KAPFENBERG, May 16 — Fans still sing and dance away to Russkaja’s Soviet nostalgia beats, but the Austrian ska-punk band say their mission to bring “fun and love” has become tricky since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“We were concerned. To what extent can you represent something Russian?” Moscow-born lead singer Georgij Makazaria tells AFP in a joint interview with Ukrainian bassist Dimitrij Miller.
“Singing ‘The Russians are here’ gets stuck in my throat.”
The group — one of whose tag lines is “peace, love and Russian roll” — started in Vienna 17 years ago, after a chance encounter between the two men.
They shot to fame as the house band of one of Austria’s most popular late night shows, electrifying young, western Europeans with their blend of “Russian Turbo Polka Metal”.
They have now released six albums — many with left-leaning political messages, like the most recent No one is Illegal about a young refugee — and regularly tour Europe.
But since Moscow invaded Ukraine in late February, the seven-piece band have found themselves in a bind and has even considered changing their name, which stands for “Russia”, “ska” and “yes”.
They have also rewritten some of their lyrics, which generally mix Russian and English. For example, their plea to Moscow “let’s tear down all these walls” has morphed into “Hello, Moskva, let’s stop this fucking war”.
Miller concedes that since the invasion, bringing fun and partying to their fans has been “extremely hard”.
“To be happy on stage when my best friends are fighting there, in war, that’s inconceivable,” says the 41-year-old, whose cousin headed to the frontline last month to defend his country against Russian troops.
But still the party goes on.
In March, the band toured the United States for the first time, as the supporting act for Celtic punk band Flogging Molly. It has some 20 concerts lined up this summer in Austria and neighbouring Germany, France, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
“Look, for us it’s about the music,” explains Makazaria, 48, on the sidelines of a concert in the small town of Kapfenberg, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) south west of Vienna.
For this gig in late April, the band performs its infectious, high-energy numbers in front of a Ukrainian flag embellished with a peace symbol.
“Dimitrij here is from Ukraine,” Makazaria tells the crowd after the song Russkij Style. He puts his arm around Miller to loud applause.
“And I am from Russia... What’s happening now is an extreme catastrophe for us, for everyone, and we condemn this insane war!” he yells.
Social media posts about their shows have sparked some critical responses, with commentators asking why a band glorifying Russian culture and music is still allowed to play in Europe.
“Music connects but it can also separate. There are people who feel that way and that’s something we have to accept,” says Makazaria.
In Kapfenberg, black-clad fans, a few sporting Russian fur hats, are keen to enjoy the music and ask for autographs.
“To me, this war is senseless and music connects, whether you’re from Ukraine or you’re from Russia,” says 38-year-old tattoo artist Daniel Mayerhofer.
Markus Heil, a 28-year-old designer, thinks it would be “absolutely wrong” to boycott the group now.
“Of course, I really don’t like what some people in Russia are doing. But Russia itself has an interesting culture and you can’t forget that in this situation.” — AFP