Mad Meg is most likely the smallest international band you’ve never heard of. Their new album “Who Deserves Balloons and Medals?” released Nov. 3 and has since been featured as album of the week on radio stations ranging from Mexico to Germany.
They’ve also toured Eastern Europe, even playing and recording an album in a Lithuanian prison for women. (They got a standing ovation from the prisoners.) The band will have a residency at New Nublu 151 in NYC starting early 2023 as well.
A self-described “punk crooner noir band, the group is composed of lead vocalist Ilya Popenko, bassist Igor Reznik, keyboardist Jason Laney, guitarist Dan Veksler and drummer Ruslan Baimurzin. If the names didn’t give it away, four of the five members come from countries that were a part of the former Soviet Union, except for outlier Laney, who grew up in Texas.
Through a mixture of fate, all five musicians found themselves working and gigging in NYC and through one way or another joined Mad Meg. While members have rotated over the band’s ten year tenure, Popenko has been the continual face of the band. Under his guiding hand, the current group – which has been together since 2016 – has developed their signature sound, a mix of rock, jazz, cabaret and dark comedy.
Ryan Bieber, contributing writer for NYS Music sat down with all five members of the band to discuss Mad Meg’s recent album and creative process.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ryan Bieber: You have a very unique style, which you’ve described as “punk crooner noir.” How would you describe that and the sounds that your band creates?
Dan Veksler: Punk is a sort of the general name for a kind of attitude toward life: this kind of simplistic and very rough, you know, stupid, uncouth way of going about tackling enormous issues.
Igor Reznik: And I think noir is a reference to the kind of film that I think can be imagined when listening to the stuff.
Ilya Popenko: We keep changing our style and the name of the style, because it keeps evolving.
Bieber: And what draws all of you to combine genres in such a way, what do you find interesting about that aspect?
Jason Laney: “We all come from very different places, musically. I think everyone here has an artist that they love that somebody else in this band hates with a fiery passion. It’s taking all of those different strains and getting to a place where all of us can be happy. If we can please the six people in this room, hopefully somebody else will like it.
Ruslan Baimurzin: This is the beauty of it, you know, because each of us represents the genre we like. It’s Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits … Each of us was inspired by different bands. When we started making music, we tried to satisfy each of us at the same time.
Veksler: You know we don’t set out saying “Let’s make the song in this style or let’s mix these things.” We just play and this happens.
Bieber: And so when it comes to the actual songwriting process and creating songs on the album, what does it usually look like? Is Ilya coming up with vocals first? Or is someone coming up with a melody on one of the instruments? And how does it go from there?
Popenko: Well, I usually write a song on a guitar and record that demo, either with just a guitar or some rudimentary arrangements. Then the guys, they take it apart, and each one comes up with their own lines.
Reznik: And then I scream somewhere in the song usually. There’s like a cherry on top.
Popenko: And just playing it live, that’s what kind of solidified it, because we don’t go immediately into the studio. It takes us a couple of years of running the songs in front of large live audiences to get it to the place that we want to record.
Reznik: We usually record most of our tracks live. That has been the tendency of the core of the band. And then maybe we put finishing touches, maybe add some tracks on the end.
Bieber: And when it came to making this album, when did you start to realize you had an album on your hands? Was there a particular moment where you were like, ‘Okay, let’s go with this,” or was it just from touring live a bunch that you came up with a solid set of songs?
Laney: This was our pandemic record. So we actually didn’t tour at least some of the material. I don’t think beforehand.
Popenko: It wasn’t like a moment but at some point, it just felt like the right time to kind of put them together because they felt like they were part of one bigger product. This album as opposed to some of our other records is the most conceptually solid one. Like some of the other ones that feels like a pile up of different songs and this feels like a finished product.
Bieber: While your songs can be dark, your lyrics are often tinged with comedy and irony. For instance, one of the tracks “Beyond Repair” tells the story of a broken robot begging its owner to be thrown away
Popenko: Definitely. In fact if something is written without using any type of humor and is supposed to be a serious song, I don’t perceive it as such. I’m suspicious of something overly serious. If a serious subject has some humor in it, it becomes approachable and believable to me.
Bieber: The album also features a cover of the song “Jolene,” originally by Dolly Parton. How was that decided to be the song that you would all cover?
Laney: It was contentious. There was talk as to whether or not it would even be on the album.
Veksler: It does have a chord progression that is sort of reminiscent of an Eastern European kind of thing, which is not an intuitive thing to think of that song, but it’s true. And I think that probably has something to do with Ilya’s desire to do that one.
Reznik: I think we played Jolene for a while and went through a lot of different versions.
Popenko: Yeah and you can just jam on it forever. And that’s what we did. I think for several of us, the clincher finally to keep it on the record was when Alex [Dreyshner] added throat singing vocals. For me, that’s what put the song in a category where it was really original, even though it’s a song that has been covered many times by many people.
Bieber: What is the meaning behind the album’s name, “Who Deserves Balloons and Medals?”
Popenko: It comes from a song by the band, the Blind Boys of Alabama. “Who Deserves Balloons and Medals” is about you wanting credit for something you’re doing but no one’s going to give it to you but yourself.
Bieber: And even though the question appears largely rhetorical, does your band deserve balloons and medals in your opinion?
Popenko: Maybe one balloon and five medals.