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The Rebirth of Soviet: Samsara for the Synthesizer Set

“I never want to get caught making the same record over and over again.”

Keith Ruggiero’s Soviet project has had many lives since he first started the synthesizer-driven project about 20 years ago — before people remembered they loved synth-based music. This time, after delving into brighter themes on his Italo/OMD-inspired Ghosts LP, he’s preparing to take his Soviet project into a darker realm.

“This is the birth of a new era for me,” he says.

This era Ruggiero referred to in a phone call with Vehlinggo recently — this latest reincarnation of a project that has often died and always returned — is a sound that is less Ryan Paris or Yazoo, as might have shown up in the past, and more Clan of Xymox and The Cure, if we’re drawing comparisons for the sake of word economy.

“[It’s] a different sound for me,” Ruggiero says. “I’ve always been into that stuff — never explored it myself. I’m excited for it. I never want to get caught making the same record over and over again.”

He’s kicking it off with “Alyson,” a dusky cut with a serious, fat-bottomed groove that will feature on a forthcoming EP. The song also incorporates some of Soviet’s raw, electroclash roots. Its video is below. (If you’d like to stream and download the song, you can do that, too.)

And let’s not forget Suicide, the absolutely genius and influential New York-based electropunk/minimalist/avant garde outfit for which Soviet was once an opener. That sound is also something Ruggiero draws from in this new life.

“It felt right to me… It just bubbled up,” Ruggiero says. “I don’t force things. I just let them come naturally.”

He doesn’t preface a songwriting session with a genre prescription — there are no grand declarations that today will be the day he writes in a particular style.

“The song comes first and then I wrap it with that package of what I think sounds right in the synth language, because I was just born to love synths,” Ruggiero says. “I’ve been doing it since the 1990s.”

“I have a lot to say — a lot of emotions and feelings,” Ruggiero continues, noting that that formula is why we still love hearing the greats. “The reason we like Morrissey so much is because we can identify with him. [Similarly,] we can all sing along to Depeche Mode and OMD.”

The Game

There was a lot going on in the early 2000s in the downtown New York City music scene.

There were the kids like The Strokes, who yanked the guitars from the angry encumbrances of nu-metal monsters just as Nirvana did with hair bands a decade earlier. Then there were the kids armed with a similarly raw aesthetic they achieved with synthesizers, at a time when synths were used in rock mostly for color. These were the electroclash folks — most of whom would ultimately disavow the moniker — like Fischerspooner or early Scissor Sisters.

The New Romanticism-influenced Soviet project, formed in 1998, would end up getting lumped in with the electroclash movement, whether Ruggiero liked it or not. (Being labeled under any particular genre has its baggage, which I’ll address in a bit.)

“It was almost like ‘Grunge 2.0’ for New York City,” he says. “There was massive amounts of press for being in New York, doing this.”

As you or I likely would in his shoes, Ruggiero was open to label bigwigs taking him to nice restaurants, wining and dining him as the discussion centered on how all his dreams could come true. Could this life be it?

“I was being courted,” he said. He even had the same management as Moby and the same lawyers as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, well, The Strokes, he added.

One time, in Los Angeles, Soviet consisted of Ruggiero and four others and they all played a label showcase. The Killers — before they were THE KILLERS — opened for them.

“There were these aggressive mafioso-kind of handlers,” he said. “We were a bunch of indie scruffy kids from New York driving around in a band trying to play as many shows as possible.”

With all of this stuff going on, Ruggiero was, as he says, “in it.”

Until he wasn’t. Soviet’s 2001 album We Are Eyes, We Are Builders was a rewarding adventure to experience — with the bright, simple sheen of Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode and some of the dingy fuzz of the Lower East Side. There were hooks galore, along with Ruggiero’s intimate but big vocals.

But by the time it had been released, the game was already winding down, and Ruggiero was just fine with it.

“Those were exciting times, but confusing times,” he said. For the most part, “I didn’t have someone by my side to help me meander through the craziness. I was kind of by myself — going to these crazy meetings. It’s a big game and I don’t know how to play these games. I’m just honest.”

Soviet, as a band, had become known for its live shows. All synths were played live, alongside guitars and such. They would go on nationwide tours with the likes of Stereo Total, Fischerspooner, Peaches, The Faint, Adult., and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In 2003, they even held a residency at the now-shuttered Spaceland in LA.

Soviet in its 2002 life. Photo Credit: Monolithicfungus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

But the game was rough and people are fickle. “Electroclash” as a concept was fairly short-lived. After only a couple years since the downtown kids were eradicating, through their music, the marzipan shells that trapped true expression, fans moved on and so did the labels. Only pieces of electroclash would survive with Soviet, having been reluctantly lumped under that moniker, a casualty.

The electroclash label “hurt us. I struggled for a time to get out of it,” Ruggiero says.

There was a lot of pressure back then, because Soviet at the time had five people.

We were going around and I just felt like when things didn’t work out, I let everybody down,” he said.

A New Life

Soviet would manifest again in 2004, albeit not as a band project. Ruggiero decided to move to LA to become a commercial composer and sound designer. His business, Soundsred, is still around today, and he’s done some great work for major car, fashion, and entertainment companies, such as VH-1 and MTV.

The album was called Spies in the House of Love, a collection whose traits had carried over from one life to the next. Produced with David Trumfio, the album sounded similar to We Are Eyes in spirit, but it was more fleshed out than its predecessor. Shiny numbers like “Photographs” were catchy, compelling, and again sported Ruggiero’s awesome vocals — and they were about five years ahead of its time.

A few years ago, Soviet took on life as a film score composer project. Ruggiero wrote a powerful synthesizer-driven film score for the sci-fi film, Life Begins at Rewirement, under the Soviet name. Each cue is a warm, melodic expression the likes of which are so popular right now. Ultimately, it’s a sci-fi score oozing with humanity and a massive heart, and whole lot of beauty.

At some point during “Rewirement,” Ruggiero decided to team up with Trumfio again and put out another record as Soviet. That release ended up as the exquisite Ghosts, which was Vehlinggo’s album of the year in 2015.

The extraordinary album featured memorable numbers like “She Talks” and “Onto Something.” I described it, somewhat clumsily, at the time as thus:

“Soviet channels the Italo stylings of Ryan Paris, the catchiness of Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode and subsequent Clarke-centered Erasure, and virtually any upbeat, emotionally charged number on a John Hughes soundtrack without any of it being too on-the-nose. This is all to say that there are no gimmicks on Ghosts.”

The post-Drive era — in which artists inspired by the barely-retro music of that film have created noteworthy works of art that mine the better angels of nostalgia and retroism — has been ready for Soviet.

In fact, it was even a synthwave collective that released Ghosts. The pioneering outfit, Rosso Corsa, whose artists’ work has featured in the likes of Red Oaks, Eastbound and Down, and even the tongue-in-cheek Kung Fury, handled digital duties. Burger Records did the tape release and Ruggiero handled the CD side himself via Soundsred.

Ghosts was titled as such, though, because it was not meant to be a bold new statement. It was a nail in the coffin. It was “kind of like a Greek tragedy,” Ruggiero says. “Kill off the baby to transcend to the next adventure.”

“[The album] was kind of like saying goodbye to the past — getting over everything that happened with whatever,” he says. “Like saying goodbye to Soviet and rebirthing it again.”

On the Road Again

US Tour dates for early 2017. Click on the photo to see them all.

That brief look at the lives of Soviet leaves us with the new, most recent one. For the first time in 15 years, Ruggiero is touring again. This time, he’s been hitting up towns with bands Viktor Fiction and The Moving Units.

Ruggiero is a member of Viktor Fiction, which Trumfio fronts and which also features a guy named Celso A. Estrada, who’s helping Ruggiero perform Soviet songs. The Moving Units, who on this tour have been doing Joy Division covers that some say rival the real thing, features among friends of Ruggiero one Danny Deleon, who also plays with Viktor Fiction. Following that?

Being on tour again, and debuting this new incarnation of Soviet, has served as a reminder that there are a fair number of people who never gave up on Ruggiero and his noteworthy synth project. The industry and fairweather fans of a parentless genre may have been peeling away at a rapid clip, but the people who matter — find themselves intertwined with the depth and breadth of Ruggerio’s creations — they’re still around.

When I caught up with Ruggerio for an interview in late February, he’d already played a handful of gigs and said he noticed some die-hard Soviet fans — quite a few — at at least one of the gigs. They seem to love the new, darker stuff as much as they loved the old stuff. Overall, “I made an impression on them at some point,” he says. I can imagine.

People that like Soviet really like them,” Ruggiero said, referring to his project in third-person plural. “[Soviet is not the] flavor of the week. [The fans] have been waiting awhile for me to get my head out of my ass.”

Ruggerio returns to the road a wiser and older man, but like anyone with some perspective will tell you, such wisdom and experience doesn’t temper the questions we have about ourselves. In fact, it seems that the more we live and the more we learn from our experiences, it just leaves us wanting a fuller picture. 

There is no game now. Ruggiero has a rewarding career in music and is able to shepherd his Soviet manifestation from one birth to the next, learning something more each time and, arguably, identifying the entity more as a part of himself.

“I’m just doing it almost as a soul-searching endeavour — like a vision quest — at this point,” he says. “I’m trying to reclaim it for myself again. There are no expectations anymore [and] no pressure, really. The pressure is just my own pressure. There’s no one to let down but myself.”

An EP is likely forthcoming in May, but you’ll want to check back to find out for sure. In the meantime, check out “Alyson.” It’s available via Vehlinggo to stream and download.

Some Important Soviet Facts

The members of Soviet in its various incarnations:
Keith Ruggiero
Chris Otchy
Chaz Windus
Amanda Lynn Berkowitz
Greg Kochan
Kenan Gunduz
Ian Scheller
Adam Hughes
Christian Serramalera

Where Does the Soviet Name Come From?

Ruggiero chose the name “Soviet” because of his affinity for old Russian filmmakers, like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov. The Syracuse University film student saw the way they edited film as something akin to what he was doing with his music — cutting up sounds and building songs from there.

Source: Wikipedia.

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