We checked in with KANGA, Victor Uzhakov (Ploho), and Sulli (More Kicks) on how they spent 2020, what they learned, and their thoughts and hopes for what 2021 will hold, as part of our New Year’s Evolutions Series!
LA-based producer, composer, songwriter, and music programmer, KANGA turned inward after a non-stop touring schedule and put some things out into the universe that she may have otherwise overthought.
It’s been interesting adjusting to the new world. Since I’ve spent the past three years touring pretty consistently, I really had to turn my focus inward and get back into creating. The time off has allowed me to wrap up an album, three music videos, a handful of remixes, and a bunch of other projects that may or may not see the light of day.
I hate to say that the timing couldn’t have been better, but having the world shut down after coming home from touring with Gary Numan was probably the most financially safe place for me to have been in. Luckily, album pre-sales, music work, and online streaming shows have been able to provide some stability as well.
A huge hurdle for me has been getting over my instinct to sit on my work as if I needed a sign from God to tell me when something is finally finished. I have so much material that could have had an opportunity to exist out in the world if I hadn’t been such a self- defeating perfectionist, but instead I allowed things to fade away before they were even able to see the light. So now I’ve been pushing myself to just let go and publish my demos and throwaways online where they can exist and be accessed (on my YouTube channel) if anyone is curious. It’s actually been quite cathartic.
I’ve always been pretty good at math so I decided to get into some calculus games just to feel stimulated and not let my brain go to mush. I’ve also been re-learning the piano and have been pushing myself to write other styles of music. I’m currently going through a bit of an ambient phase.
I still don’t really know what to think about getting back to normal. My heart is broken from having all our tours shut down. For a lot of performers, touring isn’t just our livelihood, it also plays a huge role in our social and emotional lives. But seeing what happens when all that is taken away I think has shown us that model isn’t as stable as we might have thought. So maybe going back to normal shouldn’t even be the goal? The music industry has struggled for decades figuring out how to have a sustainable model that works for everyone else not in the top 3% of
media and I think if there’s a takeaway from this pandemic it’s that we need more ingenuity in our model pushing forward. I’m glad to see that artists are now starting to speak up about the gatekeeping and homogenizing of tastes, and I hope it’s a conversation we will continue to have once this phase passes. That being said, though, I really do hope touring comes back with a bang.
I think the past four (or more) years have shown us that the future is wilder than anyone could have ever predicted so I’m just going to see what unfolds and hope I can get a good song out of it.
Victor Uzhakov – Ploho
Victor Uzhakov of Russian post punk band Ploho found some silver linings in how he made music this past year, but probably isn’t going to miss online concerts.
This year was very difficult in every sense. I had to get used to the fact that life turned upside down, everything became different. But at the same time, I would like to say that this was one of the most interesting periods of my life.
Yes, all of our concerts were canceled. We couldn’t even rehearse properly because all rehearsal studios were quarantined. But this gave a lot of time to implement the plans that I had for a long time kept somewhere in my head. We were finally able to go on a real studio vacation with PLOHO. I mean, for the first time in 7 years we really stayed with our songs, one on one in the studio. No concerts, no extraneous movements. In the summer and fall, after finishing recording the album, we were even able to play a few concerts.
The only thing that really happened to me for the first time was online concerts. It was terrible, a complete lack of understanding of what the hell you were doing. This is not a concert, this is not a TV show, this is some Frankenstein’s child. They say there are two types of musicians: fans of studio work and those who like to play concerts. We are 100% fond of playing concerts and singing to the camera honestly and openly is very problematic. Here, acting skills are required.
But streaming services are truly a lifesaver for groups in this period. If you have enough audience, you will not be completely penniless. Merch sales and donations also played a role. The most important thing is to support the labels with which we work in Russia and abroad (Artoffact Records and RDS records). They helped us a lot to stay afloat. It was a big surprise for me, because not happy stories are usually added about working with labels.
I started learning English. It was a big problem for me when we played in Europe and so on. I couldn’t say anything. Only “hello,” “how are you,” “bye.” These were uninteresting dialogues for my interlocutors. I also started running my own Youtube channel, making videos about how I write songs, etc. I remembered that I loved to draw. In general, this time gave me a chance to catch my breath, look around and pay attention to myself, the feeling of myself in space. Not my own business and deadlines, but exactly what I want. In a sense, this is the path to Zen.
I am sure that the world will never be the same and it is not worth waiting to return to usual life. I’m not saying that everything is bad or will be bad. Everything will simply become different. Ask your grandparents if they saw this world as normal before all these quarantine cases? I’m sure not. Times change, people change, social algorithms change. Quarantine simply accelerated these changes, made us feel the need for them.
This year will be spring, summer, autumn and winter. I’m sure of it. I stopped making other predictions in 2020.
Sulli – More Kicks
Sulli of More Kicks found a little place of his own and got out of his comfort zone.
More Kicks were actually quite lucky in some ways because we managed to do a three-week European tour in February 2020 in support of our debut record, which came out at the end of 2019. We really got in under the wire on that one – unknowingly, of course. But then of course we had so many plans and things being booked for the rest of the year that got ditched – festivals and tours in Italy, the US, Spain…
With no other options of getting out and playing, I just tried to cling on to my sanity, I suppose. I wrote music compulsively as much as I possibly could because that became the only thing which made me feel happy. When I write something, I always make a little demo and then go and walk around the block listening to it on headphones. That’s like my little test to see if a song sounds ok out in the wild – rather than just in the headspace of me writing it. If I decide that the song is good after that walk, that’s the happiest and most relaxed I ever feel. I was chasing that feeling in 2020 as much as possible.
Not to be too melodramatic, but it was a rough year in my personal life too, so it was a real sink or swim situation. I definitely spent a fair bit of time sinking but managed to grab some breaths too – 95% of which were thanks to music.
The major thing I did beyond writing endless songs was I managed to find a tiny warehouse space that I could rent and keep all my recording gear. I set that up as a little studio space for myself. I hesitate to say ‘studio space’ because it’s more like a large closet with my stuff inside – but it’s mine and I can make noise in it whenever I want. I picked up an old 8-track Tascam reel-to-reel for dirt cheap in March and I finally got it repaired and functional by about October. When the UK went into another of its endless lockdowns in November, I started a project where I would write one song every day for 10 days – theoretically in a non-More Kicks style to get out of my comfort zone – and then record them in my studio space, which I’ve named Chewed Up Recordings. I just finished mixing it all now. I have no idea if any of it will ever see the light of day as it was just an exercise in writing different types of songs, getting better at analog recording and mixing, occupying my brain.
When COVID first hit I knew I needed to chase the high that I get when I write something I actually like. But something about the oppression of the situation meant I struggled so much to write a single thing. I would play the guitar and hate everything I did. I tried to kickstart my brain by covering a couple of songs that I love. I don’t really like doing covers very much. It’s ok to do one live I guess but it always feels so pointless to record them.
But I recorded an oddball version of “I Won’t Hurt You” by The West Coast Pop Art Experiment and found it helpful to remember that I still had some creative juices in my head somewhere. I remember posting it on the band Facebook or something and someone commented, ‘Sounds more sad than normal’. I was like, ‘Yeah, no shit, mate!’ I did the Jacques Dutronc song “Et moi, et moi, et moi” too and I think that was deemed to be more cheerful.
I was a sound engineer before COVID (not sure if I still am?!) so all that work disappeared overnight too. I basically just hustled for various corporate video and audio editing jobs, plus the odd piece of writing. I am not a pro with that stuff, but I am capable, communicative and have decent judgement. Plus I’m cheap.
It actually worked out fine and I’m very lucky in that respect because I desperately needed to be busy. I produced some podcasts for people, edited Zoom interviews into little video packages… I live with 22 other people in a warehouse in North London (I moved into this place on the first day of lockdown, bizarrely) and most of my housemates weren’t working. They were just kind of lounging around smoking weed, drinking beers. It was actually nice weather in England for most of spring and summer 2020. But if I had done that on top of everything else going on in my life I would have lost my mind completely. I kept as busy as is possible when you can’t leave your house.
I learned so much about analog recording and mixing from setting up my little Chewed Up Recordings base. All my gear has been picked up very cheaply and therefore constantly breaks/does weird things. I now have a vague idea of how to fix things. Or if not fix, then at least diagnose the problem.
Plus I was saying yes to any video work that I could find, regardless of whether I had the first idea of how to do it. God bless all those American guys who do YouTube Premiere Pro tutorials. My video skills are way more slick now than one year ago if anyone feels like giving me some work.
In a more abstract sense of things I learned, it wasn’t new but it did confirm to me something about myself and music. I am a fucking lifer and I have absolutely no choice but to continue to make music as much as possible. If I don’t do that I will sink. I have no idea how people who don’t have that outlet have coped in the last 12 months or so. I guess we all find comfort somewhere but I’m incredibly lucky that I know exactly how to help myself in the face of insanely difficult circumstances.
As I write this, England is in full lockdown again with record case numbers each day. So getting back to normal feels pretty far off at the moment. The UK has also just left the EU so lord knows how touring will look like when that’s an option again. Honestly, I can’t consider any of that at the moment. I’ve had so many conversations with music friends all around the world and everyone seems to be clinging on to the idea that music and gigs will be more valued when things settle down a little. I can’t help but think on a more practical level of whether there will be enough places to play for a small band like mine to sustain itself. But bands are nothing if not insanely persistent/deranged so we will play, we will tour, we will make records. But I will not play an acoustic guitar on my bed for Instagram Live.
I’m not well informed enough about the situation in the US or countries other than my own. Actually I’m not that informed about my own either. But in terms of England and the UK in general, I think there will start to be ‘normal’ gigs again towards the end of the year. I think it will be slow progress in terms of people attending them as so many are suffering financially and will be somewhat out of the habit of gig going. But it will crank back into life.
Honestly, I just want to host a huge fucking party in some shit bar on New Year’s Eve somewhere in London. We’ll play at midnight and fuck up the countdown because I had too many pints of Guinness, the sound engineer will be smoking a roll up and forget to switch my mic on, Kris’ kick drum will break in the first song and we’ll have to borrow some sellotape from behind the bar to ‘fix’ it, some sweaty guy with no shirt will tell me I look like a Beatle and he hates the Beatles, I will bitch and moan about the lack of drinks for the bands at gigs in London while simultaneously filling up a glass from my hip flask and therefore robbing the bar of precious revenue. God I miss it all. Hang on tight, everyone.