10 Years in the Wrong Lane: An Interview with t.A.T.u.
5 years before Katy Perry was batting her fake eyelashes and singing coquettishly about the oh-so-taboo indulgence of a same-sex kiss, two underage Russian pop stars stormed the stage of the MTV Movie Awards with a fleet of girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms, throwing their fists up in the air riotously and engaging in a massive girl-on-girl make-out session.
“I Kissed A Girl,” scandalous? Oh, how quickly we forget.
When t.A.T.u burst into the American pop scene back in 2002, their dark, brooding dance-pop gems like “All The Things She Said” provided a sharp contrast to what was then a largely R&B-dominated pop landscape. That, and their Sapphic lyricism and controversial on-stage antics (the MTV Movie Awards performance predated the iconic Britney/Madonna/Christina trifecta kiss at the 2003 VMA’s by a few months), which inspired both delight and outrage alike.
Upon Julia’s pregnancy with her first child in 2004, when it was quickly “revealed” that the love between the members of t.A.T.u. was an act–or as some would argue, a performance piece–rather than two girls actually in love (despite the fact that they never claimed to be in their personal lives), critics scowled and wrote them off as fake, predating the arguments that now drone on endlessly on the blogosphere about the “authenticity” of artists like Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey.
Others charged that the act was nothing more than a quick way to sell records in the form of fulfilling girl-on-girl fantasies. But as opposed to the sugarcoated, guilty-as-charged wink-wink of Katy Perry, there was never anything cheeky about t.A.T.u’s music: Rebellious anthems like “Not Gonna Get Us” and “All The Things She Said” provide an earnest charge for two lovers against the world, while songs like the utterly chilling “30 Minutes,” “Stars” and “Show Me Love” capture the anguish and alienation involved in a more forbidden kind of love. Even one of their most upbeat offerings, “Malchik Gay”–a song about falling in love with a gay man–is far more devastating than the bouncy beats might imply (“I try to keep on hoping for a way, a reason for us both to come in close/I long for you to hold me like your boyfriend does.”)
Though their popularity in America was ultimately short-lived, the band still made an impressive mark with their debut–and in the process, won themselves legions of dedicated fans that found solace in their music.
10 years later, as Top 40 radio in America has moved away from R&B and become increasingly saturated with Euro-infused club-pop anthems, t.A.T.u’s musical legacy has never felt quite so relevant. And perhaps even more important than their music, their message: Across the world, tension continues to mount in t.A.T.u’s homeland, where leaders have only shown themselves to be increasingly intolerant of LGBT equality in their policies, including a recent ban of pro-LGBT speech in St. Petersburg (which Madonna recently protested during her MDNA Tour stop in the city.)
That the group managed to find worldwide popularity a decade prior now seems nothing less than revolutionary.
A few weeks ago, Cherrytree Records announced that the group’s acclaimed debut, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane, would be getting a full re-release this November in honor of the album’s 10th anniversary, including new remixes and a previously unheard track (“A Simple Motion.”) I had the opportunity to talk to the girls about their debut, the recording process, the music industry, and looking forward at what lies ahead. As a massive t.A.T.u. fan (to nearly embarrassing levels), it was a major treat.
And now, without further ado, a few words with t.A.T.u.
It’s been 10 years since 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane was released, and it’s still regarded as one of the best pop albums of the past decade. Looking back, what do you think about your debut album? Are you proud of what you’ve accomplished? Any regrets?
Lena: That was a great record! I think we had a very strong message, a lot of teens found themselves in our songs. The music is great, it is an album where almost every song is a hit! I am proud of it! It was the beginning of our careers, so exciting. New life. Great times for us, I think! No regrets!
Julia: Yes, it was a huge success all of a sudden. My childhood dream came true. There can be only one regret: That these years pass too quickly, and there’s no way to return back.
A large part of this record was originally recorded in Russian, and then re-recorded in English. Was the language barrier difficult to overcome?
Julia: No, we worked with Martin in the studio and he helped us with the pronunciation. A person with musical education and ear for music will remember quickly and be able to repeat.
Lena: It was not a big problem for me cause I was speaking English, not the way I do now, of course. But we had to work on our accent. Martin was helping us with it, teaching how to pronounce the words correctly.
What was it like working with Martin Kierszenbaum (“Cherry Cherry Boom Boom”)?
Lena: It was great. We all were exited and trying to do our best. I think he was involved in some translations because we wanted to keep the meaning of the songs, and to keep the structure specifics. I think that Martin is a little bit of a fan of t.A.T.u, so he was really trying hard to make us big everywhere! We had an opportunity to work with great producer, it was valuable experience. I am talking about Trevor Horn. And in general, just imagine: Two girls are coming from Russia, which is another world compared to the USA, working with a high class producers and writers and management. Everybody is so professional. Working with Martin and Interscope in general brought us to an absolutely different level.
Julia: It was cool! I remember him in Trevor Horn’s London studio in a suit and with a briefcase in hand! We laughed, taught him Russian words (sometimes bad words). So we began our work together. And then a trip to the United States, seeing the boss. Martin is a very responsible and reliable person. Always for new experiences. In his way he loved us, it seems to me that there is still love there too. For him, t.A.T.u was also the start of his career.
People rarely know what happens in the studio during the actual recording process. What don’t people already know about the making of 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane? Was there any memorable drama behind-the-scenes?
Lena: Well, for me the most difficult part was when Julia lost her voice. That was a real drama. Do you know that I had to sing my first takes with a bottle cork in my mouth so I would stop mumbling and pronounce the words clearly? I was so ashamed, but it worked perfectly.
Julia: First child: There’s always drama. It’s always like this the first time, this experience and responsibility.
Do you have favorite songs from the album? Do you ever listen to your own music?
Lena: Sometimes I like to listen to our old albums. It is nostalgic, brings the memories of being young, crazy, very successful. As far as favorite song is concerned, I think “30 Minutes” will be one of my favorites. “Malchik Gay” is a really fun song. “Not Gonna Get Us” is amazing, and “All The Things She Said” is an absolute hit! I love them all! I love the slow version of “A Simple Motion,” which was not released until now!
Julia: I sometimes listen to our old albums, because classics never die and it seems to me that every song on this album is something that we experienced.
What are some of your favorite memories from your debut?
Lena: There are tons of memories there, like shooting the videos for the first time, performing on big stages, traveling to different countries, which probably most people won’t be able to visit in their whole life. It was a very busy and super interesting period of our lives, full of memories. All of them are in my heart. All of them are valuable! But I will never forget the day we saw the “All The Things She Said” video on TV. Julia slept over at my place, so we woke up and went to have breakfast. Turned on MTV and here it was–our video! We were so excited, so happy! Screaming, jumping around, hugging each other…that was a really happy moment! I was 15 years old.
Julia: It can be compared with a parachute jump: Breathtaking. You feel unreal happiness. Millions of fans, flowers, gifts, smiles and then we began traveling around the world. A lot of emotions, joy, opening up a new side of ourselves.
You’ve also developed an incredibly dedicated fan base, even beyond the break-up of t.A.T.u. into your own solo careers. Why do you think the fans have remained so loyal through the years?
Julia: I think the real fans can love all that is connected with their idol. Any disease or any misfortune they will wait it out, because true love is forever! I’m still friends with our fan club and we arrange meetings. There are new faces each time and communication is already on another level. Now some are all grown up, with families. We have more friends and learn what’s new about each other.
Lena: I am very grateful to have our fans, they are smart, creative and faithful! They are helping a lot in our solo careers, supporting us, following us in everything we are doing! I think loyalty is a great quality! I guess we are special for them, that is why they are with us, and will continue to be, I hope…
What are the most memorable thing a fan has ever given you or said to you?
Julia: I’ll never forget the girl who came from Makhachkala.* For two days she saved money to visit. She literally lived in my yard for a week, sleeping on a bench and every day we spent together, walking the dog, she collected the gum I’d spit out, cigarette butts from cigarettes (in my youth smoking was considered a fashionable pastime). She gave me two songs about me and my life, and later did a concert in her home country.
(*A dangerous city not far from Chechnya)
Lena: We received millions of presents all around the world, but my favorite is still the vase with origami, which we brought from Asia. I can only imagine how much time and effort people invested in those little colorful things. Also, when I started solo, I had a fan meeting in LA. Some people flew from Latin America to see me, which was impressive. There was a girl who gave me a necklace, which her mom gave her. I was trying to talk her out of it, but she insisted I should have it, so now I am caring it around with me. It is a necklace with Virgin Mary.
The LGBT community especially has embraced your music, largely due to the lyrics and imagery of t.A.T.u. The fact that all this happened a decade ago–by a group from Russia, no less–seems incredibly progressive, even in 2012 (especially given the fact that St. Petersburg just recently passed legislature to ban pro-LGBT speech.) How do you feel about your connection to LGBT culture? Was that always the intention in your career?
Lena: Yes, we were not only supporting LGBT, but bringing this topic to the big screen. I think that now in Russia it is tougher than it was 10 years ago. I just played a show in St. Petersburg on the last day of a Queerfest to support LGBT. Their situation is really difficult now. It is sad that people are being aggressive, not tolerant when we need to respect each other and love each other for who we are, not for who we are sleeping with…
Julia: Do not judge and you will not be judged. Each person has the right to exist on a different level. The main thing that burned in my eyes was love and the desire to live. I think we are all living as bisexual.
Did you receive a lot of criticism back at home?
Julia: With t.A.T.u. you either loved us or hated us. Nobody was indifferent. Sometimes we were called and threatened but many expressed warm and kind feelings too.
Lena: I think there is no such a band in the world which was not criticized. We were criticized, but not only in Russia! Some loved us, some hated us. The fact is that t.A.T.u. is the only Russian band also well known abroad…and we all are proud of it!
What have you learned about the music industry since your debut as t.A.T.u?
Lena: Wow, that is hard to count: Everything pretty much! And I am sure there are still a lot more things to learn in the future.
Julia: In any case, show business is not an easy thing. A lot of time, effort and emotion you give away. It’s a whole life that you live or do not live. Flights, transfers, nights of insomnia. Two or sometimes three performances a day. But it is incomparable to anything–as the sun and the moon, or day and night.
You were crafting edgy dance-pop years before it began taking over on the radio. What do you think about the state of music today?
Lena: I don’t really know… it is so different now, all over the place, from Adele to Skrillex to Linkin Park. Seems like people love euro dance lately, but I also think that radios are very influential. Basically we listen to what they play. I miss life in today’s music. I loved the imperfections of old records. Computerization, ideal sound in a lot of today’s songs make it too artificial.
Julia: The music market is very rich! A lot of interesting electronic music, trendy sounds. A lot of cool artists and creative projects.
You’re now both working on solo careers. What sort of music are you setting out to make?
Julia: I’m still experimenting with music, constantly recording new demos. Some things I like, some I forget about and move on. With the album I’m in no hurry, the main thing is it should be something I’ve experienced–especially after all that we did in t.A.T.u.
Lena: I was trying different styles. I love rock sounding songs, but lately I am doing more of pop-dance stuff. I have very different songs: cute, childish, adult, dramatic, fun…all of them are personal because now I am actually co-writing my songs, working with my band and other very talented songwriters from all over the world.
Do you still keep in touch?
Julia: We don’t keep in touch, but sometimes we see each other at events.
Lena: Only when we see each other. We have very different lives in different countries now. We are not in a fight though.
Is there a chance that we could ever see a reunion performance–or even new music–from t.A.T.u. in the near future?
Lena: I believe that there is always a chance for anything in this life. Maybe…
Julia: Now, I don’t think I’m ready for this. We’re each at a new stage in our life. But this won’t stop us from reuniting for joint performances. We’ll see what happens!
200 km/h In The Wrong Lane was originally released on December 10, 2002. The 10th Anniversary Edition will be released on Nov. 12 internationally, and Nov. 19 in the U.S. (iTunes)