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Becoming Molfar

Sonia Tses interviews tAngerinecAt about their new album Glass

'In the process of therapy it became apparent that Eugene has always lived under this huge shadow of fear...'

In recent years, I have struggled to reconcile the violence of our world with the existence of art. It has seemed by turns frivolous, pointless, or inexplicably painful to listen to music, especially music made without any social consciousness whatsoever.

But there are some artists who show that music can be a necessity, not a luxury. tAngerinecAt is one of those bands. Their new album 'Glass' urgently addresses the need for both personal healing and collective resistance to oppression. It fights till its last breath, and encourages the same from its listeners.

Listening to this collection of songs feels like unearthing an ancient apocryphal text - the sounds of bagpipes, whistles, hurdy-gurdy echo from the dusty pages, among ritualistic chanting and heaving basses. These instruments take on, at least to my ear, almost anthropomorphic qualities. Eugene and Paul's voices seem to be accompanied by strange presences, beings who long to become human, or to be liberated.

One of the album's most distinctive features is its masterfully executed vocal delay, which in different songs seems to conjure prayer circles, armies, swarms of demons, angelic choirs or the imprisoning voices of one's own mind.

This struck me most on MOLFAR, the album's slow-burning call to arms. 'You have a right to rise up' Eugene whispers repeatedly towards the end of the song, his voice builds to hoarse, distorted screams - louder and louder. Delay keeps every distorted iteration of the phrase circling without escape, as though a group of knives is being assembled in readiness to rip up the fabric of a dark and hopeless night. Then, with one final cry, the fabric is finally torn in two - "you have a right!"

You mentioned in a previous interview that your meeting with Teodosia Plytka-Sorokhan paved the way for the formation of Tangerinecat. How did the interview come about? And can you tell us a bit more about how she influenced your work?

It was a totally unplanned meeting. We came to a music festival in the Carpathian Mountains but Eugene was ill and depressed, the weather was very bad, so we left and stayed in the village called Kryvorivnia. The owner of the house where we stayed said that we may be interested to meet with Odosia who lives on the mountain and so we went to find her. He said that “this woman plays guitar and sings” but only when we arrived, did we find out that she had spent ten years in the gulags. We came to a hut and an old lady came out and we asked where we could find Odosia. She didn’t reply but asked us to help her prune the apple tree. When Paul had pruned the tree, she said that she is Odosia and invited us inside her hut where we spent the next four hours although we had just planned to stop by and meet her.

She didn’t influence our work directly. Theodosia encouraged us to start making music again, move forward despite everything and express in music without fear what we actually want to say.

That's incredible! So you filmed her that same day? She seems very happy to be on camera.

Yes, we filmed her singing on our camcorder that we always carried with us. In our previous blog post, you can see this video and more about Odosia.

It seems the whole thing was destined to happen exactly the way it did.

Can you shed some more light on the stories or symbolism behind the album's opener, "Ask Owl"?

This song is connected to the relationship of humans to nature and its inhabitants. We wanted to draw a parallel between this and the dehumanization of marginalized groups. The narrative follows a conversation between two estranged parties, where one side who has caused great determent to the other finds themselves in need of their advice. Day and night are two opposite worlds, and it’s almost as if wild animals have been banished into the night. A parallel is drawn between fear of darkness/night and phobia and demonization of those we have dehumanized, alienated, subordinated and taken resources from, which is equal to betrayal. But as we are a part of this world that works as a whole, we find ourselves in a life-threatening situation in breaking cooperation.

Eugene especially feels a connection with nature and wild animals from childhood so it was to a large extent a very personal song.

MOLFAR is such a powerful song and I think its placement in the middle of the album is one of the album's overall greatest strengths, it really keeps the momentum going. Again, can you shed some more light on the stories behind it? How do you think it relates to the rest of the album?

Originally this song was based on an image Eugene had in his head at the time when he was undergoing EDMR therapy for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It was an image of the apartment in Western Ukraine where he once lived with his very abusive stepdad. Eugene sat in fear in his room while his step-dad raped and beat his mum, who was also highly violent toward Eugene. In the process of therapy, it became apparent that Eugene has always lived under this huge shadow of fear and this emotion became the main life backdrop that closed all doors and possibilities.

This image that Eugene saw was of his stepdad in Eugene’s place shut up in the room. This time Eugene was no longer a child and appeared as a strong confident man who in his own strength closed his terrified stepfather in the room where he couldn’t leave to cause any more ill to others. In Molfar we exchanged the image of Eugene’s stepdad for a more general symbol of fear (“laying the fear aside, casting it in the dark”) and transformed this action into a kind of ritual which involves many survivors each of whom is molfar in their own right.

A molfar (Ukrainian: мольфар) is a person with purported magical abilities in Hutsul culture.

Every song is a story from the experience of Molfar and the last song of the album is a spell (“Not to burn in the fire, nor freeze in the chill, nor be soaked in the rain, nor lost in the fog, to see in the dark, like a bird take flight, and not to die”) – the essence of protection and solidarity, glorifying the survivors of abuse, state persecution, war, famine, repression… ‘Spell’ is the last of Eugene’s personal stories. It’s about being a migrant and moving from town to town not having a community and always being a stranger to everyone. This feeling of being a stranger or alien correlates with the atmosphere of the first song ‘Ask Owl’.

Are there any opinions about your work that are frequently expressed by journalists or listeners, which you see as misconceptions or misinterpretations?

Often the hurdy-gurdy is called “Ukrainian” and whatever Eugene plays on this instrument is labelled as Ukrainian folklore. For clarity, Eugene’s hurdy-gurdy was made by Austrian craftsman Wolfgang Weichselbaumer, and he plays his own compositions not based on folklore material or influences. Eugene uses effect pedals and the hurdy-gurdy has quite an experimental role in our music. As we are multi-instrumentalists, people think that the core of our music is the use of many different acoustic instruments although actually, our music is electronic and based on solid composition, arrangement and production. Hurdy-gurdy and whistle only play certain phrases or solos where they fit into the arrangement and this has no effect on the music genre. We sometimes use Ukrainian bagpipe in the studio but mainly in a way that it cannot be recognised. Live and on our recordings we have numerous electronic instruments that we created using its sound.

Sometimes people think that our themes are related to mysticism, spirituality, or aesthetics of death, violence or self-destruction but none of these things have any relation to our lyrics which are based on Eugene’s life experience. Our music has no glorification of abuse and we try to avoid images and visuals that could be triggering for survivors. Eugene as a survivor is against the romanticization of violence, suicide, self-harm and other mental health issues. In our art, we are trying to show hope and a way out and not trap people further into their own trauma. We are here to help ourselves and others. Even our name tAngerinecAt is a symbol of friendship and freedom.

When I first became aware of TANGERINECAT, you came across as a politically uncompromising band, as people who speak your truth no matter what. What is the relationship between music and politics for you? Are there any bands/artists who you think share your approach to social justice?

We believe that the most powerful and deepest thing you can share politically through art is your own personal experience. We don’t purposefully write about a certain political theme but of course, we pursue political aims. We are against imperialism, authoritarianism, fascism, capitalism, stigmatization of mental health issues, destruction of the planet, transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, racism… all these themes are very evident in our lyrics. We can’t really speak for other artists and think that everyone can have their own unique and valid approach.

In March, a group of UK anarchists occupied the house of a Russian oligarch to protest the war in Ukraine. Similar occupations happened elsewhere in Europe. Do you think this sort of direct action is helpful in achieving justice for Ukrainians?

We think, in this case, we are dealing with Russian imperialism and a true fascist movement that is a threat to the whole world and should be confronted by the strength of the whole world society together including military solidarity and economic sanctions. We don’t think that these occupations and actions can stop the war but they definitely can draw the attention of society and in some cases take resources away from Russian occupants.

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Words by Sonia Tses of Secret Flight - a solo experimental/ electronic music project currently based in Milton Keynes.

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