Pussy Riot is fighting for a better future with an “orgy of different aesthetics and approaches.”
This article appears in AdHoc 30. To subscribe to our quarterly zine—and receive other AdHoc-related goodies—become a member.
Russian punk collective Pussy Riot are known more for their political actions than their promo videos, but the latter can speak just as loudly as the former.
Take “PUSSY RIOT IN ALABAMA: BENEFIT FOR PLANNED PARENTHOOD & YELLOWHAMMER FUND,” for example: the 39-second clip—released on their YouTube page last May—sets over a dozen closely cropped headshots of smirking white men against a black screen. Their eyebrows and lips all rise and fall in a disturbing orchestra of facial tics. Some of their heads nod. One of them has an animated duck beak as a mouth. The phrases “Wanna touch this?” and “There’s a party” appear in small white letters, amplifying the overall creepiness.
What, exactly, was Pussy Riot hoping to achieve with this video? A few things. First, they were plugging the video’s titular benefit concert for Planned Parenthood and the Yellowhammer Fund—an organization that empowers women to make their own reproductive decisions in a state that, as of May 2019, only has three abortion clinics. But the band was also priming fans for their yet-to-be-released single, “Hangerz,” featuring Junglepussy and Vic Mensa.
“‘Hangerz’ was inspired by laws signed in Georgia and Alabama restricting [access] to abortions,” Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova told AdHoc over the phone. “We wrote it last year, right before we went to Birmingham. We wrote this song because I believe that it’s not up to white males to choose what we do with our bodies. So the main line of this song goes, ‘My body does not need advice from a priest.’” Musically, it’s restless mash-up of musical styles, its frenzied feminist punchline delivered with a booming sense of urgency above explosive synth parts: “NO! MORE! HANGERS! EVER!”
“Hangerz” is one of several singles Pussy Riot has released since last Summer, including “Black Snow” and “1937.” The group was set to release another, “Rage,” with an accompanying music video, on February 25—but then the Russian police broke up the video shoot and arrested members of the group, including Nadya, for gay propaganda. “We wanted to put that out before our [upcoming North American] tour,” said Nadya, “but it doesn’t look like that will be happening.”
Speaking of that upcoming tour, which was set to kick off in March but has been postponed due to COVID-19, it too has a promo video, featuring 27 seconds of spliced footage from Pussy Riot concerts and political actions. A voiceover details past arrests of the group’s members as the words “THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING 2020” appear on the screen. Needless to say, Putin and Pussy Riot have very different motivations for seeking to influence American politics.
AdHoc spoke to Nadya about the story behind Pussy Riot’s latest singles, the band’s forthcoming album, and the band’s eclectic take on hardcore, which she describes as a “carnival or orgy of different aesthetics and approaches.”
AdHoc: I’d love to hear a little bit about the three singles you’ve put out since July: “Black Snow,” “1937,” and “Hangerz.” What are each of these songs about?
Nadya Tolokonnikova: “Black Snow” is about an environmental situation. It’s inspired by my hometown, Norilsk, which is in the very north of Siberia. It’s really cold, and the environmental situation there is dramatic. The snow is really black. I remember [wanting] to bring environmental tourism there [when I was growing up]. I [wanted] to bring people from all around the world to see what will happen to the environment if they don’t stop abusing [it] in the way they do currently. The song is literally about black snow, and it’s a warning for all of us.
“1937” is about the year of the mass repressions in the Soviet Union, under Stalin. We are commenting on an unfortunate trend in the political life of Russia. A lot of government workers—including Putin— justify what [Stalin] did to our nation, claiming that he was an effective manager. He was in charge of killing so many people, and nothing can justify murdering thousands and thousands of innocent people. That’s what happened in 1937.
“Hangerz,” featuring Junglepussy and Vic Mensa, is inspired by laws signed in Georgia and Alabama restricting [access] to abortions. We wrote it last year, right before we went to Birmingham. We played a benefit for Planned Parenthood and the Yellowhammer Fund. They are awesome; they help women in Birmingham have safe abortions. We wrote this song because I believe that it’s not up to white males to choose what we do with our bodies. So the main line of this song goes, “My body does not need advice from a priest.”
How did you get connected to Junglepussy and Vic Mensa? What was it like to work with them?
I’ve been a fan of Junglepussy for years. Her song “Bling, Bling” empowers me a lot in my life—not just in my activist life, but in my personal and private life. So I had wanted to work with her for a while. First we wrote the song, and then later, we started to think about who to feature, and Junglepussy came to my mind. Later, we got to hang with her—she’s an absolutely awesome, amazing, talented, bright woman. I hope to work more with her in the future. I’m sure we will.
And Vic I’ve known for a few years, since 2015. I met him at the house of a producer friend, Dave Sitek. 2015 was an interesting year in Pussy Riot’s history. As you know, we started as an activist collective. We didn’t really know how to create music. We had never done real recording before; we were just a punk band that would scream. After jail, it occurred to me that it might be fun to try to record songs for real and learn how to write them. So I came to Los Angeles to learn about this, and one of my favorite places to learn about songwriting was Dave Sitek’s house. That’s where I met Vic Mensa. Dave is a musician who is probably best known for being a member of TV on the Radio, but he’s also produced some amazing albums.
When we met in 2015, I didn’t know how to sing. I was just screaming into the mic, in Russian, really loudly, [about things] that I was obsessed with.
Do you see any tension between your punk background and your current production style?
In our album that we’re working on currently, I’m searching for beats on YouTube, and often it is kids—literally kids, just 12 or 13 years old—making these trap beats, and they are so unprofessional but also amazing. Everything sounds so wild and raw. And then I bring these pieces to my friend [self-described “producer man / songwriter gal”] Chris Greatti. He’s a punk, but at the same time, he has all the production tools needed to make a super impactful sound. He’s worked with YUNGBLUD and Grimes and blink-182. [I’m interested in] mixing all of those [production] elements to create powerful, activist art.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the album you’re working on?
I think it’s going to be called Rage. At least, that’s the name of the single that we were planning to release on the 25th of February. But we didn’t get a chance to film the music video for the single because cops arrested us and raided our video shoot, claiming that we are extremists. We’ve been accused of gay propaganda. We wanted to put that out before our tour, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening.
When we started to work on this current bunch of material, our goal was to make hardcore music from every possible angle. We’re exploring every genre of hardcore that is available to us: punk, metal, dance, even witch house hardcore. So that’s a brief outline of what you’ll get on this album. And on the tour, we’re going to play a lot of the songs from the upcoming album. If you want to get an understanding of what’s coming, you should come and see our shows.
What’s special about Pussy Riot’s live show?
It’s really loud. It’s a mixture of many styles in one show. Many of our friends and collaborators are working in similar ways— people like Dorian Electra or Dylan Brady from 100 gecs. They’re working on combining many different genres, sometimes in one track. So I think this carnival or orgy of different aesthetics and approaches is something that is our signature.
And every one of our songs is political. All our songs talk about something important for society; we’re never just singing about Friday night. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy Friday night— we do. But we’re singing about feminism, equality, financial inequality, personal issues—like how to get out of toxic relationships. Our ideal scenario after a concert is that you get out and make your own political action.