Etherstrings vs. Argonika (4)

From Ti Sci Tang's "Notes in the Margin": here is another excerpt from my Skype conversations with Elena Stepanova (Argonika, Helga’s Ephemeris and Etherstrings), initially meant for her website, We talked about Argonika before (in fact, it was Argonika that caught my interest back in 2008 and I wrote an article about the band right away). In this particular chat Elena speaks about the change of the band’s original name, her own feelings about her works, as well as a few other things.

T.S.T.: Shall we?

Elena Stepanova: Yes, of course. I’m quite into original things of everything, you know, and Argonika is no exception.

T.S.T.: Let’s recite, then.

E.S.: Argonika was my band, or rather, a studio project, with Yuri Khonelidze. We never played live, though we planned to. As a studio project, Argonika lasted many years before it was put on hold. We recorded an album, “Rainbow Hunter”, and released it in 2005. There were several re-releases later, which are still available on Amazon (as a physical CD) and AppStore (in 3plet format).

T.S.T.: The original name was Etherstrings, wasn't it?

E.S.: Yes. Yuri offered to change it to Argonika right before the initial release. He said we should abandon Etherstrings which we had been using for years by then. His basic argument was that “Etherstrings” was a problem because of the voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative (‘th’), a difficult sound for those who do not speak English.

T.S.T.: That's weird, isn't it? I mean, your English lyrics would ensure... Why the idea that someone might not be able to accurately pronounce the band's name was such an issue? Even if a fan does not speak English, they still love your songs, and finally learn to articulate.

E.S.: My thoughts entirely. To be honest, I didn’t want to change the band’s name — after all, the word was my invention, strongly related to theremin and one of its historical names, ‘aetherophone’ — and I thought it was important to keep it, no matter how hard it was for some people to pronounce it. But Yuri's concern was not about fans who already loved our music. His idea was to come up with a name that would really stand out and at the same time would be easy to articulate for everyone. For everyone, not only for anglophones and those who did English at school. Hence Argonika. It was his invention.

T.S.T.: It does stand out. And visually, it is eye-catching.

E.S.: Sure. So, Yuri insisted, and since we weren’t actually using a theremin on that album, I kind of agreed (though I still thought of using the theremin both in the studio, for our future records, and live). The album was released as Argonika’s “Rainbow Hunter”. Looking back, I can admit that Yuri was right about the name from the marketing point of view… only no marketing followed. Now I am using the original name, Etherstrings, for my own project, which is a follow-up to my early electronic experimental works that were recorded and released as Helga's Ephemeris' "Runology".

T.S.T.: Why did Argonika split?

E.S.: We had our differences, Yuri and I, and those differences grew bigger over the years. By 2005, I couldn’t even find a reason to keep sticking to something that became so remote from where we started.

T.S.T.: Isn’t it only natural for a project in progress, to become quite remote from the original thing?

E.S.: I didn’t think so. Look, I may sound philosophical, even content about it now, but I really wasn’t at the time. After all, I wrote all the songs and had very strong views about their arrangements-to-be, as well as about the project’s future. By the time the album was finished, the approach to the arrangements and the views about the project’s future became a vexed point. At the same time, there are fans who love the songs as they are… The problem is, I am not one of them.

T.S.T.: Are you saying you don’t like your own album?

E.S.: Let’s put it this way: I have mixed feelings about it. I always had.

T.S.T.: You didn’t sound having problems with “Rainbow Hunter” at the time of our first interview back in 2008.

E.S.: No, I probably didn’t. In 2008 Yuri and I were thinking about the revival. So my attitude was, well, under the influence of the prospects we thought we had then.

T.S.T.: Unfortunately, the revival never happened. Why?

E.S.: You see, after “Rainbow Hunter” I stopped writing songs. I kept writing poetry and fiction, though. In general, I was, and still am, very much into instrumental music. Of course, Yuri wanted to revive Argonika as a band that plays songs, to follow its previous course.

T.S.T.: So it was your fault?

E.S.: I don’t think it was a fault. Not at all. I wouldn't even use the word 'fault' here. We just were not able to reach an understanding about the direction we both wanted to go. I certainly had problems with the previous course. So the project was put on hold.

T.S.T.: Okay. What is your favourite song from your own album, “Rainbow Hunter"?

E.S.: Priestess of Candlelight, of course, and Rainbow Hunter. But you should hear the original version of Priestess of Candlelight, with live bass, drums etc, to get an idea how remote the released one is from what I wrote and sequenced originally. Yuri played acoustic and electric guitars on that version.

T.S.T.: Tell me more. I still think that sticking to the original demo (which I didn't hear, of course, so I am speaking in generalities) is not always a great idea and the song must progress while... err, it is in progress.

E.S.: I think it depends. In our case, Priestess of Candlelight was the first song that became an electronic 'industrial' track. Making it that way meant abandoning previously recorded parts played by live musicians. What is more important, it meant simplifying the harmony of the song in a very radical way. Just for the record, the original harmony has opulent (two dozen different chords, three tonal transitions), but in the 'industrial' version we ended up with just one. I must say that, comparing to mixes with live instruments that we did before, it was a great improvement, and at the time I even thought the industrial version could become a bonus track because it sounded weird enough comparing to the ‘traditional’ mix. But the 'traditional' one, with original vocals (not the vocoded and overproduced vocal harmonies you are familiar with), should be included in the album as the normal track, and the industrial mix as a 'remix'.

T.S.T.: No doubt, that would be very interesting.

E.S.: As the album progressed, all my songs gradually became like that. They became remixes. In general, I like the idea of remixing, but to remix something you must have something already released, right? With "Rainbow Hunter", my problem was that at some point Yuri made clear that the original mixes were no longer meant for release. They were abandoned. Yuri was happy to experiment, but for me as a songwriter it was a bummer, as my own songs lost their original mood and meaning completely. By the way, I like to experiment, too. It just so happened that my experiments and Yuri's run every which way...

T.S.T.: Do you keep the original tracks? Any plans of releasing them?

E.S.: For Priestess of Candlelight, definitely. The song is different, in every way, including the vocals. Since the marketing considerations are no longer a concern, I think I will do it one day.

T.S.T.: Why did you stop writing songs?

E.S.: I grew tired of words. Too many people are singing of love and other things. Too many people are putting their dreams, ambitions, views, fears and so on into lyrics. There are a lot of great songs already written. Maybe I didn’t feel like I could add anything new to the subject... At a certain point, words become meaningless. Or they have a meaning that is too unambivalent, thus limiting my (and probably some other people’s) imagination. On the other hand, with electronic instrumental music, especially with experimental genres, I do not have such problems.

T.S.T.: Why one of your projects is called "Helga's Ephemeris"? What does your nickname mean?

E.S.: Helga is a fictional character from my novel, "Priestess of Candelight". She is one of the main protagonists.

T.S.T.: When I compare Argonika to Helga's Ephemeris, as well as its follow-up, Etherstrings, it takes time to get used to the idea that you wrote the music for both projects. The material is quite antipodal, you know, though in each case it is electronic music. But Argonika is dance/synthpop, and Helga's Ephemeris/Etherstrings is in the vein of New Age, ambient, electronic experiments with sound...

E.S.: Both projects grew out of my novel. It's like a kind of "fork". A fork of development. When you are at the crossroads, you choose the path and then you go. You come somewhere, and you look back, and an idea comes to your mind: you could choose a different path, and the path would probably lead you to another place. That's exactly what happened here.

T.S.T.: Not everyone can walk both paths...

E.S.: But this is exactly what I wanted to do.

Listen to the tracks (soundcloud player):