New punk menace 

Igor and the Red Elvises on freedom and Pussy Riot

Punk stopped being threatening many blue-haired tweens ago, but the memo never made it to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Somehow the leader of the ninth most-populous nation in the world is intimidated by three Russian riot grrrls, whose detention has made them a cause célèbre around the world.

The trio are part of Moscow punk collective Pussy Riot, which in February stormed the altar of a venerated Russian Orthodox church in ski masks to perform a song. They were stopped within a minute and escorted from the church, but they used the footage to make a homemade video for an anti-Putin political song.

They were arrested in March. The trial wrapped a few days ago, resulting in a two-year jail sentence for each member.

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(If 30 seconds of sacrilegious clamor can get you two years, then Michigan's the Crucifucks might need to hire Salman Rushdie's security team.)

"The punishment is so serious. People do much worse things when they're drunk," offers Igor Yuzov, a Russian expat and leader of the band the Red Elvises. "It's just young people trying to be anti-authoritarian. I feel really bad about those girls. Nobody thought it was going to have such serious consequences."

Yuzov met his longtime bandmate Oleg Bernov during a Ukranian peace march. They made their way to America, where they first formed a Russian folk band, Limpopo, won an "International Star Search" competition and performed in a Kit Kat commercial. That money went to a van, and in 1995 they started the Red Elvises, playing a wide-ranging blend of surf, rockabilly, garage, Russian folk and gypsy-punk. Yuzov loves America but he's still concerned for his homeland. He notes that Pussy Riot is actually emblematic of larger protests occurring throughout downtown Moscow in the months since Putin's March re-election. He compares the Pussy Riots prosecution to "good old Soviet methods."

"[Pussy Riot] is just one thing that became better known around the world because it's so unusual," says Yuzov. "I was watching all these TV shows in Russia where they're bringing all these church people and conservatives on and it was just horrible listening to their response: 'Punish them! Put them into jail!' It's so sad."

While change has come to some Russian institutions, many are still mired in the old ways, and the push for progress comes from a relatively small quarter. The church has conspired with the politicians to become the central forces in Russian life, Yuzov explains.

"The way I look at it, a majority of the population is really with the old institutions," he says. "It's really only a certain group of individuals, more or less educated, [that protest]. The rest of the country, instead of religion of communism, they reach back to old religion. But it's pretty much the same people. Now it's just different gods that deliver."

Certainly, Yuzov and company are thanking the gods that brought them to this country, where they've gone from rags to riches. Or, more precisely, from sand to self-made men.

"We didn't get rich, but we're still touring and staying busy," Yuzov says. "We're just a bunch of guys who showed up here and started playing on the streets. And then it picked up even more."

The Red Elvises were initially a beach phenomena in Santa Monica, Calif. Like the Barenaked Ladies, the energy and fun of their street performances translated to their live show when they started touring. But it took some angry shopkeepers to give them the kick in the ass they needed.

"When you're playing on the street you're really putting on an effort because most people aren't there for you. And you really need to be good to even get them to stop and listen," he says. "It's pretty hard to play on the street, but we did it for six years on and off. I still miss it.... play show, go back and hang out on the beach. We had great time, but the city of Santa Monica took us to court and pretty much kicked us off the beach because we were gathering too many people."

Since taking the show on the road more than a dozen years ago, they've cultivated a devoted following. They have a total of a dozen albums, all released on their own label. (They hope to finish a 13th record by October.) It's allowed them to play whatever music they like, even if it hops genre lines like they're doing the Double Dutch.

"This is the entire music I like," he says. "I listen to lots of different styles and all that kind of stuff. I didn't think about it. I want to write the tango, or a polka or a punk song. I don't think about the style, they just happen. It's good to be an independent band so you can pretty much do whatever you want."

Overall, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the American economic system than Yuzov. He knows it has its faults, but compared to earlier experiences, he's discovered nirvana.

"You're used to so much more difficulties when you have your own business in Soviet society," he says. "Here in the U.S. it's much easier. Just do what you want to do and if you're good at it, people will like it. It worked for us. We did pretty much everything on our own and it's doing not so bad. I guess that comes with appreciation. It's still possible to do things, just do it instead of finding excuses not to do it. That's the way I look at it."

Igor and The Red Elvises play the Badlander Fri., Aug. 24, at 9 PM. $10.

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