New York is covered in gray fog. It’s sticky and thick, blocking out the skyline, lending a sense of unpleasantness and unease to an already dreary Friday evening in May. It’s the perfect setting for Molchat Doma. The Belarusian post-punks are on their final night of a two-day stint at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, a mostly nondescript 650-cap room in North Brooklyn. People are lining up in the faint drizzle hours before the band starts, and by the time they go on, the venue will be packed to the brim, sold out like nearly every other date on their first U.S. tour. Everyone is abuzz to hear their austere coldwave in person, and they will shout along to every lyric, even if all of it is in Russian. It’s a miracle this is happening in the first place.
Their first tour was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic; the second could’ve met a similar fate: Molchat Doma’s run almost perfectly overlapped with the outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than 14 million Ukrainians are thought to have left their homes, with 6 million having fled the country; fear of the conflict spreading across Eastern Europe is a clear and present danger. The band had to spend a month in Poland in order to guarantee they would be able to make their tour dates. “We left basically because the war started,” Egor Shkutko, the group’s singer, tells CREEM in Russian while speaking through a translator, Anna Trubachova. “We were afraid the borders would be closed and we would not be able to leave and meet our assignment with the tour.”
By the time I catch up with them, Molchat Doma have already been touring for nearly six weeks, mostly in Latin America. They appear untroubled by how fast they had to move to make it happen. “We basically live on the road,” says bassist/synth player Pavel Kozlov, the most talkative of the group. “The house for us is where you sleep for more than two nights."
We left basically because the war started. We were afraid the borders would be closed.
Live, the band is formidable, clearly well rehearsed and resolute about every aspect of their music. Anyone who might think they’re burdened by playing up to nostalgia or the aesthetic of their chosen genre would have that image shattered the second Molchat Doma start performing. Every song is synced to meticulous lighting: stark blues and violets, warm golds on the slow burns. (The disco ball at the top of the venue gets more use than anyone probably was anticipating.) Shkutko is a mesmerizing frontman, twisting with his croons and dancing disjointedly before stopping abruptly, holding a near-unnatural stillness during key instrumental moments. “Spasibo,” he deadpans to the audience—Russian for “Thank you”—and letting the audience know they are from Minsk between songs. Kozlov shuffles around the stage, barely standing still at any moment. Guitarist/synth man Roman Komogortsev generates the beats, moving his instruments from wiry and nervy to stark and lush—a range that would make Robert Smith blush.
Just before the show, I’m seated in the Music Hall of Williamsburg’s greenroom with the band for this conversation. Kozlov is walking around in neon orange Crocs with black socks embossed with equally neon orange pot plants on them—a far cry from the all-black uniform they will don later that night. Komogortsev sits, smiling, fidgeting with the cap of his water bottle for the entire duration of our conversation. Shkutko fits the profile: He’s stoic, speaking carefully and succinctly with all the intentionality of a minimal bass line. Their eyes dart across the room—not out of annoyance or disregard, but from casual discomfort. The band does not do a lot of interviews, and this is their very first in the U.S.
Who could blame them for feeling a little bit awkward? Molchat Doma’s rise in America was completely unexpected. Attention first came to them via Harakiri Diat, a YouTube channel dedicated to uploading obscure releases by punk and post-punk bands. An upload of their second album, Etazhi, in 2019, garnered the band millions of unexpected views, and they quickly signed a deal with Sacred Bones Records, which gave them a proper release of their first two records in the U.S. In April 2020, their song “Sudno'' became an unexpected TikTok hit—the result of late-era Soviet fetishism that has taken over chunks of social media. Warped ’90s nostalgia and communist fascination are likely to blame, but whatever the case, “Sudno” became gloomy background music for a series of viral trends. Why that song, an adaptation of a cult Russian poet’s poem detailing a suicide attempt, was co-opted by TikTokers filming clothing try-on hauls is something future historians will have to parse out.
Molchat Doma don’t seem to care much either way. “It doesn’t really matter,” Shkutko says about the language barrier and their viral moment. “It’s great when people understand the music on their own emotional level. Maybe it’s different than what [the band] has put into it, but they understand it in their own way. It’s very appreciated.”
Despite TikTok’s tendency toward abstracting songs far beyond their original shape, it built the band a loyal and fervent fan base in the U.S. They played Coachella; they have more than 2 million monthly streams on Spotify. And though they were unable to tour in 2020, the band regrouped and focused its attention on new material. Monument, the third and latest album, was released that November.
Recording in a country “where there was no COVID, officially” (Kozlov uses big air quotes and the whole band roll their eyes when mentioning this), where “all the restaurants were open, all the parties and clubs were open,” Molchat Doma still took precautions while rehearsing and recording. “Not leaving the house as the rest did, worrying about [our] families,” as Shkuto puts it, they sped through the crafting of the album. The result is a brighter LP than the rest of their discography. The drums feel bouncier, more fleshed out. Songs like “Lubit' I Vypolnyat'” and album opener “Utonut’” are some of their catchiest ones to date, shiny and crisp, miles away from the lo-fi production found on their debut, 2017’s S Krysh Nashikh Domov. “Discoteque” feels like a lost new-wave hit; it captures the pure escapism and energy found in a dance club. Not that the band has entirely shed the gloom of their previous records. “We’re always trying something new, even if it would not work out,” Komogortsev says of the departure. The haunted “Obrechen” has Shkutko recounting a failed relationship; he chants, “I am doomed” during the song’s coda. But even that is tempered. The vocals are melancholic, not apathetic, and the guitars ring instead of sting. The band recoils when I suggest they might be leaning toward “pop” with this album, but they do admit to never wanting to repeat themselves with any of their music. “It would be quite boring to just copycat your own songs just because they were successful or loved by the public. So we try to experiment and do something new,” Shkutko says.
Clearly, they have succeeded where few international bands manage to, never mind any Belarusian bands. “I remember one of the first shows in Moscow we played,” Kozlov says. “We were smoking somewhere on the top floor and discussing what would be the biggest success for us. And we said, ‘Probably America.’ And we were recollecting it and saying, ‘This is it, we’re going to America.’ Now we’re in America, and it doesn’t feel like the top of success.”
They all start laughing at this fact, but in truth it’s unclear what the band would even do with more success. They seem caught off guard by the attention they’re receiving now. “People were recognizing us in Latin America, in airports, at soundchecks,” Shukuto says, adding that he felt awkward after customs agents knew who they were. “That’s on you if you feel shame,” Kozlov jokes at his friend. “We had to hide at one point in Mexico.”
While the band has no desire to return to the early days—“You play the show and then you’re on the bus all night and then you play the show and then you’re on the bus all night and then you go to work,” Kozlov says—at one point they get into a lighthearted quarrel over the nature of popularity and fame. “Popular is usually a spectacular nowness, famous is a little bit longer,” says Kozlov.
When we have five nights at Madison Square Garden, that will be the top of success. And some Grammys would be nice.
So what does fame look like? “When we have five nights at Madison Square Garden, that will be the top of success,” Kozlov says, only half-jokingly. “And some Grammys would be nice,” Komogortsev adds with a grin.
Whether they’ll make it that far remains to be seen, but their live shows do feel stadium-worthy. The New York City crowd that night in May—a varied assortment of stylish Brooklynites, e-girls, and a few couples speaking Russian to each other—was consumed by all of it. Someone crowd-surfed during “Udalil Tvoy Nomer,” despite its laggard coldwave. There were pockets of dancers: awkward, tight, mesmerized, scattered throughout. Overhead in the balcony, fans waved Ukrainian and Belarusian flags together. A young couple shared a bottle of poppers during the band’s finale. Molchat Doma walked off stage, only to return for an encore of “Sudno”—what else could it be? The skittering, twitching drumbeat is triggered, and the crowd went mad, an hour and a half’s worth of anticipation exploding into a mosh pit. Before departing, Kozlov grabbed the mic. “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to Belarus!”
In March 2022, Molchat Doma made a public statement denouncing the war in Ukraine on YouTube under the simple title “#STOPWAR.” It’s a direct message, and a common gesture these days—just not by bands from a country lead by Aleksandr Lukashenko, a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin who is frequently called “the last dictator of Europe.” Political dissent is crushed by the government in Belarus, and speaking out at all takes a vast amount of courage. When asked what compelled them to say something, to release a protest statement in a country that attacks anything that doesn’t toe the party line, the answer couldn’t possibly be more clear-cut. “Because it’s very normal and obvious,” Kozlov says. “The situation is electrified, so not acting, not doing anything, is actually guilty already. So you have to at least do something.”
They’re careful with their words, and they’re unwilling to worry about blowback (or worse) for expressing their opinions. “Everything happens for a reason,” Komogortsev says. “There is no need to regret anything because this is what made us, us. The history of this country, we know in advance, made us who we are."
“It’s just our life,” Kozlov adds, switching to English for the first time, bypassing our translator to an incredible effect. “It’s normal for us."
But what is normal about any of this? How many Belarusian bands, making music fit for 1982 in 2022, have achieved accidental fame via a 15-second video? How many have embarked on a six-week-long sold-out tour of the United States? There is no blueprint for them, no normal framework to follow. But there are more shows—an expansive tour across Europe—and one last performance, set for 2023. It’s in Kyiv, with the words “Slava Ukraini!” next to the date: “Glory to Ukraine!”