London-based – and very interestingly named – David Cronenberg’s Wife are a six-piece band that mix sardonic wit, off-kilter humour and alt-rock tendencies into one intriguing coagulation of musical exploration. Often referred to as ‘antifolk,’ the group resist most genre labels and basically just do whatever they want. With a delicate balance between captivating, narrative lyrics and bustling, folk-pop-rock stylings, the band easily draws comparisons to Britpop legends Pulp or Blur, but they’re also doing enough of their own thing to stay firmly in their own realm.
With their fourth full-length album, The Ship (Necrologies), due out at the end of March via Blang Records, and a four-track EP Hannity Comes Home recently dropped on January 31st, 2020, David Cronenberg’s Wife are bursting with content that audiences are hungry to lap up. In order to help that process, we are happy to host lead vocalist Tom Mayne in this Guest Blog feature as he walks us through the strange-but-true history of Khazakstan’s infamous ruler who inspired the song “Nazarbayev Applause Laughing” off of the band’s upcoming album. Take it away, Tom.
Check out “Nazarbayev Applause Laughing” before jumping into the tune’s genesis.
– If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re either in North America or Europe, and the political situation in your country is down the toilet. It’s tough, I know. But what if you lived in a country where you can be sent to a psychiatric hospital for just asking permission to hold a protest? Where you can be refused permission to leave the country? Where you have no chance of voting out your president, ever? Welcome to Turkmenistan, a Central Asian country of around 5 million people.
Turkmenistan really only hits English headlines when its president does something wacky, which he does at regular intervals. Whether it be lifting a golden bar with no weights above his head in front of his applauding cabinet, performing a rap about his beloved country with his grandson, or firing handguns while dressed up like something from The Expendables (again, to much applause), President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is in many ways just continuing the tradition set by the country’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Calling himself “TurkmenbashI” – the leader of the Turkmen – Niyazov found himself at the helm of a newly independent country when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Renaming the Turkmen Communist Party as the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, Niyazov won the following year’s presidential election with 99.5% of the vote – democracy in action! (Twenty years later Berdimukhamedov was re-elected with a very poor showing: only 97%) As president, Niyazov went to town, jailing anybody who stood in his way, and constructing a massive personality cult, which included building numerous gold statues of himself, the most famous of which rotated to face the sun at all times. He even renamed the month of January after himself (“TurkmenbashI”) and April after his mother, and banned opera and ballet, as they were deemed “incompatible with the Turkmen mentality.”
Explore corruption and the Ukraine with “Hannity Comes Home.”
While it is not surprising that Western media cover such absurdity, there’s a danger that this kind of reporting masks the very real human rights abuses that take place there on a daily basis: I called Turkmenistan one of the worst places in the world to live during a quick cameo in an episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight from last year, and, outside of countries ravaged by war and famine, it is. For example, the Prove They Are Alive project gives details of over 120 “disappeared” people in Turkmenistan whose relatives have little information as to where they are being held, or even whether they are still alive. Turkmenistan has one of the worst records of civil liberties in the world and was ranked last in the world for press freedom in 2019, even below North Korea.
With a relatively small population and the fourth-largest gas reserves in the world, Turkmenistan should not be short of cash, but recent years have seen people lining up for hours for things like bread, sugar and rice. Meanwhile, billions of dollars are lost to corruption or wasted on vanity projects like a brand new international airport (tourism is hardly booming, so it sees very little traffic) or the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, which boasted the third-largest Olympic-style ceremony ever held, covered by only a handful of journalists from outside the region, one of whom was only using the games as an excuse to be able to film an episode of the Netflix show Dark Tourist.
Next door, in Kazakhstan, things are admittedly a good slice better – more press freedom, more civil liberties and more money flowing down to the general populace. And unlike in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, you can definitely have a good night out in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. But the main system remains the same –a virtual one-party state where the president’s family members control all of the big money-making businesses in the country. For 29 years the country was headed by Nursultan Nazarbayev until he stepped down in 2019, but he still bears the formal title of “Leader of The Nation” and no one really believes he has relinquished power.
If Turkmenistan is Bizarro World, then some of the stories from Kazakhstan sound like a cross between a Shakespearean play and a 1970’s Hollywood spy thriller: one of Nazarbayev’s own sons-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, was accused of planning to remove the president in an armed coup, and soon found the full force of Kazakhstan’s security services after him. Charged with the murder of two bankers in Kazakhstan, Aliyev crept around Europe for several years before giving himself up in Austria in 2014. Seven months later, while awaiting trial, he was found hanged in his cell. Aliyev claimed the accusations against him were politically motivated, caused by a rift with his father-in-law, but he had taken advantage of the system up to that point, abusing positions he had held in the tax police and security services to seize various lucrative businesses and make millions. Other Nazarbayev family members have also taken advantage of opaque privatizations, nepotistic practices and a lack of rule of law, earning billions in the process. Another Nazarbayev son-in-law bought Prince Andrew’s house in 2007 – for £3 million more than the asking price.
Enjoy “You Should See” from 2018’s The Octoberman Sequence EP.
Of course, Nazarbayev himself has used the system to his own benefit: in the early 2000s, he was found to control a Swiss bank account that contained $84 million of money earned through the country’s oil deals. Unfortunately for Nazarbayev, the fixer of the deal was an American businessman, who found himself arrested by U.S. authorities while trying to board a plane at JFK Airport and was charged under U.S. bribery laws. After seven years of legal proceedings, the businessman ultimately got off with a slap on the wrist, but the case, dubbed Kazakhgate, was a public relations disaster for Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev tried to bolster his image by commissioning an English language biography of himself in 2009 – by former UK government minister Jonathan Aitken, who had been found guilty in 1999 of perjury: you couldn’t make these stories from Central Asia up if you tried. Aitken argued unconvincingly in his hagiography that the Kazakhgate allegations “did not cause much of a stir in Kazakhstan” because people thought that “if some of their leaders did make hay while the sun was shining, that was acceptable” since the oil deals “were so much in the interests of Kazakhstan.”
Worse was to follow in 2011 with the Zhanaozen massacre, where over a dozen oil workers protesting working conditions were shot dead after violence broke out when security tried to break up their camp. Not to worry though, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was on hand – his company was providing consulting services at the time to the government of Kazakhstan – writing to Nazarbayev that the deaths, “tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress that Kazakhstan has made.”
Here’s “The Pied Piper of Maidenhead” from 2012’s Don’t Wait to Be Hunted to Hide.
What to make of all of this? After years studying these countries, I decided I had to try and put some of this in a song for my band, David Cronenberg’s Wife. But it was tricky – just listing the reasons Nazarbayev is a bad guy would be too easy, boring almost. So, instead, I tried to put myself in his mind, following Nazarbayev through a fictional week in his life where he travels from London (stopping off at the National Theatre to see some Shakespeare, of course) back to Kazakhstan via a luxury spa in the Czech Republic. The events are not real but based on reality – empty phrases often spouted by Nazarbayev at conferences, European real estate owned by his relatives, the son-in-law who has free rein to build what he wants. And me getting drunk and eating a pizza in my living room while thinking about Nazarbayev.
The song came together after our guitarist Adam sent me a five-minute audio file with a developing idea. He played the riff that became the song in the first ten seconds, before dismissing it as too “Take Five” and making it into something else. Of course, I ignored all the other stuff and just used what he did in those first ten seconds – “play that for four minutes,” I said in the first rehearsal after he sent me the file. Such a topic demanded spoken word, so we had to make the song driving, with big drums and a rumbling bass, which in places takes on an almost Mission: Impossible feel – Nazarbayev as the last action hero. I added a final scratchy guitar at the beginning, some sound effects in the middle of the song, and the chaos at the end. It sits near the end of the first half of our new album, our fourth.
And the title of the song? It came from a transcript I was reading of yet another Nazarbayev speech about ten years ago. It just seemed to fit, so I noted it down for future use: Nazarbayev – applause – laughing.