Singer and guitarist Yegor Romantsov, leader of New Orleans’ “Russian Mafia Band,” Debauche, has his doubters. Romantsov’s particular Russian charm and accent, both onstage and off, are so thick that some think it’s a put-on. “They hear me on the radio and they picture me with a big beard, a big bear-fur hat and a bottle of vodka,” says Romantsov, who, with slicked-back hair, undershirt and dangling cigarette, looks more like a relatively young American beat poet. “I am the only Russian in the band, but most Americans think our stand-up bass player Scott Potts, with his big-ass beard, is Russian, and that I’m faking it! Somebody else tried to pull Scott’s beard: ‘That’s fake man, c’mon!’”
To be fair, Romantsov does little to quell doubter’s doubts. On the web and in his music’s liner notes, he spins anecdotes about his perhaps imaginary Uncle Milan, the first “milaphonist” of the Ukraine who, by Romantsov’s telling, continues to have overly amazing adventures rivaling Forrest Gump’s. “Russian Orphan Song,” from Debauche’s album Cossacks on Prozac features the Russian Orphan Tooth Orchestra, billed as “Uncle Milan’s Golden Tooth Award Winners.”
But on paper, at least, the songs are anything but funny. Debauche’s set consists of traditional Russian urban folk songs sung in Russian, all written by and about criminals, prostitutes, orphans and other outcasts. The aforementioned “Russian Orphan Song” tells of a gangster who falls for a girl who sells him out to the KGB. “Bublichki” documents a little girl who sells pencils on the frozen streets. “’Makintosh,’ is an overcoat,” explains Romantsov. “The song is a gangster guy telling about his childhood, and on the chorus he says, ‘George, hold my Makintosh’ which means, ‘I’m going to get into a fight.’ In the end, the guy gets his ass kicked and his coat gets stolen. All the songs are very sad songs,” laughs Romantsov, who nonetheless delivers the tunes with a sort of celebratory fierceness, while sweating and smiling madly. “Everybody always dies at the end of these songs after a terrible childhood. But the songs are like New Orleans,” he clarifies. “No matter what bad happens, there’s always another side. You have to carry on.”
Debauche plays roughly 30 of these Russian criminal songs and have a huge well from which to draw “new” material. As Romantsov explains the songs’ origins, you get the feeling there are so many of these songs simply because so many Russians were made prisoners. “Stalin managed to put millions in gulag concentration camps from like 1917 to 1953. Forty years of gulag imprisoned all the Russian peasants, all the Russian aristocracy, all the Russian intelligentsia—an immense amount of Russian criminals, and millions of Russian orphans that grew up to be criminals. So, more than likely, these songs weren’t written by real criminals but by Russian intelligentsia who were thrown in gulag. Either way, it’s a huge chunk of Russian sorrow and history.”
Still, the mood at a Debauche concert is more that of a hardcore Irish pub with vodka in place of Guinness. Silliness and humor abound. The “hidden track” on Cossacks on Prozac is a Depeche Mode cover with a Russian accent. “I recorded it when I visited Ukraine six years ago with real babushkas—old Ukrainian ladies,” says Romantsov. “We did ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, and the babushkas played bayan (an accordion-esque squeezebox), balalyka (a triangle-shaped three-string guitar) and a big marching drum. I taught the old ladies the song, broke it down for them into simple pieces, and they did an amazing job. I gave each one $70 and they’d never seen this kind of money for music. I would record with them again and again if I could.”
Behind the exoticism and admitted Ruski-sploitation is a real, powerful band featuring the aforementioned Scott Potts, who plays with Aurora Nealand, Stix duh Clown, and the Zydepunks. The band is sometimes joined on stage by the Slow Burn burlesque troupe. There’s more here than a cool accent and lyrics most New Orleanians can’t decipher. “I understand it’s always easy to impress Americans,” says Romantsov, who, even in a city known for preserving antique musical traditions, is carrying a very lonely torch. “But Russians freak out over this too, the Russian tourists and the Russians who live here. Russians are as fascinated by these songs as Americans. But they will know almost every song, so they’re a tough audience.”
Romantsov tells of being hired by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian director of Night Watch and Day Watch. “They were done shooting Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and were looking for a Russian band to play their wrap party,” says Romantsov, who laughs at the crew’s odds of finding one. “[Bekmambetov] freaked out about our music. He came up and said, ‘We don’t have this in Moscow! You have to come to Moscow!’ And I’m like, ‘This is traditional Russian music, and you want me to fly all the way from New Orleans to play this in Moscow? Hire babushkas!’”
Debauche plays French Quarter Festival Saturday, April 14 at 4 p.m. on the Malibu Rum Latin/World Stage.