Philipp Gorbachev Is the Russian Producer Leading Moscow's Underground Toward the Light
In the aftermath of Outline Festival's cancellation, we meet the producer uniting Russia through techno.
Gorbachev (back to camera) underneath Peter the Great with his PG Tune collaborators.
I'm in Moscow, sitting on torn grass, as dusk sets in around me. The park, on the edge of a river nestled under the gargantuan statue of Peter the Great, is slowly turning orange, and the weird flourishes of a Mulatu Astatke set punctuate the air. It's pleasant, watching Ethiopian jazz in a Russian park, if a little surreal, but it's not what I'm supposed to be doing. I should be tired right now—well, somewhere between beat-down and elated. I should be on an abandoned industrial site on the outskirts of the city. I should be about 20 hours into a two-day techno session. I should be at Outline Festival.
The third edition of the event is the reason I've travelled to Russia yet on landing in the country yesterday I was told, first by Twitter and then by representatives of the festival, that the event had been cancelled. There's talk of government intervention and armed police in riot gear. Some people are blaming the festival organizers, others are blaming the state.* The only clear truth is that the festival will not be happening. This is bad news for me, sure, having just flown across Europe for very little reason, but it's even worse for Russian producer Philipp Gorbachev. It was at Outline Festival that he was set to debut his new live show, launching his most recent record Unlock the Box, revealing a vast and intricate stage design. Now instead, like me, he is sat under a pale evening sun watching Astatke—a sort of conciliatory performance organized by Outline in light of the cancellation.
That said, Gorbachev doesn't appear to need much pacification. Despite one of the biggest shows of his career to date not happening, his mood is pointedly upbeat, as we sit down to talk along with a couple of his friends and collaborators. At the start of our conversation—conducted in the perfect English Gorbachev claims to have learnt watching Fawlty Towers and episodes of Basil Brush—he is keen not to dwell too long on what did or didn't happen. "From my point of view the festival just didn't take place," he laughs from somewhere behind his thick black sunglasses. "I was there rehearsing in my headphones until the main organizers told me that it wasn't going to go ahead." While he maintains that this doesn't matter, that "the energy is there" and "we are ready to perform at anytime," I'm new here. So it's important for me to understand, does this happen often?
Gorbachev's friend Andrew Lee, who performs as half of Interchain, is the first to respond. "We were shocked," he concedes. "All our friends didn't understand. Everybody thought it was a joke." Gorbachev remains resolutely optimistic, if disappointed. "We have a close connection with the dancefloor because we throw parties every two months or so at [Moscow nightclub] ARMA17," he tells me. "But Outline summed up on a number of levels what is happening across a number of venues. In Moscow it's complicated—every venue is different, because every street has its own boss, and every boss has his own bigger boss, so it's a different political and economic reality. Welcome to Russia!"
At this point, our conversation is briefly interrupted by two teenage girls, possibly 16 or 17 years old. They dip into our conversation, politely at first, and then enthusiastically, yelling "Philipp!" There is some conversation, in Russian naturally, and then the girls have their photo taken with Gorbachev. They even ask him to turn around in the photo, so as to capture his new—but already trademark—hair motif that features on the cover of his new LP.
"So, you're a big deal in Moscow then?" I ask him, as the girls retreat to their group of friends, proudly sporting their photographic evidence. He pauses, and laughs almost nervously. "No," he eventually responds, "the big deal is a small deal. It's just about having fun with people you like."
His protestation is a bit unconvincing to be honest, but probably because right now, for Moscow's electronic music scene—for Moscow's underground in general—Philipp is a big deal. Having grown up between the Russian capital and Berlin, he has spent most of his creative life connecting the dots between the two places. Yet, while both his Hero of Tomorrow EP and follow up breakthrough LP The Silver Album were both released on Matias Aguayo's Cómeme imprint, and then distributed by Kompakt, his focus has most definitely shifted to his home city—and he's been drawn back by the people. "When I first started making music in Moscow I had an audience of about 30 people," he tells me. "Now we have the possibility of so many Russian people who want to shake their bodies, who want to dance." Lee agrees, "there is a new generation coming through."
This new generation, as Gorbachev understands, need a sound, a sentiment, a dance that is distinctly theirs. In his words, "they don't necessarily want foreign DJs coming here playing their regular tour set." Throughout our conversation he returns to the idea of collective identity in Russia, not defined by race or gender, but rather united by a spirituality that exists within the deep reservoirs of the Russian language. "I think Russia, due to its history, is a place with a strong spiritual identity, it is far less about material values. There is a level of communication which I use in a lot of my songs, that connects every Russian speaker. That's what motivates me." It's this subject, of feeding Russia's spirit, that finds Gorbachev at his most fervent and eloquent. "We are young and we have Russia in our blood. We want to make music that moves us, because it's not a happy world."
It's in hearing this urgent desire to create unity, that Unlock the Box finally makes complete sense as an album. For all the talk of the ethereal, it's fiercely physical record. It stings and screams of dark rooms, writhing bodies and pounding feet. "It was created for a club," Gorbachev agrees. "I go to raves, I go to Berghain, I was going to parties since I was a small kid watching my older pals who had installed hand-made tables by the river to make a festival. Unlock the Box is inspired by what I want to hear as a raver on a big sound system."
This social impetus is a fire that's spreading far beyond the confines of one record. Gorbachev has now set up PG Tune, his own imprint that is already connecting musicians, designers and artists in Moscow. As Gorbachev sees it, the responsibility of the PG collective is not just releasing music, but rather providing the materials to unite Russia's disaffected youth. "It's at the core of the label I've created, PG Tune," he explains. "It's like Underground Resistance in their formative days. Our focus is our work and discovering new audiences and creating things for them."
Comparisons to Underground Resistance might not be helpful in the long-term—Gorbachev and his collective are on the cusp of providing something distinctly Russian—yet the functional similarities are evident. Both groups led by singular individuals, both aimed at responding to the hurt of the era through the strength of the spiritual and the power of the rave. On this note, I ask Philipp: does he make protest music? "What is protest?" he responds. "If you shut down your ego and listen to what another person wants to speak about, what another person wants to learn, if you try to understand them—you get back such an incredible energy." For Gorbachev, there is nothing constructive in rejection—only unity in energy.
Which leaves us back where we were to begin with. The cancellation of Outline could represent an excuse for Gorbachev and his assembling collective to kick back at the established powers, but instead they resolutely see it as an affirmation of the energy that exists already. If anything, cancelling Outline has made it more powerful an event than had it gone ahead. It is already a symbol of the fight—of how hard they have to work to create. Gorbachev and his friends seem eager to catch the end of Astatke, so we shake hands, exchange details, and they disappear back into the crowd.
The sun has barely set and there's talk of more music elsewhere in the city. I should be tired right now, but I'm not. Far from it.