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! - its still being played - most recently on BBCR6, November 2014 !!
What was intended to be a one-off bit of fun turned into a second session, at Mr 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 dark & moody '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, and also '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 live gigs.
Highlights were aplently, including 3 consecutive appearances in August 2005, 2006 & August 2007 at the Endorset in Dorset festival in the ancient settlement of Six Penny Handley not far from Salisbur. There was also a show at the Glasgow Celtic Connections festival, and various club & pub gigs including a welcome return to The Trades Club 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 Poster for Slavske, Ukraine Woody & Len - Krakow, Poland
As well as the familiar circuit of pub, club and festival gigs in the UK and Poland, 2009 & 2010 saw The Ukrainians venturing further afield to Holland, Portugal and Latvia. In 2009 the band released 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.
Relaxing before Eindhoven, Holland ..and after the gig in Sines An appreciative Sines festival audience
The band saw out 2009 and saw in 2010 with two exciting London gigs at the same venue. The first in October '09 was followed by another in May '10 at the legendary 100 Club, Oxford Street, London. Next came 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 in Riga, Latvia Festival poster for Labadaba, Riga, Latvia
The daytime temperature at the Labadaba Festival in Latvia easily reached 95° in the mid-afternoon sun as The Ukrainians took to the main stage on the Saturday, with little else to keep them cool except several pints of ice-cold lager! This was followed three weeks later by two more excellent gigs in Brighton and Hull at the end of August 2010, after which the band took a long break before returning in April 2011.
The last two gigs of 2010 at The Concorde 2 in Brighton and at Fruit Space in Hull
'20 Years' - This album release was supported by a UK tour of Ukrainian clubs - the first ever by a 'western' band. The '20 years of Independence' tour of Ukrainian clubs in the UK marked the band's 20th anniversay in 2011 with the release of a retrospective 'Best Of' CD (wryly entitled '20 Years') and a series of live gigs at several Ukrainian clubs in the UK, including Bradford, Gloucester, Leeds, London, Leicester and Edinburgh to name but a few. Hey Zaporoshchi, Chekkay Na Konyi!
The Ukrainians celebrate 20 years together with a seaside singsong and a retrospective album which they toured around the UK at several Ukrainian centres
2012 was a very quiet year for concerts. More time was spent rehearsing in Hebden Bridge and at Soundworks recording studio in Leeds, coming up with brand new material. Notably the only two gigs of the year were true classics, with very appreciative audiences at both the Kino Fama in Bialystok, Poland (29 Sep) and at The Bull & Gate, Kentish Town, London (2 Nov), where Monika made her vocal debut with The Ukrainians.
Kino Fama, Bialystok, Sep 2012 Brudenhall Social Club, Leeds, July 2013
After rehearsing and recording new material during 2012 with Monika, 2013 was a more productive year from a live concert point of view. The Ukrainians played their first Record Store Day acoustic live performance at Jumbo Records in Leeds city centre in April, promoting the 20th anniversary of the 'Pizni iz The Smiths' EP by re-releasing it on vinyl. Three months later they played a couple of gigs at the marvellous Brudenhall Social Club in Leeds and at Glasgow's famous Nice 'n' Sleazy rock club at the start of July. This was followed by a gig near the end of July at the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge a few days before flying out to Canada in Auguat to perform at the Ukrainian Festival in Dauphin, Manitoba province
'Pizni iz The Smiths' on Vinyl for RSD 2013 Len, Peter & Monika on the 'Dunayu' video shoot with accompanying Ukrainian dancers
Monika at Czieszanow Festival, August 2013 'Never Mind the Cossacks' on Vinyl for RSD 2014
The Ukrainians continue to play at prestigious music festivals around the world - the most noticeable of 2013 being Dauphin in Canada. Here, the band were chosen from all the world's Ukrainian cultural musicians to perform at Canada's biggest Ukrainian Music Festival in Dauphin.
The band relax at Cossack Camp at the Dauphin Festival
The annual event is a real eye-opener, especially for visitors from outside Canada. With a main stage in a huge ampitheatre, a smaller side stage surrounded by food, beer, clothes, trinkets & traditional crafts stalls, all set in the stunning prairie land of Manitoba province, this is huge show. The Ukrainians were treated as guests of honour at the event, and at the local carnival in the nearby town of Dauphin. There was a very authentic looking Cossack Camp in the camping area of the festival site, where the band were invited to partake in the traditional stirrup cup drinking of distilled honey spirit - not quite the same as Krupnik or honey-flavoured vodka - more a kind of clear schnapps type drink.
After returning from Canada the band were invited to play at the Cieszanow Festival at the end of August 2013 - Poland's largest outdoor rock festival which apparently rates as their version of Glastonbury. After having performed live with the Ukrainians on 3 previous occasion this was Monika's swansong concert, singing vocals on 8 of the songs in the hour long set. The end of the year was rounded off by two further concerts in Poland on November 15 in Warsaw at the legendary CDQ club (the 4th time The Ukrainians have performed there) and the Centrum Stocznia in Gdansk on November 16.
The Ukrainians perform to a packed audience; Gdansk, Poland , Nov 2013 Monika's first Ukrainians' gig - The Bull & Gate, Kentish Town, November '12
Record Store Day 2014 was the second appearance at Jumbo Records, Leeds in a row where they performed acoustic versions of several tracks off the re-released Sex Pistols Vinyl EP, renamed 'Never mind the Cossacks, Here's the Ukrainians' for the new 2014 release - with a previously unreleased newly recorded version of the Pistols' 'Problems' sung acapella, and some additional accordion overdubs on 'Holidays in the Sun'. The band appeared at the Dnipro Ukrainian club in Manchester the following evening, playing their recently recorded self-penned track 'Zrada' which was written just before the February 2014 uprising in Maidan Square, Kiev and released a month or so during the aftermath of the initial invasion of Crimea by Russian forces.
Waiting in Amsterdam to get to Czeremcha, Poland October 2014, Doncaster Roots Club gig London Ukrainian Club gig, October 2014
On 19 July 2014 the band were invited to play the Czeremsza festival for the second time in 10 years, Poland's premium folk-festival event in the superb city of Bialystok. This salubrious event also attracted the Taraf de Hadiouks collective, Romania's legendary Roma gypsy band and also Kozak System, the highly popular Ukrainian roots rock outfit who headed the main stage on Friday night. With the Tarafs taking the headline spot on Sunday, The Ukrainians spent a long weekend taking in the heady atmosphere, headlining the Saturday night, being fed and watered at the local school and dancing the summer nights away on their 'busmen's holiday'.
EEC funded concert in Brussels, 5 November 2014May 2015 - Onstage at South Street Arts Centre, Reading, UK
2015 - 'A History of Rock in Ukrainian'
In 2015 The Ukrainians released another Vinyl pressing for Record Store Day 'A Short History of Rock Music in Ukrainian' closely followed by the extended version on CD 'A History of Rock Music in Ukrainian'. The project of making an album of Western rock covers had been planned and in the making for just over a year, so the vinyl and CD recordings & releases were fairly swift after several practice sessions during the end of 2014 and start of 2015.
Jim onstage in Czeremcha Woody onstage in Czeremcha
On Thursday 21 May 2015 the band embarked on a 10 date tour of UK club venues, the highest amount of consecutive gigs attempted by them since the heady days of the Spirit of the Gypsies tour in Germany, twenty years earlier in 1994. Gigs in Hull, York, Cambridge, London and Manchester with a festival appearance on the South coast between Poole & Christchurch, plus another return to the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge and a first ever gig in Birmingham city centre saw the band complete a whirlwind 10 days of travel up and down the mainland. Len, Peter, Steff, Jim, Paul & Woody finally got to rest their weary bones and souls at the last gig of the busy tour at South Street Arts Centre in Reading, during which everyone had become stricken with a particularly nasty and almost bubolic strain of flu.
After some fine performances in May despite lingering illness, the band resumed to the stage in June for two more well received gigs at The Brudenhall social club in Leeds, and at The Cluny in Newcastle - two most stout and canny rock'n'roll venues in the North of England, and part of many a half decent gigging rock band's live itinerary.
Cover artwork for the Vinyl and CD releases of 'A (short) history...' with accompanying UK tour artwork, May/June 2015
2016 is set to bring three more gigs in the UK during February, followed by news of more brand new releases of new songs and new renditions of some older tunes. In the meanwhile, see you soon!