Understanding Local Genre-Benders Srazhalys

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The group Srazhalys was unwittingly formed in 2002 when J Roth mistook a domra for a balalaika. He’d been traveling across Russia looking for an affordable balalaika to bring home with him. It wasn’t until his final destination: St. Petersburg that he found a secondhand shop selling folk instruments. After carefully scrutinizing each instrument, he made his choice and took it to the counter to purchase only to be informed that it was not a balalaika but a domra. This was a dilemma. J had really wanted a balalaika, but he’d already developed an attachment to the domra he’d chosen. Defying reason and practicality, he bought both instruments and thus the band Srazhalys was formed, for these instruments – more than their players – are the heart of the music and the ensemble.

We spoke with Srazhalys ahead of their CD release show with Orkestar Bez Ime at The Cedar on May 5 about the origin of the band's unusual name, the influence of world music, and recording their second album. Read the full interview below and get tickets for the show here.

What is the origin of the name of the group?

“To fight/overcome insurmountable odds” is a simplified (and admittedly exalted) definition of the Russian word 'srazhalys'. The balalaika and domra (central to the group's early sound) being matched with the ferocious rhythmic impulses of the band members has made this a fitting name.

Also, the word 'srazhalys', being comprised of an interesting unfamiliar set of sounds, speaks well to the music created by the mishmash of instruments and influences in the band.

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The Russian balalaika

Srazhalys seem to take inspiration from music all over the world. What cultures are particularly inspiring to your music?

Roma/Gypsy (jazz and otherwise), Eastern European/Russian, Turkish/Turkmen, and more recently Ireland/British Isles. There are also flashes in songs inspired by the Indian sitar, Mongolian throat-singing, and lilting European Cafe sounds.

You also cite the influence of rock music; how does that play into your sound?

All four members in the quartet come from rock backgrounds (albeit different sub-genres within that broad category). Rock's influence can still be found in our hard-driving rhythms, use of rock-style power chords, and in the arrangements of many songs.

The balalaika and domra are central to the origins of Srazhalys. What drew you to those instruments in the first place?

Founding member, J Roth, wanting to explore and incorporate different sounds into his music, went through a period of collecting instruments from all around the world. He'd first become aware of the balalaika from listening to the Beatles' “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but hadn't known anything about it (not even its unique triangular shape). That lack of knowledge led him to discover the domra when he mistook one for a balalaika during a buying expedition in St. Petersburg.

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The domra

How has adding other instruments to the project affected the direction of the group?

The tenor guitar and Irish bouzouki have largely supplanted the domra in the ensemble. This seems to have (unintentionally) tugged the group away from the sounds of Roma/Eastern European/Central Asian and turned them more toward those of Ireland and the British Isles. The mandolin has also contributed to embracing sounds more common to Western folk traditions.

The balalaika does continue to be a main player in the ensemble, ensuring that a bit of the Eastern influence will continue to pepper the music.

How was the process of recording the new album different than your previous release?

The process was largely the same, though we devoted more time to this project. We recorded a lot of the first album in a commercial studio space in St. Paul with minimal overdubs. The new album was completely recorded in Ryan Murphy's home studio, Phlox House. There we had the luxury of taking our time to make sure we got the sound we wanted, which included a fair amount of overdubs, strengthening each track. 

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Srazhalys' debut self-titled album

How does the sound of your new CD compare to your self-titled album?

The core sound of the quartet is enhanced with this batch of recordings; instruments and parts have been added that aren't present in our live shows.

What can the audience expect from a Srazhalys show?

Lots of strings. A constant shuffling of instruments. Genre-defying music. For this particular show (Album Release at the Cedar) we're planning on shelving our gentler songs and keeping the pulse throbbing.

What’s Inspiring you lately?

We've already started working out music for our next release. The mandolin is becoming a constant voice. In fact, we have several new tunes that feature two mandolins.