From Russia, with tunes 

During the Red Scare of the '50s, people were afraid that communist Russia was planning a secret attack on America. Some saw an infiltration of spies in the White House. Others feared total annihilation courtesy of the atomic bomb, while cynics, stabbing a little closer to the bone, suggested that Coke was Russia's ingenious and insidious plan to wipe us out. None, however, could have predicted that the next generation of Krushchev's youth would boil the essence of American rock & roll down to one word, Elvis, and send him back to conquer America.

Meet The Red Elvises, three Russian musicians and one American drummer who, among them, sport bright-red hair, wear bright-red suits and play authentic American rockabilly with elements of gypsy folk music on huge guitars. The Red Elvises -- Igor Yuzov, guitar; Oleg Bernov, bass; Zhenya Kolykhanov guitar and balalaika; and drummer Avi Sills -- sing in English and Russian, and during their show the pompadoured King (played by Yuzov) dances on table tops.

From an Oklahoma hotel room, Kolykhanov and Sills are attempting to explain the band's Elvis obsessions.

"In Russia I was introduced to a fat, Las Vegasy Elvis and I just wasn't getting it. There were no punchy lines, no guitars, nothing," says the classically trained Kolykhanov, who prefers heavy metal. "But when I moved to the U.S. I discovered the vintage Elvis through records and documentaries. This made our search for a name quite simple. We just picked an icon that most Americans can relate to."

The Red Elvises formed in 1996 when Yuzov and Bernov pulled out of their Russian folk & rock band Limpopo. Despite winning on Star Search in '93, performing on a Kit-Kat TV commercial and putting out two albums, Limpopo wasn't reaching a mass audience.

When Sills joined, The Red Elvises were making their living playing on the streets. Sills, who was born in Austin and raised by a hippie rabbi/civil-rights-activist father in a Mendocino commune, approached with caution.

"I questioned how we were going to make any money doing this. But after the first record ("Grooving to the Moscow Beat") came out, we took to the streets in Santa Monica and pulled in like $1,200 a day," Sills says.

Kolykhanov has more experience at busking. He and Bernov, friends since the age of 17 when they both lived in Voledga and played in underground bands, often took their music to the streets.

"In Russia there is pretty much one -- white -- audience. You make a remark and you know what the response will be. In the United States the crowds are so (ethnically) mixed. All the time we are playing for blacks, Chinese, who knows. The people here are much more into our show," says Kolykhanov.

Educated in Western pop music by records purchased on the black market, Kolykhanov recalls: "In the old days it was really bad. Bikers ran the black market. You would go to where they were camping out and ask for things in code. For (Van Halen) you ask, 'Do you have V.H.?' And the guy would ask his price in code, too. 'Five zerahs for V.H.'

"Then it got to be more like visiting a drug dealer. You'd go to a guy's house and you would need a password to get in. But the selection was better. There would be Led Zeppelin or AC/DC or Metallica and a choice of the original European pressings or a cheaper Bulgarian reprint."

After their second album, "Surfing In Siberia," the Red Elvises released "I Wanna See You Bellydance," on their own Shooba-Doobah label last year and appeared on the "Penn & Teller" show to promote it. That same year The Red Elvises were also recruited by director Lance Mungia to appear in his minimalist, martial-arts film "Six String Samurai." Shot in Death Valley, the band appears in the Jeffrey Falcon-starring movie and is featured heavily on the soundtrack.

Says Sills, "Lance was going to write the movie based on the image of our band. He thought we fit right in with the swords and martial-arts concept."

"That is a scary thought if the movie is based on our music," adds Kolykhanov, who composes most of The Red Elvises' tunes. "It is great that they picked 'Love Pipe' for the main theme. But I think they put way too many songs in the movie."

Leaving the desert sands, The Red Elvises are again plying their trade from Oklahoma to Orlando behind the new record, "Better Than Sex." And despite a turn toward swing, Kolykhanov says the band's trademark sounds -- Russian gypsy music -- can still be heard blended into the melodies on the new songs "Wild Man" and "Joint Was Jumping."

"We make sure this kind of ethnic scale is always in our music," Kolykhanov assures.

Sills, faking a Russian accent, gets the last word: "It's little diff-rent flavor. Base-ik-lee vee are yust Boris Yeltsin's answer to zha Spice Girls."

More by Randy Matin


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