Sex, violence ... it's all much Tatu about nothing

Time of publication: 01.10.2005
The pop-shock duo tell Peter Robinson why it's songs not sexuality that matter

Twenty-four hours ago Julia Volkova, the dark-haired and inordinately fake-tanned half of the ambitiously outrageous pop group, broke down. "It was," she shrugs, "just my emotion."
"She wants to see her baby," explains Lena, Julia's smaller and more ginger bandmate.

In two days Julia's daughter, at home in Russia, will celebrate her first birthday. Julia will miss that day, just as she has missed almost everything else in her daughter's short life. When Tatu launched here in February 2003 they did so with the uncompromising, anthemic No 1 song All The Things She Said. Lena (the daughter of a Russian musician) and Julia had both grown up in comfortable, Moscow families and first met in a children's pop group called Neposedi, but by the time they were first exposed on the world stage they had their tongues down each other's throats; subsequent clips involved the girls being kinky in a bath and killing a man while joyriding in a juggernaut. Tatu came across like hard-as-nails pop anarchists, but as Julia talks about motherhood it rather seems as if she's about to burst into tears. "I'd love a big family," she smiles, weakly. "When I am old, I will sit in my chair and sing with my children."

This is the chink in Tatu's armour. But it is, even in 2005, sturdy armour. In the video for the duo's catchy comeback single, All About Us, the pair argue. Julia storms out of a cafй and is picked up by a guy in a car; at his flat, during an attempted rape, he throws her across a room. Lena finds a gun and shoots him in the head. It's a stunning piece of work but, not unexpectedly, the pop media have raised a collective eyebrow.

"I just cannot understand it," Lena says. She seems to be genuinely confused as to why the sight of someone's brains being blown across a wall has been considered a little outrй for Saturday morning kids' TV.

"You see, they make movies about killing people, with lots of blood. But it's impossible to do this kind of video. So now we have two videos — with brains on the wall, and without."

Asked which version they prefer, both girls' eyes light up and they scream, in unison: "With brains!" And that is precisely how Tatu's fans like their pop music. On their debut album, a cover of the Smiths' How Soon is Now? sets out Tatu's stall, spicing up modern sounds with themes of alienation, confusion and loss. Their surprisingly solid second album, Dangerous and Moving, again part-produced by Trevor Horn, features unexpected guest spots from Sting and Richard Carpenter and finds the girls, both now 20, exploring even darker themes.

"Look around you," orders Lena.

We are in a suite on the sixth floor of St Martin's Lane Hotel in London.

"No, look at what is going on. Wars! The world is a depressing place. People are hateful and mean. They think only about themselves and they are not able to love somebody. People hate each other!" Julia proposes that rather than being mindlessly sensationalist, the band's new video is in fact deeply moral. "Sometimes girls get into a situation. In the video Julia didn't think about what could happen if she sat down in a car with an unknown person. You shouldn't do that. It's very dangerous!"

While the girls have their pictures taken, Tatu's manager shuffles around the room looking concerned. He requests that there is "no pretending to make sex". From this reluctance, you may already have guessed that there has been a shift in managerial tone since the are-they/aren't-they/obviously-they're-not-but-let's-play-along shenanigans three years ago. In fact, this manager is not Ivan Shapovalov, the former child psychologist thought to be the sole architect of Tatu's first album. Shapovalov is no longer any part of Team Tatu, and in his place is a rather personable chap called Boris Renski.

Renski explains that Tatu was his idea, and that there is "a little hidden story" behind the band. Renski's day job, for the past 13 years, has been as the head of a Russian computer company. He first met Shapovalov, who was then directing commercials, three years before Tatu began.

"In 1999, when Yugoslavia was being bombed, Ivan said: ‘I have an idea to make a television event to invite Russian rock stars to play in support of Yugoslavia, and I want you to sponsor the event.' He then said: ‘I've got the girl who will sing the song that will be the main headline song of the event. It is a song called Yugoslavia.' He played me the music — it was Lena!" Renski told Shapovalov to forget about the concert, and to concentrate on turning Lena into a star. "Immediately he agreed. So that's the beginning, and you know the rest." Julia appears from around a corner, orders the tape recorder to be turned off, and drapes herself around her manager. "Well," Renski adds, "most of it."

The rest of the story, of course, involves international hit records (with sales of more than five million), banned videos, a short-lived Russian reality television show, an entry into the Eurovision Song Contest, aborted plans to run for the Russian presid-ency (Julia and Lena's combined age met the required minimum) and a ban on performing at the European MTV Awards on the grounds that the girls were not allowed to take machineguns on stage.

But eveything was thrown into disarray when Shapovalov parted company with Lena and Julia last year. He was last heard of launching Nato, an ill-fated solo "suicide bomber" popstrel whose first concert was booked for the anniversary of September 11 with tickets designed to look like plane tickets. Tatu could easily have fallen apart, but Dangerous and Moving is an album that sounds more like a band hitting its stride.

Lena thinks that the recipe is simple. "We like pop songs," she states, "but we have no pop idols. We have no favourite groups. We don't want to copy anyone else. It's very important to be different."

Renski agrees. "It has been hard work," he says, "but we are now shooting at the right spot." Certainly, if Julia and Lena's new video tells us anything, it's that Tatu are pretty good at hitting their targets.

Peter Robinson
The Times, UK
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