We’re late. We land on time, but travelling around with a team of eight dudes and twenty pieces of luggage means you’re hardly the nimblest of movers, especially through customs. From hitting the tarmac to us emerging from the terminal into snowy Russia it’s well over two hours, but hey, at least we’ve nothing important to do. Like appearing on a late-night TV show watched regularly by 100 million people.
Oh yes. The good people at Вечерний Ургант (Evening Urgant), Russia’s answer to Kimmel/Fallon/Colbert etc, have invited us to rock up and blast through “Looking Too Closely” as the end credits roll, but with each anxious phonecall to our liaison Almira they’re probably beginning to wish they hadn’t bothered. A one-hour delay becomes 90 minutes, becomes two hours, becomes two and a half. It’s rush hour, and Moscow is one hell of a big place. As a Londoner and as someone who has visited Tokyo, I have respect for very big cities. I eye the little blue dot on Google Maps, simultaneously marvelling and seething at quite how slowly it’s moving, even when our fur-hatted driver manages to floor it along a relatively empty road for a few moments. Almira receives another frantic call. Due to lack of time, can we cut down to one drummer? I glance at our second drummer Nicky and we glumly nod our consent. Guy our bassist grins at me, as only he can grin. “The rest of us can decide which drummer we use, right?”
In the end, the magic of urgency comes to our rescue. We pile into the TV studio – a BBC-type affair with a slightly disappointing lack of things to laugh at – hurl our instruments at the stage and before we know it, I’m pretty much clicking my sticks in our singer Fin’s general direction and we’re live. “This is a song about somebody else,” Fin sings, to the populations of Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok and – in all likelihood – Minsk and Bishkek. To supermarket shelf-stackers in Smolensk, primary-school teachers in Rostov, Arctic fishermen in Arkhangelsk, nuclear scientists in Kol’skaya and goatheaders outside Irkutsk tuning in live from their yurt. Four minutes later we’re done, and we’re thirsty, and it’s a Thursday night, and we’re in goddam Moscow.
They say Moscow’s a city where you can get anything you want. Well, whenever I appear on television, I have this bizarre craving afterwards for a caviar-covered hamburger with a gold-leaf bun. Another of our Russian liaisons, Vitaly, knows just the place. We’re whisked across central Moscow to his friend’s restaurant Burger Heroes, and duly plied with ice-cold beer and strange Russian takes on the great American meaty snack. Nigel our monitor man has his topped with cherries, Chris our guitarist chooses smoked onions and chocolate, Guy goes for, um, bacon and cheese, while tour manager Simon and myself get our laughing gear around the curious gold’n’caviar combo which rolls in halfway between an opulent dessert and a gaudy Fabergé bauble. We demolish all the food and beer in sight, poke our heads round the corner at a freezing Red Square, and then our first day in Moscow is finally declared over.
It’s odd, being in the same place as an international news event. I was in Hollywood one year at Oscar time, and the helicopter taking aerial shots of the red carpet was the same helicopter I could hear buzzing around outside our apartment window. Today, waking up in the hotel and flicking the TV to BBC World, the concerned-looking Moscow correspondent stands a couple of hundred yards from where I’d stood last night, just outside the Kremlin, feeling the same cold and trudging the same snow. So far on this trip no one’s mentioned the “escalating diplomatic crisis” between the UK and Russia. Downstairs in the lobby, I try it out on Vitaly. He shrugs amiably, muttering that he might have seen something “on page eight or nine of the newspaper.”
He’s inadvertently summed it up perfectly: no one cares. We’re here to play music. We receive nothing but warmth from the people on this trip, and nowhere does this feel more tangible than at the shows we play. First up is Moscow’s Arbat Hall, a generously proportioned ballroom with a disco ceiling and a thumping festival stage. We’ve never played a show in Russia before, and ticket reports have been sketchy. Who will show up? One hundred, two hundred people? The doors open at 8pm and six hundred very cold people stream into the room. We hit the stage, and the reaction is volcanic: the product of ten years spent not visiting a country, but putting out albums which increase the anticipation in the meantime. The audience sing along with every word. Smiles are everywhere. One fan holds aloft a white Fink T-shirt for practically the whole show. Another has a banner on which they’ve painted “The world needs more Finks.” Have you any idea how great that feels? Trust me: it feels very great.
But after the warmth must come the coldth. From this hot two-hour gig we head to the freezing but wonderfully named Leningradsky Station for the night train to St Petersburg. Depth of temperature aside, and with the benefit of writing this in my cosy kitchen in Hackney, the night train experience is actually rather short on anecdote. The train departs and arrives on time, the cabins are clean and warm, the carriage is quiet, the guard isn’t a chain-smoking alcoholic nutter, and if the train does possess a packed bar where dangerous amounts of vodka are being merrily knocked back, we don’t find it. A perfectly sensible way for us to get about, then, but at the risk of tempting fate for our next visit, I could handle a touch more of the crazy.
St Petersburg I’ve visited before as a tourist, and for those who haven’t, it’s definitely all it’s cracked up to be: a beautifully designed festival of lavish churches, vast palaces and evocative plains of frozen river. It’s closer to the vibe of Helsinki or Copenhagen than Moscow or Kiev, and the venue for our show, fittingly, is the kind of well-worn indie rock theatre we’re used to playing in places like Antwerp and Leipzig, with the added bonus of a smoking section like a movie crack den. Our promoter Sergey is one of those heroes who’s managed to carve himself our a career in an uncertain, developing musical territory, and we take to him immediately, not least because of the kick-ass stage team he’s managed to assemble. He has also, for our dressing room, purchased the strongest mustard in the history of mustard, and some incredibly weird but delicious soft meringues with an apricot filling that, conveniently for me, almost everyone else in our touring party thinks are horrible.
The St Petersburg show is another stirring experience: over five hundred brilliantly attentive and appreciative punters abandon their warm apartments for a cold trip to see a band they’ve never seen play before, and we feel like newly-crowned kings, again. In a café around the corner before the show, Fin, Chris and myself meet two girls and a guy who’ve come all the way from the Urals, in Central Russia, to see us. That’s two thousand kilometres. Another friend of ours, Ariel, has come from Kiev, and she also saw us last night in Moscow. These things hit you, hard, in an endlessly pleasant and humbling way. We blast through the show, nail a vodka, and reluctantly pack up. I can safely say that all eight of us wish the trip were longer, perhaps took in a couple more cities, and we long for a return trip, if we’re lucky. But for now, Fink’s debut mission to Russia has been a freezing but gloriously warm success.
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