Brought to attention in 2018 as half of the Moscow‘s synthpop/electroclash duo Spielzeuge, the piano/synth musician Dmitry Philippov, put on hold the latter, started, last year, his own Russian-language, DIY, lo-fi solo project under the moniker Monoplan, releasing a promising debut EP “Звёзды над нами (The Stars Above Us)”, replete with a synth-laden dark sound walking the fine line between post-punk, new wave and coldwave with strong melodic quality and peculiar ‘Russian melancholy’.
Monoplan is going to drop his sophomore 4-track EP “Игра (The Game)” with some slight sonic variations, but let’s make it better explained by Dmitry himself…
Thanks so much for the interview. Let’s trace back to your personal roots, your earliest inspirations, passions and influences that drove you to became a musician and form a band
My musical upbringing started at the moment I first heard the recording of Van Cliburn performing Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto #1 at the age of six. That was my first musical impression, and a really strong one – made me start exploring our family vinyl collection (mostly operas and symphonic). We also had a piano at home, and my mother taught me a little to understand notation and play simple tunes. I started attending music school two years later, and by the age of 13 have grown into a well trained young pianist. But my passion for classical music has almost completely faded by then, because when I discovered the Beatles when I was 10 years old and that was a pivotal moment that changed a lot of things. I started discovering rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and classic rock very quickly, amazed with how many things you actually can do on a piano (or any other keyboard instrument, for that matter). At the age of 19 I started playing synthesizer in a restaurant ensemble, doing covers of pop hits for the money (which became my job for the next 11 years), and before that, I played the piano in a small café for a year or so. At that time I also began writing my own music and playing gigs with a couple of amateur bands.
What were the trigger factors that lead to starting your project? Did you already have a set idea of how you wanted the band to sound or has it been a gradual process of discovery?
The most important factor that helped to form the concept of MONOPLAN was my love for post-punk and the cold synth sounds of the 80s. I was more a classic rock guy in my youth, yes. But during my high school years, the late 80s to early 90s, I was surrounded by the actual sounds of the era too – and although at first, I was not that much interested in all that synth and drum machine stuff, it all changed when one late night I saw the ‘Personal Jesus’ video clip on TV. Depeche Mode turned me to synthpop – another pivotal moment in my cultural upbringing. When I discovered Bauhaus and Joy Division some years later, there was no way back. For about a decade or even longer I was living with the idea of starting a post-punk band with a heavy emphasis on synths. Due to different life circumstances that did not happen until late 2016, when we started a synthpop/electroclash duo Spielzeuge with singer and lyricist Darya Romanova. We played a couple of gigs and released two singles on Bandcamp, plus one track on a compilation LP by Kernkrach Records. The Spielzeuge project has been put on hold since, and in the meantime, I decided to explore the possibilities of creating something on my own. I was trying out different things in my bedroom studio, going from synthpop to goth and back, playing with different concepts for about a year. And then, last October I unexpectedly came up with the lyrics for what would soon become the song “Зима” (Winter). I did not write anything in Russian since the 90s, so I thought it could be interesting to sit down and play with it. And out of the blue, new songs started emerging one after another, as if they’ve been waiting for this moment somewhere in the back of my mind. This is how MONOPLAN was born.
How you describe your sound?
As a balance between post-punk and new wave, with a touch of cold wave sometimes. My songs are melancholic but rather lightweight musically. Some say it is 80s pop music, and I have no problem with that. I deliberately use mainly vintage synth and drum sounds, actually, 90% of what you hear in the arrangements emulates different 80s gear. Since my previous professional experience is mostly playing in an ensemble, I tend, consciously or not, to recreate the sound of a band doing their thing in a studio. The process of making different instrumental parts work together as if it was a bunch of musicians rehearsing and recording, is a fascinating thing to do. I would like to try a more minimalistic approach as well, and probably will do so on the next releases.
How important was, and still does, Moscow in your artistic development? Can you tell us about its music scene and its peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses?
Great question. I was born in Lyubertsy, a small town near Moscow, and raised in Saratov. It’s a big industrial city on the Volga river. Factories, power stations, refining facilities, fuel pipelines shape about half of the city skyline as seen from the river. In the beginning of the new century I moved back to Moscow, and its industrial outskirts have naturally become part of my usual environment since. As much as I like the city centre, historical parts and all, it is the gloomy and smoggy Moscow’s southeast where the inspiration comes from. The place where I now live, a village in Gzhel (50 kilometres from Moscow) has several industrial facilities too, some already defunct. Adds to the atmosphere and the feeling, of course.
As for the Moscow independent musical scene, I cannot say much about it, unfortunately. I know it exists but for the most part, it is hardly my kind of thing. There are small post-punk/darkwave/coldwave/goth communities in the Vkontakte social network, there are bigger synthpop communities too but I would say that overall there is not much activity here. More interesting things are happening in Yekaterinburg or Novosibirsk, as far as I know.
What’s your opinion about it and the contemporary Russian independent alternative/post-punk music scene? Which new Russian bands do you recommend?
I am very pleased to see that the Russian scene is in bloom these days. It is amazing, actually. New names here and there, known bands becoming bigger, touring Europe, releasing their music on vinyl, cassettes and CDs through foreign labels. The growing interest in the independent media, rising worldwide popularity of Russian bands – these things are really inspiring. I have discovered a lot of new Russian music via the White Light – White Heat website and I want to thank you for that, Fabrizio! My recommendations would be: Штадт (Stadt, a one-man project and probably the best Russian EBM act ever), Ploho, Supernova 1006, Trioxin, Human Tetris, Холодный Звонок, Фирма-однодневка – these names are frequent in my everyday listening. I also would like to mention Molchat Doma from Belarus and Icy Men from Ukraine. There is always more, for sure. I never stop discovering.
The prevalent choice of the Russian language, as in your case, is forced or do you think it is an important distinctive feature to be preserved?
Writing lyrics in Russian was not my usual style until this whole MONOPLAN thing started. Spielzeuge’s songs are mostly in German. I preferred writing in English for myself. Russian lyrics are kind of a choice made subconsciously, it was never planned this way. Now I can see that it works as a feature too. Also, if you have something to say in your lyrics, it only helps when you say it in your native language. The meaning and the message are important, at least this is how I want them to be.
How do you approach the creative part? Tell us about the process of recording the songs and writing the lyrics?
A new song usually starts with a piece of lyrics, a few rhymed lines. In most cases, it’s enough for the music to follow. Sometimes I spend a day or two with the song slowly building itself in my head word by word, note by note. Then I open an empty project and lay down some instrumental parts, starting with a drum pattern or a bass line. Sometimes I take an old project and play with it. But in the beginning, it’s always the words. The entire concept of a new song is built around its meaning.
When I’m halfway through the song, I lay down whichever vocal part I’ve got at the moment to see how it sounds. With this very first version on repeat in my headphones, I do my routine train rides to Moscow and back. Within the next few days, sometimes it takes a week or two, I’ve got the song fully shaped in my head and I only have to finish the project and then proceed with recording. Of course, there are dull days. Then I just relax, fix a drink and play some vinyl or read a book, waiting for the inspiration to come back.
Did you start with at the end of last year with an EP with a dark electronic-driven fingerprint, the new one follows in the same footsteps or otherwise what differences can we expect?
By the end of 2019, I found myself stuck in a loop of constant rehearsing the same four songs over and over. And it dawned on me that if I go on like that, I may never release these songs and in the end just shelve them. So I decided to change my approach and try to do everything in a single take – which I almost managed to achieve, applying only a few overdubs. The entire session took two days – one to record and another to mix and master, and then off we go, right before the New Year. 80s pop music or not, it was done punk style.
The new EP has probably even more escapist and melancholic feel to it but the songs are still danceable, if anyone wants to dance. You will find some stylistic deviances though. It is not 100% in the same vein as the debut.
Could you give us an in-depth insight into your upcoming EP?
Gladly! The title track, “Игра” (The Game) is quite different from anything off the debut EP. Its main riff was written many years ago and initially, it was a synth brass figure for a reggae or dub song – which never happened. Last November I put it over a funky bass part I was working on – and it clicked. The song turned out to be a mix of reggae and funk, sounding like some obscure new wave band from the ’80s to my ears.
“Люди как крысы” (People Are Like Rats) and “Твой голос” (Your Voice), the EP opener and closer, respectively, both emerged during the final stage of rehearsing. Initially, there was a different closing track (which will find its place on one of the forthcoming releases, I think). And I had an issue with the opener. It had to be a fast one, it had to be dark-sounding – and I didn’t have any candidates. One night an idea suddenly jumped to my head, just a couple of rhyming phrases – and the next day the song was basically done. I only had to rehearse it a little before recording.
The third song, “Освободи меня” (Free Me) was finalized in January and a couple of hours of recording was all it took to put it on the EP. I think this uptempo post-punk track fits nicely in the sequence.
There is a slight change in the lyrical themes too. Longing for something lost (like in “Звёзды над нами”) can still be found in “Твой голос”, but this time romantic feeling gives way to impending doom. Less alienation (see “Лёд”) but more hopelessness now (“Люди как крысы”, “Игра”). Still, the new release overall can be seen as the development of the concepts laid down on the debut.
Do you enjoy playing live and touring? What are your experiences so far?
Well, there was a time in my life when stage was my home, so I feel absolutely great for playing live. I really love it. But, however strange it may seem, there are currently no places in Moscow where a one-man post-punk act like myself could play a live set, even as part of a mini-festival or anything like that.
I would definitely love to play some gigs in small venues, closely face to face with people who understand and enjoy this kind of music. I never toured but I don’t think doing the same thing over several cities and countries would hurt.
What are you listening to at the moment?
I was browsing YouTube lately and found an absolutely fantastic 80s coldwave band Neon from Italy. Their music is incredible! I was also very impressed with the recent collaboration of Amaranth’s Ken Magerman and The Ghost Of Bela Lugosi; awesome goth stuff. Another great discovery is the 80s French coldwave act Ruth. I also throw something new from Russia in the mix quite often. For example, today it’s an unknown to me Russian post-punk band ЭХО 330.
- Which bands would you love to make a cover version of?
For some time already I’ve been thinking about covering Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’. I know it won’t be easy but I think I will try to do it someday. Supernova 1006 did a brilliant cover on ‘She’s Lost Control’. I believe I could try a similar approach and take a bite on ‘Transmission’ bringing my own emotion and style to it. Another idea I keep in mind is a cover on Yello’s ‘Drive/Driven’.
Were there any pivotal records or live concerts that changed indelibly your perception of music?
Apart from the Beatles’ back catalogue and tons of jazz, folk, rock and metal albums, too many of them to mention, there are several game-changing records forever imprinted in my soul. Depeche Mode – Violator, Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures, Bauhaus – In The Flat Field. Honourable mentions would be: The Sisters Of Mercy – Floodland, Human League – Dare!, Pet Shop Boys – ‘Introspective’, Iggy Pop – ‘Lust For Life’, Kraftwerk – ‘The Mix’, Siouxsie & The Banshees – ‘Through The Looking Glass’.
There is not a lot of live shows I have attended in my lifetime but I can name some really outstanding ones.
Peter Murphy with David J during their Bauhaus 40th Anniversary tour in 2018 – magical concert. ‘In The Flat Field’ in its entirety and a pack of Bauhaus classics.
The Cure in 2019 – Robert Smith and the band were absolutely fantastic. An unforgettable live experience.
Also, seeing Paul McCartney and hearing the Beatles classics performed live during his second visit to Moscow was a dream come true.
Could you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books and why?
I used to love watching something like ‘Back To The Future’ or ‘The Addams Family’ on video years ago. These days I’m not much into movies and I don’t think I have any current favourites.
There are some TV shows I really like though. ‘Good Omens’ is one of them. Just brilliant. I’m also looking forward to see the new ‘Dune’ movie because I love the books (well, the first three of them).
My current read is ‘Never Enough’ by Jeff Apter, a biographical book about The Cure. I like science fiction too. The Expanse series is quite good, for example. That being said, I am no bookworm I used to be. Making music takes time (but I love it).
Speaking about favourite albums, it’s not possible for me to name just one but recently I was revisiting the ‘A Slight Case Of Overbombing’ compilation album by The Sisters Of Mercy and I absolutely love it. The extended mix of ‘Lucretia My Reflection’ is pure gold. ‘This Corrosion, Dominion/Mother Russia’ – these songs never get boring to me.
Every day brings music, old and new, and you never know your next favourite. It could be some Miles Davis’ mindbending fusion piece if you ask me another day. Or a Judas Priest tune. You never know.
What are your plans for the future?
I am planning to begin working on a full-length album this summer or early autumn. Maybe I will release a single in the meantime. I have a bunch of ideas to play with. Lyrics are mostly complete. Once the album is ready, I’ll be looking forward to getting signed by a label. I’d like to have my music released on physical media and of course, play live gigs too.
Many thanks for being our welcome guest, just the last question: Is there anything I forgot to ask you and would you like to say?
I think we have all the topics covered… for now. Thank you very much, it was a great pleasure for me to be interviewed.
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