by Time Science Tangerine (Ti Sci Tang):
Argonika is a unique band. I discovered them on the web site called Jamendo where I was searching for new music from unsigned artists to listen to. I went there on purpose, but I could hardly imagine what I would find that night. ‘Flight Of The Spirit’ knocked me down with the drive and the energy, and ‘Priestess Of Candlelight’ sounded really out of this world. After listening to these tracks I rushed an e-mail to the musicians and got in touch with them.
Formed by a female vocalist of mixed Russian-Swedish origin and a male synths player/sound designer from Moscow in the early 00s, the band was unlikely to gain immediate popularity with their debut album, ‘Rainbow Hunter’. Not that their music was bad (it’s not, and you better go and check for yourself at their web page), it’s rather the lack of professional promotion and the wild rise of the Internet music distribution that drove them into the twirl of ever-changing possibilities and, inevitably, illusions and mis-hits. More on this later.
Their debut album was written and recorded mostly online with the help of the now forgotten (or should I say ‘transformed into something corporate and closed’ — faithful Digidesign users know what I mean) technology called Rocket Network. Indeed, the Internet era helped Argonika members to form the band and make music without meeting in person at the early stages of the project, but also it prevented them (at least for quite a long time) from being recognized as one of the most promising acts of our time.
It started as a game or perhaps as a short trip into the unknown. Helga was sitting in front of her computer, having just logged in with her sequencer to the one of the free online studios opened by Rocket Network. Ten minutes earlier she had received an e-mail from Rocket Network inviting her to join. She did. There were not many people online, as she remembers, just one guy who offered her to download his song and play the tracks.
‘Do you sing?’, he asked.
‘Yes, I do’.
That’s how it started. A fast start. In two weeks they had three tunes almost ready as demo. Many other ideas flourished. The play was in full run.
Yuri was a sound designer and musician from Moscow who played bass, guitar and synths. Helga was a theremin player, singer and composer working in electronic and ambient realms. The third member, a Swedish visionary, was found online as well. More on him in a moment.
Having started the project online, they finally came to the point where they had to meet in person. It was time to lay down the vocal tracks, and they hired a studio in Moscow to do that. A small outlet in the centre of the city was a host place for them to record their music on a pro level. The songs were born in collaboration as well as in those inevitable moments of discord that infused even more creative ideas. Step by step, it was becoming obvious that they could not stop now. The project was here, and they were here to encarnalize it.
They knew that they could not expect wide popularity in Russia quite simply because they were singing in English. That’s why they had to seek recognition in the Internet throughout the English-speaking music sites. The third member of the band, Lars The Rainbow Chaser as he called himself (and ‘rainbow-chaser’ was his online nick; his real name still unknown to the rest of Argonika members), was living permanently in Sweden, a country with strong melodic traditions and a solid position in the pop scene from the 70s when ABBA let off the bomb called ‘Waterloo’. Lars was a video artist from Stockholm, a VJ who produced the first video clip of Argonika. It was then, when he joined the band, the project adopted its current title and Helga got her Scandinavian pseudo name. They became a band of mixed origin, and “mix, fuse and synthesize” became their main idea.
The first place where they published some of their tracks was www.mp3.com, then focused on unsigned artists rather than megastars. At that stage the band’s name was different: they were still called Etherstrings, as Helga wanted to emphasize her theremin addiction. Year 2001 was particularly great for joining www.mp3.com: the place was full of musicians who were eager to find recognition. The community was English-speaking, and the band had received a heartly welcome. It was there that they found their first fans, and received some very favourable reviews and offers for their songs to be played on several Internet radios. These radios were hosted by the mp3.com members as well as external Internet radio enthusiasts. It was a kind of, very friendly musicians’ community, that was interested in new music, in exploring each other and in getting in touch with each other. Not a kind of sleeping, indifferent company you often meet these days online. It worked and was hyper-active. The songs were played online, and someone made an offer for Etherstrings to put their songs on a compilation CD, officially released later in USA. The band was happy and optimistic about their future. They just had 2 more songs to finish.
‘When we started our project, we didn’t think too much about the future promotion,’ Yuri told me when we talked over the Skype. ‘We were interested in working with music and new technologies. When we completed the album, we realized that we had made a decent job. Then we started to think about sending our mp3s to record labels. Actually, we did believe in what some music reviewers were saying at places like www.mp3.com: that there’s no need to burn CDs and send them by regular mail, that the web site with mp3 music is a real electronic portfolio for an unsigned artist and so on. That was our main mistake: it soon turned out that no A&R people were paying attention to sites like these, either preferring the traditional means of searching for talents or even struggling against the rise of unsigned artists army that had thrived in the beginning of the 21st century’. I’d say, no A&R needed Argonika and the likes, simply because they had to defend the existing catalogue sales rather than extend it with the new acts, as the music industry crisis was at its peak. Also, Argonika played music which was not strictly mainstream in terms of any genre — it has elements of several styles (synth pop, chillout, psyhedelic, electro, trip-hop, and even industrial), but it can hardly be categorized by any one of these labels alone. ‘This mixture of styles prevented the album from being released under a major record label, so we had to find a way to promote our music by ourselves,’ Helga tells. ‘We’ve got several airplays on the traditional radio, and the feedback was very positive. But the Internet and the rise of mp3 seemed to be quite an alternative and effective means of promotion for an unsigned artist, and we decided to focus on it.’
‘So why Argonika? What does your band name mean?’ I asked Yuri and Helga. ‘That’s an interesting question even to us,’ the reply was. ‘This is a mixture of meanings. First of all, Argonika descend from argon, a noble gas which is everywhere around us, in the atmosphere as well as in neon lights… even on Mars where there’s no oxygen, some scientists say that argon can be used as a substitution for breathing… Argon is also used in medical lasers, which are used to correct eye defects — so it descends as well from our original idea to use live video, to add visuals to the music and therefore completely transform the perception.’ There are also connections with the ship Argo (on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed to Colchis, the land which Yuri himself descends from) as well as the Argo Navis constellation and even Argentum. ‘Why silver? Well, for me it’s something very special, something connected with Lars, and I can’t even express it’, Helga adds.
They haven’t yet played live as a band, simply because they live in different parts of the world, and relocation was a problem (though it indeed was considered as an option if the project ever came to a stage when playing live would become vital for their music career). Argonika was busy making plans for live concerts, and Lars’ visionary VJing would become the most important aspect of it. The whole thing was going to become a kind of theatrical play, a very scenic performance. This means, expensive, but they were not daunted. They thought they would be able to stand the pressure and were going to work hard. They were optimistic.
And the pressure was not long in coming. The process of transforming something, which originated in the virtual world, into a real thing which is ‘here and now’, claimed a lot more than they expected. It led them to financial and personal problems and finally turned their optimism into something that we call “cracking up”.
First they found out that their online, or virtual, fame appeared to be quite an ephemeral thing. Once the particular mp3 hosting site was closed (as was the case with mp3.com; the original form was dismantled in 2003), the artists lost all their fanbase, reviews, online friends and contacts and had to start afresh somewhere else. The even greater impact on their career and optimism was the loss of their third member. The Rainbow Chaser was lost in the psychedelic realms. ‘He was the mindbender in both meanings of this word,’ Helga recalls. ‘His paintings and his video acts were just mind-blowing, they were a real dope for us, but you know, he needed a dope for himself to create these things, and he has chosen one of a chemical nature.’ This obviously led to the unhappy end. Lars’ online presence was gradually decreasing, and the plans for jamming live along with the video became vague. They had lost all traces of him by the end of 2004. The irony is that it was then, when they had finished mastering the last track of their album, the song called ‘Rainbow Hunter’.
‘It completely devastated us, though we didn’t realize it at first’, Helga remembers. ‘Lars was a fusion point, whereas he wasn’t a musician. When he disappeared, we had problems with everything. We didn’t know anymore how to set ourselves up, since we have already marketed ourselves as a Russian-Swedish band and a video/VJ live act, and now we’ve lost the most important member.’ Things were worsened by the fact that it took quite a long time to realize that the guy had really quit. ‘He never told us that it’s over. Perhaps he hoped that he could find a way to gather himself together.’
Having an outstanding album but still unable to find a record contract, having spent a lot of time (‘ages, I tell you, Helga was really into it’) on the web trying to promote their music for themselves, they finally returned to their roots — Helga to her theremin and synths collection, Yuri to his music scoring for movies. The album published on several web sites was left there without any serious attention from the band for quite a long time. The tracks kept being played by the random visitors, sometimes commented, sometimes reviewed and even referenced to. Some sites transformed into big star promo portals, some sites closed. Though new places were opening from time to time, Helga confesses that at some point she had lost interest in uploading songs, simply because ‘you never know if the site will still be there in two years’. At some point it just became pointless for her. She occupied herself with recording her second solo album of electronic ambient music as well as teaching music technology at the college.
Yuri was more persistent, at least he kept an eye on new mp3 sites as they appeared and created a brief artist profile for Argonika here and there. That’s how he came to Jamendo. ‘In July 2007 a Russian emigrant living in Germany published an offer at one Russian pro audio forum — to release a compilation of electronic music and dedicate it to the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event (Tunguska explosion)’, Yuri told me. ‘The idea was very well received by electronic musicians, even though they were supposed to do it at their own expenses. I supported the idea from the very beginning. During the process of compiling the album I discovered an ocean of interesting music, not only from Russia. One of these artists told me about Jamendo’.
And the things started to change with Argonika. The project that would be considered ‘dead’ for 2 years suddenly came to life. ‘I guess it’s because we made up our minds. Somehow we’ve learnt that we are not alone and everything is just starting,’ Yuri says. ‘Being an unsigned artist doesn’t mean “be unhappy”. There is lots of quality music on Jamendo, and listening to it helped me realize that it’s time for a new start. We are free to meet cool people and make friends with them, and we have easy access to great music. We are free to create.’
The compilation CD ‘Tunguska Chillout Grooves’ was released, and one of the results was the foundation of the online creative community, Tunguska Electronic Music Society, which unites electronic music composers and musicians. ‘We help each other, though the community exists in the virtual world. The organizers live in Israel, Germany, Russia, Australia and USA. We are going to release more CDs. There are three projects in progress — Tunguska Chillout Grooves 2, Tundra Dreams, and Trance Siberian Express’. The latter is a kind of video clips compilation amalgamated by the general idea to express a tribute to Kraftwerk and their ‘Trance Europe Express’ album. Yuri is managing this project. Right now he is on the 15 thousand km trip across Siberia and Far East shooting footage for the movie. The result will be a musical movie with the soundtrack made from Argonika remixes and 15 more compositions from different musicians.
That’s the new beginning.