Mad Meg interviewed by Miracle Jones
The New York-based Russian-American band Mad Meg, which has played with soul-scarred, void-struck malcontents ranging from Emir Kusturica to Rasputina, describes their sound as “Punk-Chanson-Noir,” chanson referring to rhythmic, polyphonic French songs with a lyrical focus. Their live shows in the city are like shotgun weddings for demons from hell: half formal affair, half screaming and stomping to stay awake long enough so that the concussion isn’t fatal and the fever breaks. In 2018, during their last Eastern European tour, Mad Meg recorded an entire album at Panevezys Correction House, the only women’s prison in Lithuania. Until recently, Panevezys Correction House for Women has mostly been famous for its “Miss Captivity” beauty pageant. The live album recorded at the prison was released right before the pandemic and the video for the single “Functioning Adult” was created and released while the band was in quarantine.
Miracle Jones: So 2018, November, y’all are on tour. When did you decide to do this thing, to record an album inside a Lithuanian women’s prison?
Dan Veksler (guitar): It was the first show of the tour.
Ilya Popenko (lead vocals): Was it? I didn’t realize it was the first show.
Dan: You picked me up from the airport. We showed up right at the show. I flew in directly from the airport to the show, no?
Igor Reznik (bass guitar): Yeah, there was that guy that was forcing you to smoke weed.
Dan: He didn’t force me (laughs).
MJ: To prove you’re not a cop or something?
Igor: I remember somebody—I think Jay, the promoter, he didn’t bring us to Lithuania, but he made the shows for us there and accommodated us—I remember him asking if it’s okay if we let Dan smoke weed. I gave permission. (laughter)
Dan: Uncharacteristically conscientious of Jay.
MJ: I take it weed is probably illegal in Lithuania still—
Ilya: —Now I feel like everything we do Igor signs some kind of a release without us knowing.
Dan: That’s what it means to be big in the East. Well, yeah, it was a chartered taxi driver and the ride from the airport to the jail was about two hours, you know, just through the countryside, and when we got about halfway there, he pulled over into a rest stop and he had like a sawed-off half of a 20 oz Coke bottle with some like dirty tin foil stuck in there or something. It was all very hugger-mugger and all of us lay down in the car, rolled up the windows, and hot boxed the taxi.
MJ: Wait a second, back up, so how did you guys get this gig?
Jason Laney (keyboard): I think we have to tell the story of our brother Jay. I don’t even know what his actual real first name is. He just tells everybody that his name is Jay.
Igor: We can introduce you if you want. He’s on Facebook. Since this quarantine thing, he’s got a lot more free time.
MJ: So this guy Jay….that’s his like primary venue, the Lithuanian women’s prison?
Dan: He’s a big promoter in Vilnius. He’s one of the big promoters. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone.
Igor: So a little backstory on Jay, or Zilvinas. He lived in Chicago for like ten years. He washed dishes or something like that, and he picked up a lot of, how should we say this, “urban lingo” or so-called “urban lingo,” from things like hip-hop in the nineties…
Jason: I don’t think I had ever heard someone unironically use the phrase “boom-shocka-locka” until I met Jay.
Dan: He’s larger than life. He’s got a lot of charisma, that guy. It’s amazing. What was that story he told us about being offered to suck dick or something on the bench or something like that? And he told this story to us during a commercial break during an interview on the air on the radio.
Igor: I guess to us he’s a bit cartoonish. But he’s also, in that same sense, very sincere.
Jason: I mean, he’s booked us great shows at great venues. I mean, he’s the one that does all of our booking in Lithuania. We’ve played theaters with several hundred seats. We’ve played cool, hip jazz clubs. He’s legit, but he is a fucking character, man.
Dan: He’s legit and he really cares.
Jason: How did you get connected with Jay originally?
Igor: Well, it’s through our manager in St. Petersburg. In the summer, she ended up managing…like being the stage manager…of one of the jazz festivals in St. Petersburg and she gave me a huge list of contacts from there…you know there’s a lot of European bookers and things like that. Now we went to Lithuania several times…this was way before that prison show. And this was when me and her were planning this big tour. We did like 27 cities or something. In Russia. This was in 2017. Back then, I got in touch with Jay and I kept calling him and calling him and calling him until he said “fuck it, I’ll get you guys a show.” That’s kinda where we started our relationship. We played a big club in Kaunas and in Vilnius. And there was a billboard of us I think in Kaunas? We didn’t see it, but I think there was a billboard.
Ilya: We saw a billboard for a Mongolian throat-singing band. And he said “you got one just like this.” (laughter) So that’s the closest we came to seeing our billboard.
Dan: Jay gets all the really nice clubs because he’s literally one of the only two or three promoters. And everybody would come out. I think he sells like season tickets or something.
Igor: So fast forwarding to 2018. When we ended up planning our tour again for Eastern Europe and Russia for the winter of 2018, we contacted Jay and he booked us a couple of shows. And then I think it was like a week or several days before we were supposed to fly out, he pretty much just said “do you guys want to play a prison?” I think I asked you guys in the chat if you guys want to play a prison and everybody said “fuck yeah.” (laughter)
MJ: Have any of you guys ever been to prison? Who’s been arrested?
Ilya: Baltimore. Jail. Like central booking. Uh yeah, the one in Lithuania was much nicer than Baltimore, I’ll tell you that.
MJ: Where is the prison? Is it outside of town?
Ilya: It’s a different town. It’s not in the middle of nowhere. It’s a smaller town, like an hour and a half away from Vilnius. That town is notorious for its crime scene and poverty. And that’s THE only female prison in Lithuania.
MJ: Oh, okay. So this is it. This is the Federal prison.
Ilya: There’s not a lot of female prisoners. There’s about 10,000 people incarcerated in Lithuania altogether and only about 300 of them are women and they are situated in that prison.
MJ: Alright. So it was pretty small, right? That’s smaller than a school.
Jason: Like a small private college. Roughly that size. Like roughly four or five buildings. Seriously, the building that we performed in…if you were not told that it was a prison and it wasn’t full of older women in pink tracksuits…you would just think it was an elementary school. The room that we played in looked like an auditorium for a small elementary school.
Igor: It really did remind me of my kindergarten. I remember—maybe not in the auditorium itself, but in the hall while walking up—I remember seeing drawings like ones you would see in a kindergarten or in an elementary school.
Jason: Yeah, me too. I think some kids live at the prison, too.
MJ: The children of the inmates.
MJ: So you guys show up I assume in a van filled with equipment or did they have equipment for you there already?
Jason: No, we brought all our own stuff.
MJ: And was somebody there to meet you? Some sort of prison administration? (laughter)
Jason: The warden was there.
Ilya: The warden and prison guards who all looked like they came out of a 1980s porn film. Because those Lithuanian women are very tall, skinny, and all blonde. And they wear uniforms—form-fitting uniforms—that are kind of reminiscent of Nazi Germany uniforms but not quite. It’s kind of a stylization. So there’s definitely like a sexual element to the whole…uh…and they are like women in their forties in very good shape. That’s what I remember.
Dan: I remember Ilya especially was into one with a big scar that ran all the way down her face. (laughter)
MJ: So these ladies meet you and I assume that they’re fairly professional? That they’ve done this before?
Igor: I should probably mention that this is the fifth or sixth show that Jay did in this prison.
MJ: So Jay clearly has a relationship.
Igor: Yes. So Jay does a lot of shows and some of them he does as like this uh….social…
MJ: He's helping.
Igor: Yeah, you know. We weren’t the first ones to play the prison. I don’t think they made any recordings before us, though. We asked to have it recorded. We didn’t really know what we were going to do with it.
MJ: Did you do the recording or did they do the recording?
Igor: We wanted to make video and audio. They got somebody to do the recording.
Ilya: By “they” Igor means Jay and his crew. Not the prison.
Igor: Right. We had our own equipment but then this guy who runs a recording and rehearsal studio—Augustinus—he brought in all the recording equipment and amplifiers and so on. And somebody was there with a camera….doing….something. (laughter) I say doing something because nothing really came out of it [the video]. But the [sound] mixes that Augustinus did came out surprisingly really good.
MJ: Yeah, they are. It’s a great recording. It sounds really good.
Dan: The camera guy was mainly just tripping over things on stage. And for some reason only filming small snippets of us.
Jason: We had to get releases signed. So for the last two songs, before we did them, we said “We want to film this. Anybody who doesn’t want to be on the recording, you are welcome to leave. And anybody who’s cool with it…”
Dan: Which was a cruel joke because they were chained to the chairs. (laughter)
MJ: So wait a second: they were chained to the chairs?
Jason: No, no…that’s not true, that’s not true. But yeah, the camera guy didn’t understand what was going on so he didn’t actually shoot any footage of the audience. So it’s just us on what appears to be an elementary school auditorium stage. Which is not that exciting of a “visual story.”
MJ: So you set up. Are the prisoners there while you’re setting up?
Jason: So we got in, basically like through a turnstile. They locked up our phones and stuff in little lockers or whatever. And then we go out to meet the van, because it had to go through additional security before they would bring it through into the courtyard of the prison. And so then we gotta take our equipment to the stage to set up. So the van parks and we open it up and we start to pull our stuff out. And the warden is like: “No, no, no, no, no.” (claps twice) And I just watch this ninety pound woman throw a forty pound bass amp on her back and just start trekking it probably a quarter of a mile to the place where we’re performing. Up flights of stairs. It was ridiculous. Imagine a parade of middle-aged women hauling equipment three stories up this elementary school.
MJ: Were you allowed to tip them, or….
Dan: Well, they did make us leave absolutely everything in the office.
Jason: Yeah, for sure.
Dan: When you go inside there’s an office and they say “You can’t have anything. You can’t take one pill of ibuprofen.” Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Or your passport or anything like that. Everything gets put into storage.
Igor: Ruslan [Mad Meg’s drummer] wasn’t able to come for this tour so we had a replacement that we got from St. Petersburg, Vlad. He’s like: I’m a gentleman. He grabbed one of these amps from the women. I tried to do the same, but the warden or one of the officers came up to me and did not allow me to do so. I think as Ilya mentioned they were people who…a lot of them killed their husbands, and others did drugs, and others were pulled in for smoking weed or something.
MJ: Which is…to be fair…you guys are high, right? In front of them? The entire time? (laughter)
Jason: At least one of us.
MJ: Did they know? So at what point...so they don’t come in right away. Or are they already there? When do they bring the prisoners in?
Igor: The stagehands are there. The prisoner stagehands. And I think everyone else was brought in later. I don’t know if they were told to act a certain way. Applaud to the Americans or something.
MJ: Yeah, how compulsory did it seem? Did it seem like a reward or a punishment? I guess that’s the question.
Igor: Here’s my take on it. It’s weird playing Lithuania because I got the same feeling playing a jazz club as I did playing a prison, where I could not understand if they liked us or if they didn’t like us. Because during the songs they don’t really make a lot of movement. Or facial expressions. But then you get the applause after. And then in the end, you get an encore performance. In both the jazz clubs we played and the prison.
Dan: They enter various states of decomposition during the songs. And then they revive as soon as the song is over and start feverishly applauding.
Jason: No, it’s a cultural thing that I think we’ve experienced in a lot of the places that we’ve played in Europe. Especially when we’ve played the jazz clubs where everyone’s seated. They are very respectful of the show that they’re seeing so they’re sitting there quietly and enjoying it and then they’re very appreciative afterwards.
MJ: Yeah, I’ve had that experience playing for even just Russian audiences. Where it’s terrifying because they are actually listening to every word you say. It’s horrible, it’s horrible. It’s a level of intensity I really can’t stand….or it just like…bothers me. So how many people was it? You said there are only 300 prisoners in the entire camp. How many people are at this show?
Ilya: I think one half of them. Because they work in shifts. So half of them were at work, and whoever was not working is present at the show.
MJ: Were they seated? Were there chairs? Were they standing up?
Ilya: The first few rows of seats were empty…
MJ: ...for your safety.
Ilya: Yes, and then there was the row where the security guards were seated. And then a couple of rows later, that’s where the rest of the people were seated. So there was quite a distance between us and the prisoners.
Jason: For the record, that wasn’t what the prison wanted to do. That’s on our rider. (laughter) That’s the way we gotta roll when we’re overseas. They want to get up on that stage. They want to tear us apart. So we gotta make sure we’re protected.
MJ: Were the security guards facing you guys or were they facing the prisoners?
Ilya: Nah, they were seated and they were enjoying the show. Those were the blonde, tall ladies that I mentioned. They were our first line of defense.
Dan: The audience could move around quite freely. I mean, a bunch of them got up and were dancing in the aisles. And they definitely outnumbered the guards. There were only like two guards.
MJ: So if you had wanted to you could have started a riot and taken that place over quite easily and gotten all of those women out of there. And that would have been it for Lithuania’s female prison population.
Ilya: Like there was a couple who was making out and then sometimes making out aggressively. And then back to dancing.
Igor: Yeah, there was that.
Ilya: A lot of them spoke Russian. So it wasn’t like were speaking in unknown languages to people in an unknown culture.
MJ: How did you figure out your set list for the night? Was it just what you’d been playing?
Jason: I think we just did everything.
Ilya: I think we just played our regular set. There was no strategic planning.
Igor: I remember that when we ended, again, there was applause. But then I remember everything quieted down and then somebody in the third or fourth row, with her hand out, in Russian, asked for one more song.
Jason: They’ve gotta be pretty starved for entertainment.
Ilya: It was definitely livelier than the jazz club that Igor mentioned. That show in the jazz club? It was freaky because people were dead silent throughout every song and then they would go into clapping. But the prisoners…the ladies…they were a little more alive. A better audience.
MJ: Did any of them seem familiar with your music? Or was this basically the first time they’d heard it?
Ilya: No. No. No.
Igor: No, but...
Dan: The first and probably the last.
Igor: Before we left, some of them asked for CDs. We left like twenty discs for their prison library. The disc that we made of this album, I sent it to them as well. So they have it in their prison library as well. Jay delivered it.
Jason: So if you can manage to get yourself sent to this women’s prison in Lithuania, you can listen to our album for free. Whenever the guard will let you.
MJ: If you search for this prison, it’s really one of the first things you find these days in English. You probably have changed their SEO forever.
Ilya: If you’re married and you’re not very happy with your husband, go to Lithuania to murder him…
MJ: …to hear this album for free. So the image on the cover…that’s like traditional prison garb, right? But that’s not actually what they were wearing?
Ilya: No, pretty much I looked up “prison uniform in Soviet Russia” or whatever. Eastern European prisons. And that’s an outfit that seemed to reoccur from prison to prison. But the actual prisoners didn’t have a uniform. They were just wearing sweatpants and tracksuits.
MJ: Yeah, what we’re all wearing right now. Coronawear. Prison wear for the modern lounger.
Dan: Or loungewear for the modern prisoner.
Jason: Did anyone else use the bathroom when we were on that gig? And have to go through the hallway…like be escorted by guards through the hallway of the screaming lady prisoners or whatever? It’s as close as I’ll ever get to being a Beatle. They weren’t excited about me in any way, shape, or form…they were just out and about talking. But it kinda felt like that! “Hands off, ladies. He’s gotta get to where he’s going.”
MJ: So you had to have an escort to the bathroom?
Dan: It was a crowded hallway. I remember. There was a lot of logistics involved because it’s a women’s bathroom. They let us in there sort of temporarily. Like by special dispensation.
MJ: Have you been back to Lithuania since?
Igor: I talk to Jay all the time, especially during this quarantine. We’re like best buds. We talk every four days…three days. He tells me stuff about his kids. He calls me when he takes his kid out for a walk.
MJ: Have you considered playing other prisons?
Jason: I WILL PLAY ANY PRISON THAT WILL HAVE ME WITH ANY PROJECT THAT IS WILLING TO GO. I say that right the fuck now.
Igor: The prison thing has been a very good piece to start a conversation with to various promoters or whatever. I pitched an idea to somebody that I was well-acquainted with in Moscow who was a TV producer of having us as a show—an American band traveling to Russia’s prisons. But you know, it didn’t go through.
Jason: I feel like Russia’s prisons are much scarier than Lithuania’s prisons.
Igor: I pitched it to that producer and I pitched it to…there was a woman that came to our show in Moscow. I think it was the last time that we were there. She was a producer and she was the director of…if you remember the band Tattoo…she shot that music video….
Ilya: (singing) All the things you said, all the things you said, running through my head, running through my head, running through my head….
Igor: She seemed to like us before she saw our show, and then after she saw our show, we offended her belief in God or something.
Igor: I was talking to her constantly and then she came to the show. I greeted her, we had a drink. It was that metal place that we played if you remember. It was a huge…not a huge…but a pretty big heavy metal club and they had a metal festival before us.
Dan: We were right in the center.
Igor: So she came to that show and we had a drink and we were all friendly. And then she left. I texted her. “You left! What did you think?” and she gave me a long thing about how she was offended and about her belief in Christianity. She went into this whole thing.
Dan: It’s quite possible that she equates “metal” with Satanism or some shit like that because they have ideas like that in Russia sometimes.
Igor: Yeah, but this was after…she came in after…she came in right before we started. She wasn’t there for the metal show. It was particularly something she didn’t like. She said “You guys have charisma! You’re incredible musicians! But you offended my….something.”
Jason: For the record, I never at any point in time was given the mic and just allowed to talk for just ten minutes, right? Because that’s the only scenario in which I can imagine that someone’s Christian sensibility would be offended by our music.
Ilya: I think that was the first show that somebody actually heard lyrics.
Dan: There was some kind of a disaster with our instruments at that show, too. Everything was breaking.
MJ: Maybe that’s what it was. So is playing Eastern Europe…what’s your favorite place to play?
Ilya: I mean, usually the rule is: the larger the city, the better it is for us.
MJ: Except New York. (laughter)
Ilya: So the people in Moscow…we already have some sort of fanbase, so it’s nice to have people who already know your stuff and you don’t have to conquer them every show. So of course the larger the city the better it is. But I don’t see a huge difference between playing Lithuania or Russia. There’s not a huge cultural gap.
Dan: And in Russia we don’t have a Jay. So we are playing a different type of place. But we’ve played a couple of really big venues. That’s always a lot of fun. Especially Moscow and St. Petersburg. I would say it’s just different than Vilnius because in Vilnius these concerts have kind of an “official” quality to them. The ones in Moscow and St. Petersburg are a lot more casual or they’re at really large clubs. For me, that’s more fun.
Igor: The large tour that we did where we went to a lot of place was definitely—at the very least—a learning experience.
Dan: We also taught them a thing or two! (laughter)
Ilya: There were two times we came to Lithuania. The first time we played Lithuania, they gave us towels. And I was like: “Oh my god! This is the greatest invention ever, to give people towels in the green room so they can wipe off their sweat from being on stage!” and the second time we came around they were like: “Aw, we can’t afford towels. You’re not that big.” (laughter) So that was our progress in Lithuania within one year’s time.
Dan: Yeah, the towels were definitely a new level of professionalism.
Jason: I mean, I can say personally that when we tour it is much easier for me to get around in the Baltic states. There’s a lot more English spoken. Even in St. Petersburg, it’s difficult. I have to rely on the small amount of Russian that I know. And it’s not always useful. It’s not applicable to every situation.
MJ: So if you’re a band trying to play a gig in Eastern Europe—the Baltics, I guess Russia as well—do you have any advice for an American band? Is it possible?
Jason: Get an Igor. And put it in his head that we should go to the Baltic states. And sure as shit that’s where you’re gonna end up. (laughter)
Igor: It’s all about expectations. You lower your expectations low enough and you can go anywhere.
Dan: One practical piece of advice is to decide in advance what level of comfort or luxury that you want when you do this thing. Budget for that and stick with that plan. Especially the first couple of times that we went on tour, within the group we had different needs and expectations as far as places we were going to stay, etc. It ended up being a little bit chaotic to figure it out. If you can get that together in advance…do you want to be in hotels? All those kinds of details. It’s probably a good idea.
Igor: Especially the first couple of cities I booked, I tried to get the cheapest accommodations and that wasn’t always good.
MJ: I didn’t even ask…was the prison gig a paid gig? Did you guys get paid for it?
Jason: No. I think we spent money to hire the sound equipment and to get it recorded. But it wasn’t very much.
Igor: To me personally, I think it’s one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. You know I’ve been in various bands for over ten years and this was the coolest thing I was ever a part of. And to have a recording of it is even cooler. It’s something I can say I did in my life and it’s something very cool.
MJ: So I think the whole album sounds great, but are there any tracks on it that you guys are particularly proud of?
Ilya: Yes, I’m finishing up editing a new video for “Functioning Adult.” That song made it into rotation on one of the top Mexican radio stations.
MJ: Yeah, it’s a great song.
Ilya: So we figured we needed a video for it while it’s getting traction. Because everybody is quarantined…I had taken pictures of everybody before—like separately—and I made paper cut outs. So yeah, I played around with the paper cut outs in my room and outside and made a video. Since we’re working with a PR company in Mexico, they want us to have a media release first before we release it to the public, so I’m not sure when the actual release is gonna happen. But yeah, we’re keeping busy. Entertaining ourselves.
MJ: I guess I didn’t do the job of asking who all you people are and how you know all each other and shit. And why your band exists. I apologize for that. I was mainly interested in the story of this prison album. That was what intrigued me the most. And thank you for telling me that story. Mad Meg. Mad Meg forever.