For decades the USSR officially denied its citizens the small pleasures afforded by "decadent" Western rock and roll. But in recent years, pop-culture-starved Russians were subjected to something worse--visits from bland stars such as Billy Joel and UB40. Now, however, residents of the land of the czars are at last enjoying some musical salvation: Artistically adventurous acts from the musical underground have started trekking to the no-longer-so-evil empire, as well. English cultists the Legendary Pink Dots are scheduled to join the parade during a December excursion to the former Soviet state, and that's appropriate. After all, there are few bands that are more adventurous or reside further underground.
Pink Dots leader Edward Ka-spel speaks about the junket with characteristic dryness. "I think some fans in Holland circulated tapes to Russia," he remarks. "I've heard we have some following there." Some following, indeed: Ka-spel reveals that a Dots concert recently was broadcast on a Russian television show with an estimated viewership of 2 million. That means that the number of Russians who have heard of Ka-spel and his comrades (currently Ryan Moore, Martijn de Kleer, Niels van Hoornblower, Raymond Steeg and an instrumentalist who goes by the moniker "The Silver Man") is roughly 2 million more than the U.S. total.
The reason for this sad state of affairs isn't a lack of effort on the Dots' part. The outfit's recording history demonstrates that Ka-spel has been, if nothing else, extraordinarily prolific: Over the past thirteen years he's been involved with nineteen Pink Dots albums, ten solo efforts and three collaborations with Skinny Puppy's cEVIN Key, released under the appellation Tear Garden. But ask any average member of the alternative nation to identify Ka-spel or his band and you're likely to draw a blank stare.
Ka-spel, for his part, isn't particularly concerned about the Dots' obscurity in the States. "I don't really care about that," he claims. "We just do what we do, and if people reject that, that's their problem."
Such a laissez-faire attitude comes easily for Ka-spel, who boasts that he's followed a "singular vision" throughout his career. Personnel changes have made this attribute a necessity; the Dots have changed lineups more often than Spinal Tap. Ka-spel estimates that upwards of 25 people have been Dots at one time or another. "There's a lot of me in there," he concedes. "The group has always been my personal indulgent obsession."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But if the Pink Dots' membership has fluctuated more often than Boris Yeltsin's EKG, its sound has been somewhat more consistent. Combining musical elements from acts as disparate as Pink Floyd and Joy Division, the Dots specialize in producing a psychedelic, often medieval dirge of synthesizers, guitars, obscure instruments and vaguely disturbing vocals that has won them a dedicated cult following. It's also earned Ka-spel some derision from critics, who've written the band off as a gothic relic of the Eighties. Ka-spel dismisses these gripes. "All our CDs are connected in a certain way--it's a story that kind of unfolds over time," he elaborates. "For me, it's always been about the invention of new colors."
On From Here You'll Watch the World Go By, the Dots' latest offering (on the Soleilmoon imprint), these hues form a more direct stripe than usual; the disc retains the ambient, atmospheric feel and layers of texture associated with previous efforts, but it feels less baroque than albums past. "It's always been what feels good at the time, whatever the mood is in the studio," Ka-spel explains. "And I'm into acoustic guitars at the moment." He's also in a slightly ruminative frame of mind, thanks to Chemical Playschool 8/9, a double album of old and new material released in August that, he notes, "completes the circle. It's the most freaked-out thing we've ever done."
Not that Ka-spel plans to rest on this accomplishment. In early 1996, following the completion of a sixty-city tour that will take the Dots across America to Mexico, Eastern Europe and, eventually, Moscow, he and Key will begin recording a new Tear Garden effort. And after that project is completed, the Pink Dots return to the studio once again. "We're busy all the time," Ka-spel notes. "It's what we do. This is our day job."
Legendary Pink Dots. 9 p.m. Tuesday, November 14, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6, 830-TIXS or 294-9281.