It all started in 1990...
The Ukrainians grew out of a project started by 80s Indie darlings The Wedding Present. The group, at the instigation of guitarist Peter Solowka, decided to make one of their sessions for the BBC's John Peel Show a Ukrainian one! Peter's friend 'The Legendary Len' was drafted in as an extra member because he sang, played a scratchy, authentic village-sounding violin and was a student of Slavonic languages! The group recorded the first session and it was duly broadcast. Then Peel played it again...and again...and again!
What was intended to be a one-off bit of fun turned into a second session, at Peel's request. This session, which included Ukrainian mandolinist Roman Remeynes, was also played numerous times. As a result, there was pressure to release these first two sessions as an album, and so Ukrainski Vistupi V Johna Peela was born. Although the band only played an 8 day UK tour to promote it, it sold almost 70,000 copies worldwide.
Screaming for more
Heartened by the fact that the world was screaming out for more fast and furious Ukrainian music, Peter, Len and Roman went on to form The Ukrainians. Peter and Len had written their first song in Ukrainian, 'Oi Divchino', and together with Roman they flew out to Ukraine in October 1990 to make a video for it. Shot in Kyiv's outdoor 'Museum of National Folk Architecture and Way of Life' (!), it was the first pop video to be produced entirely in the east for a western band.
Len, Roman and Peter in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, 1990, the year before Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union. In the background you can clearly see the tents of demonstrating hungerstrikers. October Revolution Square, as it was then called, was subsequently renamed Independence Square.
Meanwhile Len, Peter and Roman began to write and record songs for their first album. Five of these tracks included the whole Wedding Present line-up and the other five were recorded by Peter, Len and Roman on their own. 'Oi Divchino' became the title track of The Ukrainians' first release (a 4-song 12" vinyl EP) and the NME, Britain's long-respected arbiter of musical taste (!) made it their Single of the Week. Three weeks later, in October 1991, when the Ukrainians began their first UK tour, the NME said of the band's live performance: "this is POP and it blows your trousers off!".
Peter, Len and Roman in the NME 24-08-1991
The self-written first album which followed, simply called The Ukrainians, established the group as the only major exponent of a hybrid of traditional Ukrainian folk and Western rock music. The album received such good reviews in the UK and beyond that they were subsequently booked to play festivals and tours throughout most parts of Europe. In fact, word had even begun to spread to the US, prompting sportswear company NIKE to approach The Ukrainians to record the soundtrack for a 30-second TV advertisement for training shoes! The music accompanied footage of Sergey Bubka, a Ukrainian who was then the world champion pole vaulter, working out in the mining region of Donetsk. The ad was screened in the UK by ITV, Channel 4, MTV and the Sky Sports channels and by countless TV stations in Europe, America, Canada and Australia.
Pisni iz Vorony
At the beginning of 1993, the group released their hugely successful Pisni Iz The Smiths EP, which included thoroughly re-worked Ukrainian language versions of 4 classic Smiths songs.
A month later saw the release of the inspired Vorony album, featuring 12 new emotionally-charged Ukrainians' original compositions plus a beautiful and optimistic version of the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs'. This album extended the Ukrainians' popularity to almost every country in Europe.
The 'Legendary' Len and Peter - 110 concerts in 1993
By way of promotion, the group played an extensive 110 date tour ranging from Leon in Western Spain to Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine, covering most of the countries in between. These included festivals such as Glastonbury and Womad in Britain and a host of Indie, World Music, Folk and Rock events throughout mainland Europe. They also made their first incursion into the US by playing the enormous Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, USA.
In August 93 THE UKRAINIANS undertook their first tour of Ukraine as guests of Ukraine's Ministry Of Culture. The tour culminated in a performance in Kyiv's (Kiev's) Independence (ex-Lenin) Square before over 50,000 people, an internationally-televised event organised to celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainians also recorded a limited issue live album which is a compilation of various performances in Germany throughout 1993. This record was available on 10" vinyl only and all proceeds went to 'Shelter' for the homeless.
Peter, Dave and Len model a three-person 'Kultura' t-shirt
The Kultura album was released in October 1994. Its subject matter was influenced heavily by the group's experiences while on tour as guests of Ukraine's Ministry of Culture the previous year. 'Polityka' described the new breed of manipulative politician who had appeared in the country, cynically exploiting a naïve and inexperienced electorate; 'UkrainAmerica' anticipated the effect that multinational corporations and advertising would exert. Now Ukrainians would be taught to consume certain brands of Western soft drinks, beef burgers and cigarettes - and to think of them as 'cool'. Kultura turned out to be responsible for extending the group's popularity to Poland and, via extremely enthusiastic responses from college radio stations and Ukrainian emigre communities, across the Atlantic to the USA and Canada.
The Ukrainains (Mk 2) backstage at the Duchess of York in Leeds
photo by Tony Woolgar - back row: Peter, Len, Dave, Mick / front row: Steff, Allan
The group became so exhausted from touring, that they reduced their live appearances after this. They toured Canada, Germany and Poland in 1996, however, promoting a limited issue single, Radioactivity, a cover of the Kraftwerk song, in order to raise money for the 'Children of Chernobyl' charity. 1996 marked the 10th anniversary of the nuclear disaster. The group undertook a further tour of Poland in 1997 ("partly because we love Poland and partly because we could bring back suitcases full of Bison Grass vodka at £1.50 a bottle" - Len).
In 1998 the group released the limited issue Prince EP. It contained 4 tracks, all versions of Prince songs: 'Nothing Compares 2 U', made famous by Sinead O'Connor, 'Sign 'O The Times' and 'Purple Rain'.
There were no live concerts or recordings in 1999 and 2000, for various personal and contractual reasons.
Towards the end of 2000 Len and Peter started up their own record label, Zirka Records. The first release on this label was the live Drink to my Horse! album (ZRKCD1 February 2001), a collection of live Ukrainians' recordings spanning the period 1989-1994. The band got together again to promote this album in Britain and Poland.
Anarchy in the UK
In 2002 The Ukrainians released their Anarchy in the UK EP followed in early 2003 by the critically-acclaimed Respublika album.
About the EP, metal mag Kerrang! says:
Istoriya - The Best Of The Ukrainians, was released in April 2004. It's a stunning 20 track collection spanning the band's remarkable career! Let's all drink to that!
The Ukrainians Mk 3 - Woody, Allan, Peter, Len, Mick, Steff - photo: Tony Woolgar
Respublika and Diaspora
2005 to 2007 saw The Ukrainians continuing to play regularly live with gigs mainly in Poland and the UK, with a revitalised set of new material from the splendidly noisy 'Respublika' album. Allan left the band shortly after the release of Respublika but it wasn't too long before Jim was recruited on bass. The stunning 'Live in Czeremcha' was recorded in 2005 and eventually released in 2007, and was accompanied by an impressive array of other live gigs.
Highlights were aplently, including 3 consecutive appearances at the Endorset in Dorset festival in the acient settlement of Six Penny Handley not far southwest of Salisbury, a show at the Glasgow Celtic Connections festival, and various club & pub gigs in the band's spiritually adopted UK home of Hebden Bridge. Also long awaited and well played were gigs at London, Nottingham & Manchester Ukrainian clubs, and further festival appearances in Lubin, Poland and Toronto, Canada.
Len, Steff, Pete, Paul, Woody, Jim & Mick before The Waterfront gig, Toronto - photo by Steff
The Ukrainians played 5 remarkable gigs in 2008 while rehearsing material for their next highly anticipated studio album 'Diaspora'. Having missed the recording sessions for 2002's 'Respublika' because of his university studies, Steff was raring to go and record his first appearance on a Ukrainians' studio album in 15 years. Two summer festival appearances by the band in Poland followed by two more in Ternopil and Slavske in Ukraine were capped by an emotional farewell to the year with an October appearance in Turin, Italy.
Steff - Szczecin, Poland Mick - Warsaw, Poland Paul & Jim - Wroclaw, Poland
Poland continues to be The Ukrainians' most popular territory, and is highly favoured by the band because of the friendly audiences and the country's unique hospitality. Visits to Ukraine tend to be less frequent because of continued difficulties with sponsorship, concert management and logistics, but the situation seems to be improving. Some band members were paying their first ever visit to Western Ukraine for the Slavske & Ternopil gigs in 2008, while for others it was their third visit to perform in 20 years. Trips to Poland tend to be more common with most of the band having visited as many as eight times in fourteen years...
Peter - 100Club, London Slavske, Ukraine Woody & Len - Krakow, Poland
As well as the familiar circuit of pub, club and festival gigs in the UK and Poland, the last two years have seen the band recently venturing further afield to Holland, Portugal and Latvia. 2009 saw the release of another critically acclaimed studio album 'Diaspora' and another live DVD. 'Video' (the DVD) contains live footage from the 2005 concert in Czeremsza, Poland and the 2009 gig in Sines, Portugal.
Folkwoods Festival, Holland Sines Festival, Portugal Audience at Porto Cova, Sines
The band saw out 2009 and saw in 2010 with two exciting London gigs, both at the same venue. The first in October was followed by another in May at the legendary 100 Club, Oxford Street, London. This was followed by a visit to Castle Donington for the 'Off The Tracks' festival and then a journey up to Scotland for the mighty Knockengorrogh festival. Two weeks later the band were flying out to Riga, eagerly anticipating their first ever gig in Latvia.
Relaxing in the midday sun at the Labadaba Festival, Latvia
While 2010 has not yet ended, the band are currently taking a short break after their highly successful last two live performances in Brighton and Hull. 2011 will mark the band's 20th anniversay when no doubt mayhem on a grand scale will surely ensue, hopefully in the form of another CD release and a tour of Ukrainian clubs in the UK. Hey Zaporoshchi, Chekkay Na Konyi!
The last two gigs of 2010 - August Bank holiday, Brighton & Hull, photo by Esther Angel