Interview: SOYUZ

SOYUZ is the creative union of Alex Chumak (vocals, keys, and composition), Mikita Arlou (multi-instrumentalist), and Anton Nemahai (drums), who have been perfecting their craft since 2017 with the release of two albums.

They have carved a gorgeous space for themselves through their laid-back psychedelic pop, subtle kosmische inflections, and atmospheric-soaked jazz. However, last month saw the release of the trio’s third album, which was influenced by 70s Música popular Brasileira that runs through the 9-song masterpiece.

In addition to instrumental compositions, ‘Force of the World’ includes songs sung in Russian and Portuguese. Both acoustic and electroacoustic sounds combine to create a musical palette that is both relaxed and tight: rich, warm Rhodes piano, sweeping string arrangements, and restrained drum swagger.

Off the back of the album, we chatted with Alex and Mikita about their musical influences, their creative process and, of course, the recently released album.

Who are SOYUZ, and what’s the story behind your name?

ALEX: We are a trio from Minsk, Belarus, currently living in Poland, formed in 2017. The name came to us by itself, ‘soyuz’ translates simply as ‘union’, and means that we, three musicians and multi-instrumentalists with different backgrounds, have come together to do something new together. On the cover of our very first release in 2017 you can see us all together as an illustration of this idea.

Talk us through the creative process for your latest album, Force of the Wind.

ALEX: The first songs appeared in 2019 shortly after the release of the album ‘II’, then they were transformed several times, some of them we left behind. Most of the material was written between 2020 and early 2021, in turbulent times of covid, revolution in our country, escalating repression, closed borders. We recorded everything from March to November 2021, as there were many collaborators from all over the world working on our record.

What was the first track you composed for the album, and did it help set the tone or provide a sense of direction?

ALEX: Possibly it was ‘Como é que vai você’ (‘How are you’), then called simply ‘flute theme’ and sounded completely different, although it definitely helped set the tone for the future material. The next song we worked on was “Glance”, and it made it into the album almost unchanged.

How has your sound evolved compared to ‘II’, and how has ‘Force of the Wind’ changed you as a collective?

ALEX: Of course, “Force of the Wind” is richer in detail than its predecessor, mainly because we had more time to write and produce songs, try out different record options and collaborate with other talented musicians. Apart from giving us a lot of experience and maturity, this album literally changed us as a band: due to creative differences, our original drummer left the project in the middle of working on the new material. It didn’t take long to find a replacement, we already had a musician we wanted to work with, but still such transformations are not easy.

MIKITA: We decided to keep it analog, reaching enough further “out of time/out of context” experience. Starting from our very first release, we perfected that feeling on ‘Force of the Wind’.

On our fave cut on the LP ‘How Are You’, Sessa layers his addictive vocal melody over a lush arrangement. How did that collaboration come about?

ALEX: In 2019 Sessa released their debut album ‘Grandeza’, which is as great as its title suggests, and in the same year we released our second album. The two releases had a lot of common sources of inspiration. The two releases shared many sources of inspiration, which prompted me to write him a letter and offer a collaboration. To my surprise, Sessa did respond, he appreciated our album and expressed interest in working together. I already had a draft of ‘Como é que vai você’ which I sent him, and then we started exchanging ideas and sketches. He also highlighted the strings on “II” and asked me to work on arrangements of a few songs for his new album, which was later called ‘Estrela Acesa’ and released earlier this year, so you can find my contribution on it.

We adore the album artwork. What’s the story behind the cover that accompanies the record?

ALEX: I found this picture in one of the old books from the 80s, I think back in 2019, when musical ideas for the new album were still starting to emerge, and I knew straight away that this would be the cover for it. Then my favourite graphic designer, Zhenya Anfalov, worked on the artwork for the vinyl.

We know that SOYUZ is a collective but do you all rigidly stick to a particular task? Or do your responsibilities overlap?

MIKITA: Taking off from Alex’s ideas, we’re constructing it together to the desired point. As individual musicians we originated from different backgrounds, but related at the core. Also as multiinstrumentalists we can cover each other’s musical path in a creative way.

Your music references música popular Brasileira, Ethiopian jazz, krautrock, Italian psychedelic soundtracks and early Japanese electronics. If you had to choose your five biggest influences, who would they be, and why?

ALEX: Let’s try:

1. Milton Nascimento and Clube da Esquina, obviously. It’s amazing how resonant and moving this music can be for someone who grew up on the other side of the world. Lô Borges, Beto Guedes, Toninho Horta, Novelli, Robertinho Silva, Wagner Tiso, Nivaldo Ornelas and others who have been associated with the Clube are extremely talented musicians and we are lucky that they have met each other and left such a mark.

2. John Cage, he was a great example of what a musician can be and gave us all many innovative ideas.

3. Svitlana Nianio. A talented musician who emerged from the Ukrainian underground scene of the late 80s, associated with the Polish label KOKA Records, which helped young Ukrainian artists with their recordings. In recent years, her albums have been reissued on niche UK labels Night School and Skire and are being rediscovered by new audiences around the world, influencing the new waves of musicians.

4. Eduardo Mateo, a prolific Uruguayan musician, whose works are incredibly mystical and have some incredible property of dissolving you through time. His last decade, the 80s, is probably my favourite, but I also love his early 70s albums, and the band he played in in the 60s before becoming a solo artist, El Kinto, is also amazing.

5. Can, probably. Another fine example of talented musicians with a broad outlook and a desire to create something fun and playful.

Can you recommend three classic Brazilian recordings that everyone should hear?

ALEX: There are so many gems in Brazilian music that it’s impossible to choose just three 🙂 Let me choose rather randomly, but they’re all great:

Antonio Adolfo’s self-titled 1972 record
Self-titled album by Beto Guedes, Danilo Caymmi, Novelli, Toninho Horta, 1973
‘A Frauta de Pã’ by Carlos Walker, 1975

What is the greatest pleasure for you in creating music?

MIKITA: For me, the process of challenging yourself in collaborative work is the best. Even if I can be a creative, independent artist on my own, I can expand my possibilities playing with great musicians.

What else have you got in store for what’s left of 2022?

Preparing something for 2023 🙂

CF Smith

Permeating your ears with good music.

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