Music interview: Pete Solowka of The Ukrainians on Labour Fest #2 at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

The Ukrainians
The Ukrainians
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On Sunday May 28 the Brudenell Social Club will be hosting Labour Fest #2, a live music event organised to raise money for the Labour Party.

Headlining the gig is celebrated Leeds band The Ukrainians – fronted by ex-Wedding Present guitarist Peter Solowka: “It’s not quite as glamorous as you think” he says, when I ask how their involvement in Labour Fest came about.

“We were looking to do a gig as a warm up to a recording session and the chance to support our local labour party came up. I guess it would have been quite a small gig, but then someone went and called a General Election”.

Like many others, Solowka shares an affinity for the Brudenell, a place that’s become a spiritual home not just for bands but for locals and gig-goers alike: “We love the atmosphere at the Brudenell and we are really looking forward to supporting this event and having a great time. After eight studio albums and thousands of gigs, we’ve got lots of good material to select from. We’ll be choosing our favourite old tracks and show-casing (and filming) some new material. We’ve also got a special surprise track for everyone,” he explains.

Solowka is a long-time member of the Labour Party, having canvassed with David Gedge during the miner’s strike in the mid-80s. With that in mind, I ask him about his involvement in politics from a young age, Solowka explains how seeing first hand the struggle taken by the miners was a real learning curve for him: “Since we were teenagers, we were always interested in the left side of politics. We leafleted for the party in the early 80s. When it came to the miners’ strike, I became involved in a university-based group that supported one of our local pits – Fryston Colliery – by fund raising, joining pickets & publicising the cause. That was a real education for me – to see the harsh reality of the struggle taken by the miners to preserve their communities in the face of a state machine that opposed them.

“The defeat deepened my resolve that only by organising and campaigning, and when necessary, taking direct action, will the weak in our society be given a chance.”

The music I learned really came from half a dozen people with accordions in north Manchester! The musical groups that trickled out of the Soviet Union were very censored, so you really had to do it from your small community.

Pete Solowka

I mention the recent divisiveness of the Labour Party, but more specifically Jeremy Corbyn. This interview took place before Labour’s surge in the polls following the manifesto announcements, when seemingly more people than not were sceptical of Corbyn. Solowka argues that it’s a great time for the Labour Party: “It’s interesting really because I don’t see this as a bad time for the Labour Party at all! There always seems to be a cycle where Labour is in power, then out of power and then it seems completely unelectable. It’s at these times of that the party re-connects with its roots. When the party is in government, it becomes corrupted by its constant contact with the capitalist machinery – banks, multinational corporations, and financiers – so they end up doing stupid things like the war in Iraq. Corbyn – with his message of ‘for the many not the few’, is helping the party find its roots again.”

Do you think people should have more faith in Jeremy Corbyn? Solowka replies, defiantly: “After a whole year of being told that Jeremy is ‘unelectable’, it is time to listen to the message. He is a democrat and a real socialist. Ticks my boxes.”

It’s been widely noted that it’s the young who have the power now to really change things, but it’s the young that don’t vote. I ask Solowka what he’d say to those that think voting is a waste of time or doesn’t make a difference: “I suppose one person makes no difference. If I decide to throw loads of litter around, or throw none, it will not make the slightest difference to the world’s pollution levels. But I’m not alone. I live in a world where litter is an issue – our actions are experienced collectively and by voting we have influence in how we define our communities”.

The Ukrainians formed a year before the emergence of Ukrainian independence from the former USSR – fittingly coinciding with the liberation of Ukraine. I ask Solowka if this had any influence on him embracing his roots musically, or if it was just timely coincidence: “Definitely a coincidence. When we thought of the name for the band – ‘The Ukrainians’ – there wasn’t even a country with that name. By the time we released our first album, Ukraine had just declared its independence from the Soviet Union. I suppose it might have looked contrived, but it certainly wasn’t.

“It all started way before this. Growing up as a child of a Ukrainian parent, you cannot help but be aware of your background. I heard so much Ukrainian music from an early age, it embeds in you, and it’s rootsy, spiritual, and ancient. Ukrainian has always been the language and culture of the underdog, the rebel, the dispossessed, the troublemaker, and the refugee. It has only survived the hundreds of years of suppression by the power of its song.

“I remember my dad telling me ‘There’s a great big country out there called Ukraine, but nobody seems to know it’s there. We do. So do all the Ukrainians, and one day the rest of the world will too. Maybe not in our lifetime, but it will happen’. I suppose this is what fathers are told their sons for hundreds of years and this father was right.”

Surprisingly, despite Solowka being primarily inspired by his Ukrainian roots, his influences are closer to the UK than you’d expect: “The music I learned really came from half a dozen people with accordions in north Manchester! The musical groups that trickled out of the Soviet Union were very censored, so you really had to do it from your small community.”

Solowka’s recollection of Ukraine’s cultural shift during this time is fascinating: “The world was changing. On our first visit to Ukraine in 1990, we were amazed to find lots of people with small cassette tape recordings of our ‘Wedding Present John Peel Ukrainian Sessions’. Somehow these had managed to get through all the borders and were being passed around among people interested in music. The idea that Ukrainian music can be an acceptable art form, and not just something for village weddings, was beginning to grow. Straight after independence, so many Ukrainian music CDs were being made that it was hard to keep track. I’ve got carrier bags full them in my attic – some of which I still haven’t listened to – that testify to all those years of suppression that needed to be released.”

It’s near impossible to talk to Solowka without mentioning The Wedding Present. Not because his association with the band is any more important than his time in The Ukrainians, but because without The Wedding Present, The Ukrainians probably wouldn’t exist. We chat about his fondest memory of being in the band, and he responds enthusiastically: “The thing I remember most about the wedding present is the dancing, the energy on stage, and just the sheer joy of creating music that you know brings happiness to others.

“That first album, George Best, was so different to anything else at the time, and so energetic, that it just had to leave some sort of mark. It was released 30 years ago, and I think David is touring it again this year. I think I’ll catch one of those shows just to see if he is still fast enough to play it!”

Labour Fest #2 will be held at The Brudenell Social Club on Sunday May 28. Tickets are £10 advance and are available from Crash, Jumbo and See Tickets: http://www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk/whats-on/ukrainians2/

Spiral Stairs. Picture: Steven Simko

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