Sweet and Hot – Take Two !

Quite some time ago, I did a piece in this column on a fantastic group here in Moscow. The column was entitled “Sweet and Hot !” Well, here we are second time around:

The group are the Marshmallows, 3 beautiful young Russian female singers, who perform excellent 50’s style rock’n’roll. They’re brilliant. They’re a real phenomenon on the rockin’ scene here. They are supported by 3 musicians, guitar, bassist and drummer. Since my last article on them, the band have gone from strength to strength. There has recently been a small change to the line-up – Masha Nosova and Yulia Chugueva remain but Nadezhda Kunareva has been replaced by Olya Korovina.

The photos you can see were all taken at their concert at the Esse Café in Moscow on 10th January. I decided in view of their success and progress following my last article on them, it was time to talk again. So after the concert, which I organised along with a rock’n’roll dance class I ran to start the event, I sat down with the 3 beautiful women, to ask them about all things Marshmallows. Here is the result – the story of the group and more, as told by the band themselves. As a very recent newcomer to the trio, Olya left the talking to Yulia and Masha.

They began by telling me how they got into rock’n’roll. Julia said she grew up with the music: “At the movies and on the radio I was captivated by it and as I grew up I got ‘married’ to rock’n’roll and my whole life was consumed by it.” Masha said before she first met Yulia and started singing with her, “I listened to everything rock’n’roll – this is the music of carefree youth and so you meet a lot of ’positively charged’ people, because they’ll always be young.”

And how did the Marshmallows come about ? Yulia provided the initial spark for the genesis; “the idea came to me when I sang in a choir (this studio catered to girls). At first I was thinking about a solo program, but while I was in the choir I started thinking about polyphony (a trio), the kind of thing that was popular in the 1950s”. Masha said that fitted her profile too, “before singing in the same choir as Yulia, I sang in a quartet where we did our own arrangements.” It snowballed from there. Yulia said her choir teacher supported the idea and worked with them on the programme. They didn’t expect the first Marshmallows shows just a few months later to be so compelling. Yulia said they generated a lot of interest, “things really took off, surpassing our expectations.”

Musical influences ? Yulia first of all drew attention to the impact the Raw Cats had on them. I’ve written already in this column about the iconic status of this group in Russian rock’n’roll, especially their leader vocalist/keyboard player Valery Setkin. Yulia said their first ever show happened because of the Raw Cats. “They helped us to believe in ourselves, overcome our stage fright and to take the lead role. We just sang for their friends, gradually getting used to the stage, microphones and audiences, while continuing to work on our own programme. After 6 months we did a show for the Raw Cats’ birthday.”

Masha says the American groups of the 1950s were their point of reference; “they had a style that was somehow unique, since for the most part women’s vocal trios in Russia sing jazz, that’s what they know more about. Our project says things no one else is saying.”

About the important events in the history of the Marshmallows, they say every one of their concerts is an event and it’s hard to say which of them is more important, “there are always new people and loyal fans, and every time we do a show we create the mood and atmosphere of the 50s era, or at least we try.” Masha remembers their first open air concert at Kuznetsky Bridge in Moscow, “performing on the street in front of a big crowd of people just walking by – this was new and very, very exciting!”

Yulia says the public in Moscow tend to respond to things generally in a way that is “very cold, because of the climate apparently, and it’s pretty difficult waiting for them to respond to the words and music, since for them this is something new and unusual in today’s musical milieu.” I’ve been here in Russia for over 10 years and that’s not my impression: If Russians like something, they are very open in expressing it. And at all the many Marshmallows concerts I’ve been to, the audience has been to say the least very very appreciative and responsive.

I asked them about changes on the rockin’ scene here in Russia. Yulia said there were less clubs than there used to be, “a lot of clubs have closed, including the ones we first began performing in. There aren’t many public squares where large groups like ours can play, since there are six of us (including the musicians), and our style isn’t suitable for many venues. We hope that by now (we’ve been performing for 3 years) the audience has learned more about this music and about that point in time when the whole world experienced a music revolution.” You said it, Yulia – the 1950s, unlike all the stuff that came after, really was a social revolution. For the first time, the youth adopted their own music, culture and lifestyle, unlike previous generations. All the movements that came afterwards, mods, rockers, punks, skinheads, glam rock, etc., were just a continuation of this.
/ Masha pointed out the rising popularity of Rockabilly and Psychobilly in Russia, “although perhaps only in certain areas. We don’t limit ourselves to the ‘party scene’ and we try to perform for anyone who likes what we do, and there are many.”

Reasons for their great success here in Russia ? Masha says it’s down first of all to good old-fashioned “constant hard work. We understand that the audience appreciates more than a pretty picture – they also want a quality performance, so we are constantly rehearsing, both together and on our own.” For Yulia, “what’s important is that the picture be complete, so we pay a lot of attention to details, from creating the image of ‘the girls from the pictures,’ to the sound of the instruments and voices, because the audience isn’t fooled; they can see and hear what is fake.”

Apart from Olya replacing Nadezhda, as advised above, the line-up of the singers hasn’t changed since their foundation. But there has been a big turnover of backing musicians. “Many times we’ve changed musicians”, they advised me, “also, it’s hard to find a good guitarist for this genre and even more so on a regular basis. Our main problem has always been the rhythm section and only a year ago we found some fellows who played our sound almost perfectly. We‘re glad we found them! They are Vladimir Kondrashov (bass) and Sergey Arnautov (drummer). We hope for long and fruitful work with them.”

I asked them for some funny or particularly interesting stories about the group. Here’s the result:

Yulia – “Once we were invited to play one of the largest video game exhibitions in Russia. It was funny because there was a large stage and an auditorium with everything. We and the organisers put a lot of work into it. But we didn’t perform, the explanation being that we were too loud!”

Masha – “Yes. And it can happen that we end up performing only as models for photo shoots. For example, one time there was this festival for vintage cars. A year later, in one of the magazines, in an announcement for the same festival there was our photo from a year earlier. That was nice. And once there was this guy who jumped onto the stage with us during the song and asked us to stand next to him, saying ‘what you have here is such fun and beautiful’.”

Masha and Yulia quoted the names of individuals in the history of Russian rock’n’roll that they particularly admire, for their contribution to the rockin’ scene here in Russia; “The Raw Cats (especially Valery Setkin), the Hi-Tones, Aleksey Lex Blokhin, Denis Mazhukov, Yevgeniy Kudryashov, too many to remember, but all of them are important in their own way and they did a lot for rock’n’roll in Russia.”

They count their biggest musical influences as being the Boswell Sisters and the Andrew Sisters. Now, most of you know about the Andrews Sisters, but if you haven’t heard of the Boswell Sisters, check ‘em out on youtube: They’re an amazing slice of twentieth century music history.

All-time favorite rock’n’roll performers ? Yulia – “for me, Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin.” Masha – “for me, of all the rock’n’rollers, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Louis will always be in first place.” And in answer to my serious question, “if someone put a gun to your head and told you to say your all-time favourite track ? ……. Yulia – “Bang Bang by Janis Martin !” …… Masha – “Bang Bang by Nance Sinatra !”

Regarding the future, “our group is doing all it can to ensure that rock’n’roll will have a future in Russia.” Masha – “I see us on a large stage with an orchestra, everything is glittering and sparkling, it’s filled with people and everyone is there to see us !” Julia – “Of course, sooner or later we’ll conquer the word. But seriously, we will continue to celebrate rock’n’roll in our Marshmallow Universe.”

Catch some of the Marshmallows’ magic yourself. You can see them on Facebook – type “Marshmallows” in the facebook search engine box. Like I said, “Sweet and Hot” !

Richard Hume