth a trip if you wanna take a trip from Ireland.
I will! [All laugh]
Jason: We’ll get you on the list!
Igor: Consider it done!
Dan: Those shows are particularly special. It’s true. They’re really good. I mean, I would’ve actually…I’ve actually told my friends who live far away – like an aeroplane flight away – that this is the first time I feel the…you know, I would feel good about it if they purposely flew to New York to see the show.
Well, maybe you could tell people – just for the last thing – maybe just tell people why they should come and see a live show?
Igor: Um…why they should?
Jason: Why they should! [Laughs]
Yeah! Your live shows are something, and I’ll be the one to transcribe it!
Igor: I think each one of our shows is a little different. There’s definitely an energy we bring. I mean, we’ve been a live band…this has been a live band for a long, long time and I think we…the album has finally got that energy that we have live. This album has that energy that we were able to capture in the studio, capture the moment, so to say. I mean, just every show is a little different and you will cry, you will laugh…
Ilya: And also, each year, the person who comes to our show, they get a puppy at the door. [All laugh] And, like, between the shows, we spend our time just breeding puppies! [All laugh]
Ruslan: But they die in the end, so… [The rest of the band groan or exclaim, then reluctantly laugh]
Ilya: Are you in Maryland?
[Mishearing him] Me? Yeah, I’m in Ireland.
Dan: He’s in Ireland.
Ilya: Yeah, I understood that, but I thought I heard Igor say “Maryland,” for some reason.
Igor: No, you just associate me with Maryland! [Laughs]
Ilya: Oh, I forgot you said Ireland! [Referring to the door behind Aaron on his screen] But that door behind you, for some reason, reminded me of Maryland.
[Looking at it] Oh, really? [Laughs]
Igor: It is a very Maryland door!
Igor: You should check if it’s made in Maryland. [All laugh]
I’ll get back to youse on that! Thanks very much for your time, guys. I really appreciate it.
The band collectively: Thank you.
Mad Meg’s latest album, Who Deserves Balloons and Medals?, is available to stream and purchase here. You can keep up with the band, including links to their social media accounts and information on their live shows, on their website.
Aaron Kavanagh is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Post-Burnout. His writing can also be found in the Irish Daily Star, Buzz.ie, New Noise Magazine, XS Noize, DSCVRD and more.