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Outlanders: How Jinjer survived a revolution and built their own world

Jinjer’s resilient spirit was forged in the war that erupted their native Ukraine in 2014. As the groove metal quartet prepare to unleash their fourth and most complex album to date, singer Tatiana Shmayluk relives the turmoil that shaped them. Cue: one of modern music’s most remarkable tales of survival, resistance and sheer determination…

Outlanders: How Jinjer survived a revolution and built their own world
Words:
Nick Ruskell
Tatiana Shmayluk photos:
Tatiana Shmayluk (self-portraits)
Jinjer band photo:
Clément Thiery – Insane Motion

It was when the first fighter jet flew overhead that Tatiana Shmayluk realised she had to run.

For the past few months, the mood in Ukraine had been growing increasingly tense. As a former USSR state, in spring 2014 the country had only had independence from Russia since 1991. Many citizens had wanted then-President Viktor Yanukovych to sign an agreement aligning the country closer with the European Union in November 2013. Plenty of others wanted to stay close to Russia. Protests began across the country. Then violence. Then Yanukovych was ousted from office in February 2014. Then more violence.

“There was a revolution,” says Tatiana. “There were huge riots in the main square of Kiev. In the end, our president, his ass was kicked out and he left the country. That was crazy. And then everything turned into chaos. And that's when people really started hating each other.”

That April, following a highly suspect vote on whether to stay or go which resulted in a widely disputed declaration of autonomy for the region around Tatiana’s home-city of Donetsk in the east of the country, on the border with Russia, armed conflict commenced, involving Russian troops, tanks and air power. So began what Tatiana calls “a civil war – Ukrainians attacking Ukrainians”, with those loyal to their former Soviet masters on one side, and those wanting to break free, and have independence and closer ties with the EU on the other.

You may remember news footage of protesters banging dustbin lids at lines of soldiers and riot police. The politics of the situation are obviously layered and complex, but the simple version is: imagine a turbo version of Brexit that actually tore the country in two and was a something of a flex from Russia. And with a lot more violence. And a conflict that’s still piling up bodies now.

Tatiana was having a barbecue when she realised what was about to happen. “We were at a picnic, not far away from my building where I lived,” she says today from her flat in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. “We were just chilling on the grass, eating food and stuff. And we heard this loud sound in the sky – we looked up and saw a jet. And that was that. We just grabbed our stuff and ran home, and we started figuring out how to leave before it was too late.”

Had Tatiana and her friends – including other members of her band, Jinjer – waited much longer than they did, their passage to Lviv some 1,300 kilometres to the west, where bassist Eugene Abdukhanov and his wife were already living, might have been much more hazardous. Even as they “packed all our shit into a van” and made a break for it, the country was starting to change shape around them.

“We were met by a soldier with a weapon. And we heard [machine gun fire] somewhere very close to us”

Hear Tatiana talk about the band’s escape from conflict

“Already there were borders built being built around our region,” she says. “And I remember when we were crossing it, we were met by a guy, a soldier with a weapon. And then we heard [machine gun fire] somewhere very close to us.”

As she describes this, Tatiana makes an almost amusing machine gun noise, but she is painfully aware that even seven years on, the situation remains a serious one. “There’s no way out for this problem,” she says, “No solution. And that’s really, really sad.” If one needed an example of the lasting effects here, her parents have remained behind in what she calls, with almost mundane succinctness, “the war zone”.

“There's an actual border between Ukraine and the former parts of the country, and it's all blocked. And due to the pandemic, they have no chance to cross borders,” she explains. “They cannot receive money from the government, their pensions. I always tell my mom, ‘Hey, mom, just try once to do this, make really big effort and cross this border, even [if you have to go] through Russia. Just come here and stay here. I can help you in any way possible.’ But she is old school. And when you have been living on this earth for over 60 years, it's really hard to change your way of living.”

But that’s what Tatiana and Jinjer have had to do. And growing from such trying circumstances has only made them more rigid in their resolve. Because literally having to run for your life will have an effect on a person. “Growing balls, maintaining your balls,” is how she puts it.

“Of course, it makes you stronger,” she says. “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.”

Today, Tatiana has lived in Kiev for more than five years. As Jinjer’s singer, she is one of the rising stars of European metal, and made her living visiting countries as far-flung as Argentina, Australia and Japan to play her band’s music. Next week, the band release their fourth album, Wallflowers, a furious, razor-sharp work of metal that will delight fans of Cradle Of Filth and Conjurer alike, and will add nicely to streams that, in total, already sit at over 100 million.

Though she says that she’s only been recognised around town a handful of times, and that she probably gets noticed more for the tattoos that cover her arms and neck (“Old women who were born in the Soviet Union really reject people with tattoos,” she says. “They look at you like you’re a prisoner, or a prostitute…”) than for her music, at 34 life for Tatiana is very different to what she knew growing up. As a kid in the early ’90s, after the collapse of the USSR, her family were, she says, “average”, but there were clues that the Shmayluk family were not one of society’s ‘haves’.

“I remember that we couldn't afford meat,” she recalls. “After the Cold War ended we got a lot of American food, like veggie burgers. It looked like oatmeal with brown [fake] chicken that you make into patties, and then you fry them. You eat them as kind of meat, but it's not. It's just some shit, like some very plastic stuff. I realised how poor we were. And I was crying, ‘Mom, I just want some meat. I don't want to eat this.’”

Elsewhere, though, Tatiana remembers her childhood as being "great", a time she looks back on with fondness. “We didn't have internet and stuff, so we just played outside all day long. And school was awesome.” The food imports post-Cold War might not have been the most brilliant thing she had ever seen, but the new order also brought with it more western culture. MTV introduced six-year-old Tatiana to hip-hop (“I’d practice dancing like MC Hammer”), but via going through her brother’s room and raiding his tape collection – often bootlegs – she also got turned on to Nirvana, Metallica and The Offspring.

“We had this family tradition that every evening we had supper together around the same table,” she remembers. “When I discovered The Offspring, I put Smash on my huge headphones. I was sitting in a chair, eating, and I wasn't talking to anyone from my family, just listening to music. And then when I finished, I just sat back and just enjoyed the music, doing nothing.”

Her ability to both lose and find herself in music turned into doing something more significant at high school when, after years spent doodling herself playing guitar in a band with other girls in a sketchbook, Tatiana performed her first gig as part of a talent contest, doing covers of songs by Limp Bizkit and German metallers Guano Apes (“No-one voted for us,” she laughs). Her first gig as an audience member, meanwhile, came a few years later, when Soulfly played in Kiev. Despite the fact she didn’t actually get to see Max Cavalera and his band onstage, it was an experience in itself.

“I traveled from Donetsk to Kiev, like, 700 – 800 kilometres,” she says. “My parents were very protective, they didn’t want me going anywhere on road trips or anything, and they didn't give me any money to spend. I only got to watch maybe 30 minutes of the show, because my boyfriend got drunk and started a fight with someone. Security grabbed him and threw him out of the club. It was quite a shitty day!”

In 2010, aged 23, having completed language studies at university, and working briefly at a dating agency, Tatiana joined Jinjer. Two years later, they self-released their debut EP, Inhale, Don’t Breathe. A year after that, they played outside Ukraine for the first time, in neighbouring Romania. “That gave us a push to move forward, because we really liked it,” she says. “And although we didn't bring any money back – we didn't earn anything – we realised that we want to do this, and we're going to overcome any obstacle that is waiting for us.”

Eight months later, this would be put to the test by fleeing the war. Having moved to Lviv, Jinjer – Tatiana, Eugene, guitarist Roman Ibramkhalilov and then-drummer Yevhen Mantulin – then all moved into what the singer describes as “a summer house” just outside the city. Soon, the band became a full-time concern. They still had nothing, but it was a more fun nothing.

“We were all just hoping for the best, touring just with money that we had, earning nothing, like one euro,” she says. “Sometimes we didn't have anything to eat, basically, because we were broke, because everyone had just quit their jobs. We just had some coins to buy a beer. That was intense. But I remember those years only with a warm heart. That was fun. That was a really huge challenge for just people who had never done that before, but we happened to overcome all this shit because we stayed together.”

“We were touring just with money that we had, earning nothing. Sometimes we didn't have anything to eat…”

Listen to Tatiana re-live the band’s gruelling early days

But as touring became a more regular thing and things for Jinjer seemed to be on the up and up, the band once again found themselves faced with bad luck that most will, mercifully, never know. On tour in 2014, they had a long drive to Russia for the next run of shows. Stopping at a friend’s house in Kiev for the night, Tatiana took a taxi back to her own place, leaving everyone else to continue partying and drinking. At 4am, she got a phone call about Yevhen.

“They said, ‘You have to come here because he’s broken his spine,’” she recalls. “He fell out of the window. Everyone [had gone] to sleep, and he stayed there in the kitchen, sitting on the window frame, smoking. And then he fell asleep, and fell from the third floor. They heard someone screaming in the middle of the night, but they didn't realise – they thought that it was maybe a dog or something. And then someone checked the kitchen and he was not there. Then they looked down and saw him just lying there.”

By some miracle, he survived, though he no longer has use of his legs. Tatiana says she and his bandmates were “in shock for many years”, and that, “I remember we were all around him, toured with him, just hanging out, and then he's just like… bam.” But even this incident, which left him in a wheelchair and unable to return to the band, is talked about in the same spirited, fighty way that Tatiana talks about every challenge.

“He seems very positive,” she says. “He's doing music and he tours around Russia with a band. It's kind of a hip-hop band, and he plays guitar. He’s still doing tours, so that's awesome.”

Should you ask Tatiana to describe to you the Ukrainian national character, she’ll tell you that they are “stubborn”, and that as a whole they feel “we have nothing to lose”. She’ll also tell you that, “Ukrainians are very passionate people. Not like Italians [are passionate], for example, or Spanish people. We are passionate with a straight face, you know, not smiling – more like Russians.” When it comes to danger, meanwhile, she says that “we take risks easily”.

Surprisingly, despite the above description matching the impression you get of Tatiana from her story, she doesn’t think of herself as “a typical Ukrainian”. She does, though, nod in confirmation when asked if she sees playing music as a form of resistance. Before any of the bigger events and challenges, this spirited defiance started with becoming a musician at all, at home.

“The first time I resisted something that really prevented me from doing what I love was my parents,” she says. “Mostly my mom, who didn't want to see me as a musician. In Ukraine, it's kind of a big thing. If you're a musician, it’s not respected. From 17 to 23, I was protesting [her], silently. I didn't, like, yell at her; I didn't fight with her. I just said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and I did my own thing. That's when it started, and it's still going this way.”

An example: on Wallflowers, there’s a song, Disclosure, in which Tatiana vents about treatment at the hands of certain media outlets in her homeland. Even being used to internet haters, giving the band shit for everything from daring to escape a warzone, to daring to have a female member, to daring to become successful, the experience left her boiling.

“Earlier this year, in March, me and Eugene went to some studio to do an interview with a Ukrainian guy who is a YouTuber, and he used to work on Ukrainian TV channels,” she says. “So there was a tense atmosphere, and very angry vibrations between us. And he was so manipulative. We had differences in our political views and stuff, and he didn't want to accept that. So he really wanted to show us in a very bad, bad way. I was pissed off for three days after that, and wrote the song about it.”

As people with a profile, do you think you’re a target for that sort of thing?

“We absolutely are targets for those people, for haters,” Tatiana says. “They hate us for different reasons: for me being a woman, you know. And people think that we pay for [success], like with our money – some of them think that we are hugely rich. My mom is a bookkeeper! My dad worked in coal mining, he was a worker, just working class. But no-one cares. They always find something to blame us for. But at least they don't do us any harm. Only with words and comments. It's distant. They're poison, but it goes nowhere.”

Tatiana Shmayluk is a self-evidently tough woman. She’s also extremely nice. Equally, she’s extremely modest. When she talks about her life’s trials and triumphs, survival and successes, she does so in a manner that almost shrugs these things off, that possibly anyone could do them. Possibly, if pushed by the sight of a war literally kicking off while you have a barbecue, we could. But it’s still surprising that, for someone with more real things to get angry about than most, she describes what she’s putting into Wallflower as simply “my whining and insecurities”.

“Every album, I find something to be angry about,” she says. “It’s pessimistic, but it's nothing to do with the pandemic. The pandemic gave me some time to just sit and think about, different stuff that I've been going through. And we have to agree that the whole world isn't getting any better – I put myself into this kind of state of mind that, ‘Okay, it's almost the end of the world.’ Maybe the next album will be more optimistic and more positive. Maybe…”

“We have to agree that the whole world isn’t getting any better…”

Hear Tatiana discuss the anger that drives Jinjer’s new album, Wallflowers

Pessimism or not, none of it makes her story of prevailing against the things she has any less stirring. Never mind the fact that the band she fronts come from a country most tours don’t even stop at. She’s – rightfully – proud of Jinjer’s success, and the work ethic it’s taken to get them where they are, but she’s almost at pains to share the glory with her bandmates. And in part, it’s this that’s carried Jinjer through all this the most. It’s this, she says, that’s helped her both survive, and to thrive.

“I would never do this myself. I wouldn't be able to work on so many obstacles just by myself,” Tatiana admits. “And if I had some type of my own personal career, just a single singer, I wouldn't even start doing that. I really need those guys. And the guys, I hope they need me. That's just how it works: all together. Even having nothing in our pockets and empty stomachs, we could work.

“It just depends on how big your dream is.”

Jinjer’s new album, Wallflowers, is due out on August 27 on Napalm Records.

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