Portraits. Viktor Mikhalin

They say that music is an internationali language, and that musicians make great I ambassadors of peace and good will. Viktor Mikhalin certainly thinks so. The drummer in Avtograf, Russia's most popular and I critically acclaimed rock band, is busy explaining how music, especially pop music, can unite America and the Soviet Union. "Music tells us that communication is possible, and that Russians are really no different than Americans," says Mikhalin: in surprisingly good English. "It is a great way to promote understanding between the Russian and American people."

Mikhalin and the rest of Avtograf were recently in the U.S. to introduce themselves to the American rock press and, hopefully, to secure an American record deal. Avtograf’s first album sold six million copies in Russia. Because of their success, the group was invited to represent their country via satellite at the 1985 Live Aid concert. Last year, thanks to Glasnost, the band performed with the Doobie Brothers, Carlos Santana, James Taylor, and Bonnie Raitt at the historic July 4th concert in Moscow. And a few months ago, Avtograf recorded eight new songs with American producer Bob Parr at the prestigious Soviet State Studios in the Russian capital. "We think the songs are really good," continues Mikhalin. "Now we must wait to see if American record companies think so."

In the meantime, Mikhalin and the rest of Avtograf were busy meeting American musicians, doing interviews, and getting in a bit of sight-seeing. I caught up with Mikhalin when the band was in New York.

RS: I trust your trip to America has been a rewarding one for you and Avtograf.

VM: It has been just great. But, you know, I didn't expect it to be so good.

RS: Why is that?

VM: Because this is the first time a Soviet j rock band has come to your country. We have been abroad to play before; we have been to many countries in Europe. But America is different. We know everything about your music and your music culture, and about the music business. But still, before we came to America, I had some sleepless nights. I was nervous and excited, too.

RS: I guess that's understandable. After all, you were responsible, in a way, for breaking new ground. America's first real impressions of Russian rock 'n' roll would come from I you and your band.

VM: Yes, that's true. I was nervous, too, because as a drummer, I was influenced by 'your best drummers. I wanted to play good whenever we performed in concert. Plus, the American music market is the largest in the world. It is very important for every musician in the world to do well here.

RS: You performed at a number of rock clubs here. You played the Roxy in Los Angeles and Drums in New York, for example. Do you think Avtograf made a favorable impression?

VM: Yes, I hope so. The tour went just great. Everyone around us took good care of us, and everywhere we played, we felt much support. American audiences are very open and friendly. Actually, I think American audiences are the best in the world.

RS: You mentioned that you were influenced by American drummers. Is there one drummer perhaps that you admire most?

VM: You have so many drummers here in America who are excellent. It is very difficult to pick one. But the American drummer I would most like to meet someday is Steve Gadd. He is a universal drummer. I started my career as a jazz musician. I was a member of the biggest recording orchestra in Moscow. For me, Steve Gadd is the best example of universal playing. He can play everything—rock, jazz, jazz/rock. This is very important to me. It means he has a universal culture, and his experience is very wide.

RS: From what I hear, you are a conservatory-trained musician. Is that right?

VM: Yes, that it true. I studied at a conservatory in Russia.

RS: Where and how did you learn about rock 'n' roll?

VM: A lot of things depend on your intellectual level. I studied at my college to be a choir conductor. I studied a lot of classical music. I love classical and chamber music. But I didn't expect to come into rock 'n' roll. One day Alexander Sitkovetskiy [Avtograph's guitar player] came to me. He, too, was trained at the conservatory. He asked me to play rock 'n' roll with him, but I said no. I told him I didn't believe in rock 'n' roll. But he left me a tape and asked me to play it and then decide. When I played it, I realized that rock 'n' roll can be a powerful music and have a powerful direction. Rock 'n' roll is a very total music. Not like jazz, which is, I think, very personal. It was difficult for me at first. I was used to jazz and classical music. The difference between playing jazz and playing rock is very big.

RS: I'm told that Avtograf spent 340 days on the road last year.

VM: Yes, that is right. We perform as much as we can. Sometimes we play two gigs each day. But we do not play as much as American groups. We play about 15 minutes each performance. So, if we play two gigs in a day, we only have 30 minutes on the stage.

RS: How do you view your role as the drummer in Avtograf? What do you believe are your responsibilities?

VM: I think the most important thing for me to do is to make the band comfortable. The others should look to me as the conductor. Everything should be completely clear. It takes a different energy. You don't always enjoy what you are doing. But you can enjoy what the rest of the band is doing because of you. You help them. You conduct them. But when you play solos, it is different; then you should be very creative. You should be an artist.

RS: How would you describe your style of drumming?

VM: It is very difficult to describe yourself. My style is based on me listening to what is going on around me. A drummer must have good ears. I also watch to see if the musicians I am playing with are comfortable. I like drummers who keep their listeners in the dark, so they don't know what to expect of them. Steve Gadd, I think, is like that. I think Omar Hakim is like that, too. Drummers should have personality in their playing. It doesn't matter what kind of technique they have. Their drumming must have personality.

RS: Did you get a chance to meet many American drummers during your stay here?

VM: Unfortunately, not as many as I would have liked to meet. But l met American drummers and other musicians in Moscow during the July 4th concert of last year. I also met James Taylor and his amazing bass player, Lee Sklar. It was very exciting.

RS: Do you think there is much difference between your approach to rock 'n' roll drumming and, say, the average American rock drummer?

VM: Yes, there are differences. For one thing, you have schools like Berklee. You shouldn't have to discover rock 'n' roll by yourself. In Russia, we listen to as much American music as we can in order to understand what is going on. But we don't have schools like Berklee. You can, however, now study jazz in the Soviet Union. I was a teacher of jazz. I had five pupils, but I gave it up. I didn't know how to tell my students that you must be good with your mind as well as your hands when you play the drums.

RS: How available is American music in Russia? Are you exposed to the latest sounds and the latest albums?

VM: We have the latest information from the United States. Some of the records we can buy in our stores. But some we cannot. For instance, I have in my luggage about 50 tapes and about ten videotapes to bring home with me. This is like a trade of information. We now have plenty of musicians who are traveling abroad. They bring information and albums back with them. It is very easy to buy jazz music in our stores, though. We also now have rock records from bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, to Whitney Houston. Things, as you know, have changed very much in our country.

Photo by Jeffery Mayer

RS: You're referring, I assume, to Glasnost and the lessening of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union?

VM: I think so, yes. I think our two countries should cooperate more. There is no doubt that our two countries are the most powerful nations in the world. We should go together well. We can help each other a lot.

RS: What is the rock scene like in Russia?

VM: It is different than in the United States. We play in sports arenas that seat five- or ten-thousand people. Sometimes we play in clubs, too. But there is nothing to drink in them and no place to dance. It is just chairs. People sit down and listen to the music. Sometimes this is good, because then there is no problem. But sometimes you want to see a more warm reception. Whenever we play in university towns like Kiev and Leningrad, we always get a warm reception. A rock concert is a big event in Russia.

RS: Can you get Modern Drummer magazine back home? Have you ever seen a copy of it?

VM: Oh, I am familiar with it, yes. But I only get the magazine when someone sends me a copy, or when I travel abroad.

RS: Can you tell me a little bit about your drumset?

VM: Well, they are wooden drums, not electronic. I prefer the wooden drum sound to the electronic sound. In America, I am endorsed by Remo drums. They are extremely comfortable to play. I can change a drumhead in 30 seconds on the Remo set. I have Zildjian cymbals, which I really love. In the Soviet Union I have a Yamaha set, which I like, too. The government owns this set. It is not mine.

RS: Is it difficult for you to get spare parts for the drums that you play when you're in the Soviet Union?

VM: Fortunately for me, it is not something that I must worry about so much. Since I don't own the drumset, it is not for me to get parts or equipment for my drums. The government takes care of that, since they own the set. And there is no problem. My Yamaha set is fantastic. I have two 24" kick drums, six toms, two floor toms, 11 cymbals, and a couple of hi-hats. It's a huge set. And my Remo set is very similar to the Yamaha set. But the Remo set was given to me. My government does not own that one.

RS: What is the Soviet government's view on rock 'n' roll? Here is a distinctively Western music that is creeping into Soviet culture and is certainly affecting its youth. Is the government worried that rock 'n' roll might become too powerful a cultural force in the Soviet Union?

VM: Things are changing in my country. When Gorbachev took power, he started to change things faster than before. And I think in the future it should get better and better for us. Rock 'n' roll has become a real force in the arts. It was never like that before. But rock 'n' roll is now established in our culture. Now, for instance, our underground bands have an opportunity to play everywhere. It is a good situation, because now there is competition among the Soviet rock bands. And sometimes, you know, we find out that the underground bands are better than the established bands. Some bands have been underground for 15 years. But now there is a wave of underground bands coming out and playing for young people.

RS: Avtograf is the first purely Russian band to play in America, right?

VM: Yes, that's true. We are the first band to come here to play, to try to get a record deal, and to show Americans that we, too, can play rock 'n' roll. A lot of young people in America don't even know about Soviet rock 'n' roll. Maybe while we are here we can teach them something. We want also to break down the wall that separates our two countries and cultures. I didn't meet one person in America who had a negative view of Russia. I was so surprised. I don't 1 know how to explain the feeling in English, but all I can say is that the people I met were very warm to me and the other members of the band. Suddenly, you understand that we are all human beings. We have nothing to fight about. Rock 'n' roll is a good way for young people to communicate feelings of friendship. I think its force is very strong.

RS: What happens if Avtograf signs a major recording contract with an American label? Will the group be permitted to return to the U.S. in the future?

VM: I think it's possible, because it means money. If it means real money for my country, then what's wrong with that?

RS: A lot of Americans have, perhaps, heard of Avtograf because of your current whirlwind tour of the U.S. and the media attention you received in the process. But I suspect few really know what Avtograf is about, musically. Can you define Avtograf's brand of rock?

VM: [laughs] That is a difficult question.

RS: Might you be able to, say, compare your band with a popular American or British band?

VM: Well, we got so many different opinions of how our music sounds. I think we did 20 different interviews with American newspapers and each of them said something different about how our music sounds. [laughs] Someone compared us to Rush. Another journalist compared us to Genesis. Another said we sounded like Yes, and another still said we were like Cutting Crew.

RS: And which writer was most correct, in your opinion?

VM: Well, we used to play music that was, I think, very close to Genesis and Pink Floyd. We did play a lot of instrumental music with very little vocals. But now our music has changed. I think you could say we play melodic hard rock. It used to be progressive rock, but no more. All this is true, even though for me, my favorite musician has always been Chick Corea. And one of my personal favorite drummers has always been Lenny White. I always liked the idea of jazz/rock fusion, you see. That's why I like very much what Sting is doing these days. He has a wonderful group of musicians with him.

RS: Now that Avtograf has broken the ice, so to speak, do you think more Russian rock bands will be coming to America? Is that possible from your point of view?

VM: I think the possibility is pretty big. I know some Russian drummers who would like to come to America and study percussion. It's like basketball. Our big basketball teams come here all the time to practice and train with American teams. Sometimes they stay in America for three months or longer. And it helps everyone's ability to play the game. The same can be true for musicians. It would be great if Soviet rock musicians could come here to America and practice and jam with American players— maybe even record with them, who knows? I think it would be good for Soviet rock musicians and for American musicians, too. Sharing ideas is always a good thing, don't you think so?

RS: Indeed. How many Avtograf albums are available in the Soviet Union?

VM: Just one, because that is all we have recorded so far. That one album has already sold six million copies. We are very proud of that. It is an accomplishment. We also have released two singles. No Soviet rock band has sold more records than Avtograf.

RS: What is it that you attribute to your band's huge success?

VM: We never compromise. I know, as the drummer in the band, I try to always play my best. I have high aspirations. Once a drummer compromises, then the whole band must also compromise. And that is no good. Drummers like Steve Gadd and Lenny White never compromise. That is why they have gone so far with their music. You have so many musicians in your country and so many drummers. You have a magazine just for drummers. I was surprised to learn how many of them can find work and earn a living playing music. It is fantastic. In fact, this is one of the things that has surprised me the most about America. It is not that way in the Soviet Union.

RS: Did you attend any drum clinics during your visit here in the States?

VM: No. I do not know what you mean by a drum clinic.

RS: Very simply, it's an event in which drummers come together to share ideas, learn about new equipment and trends, and listen to some of our most prestigious players talk about technique and style and other concerns of drummers.

VM: Oh, wow. I would have liked very much to attend such a clinic. It would have been amazing for me to do that. One of my goals is to play with as many musicians as I can and to learn much about percussion— especially rock percussion.

RS: Perhaps next time.

VM: Yes, next time. I think there definitely will be a next time.

by Robert Santetli

August 1988
Modern Drummer, vol. 12, #8