Zabelin is a tireless advocate for Russia's electronic music scene—and also one of its best artists. Mariana Berezovska sits down with the mystic-minded DJ and producer.
"In Russia, underground, state and police all exist in different dimensions," Zabelin explains. "I wouldn't say they chase or control us as some 'dangerous movement,' they just have no idea what we are doing out there. There is no communication between us and them, so often they treat us like some garbage lying on the floor. A police guy is just passing by, sees trash and throws it in a bin. And then he is off to dinner with his family. Next morning he does not remember shutting down a club or Outline festival. We just need to learn how to communicate with them. Clubs which managed to find common ground with authorities do not get shut down."
This year, Zabelin debuted on the Icelandic label X/OZ with his Trans Siberian Express EP, having previously appeared on Nina Kraviz's трип, which brought him wide recognition in the worldwide techno community. He and Exos, the artist who runs X/OZ, became friends in 2015 at one of трип's first parties. Zabelin sees similarities in the world's perceptions of Icelanders and Russians: both countries are remote with a lot of empty space surrounded by a cold sea, and they share a particular melancholic mindset.
"I am always in search of this fourth dimension, the resonance," Zabelin says. "Music carries a religious meaning for me, because it sustains my integrity as a person and brings balance and harmony into my life. It teaches me to distribute my energy properly, similarly to when I'm working on a music arrangement, tuning in minor details. I also feel that I have accumulated enough knowledge about music in order to live in the world of my imagination and sustain my body as an instrument to make my fantasy a reality, as a spaceship inside of which I can grow gardens and arrange my belongings on the shelves. As soon as you reach the harmony inside of your spaceship, you become more loving towards others and yourself. This is the feeling music brings into my life."
"Resonance" is also the name of Zabelin's weekly radio show, dedicated solely to electronic music from Russia and other post-Soviet countries. The show has been broadcast on Moscow's Megapolis FM for three years now. A number of artists signed to трип (PTU, Roman Zuckerman, Vladimir Dubyshkin) were actually first discovered through Resonance. Zabelin and Nina Kraviz met during 2014's Outline festival and quickly hit it off thanks to their shared vision for a broader understanding of techno—not only as a music genre, but as an abstract, nonlinear state of mind that helps one experience reality from different perspectives. "Nina has an unbiased personal approach to selecting powerful music for the label," Zabelin says. "Whenever she releases tracks that were previously not loved or understood, they become accepted and endorsed by listeners worldwide."
Zabelin also makes noisier, less functional music under the name Rhizome. The concept for the side project was born almost ten years ago as Zabelin tried to depart completely from any narrative in music, to get as far as possible from the limitations of song structure. Around this time he also started researching the concept of time and its relation to culture, emergence of new genres and mutation of musical directions. Everything, it seemed to him, is connected to how the speed of information accelerates.
"I was trying to visualize the way time works and was imagining a sinusoidal curve. But then I started to realize that time does not develop according to a smooth periodic oscillation. Neither is it linear. There are a lot of complex interconnections in time's development, because cultural movement does not start where another ends. As I was thinking about this I accidentally came across a philosophical concept introduced by Gilles Deleuze that apprehends a nonlinear development of culture called 'rhizome.' It turned out that the ideas I was trying to picture in my head had already been documented in philosophy. This is where the name for my side project comes from, my alias that composes musical forms without a presupposed narrative, and lets a listener enter this sound cavity and create their own images."
For Zabelin there is no such thing as "no"—as long as you are physically fit, everything is possible. This worldview seems rooted in his Ural mentality, derived from a culture of strong-willed and decisive people. Zablin is from Yekaterinburg, a city between Eastern Europe and Western Siberia with more constructivist buildings than anywhere else in the world. He says he owes his fortitude and confidence to his hometown. Brought up by young parents who always treated him like an equal and let him make independent decisions, he absorbed the wisdom of private guitar classes, early MTV videos and hoodlum friends in tracksuits. Influenced by Marilyn Manson, The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers on the one hand, and anti-aristocratic friend circles on the other, Zabelin learned during his teenage years to make quick decisions and find fast entrepreneurial solutions. He knows from his own experience why bullies beat up nerds and why a music geek must lead an ascetic life, and wishes the two types would never have to cross paths.
This partly explains why he founded a platform limited to local producers who need visibility and support. Zabelin admits that being born a musician in Russia, especially outside Moscow, is a sad fate: most likely, your music will die inside your bedroom, never reaching a wide audience. He learned this first-hand in his early years DJing, when he travelled to play parties in the clubs of Ural, getting to know young producers who often didn't take their own music seriously.
The urge to share their music with the world, and prove to the skeptics that there is enough techno coming from Russian producers to fill an hour of radio every week, led Zabelin to Moscow, where he started Resonance. He also founded a party called Techno Makes Sense, which he took across the country, pairing each event with a series of workshops and seminars on club culture called Integration. The core idea of Resonance is integration, as opposed to isolation and separation of genres, values and generations. The radio show also emphasizes the influence everyone has on his or her surrounding circumstances—the idea that, if something is not happening, maybe you are not making enough effort for it to become real.
Even in Cyrillic there is not much information about electronic music in Russia outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I was surprised to find out that, 15 years ago, when Zabelin started DJing, there was already an integral club culture in Yekaterinburg. Techno, hip-hop, drum & bass and progressive house were all properly represented in the local clubs. There was an interesting hierarchical system in the city's only record store, Soprotivlenie (Russian for "Resistance"), which was similar to Berlin's Hard Wax. New records would arrive every Tuesday, and the city's DJs would gather there to check them out. There was a strict hierarchy for digging: first, only the most established DJs were allowed to select records. When they were finished, the second shift could dive in. At the end there were guys like Zabelin, with 20 bucks in his pocket that he'd earned working at a karaoke bar in a mini golf club.
Times have changed for Zabelin. He can afford to buy more records now, but his understanding of club culture remains tied to Yekaterinburg, where DJs had their own principles and respect for each other's work. Zabelin also believes the brutalist architecture of the city contributed to his perception of music. It's straightforward, honest, and nothing about it is decorative or illusory. When Zabelin first travelled abroad, it took him a while to get used to the fancy ornaments and Greek gods that support the balconies of Western Europe—it just did not make sense at first. He eventually embraced the architectural variety of Western countries, but minimalist geometric models, repetitive patterns and straight lines have left a tangible trace on his music, both as a producer and a DJ. The logo for Resonance is inspired by the iron statues in front of VIZ-Stal, a cold-rolled electrical steel plant in Yekaterinburg.
"I have recently realised something when I was on tour in Russia," Zabelin says. "Vladivostok, Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Moscow all have their own scenes. And why? Because these cities are remote from each other and from other megalopolises, there are no low-coasters connecting them, you won't hop on a bus to party for a night and then go back the next morning. So musicians and other creatives form their own local communities with their specific local flavour."
Today Zabelin is considered one of the leading DJs in Russia, with current residencies at Saint Petersburg's Mosaique and Moscow's Arma17, and formerly at the Moscow club Monasterio. He survived many storms inside the club-promoter network in Russia, and became immune towards anonymous online cynics who ridicule him as "Russian Techno Prince," a name assigned to him by the popular press like SNC and Interview Russia. He has clear views on how things in Russia are and what they could be if the locals worked a bit harder on their sense of community and the gaps between generations.
"In music coming from Russia, no matter what genre we are talking about, there is a uniting character, a sort of mysticism," Zabelin says. "The approach itself is somewhat psychedelic and foggy. That's probably because the reality in Russia is crazy, but also very authentic and true. It is not that people want to show off and create this eccentric ambience around them, it is really the way they are. When you arrive to some city like Nizhny Tagil, for example, you realise that people there are completely nuts, they have crazy things going on in their heads. The behavior and mindset of people are often defined by some sort of despair and abandonment. There is this iconic 1975 Soviet animated film Hedgehog In The Fog, the story perfectly describes a Russian person in their own world, lost in fog, which allows them to ponder upon something endlessly and develop their ideas. But on the other hand it does not let this person rely on anything. I see Russians as ever-offended children. When a person turns 20, they are still full of youthful enthusiasm, but also already realise the disappointing reality."
Resonance has featured more than 150 Russian producers, who can be followed according to their region on the show's website. Zabelin would prefer not to put a "techno tag" on his music. He confesses that there was a moment in the Russian scene when it was easier to describe every kind of music he was promoting as "techno'" because it was catchy and easier for people to relate to than "electronic music."
Zabelin feels more mature today than he did then. He recently turned 30, and puts much more thinking into his creative process, his inner world nourished by music and the people around him. "It has never been only about techno," he says. "Rock, electro, drum & bass and ambient have always played an essential role in my musical aesthetics. Right now I am eager to explore other directions too, I am looking at more possibilities with live music, I want to work with synthesis and create a more conceptual full-length story. I am not a type to be sitting with a synthesizer manual for days, I need unexpected moments, I want my machines to surprise me. In music, the fourth sense is the most important."
"People, especially in Russia, try too hard to find explanations for everything related to art and self-expression," he continues. "Some things cannot be explained, they are just about a feeling. As soon as you start to feel instead of asking why, new levels of consciousness and possibilities in music open up to you, it becomes more complex than what words can express. I think this is also the reason why women are leading the creative fields today. They have a more real perception of life, are more in touch with their nature and don't bother as much about boosting their ego as men do. Women treat their emotions and intuition responsibly and care for their feelings more than they care for money and success. If women ruled countries there wouldn't be any wars, because wars are irrational, they make no sense. Men are more fragile, but their constant need to prove their masculinity and not to come across as vulnerable leads to cruelty and aggression. This was my way, too, and I realize only now how senseless it was. I am willing to develop my feminine side and connect with my feelings because this is what makes non-verbal communication strong and real. At the same time, no verbal communication can transmit the same range of feelings you can experience through music. Even in our conversation now, I am using so many words, and I am still not sure I have delivered my message. Feelings are on a completely different level, and I think that being a DJ, constantly in touch with hours of music, you can reach those dimensions."