Joel Dwek & Danny Wiser
Interview: Anton Kistrin from Kimnata Grethen (Кімната Гретхен)
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
On 15th February 2022 we got in touch with Dnipro-based band Kimnata Grethen for a chat which we finalised eight days later on the 23rd February. The following day, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Having assumed the interview was cancelled, we got in touch with the band to send them our support and to our complete amazement, lead singer and songwriter Anton Kistrin still wanted to speak with us. Though our initial focus was obviously about music, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine became impossible to ignore.
"I never thought of our Ukrainian national anthem as such a powerful action of unity. When people gather on the squares of their cities, which are under fire right now, which are occupied by Russian troops under fire, they gather with Ukrainian national flags, with no weapon in their hands… and they sing [the] Ukrainian anthem; they feel they are proud to be Ukrainian in their own land. I think the national anthem of course is the main and only song for Ukrainians right now.”
Currently volunteering in a centre making medical supplies alongside his girlfriend in Dnipro, Anton Kistrin’s life has had to take a rather significant turn away from doing what he loves. “Right now, I simply have no time for music at all,” he sighed, before continuing “it’s a pity but I believe that the situation will change for the better.” At the time of interview Dnipro was not yet under fire, though the citizens were bracing themselves for the inevitable. “The whole city rises up and stands up to help our armed forces and territorial forces. So the first day of invasion I saw thousands of common people that brought everything to the volunteer centre. So the support of the population is huge and Ukraine was never so united and consolidated as it is now.” Another example of this is Kistrin’s own shift in views towards President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Though he did not vote for him and was “was very sceptical at first two years of his working as a President”, now Kistrin views him as “a really great leader of the nation… This man is making all his best to save Ukraine right now, and of course his experience as a performer, as a great speaker [means that] his speeches now really consolidates the whole country. Of course now we support him totally.”
Kistrin’s parents are in Zaporizhzhia where he grew up, and it is of course challenging to be far away from them, particularly when internet and mobile connectivity issues are rife. Having moved to Dnipro as a student, where he became further exposed to different genres of music, the city has a close place in his heart and as such, he has decided to stay there alongside his brother for the time being. Despite some political apathy against the burgeoning creative intelligentsia in Dnipro, more than ever before, Kistrin feels a sense of unity and togetherness in the city. “The only thing I want to say as a common inhabitant of Dnipro is that the whole community and the local politicians also became more patriotic and more interested in developing all Ukrainian [sic] for now,” he told us.
Explaining that in spite of its hefty size of more than one million citizens “Dnipro stays local on the scale of the whole Ukraine”, meaning that it never really managed to fulfil its potential as a cultural hub within Ukraine. Kistrin hypothesises that this is in part due to insufficient infrastructure, complicated geography, and a lack of political will from those in charge. He attributes the dearth of large clubs, stages and festivals to these myriad of reasons, meaning that Dnipro has been forced to live in the shadow of similarly sized cities such as Kharkiv, Lviv and Odessa. In spite of the absence of a pre-existing arts scene, there has been a “new Ukrainian wave” that has developed over the course of the past decade that Kimnata Grethen have been at the heart of. “I can name about 100 really interesting Ukrainian musicians who make music for the inside market, and try to show their music, their art in Europe also” he proudly declared.
Though in a time like this, discussions of music may seem futile, it should be noted that, like for so many people, music is the most important of the least important things. It serves as a relief and a release. Although Kistrin has not been able to engage with music a great deal recently, his passion for it has certainly not died. He speaks with vigour and energy about his ‘saviour’. “Music rescued me several times when I had some depressive episodes in my life. It is a thing that makes you feel alive.” His love of music stemmed from early childhood, with rock in particular pulling on his heartstrings. Forming his first band at school, he cites his early influences as being Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day. In the heady days of the early 90s post-Soviet era, a homegrown rock music scene began to flourish in Ukraine, and eventually some of those bands, such as Vopli Vidopliassova and Okean Elzy, went on to achieve mainstream success across Ukraine and Europe, influencing Kistrin along the way.
Launching the band in 2010, Kimnata Grethen have evolved a great deal since their formation, both stylistically and lyrically. The line-up of the band has changed over time with session drummer Yurii Liasota, whose expertise is in electronic percussion, joining them two years ago, while bassist Roman Kravtsov led himself and guitarist Alexei Aleksieiev down a different road. “He brought something new, fresh, from modern electronic music to our little bit old school rock’n’roll sounds, so we gathered a special mix from old school, and something new from electronic. I think that our band began to sound a little bit symbiotic.” The change in their sound is pretty noticeable, their 2015 release takes its cues from post-grunge pioneers like the Foo Fighters and Soundgarden, while Kravtsov has brought both 80s synth pop and futuristic inflections to their music.
Like most experimental artists who push the boundaries of their genre, Kimnata Grethen are no strangers to the dreaded “how do you categorise your music?" question that most esoteric musicians like them face. The band stumbled across a way to combat it in a previous interview, by spontaneously joking that their music should be labelled Jedi rock. This snowballed out of control. “Me and Alex my guitar player are fans of Star Wars, so we looked for some definition for our genre, because we could name our music genre pop music, rock music, alternative, electronic,” he told us. “We looked for a definition in parallel for our own sound, so during one interview Alex joked that our music was called Jedi rock and we thought ‘oh, OK, that’s great. Why not?’ . So we, in all our profiles and accounts on social media, are like ‘we are Kimnata Grethen from Ukraine, we play Jedi rock, we believe the force is with us and we invite every of our listener to the light side’.”
On a lyrical level, Kistrin takes inspiration from Ukrainian poetry as well as world literature. In fact, the name of the band Kimnata Grethen is taken from Goethe’s Faust. Meaning Gretchen’s Room in English, the name was simply chosen due to how it sounds in the Ukrainian language, rather than it having any real depth or pertinence to him personally. However, this is not to say that literature and poetry have not served to inspire his writing profoundly. Labelling himself “a post-modern poet”, he suggests that foreigners curious about the rich literary scene in Ukraine should dip their toes into the work of authors such as Serhiy Zhadan, whose writings have contributed to the conceptual approach that Kistrin takes towards his music. This is evident in their 2020 album Teoriya Meymovirnosti (теорія неймовірності) which means ‘Improbability Theory’ in English, which according to Kistrin is about the “reflection of a guy who lives in a country, in a situation with constant anxiety.”
The album itself veers from the grungey rock, with which they made their name, to including elements of experimental indie music on 27, as well as having songs that combine synth pop, club music, and rock. The music veers from innately danceable pop to more introspective rock ballads that may lend themselves better to solitary reflective listening, perhaps mirroring the experience of the anxiety-ridden protagonist. Overall it is an album that tries many things and largely succeeds in achieving the desired effect - creating a diverse and unusual listening experience. Jedi rock really may be the best description for this space-age album.
When pushed on whether there is a political element to the band’s lyrics, Kistrin was quick to quash this notion, exclaiming that “we are not Sex Pistols!” Though Kimnata Grethen may on the surface seem to shy away from punkish rebellion within their lyrics, the very fact that Kistrin adopts such a high-concept approach to his lyrics suggests that the group are unafraid to go against the grain. That said, there is a relatability to what he sings about, stating “of course, love and feelings are our eternal topics for modern music”.
Kistrin’s denial of the political nature of Kimnata Grethen’s music is somewhat of a touchy topic for him. Though he is explicit in the fact that he “cant write manifestos”, there is an unintentionally political subtext to the band’s lyrics, merely by virtue of the fact that they have previously played several “tracks with other artists that are Russian speaking.” The proximity between the Eastern part of Ukraine, from which he originates, to Russia means that there are of course cultural ties between the two lands which are inescapable. For Kistrin, he makes clear that he never previously viewed the embracing or the favouring of one language over another as controversial, explaining “I never saw any troubles with Russian or Ukrainian language, all language questions are very politicised, over politicised, and that was always in our country, but I never had any problems with this.”
When it comes to producing their albums, Kimnata Grethen like to record demos and then, after a repose of up to two months, the band return refreshed in the studio to re-engage with their recordings. “We listen attentively to all the material that exists as demos, and then we have a look of how our new release will look like and start to work on arrangements, rights [and] maybe make some edits.” Kistrin informed us that he has 10 new songs that exist as demo recordings which he wanted to release this spring, however, due to the invasion of his homeland this will have to be put on hold.
It is obvious that music has played a real part in Kistrin’s personal life, claiming that “for me it’s a kind of therapy, you know, music for me and making music and playing live music for a live people is a kind of therapy and very powerful thing to feel alive”. However, as his home nation comes under threat, the healing power of music is needed not only on a personal level but also to help society combat and grieve the immense collective trauma that they are undergoing. Kistrin uses history to remind us of music’s real-world capacity to awaken the collective consciousness to humanitarian crises. “You as music journalists, you know much more real cases from all over the world that really worked. We can remember Live Aid 1985, that great case that gathered a great amount of money to help people in Africa. We had great cases of charity actions, for example, by Bono from U2, or other musicians, so I think that modern music is a great power because it has influence on listeners and on a great audience.”
Though major concerts and concerted efforts from the global music industry require time to have a meaningful impact, in the short-term music is already serving to aid the nation, connecting Ukrainians from across the land with the tune of one song in particular beating loudly in the collective heart of its society. Kistrin speaks passionately about the new-found respect he has gained for the Ukrainian national anthem, and how the song has served to unite the nation, reminding the people of their resilience and collective values that they wish to protect. Not wishing to over-intellectualise it, Kistrin elaborates, “it is such a sacral thing that you have to feel it in your blood. I can’t explain it. I think it is hard to explain to representatives of other nations, you have to be Ukrainian to feel this as far as I could never feel an anthem of any other country. It is not [at] the level of mental understanding.”
Looking to the future Kistrin dreams firstly of peace in his country, and then has secondary aspirations to share his music with the world. Having previously played abroad in Germany, Holland, and most notably in Poland, as a headliner of the Songwriter Łódź Festiwal, as well as at ART Picnic Krakow, a big music and art festival developed and organised by the Ukrainian diaspora, Kistrin is keen for more opportunities for Kimnata Grethen to showcase their music to audiences at home and further afield. “For now our only hope is peaceful sky, I only want to continue make music, not war in my own country. I would like to have an opportunity to play my music in Ukraine and abroad and to show in Europe and all over the world, [the] new Ukrainian culture, and I think that such powerful struck [sic] happening now for all Ukrainian society will impact very much for a lot of creative content, music, cinema, art, poetry, and so on.”