At first glance, the sonic worlds of Ukrainian labels Muscut and Shukai sound very similar. While the aesthetics of both share the sound of the nostalgic allure of blurred, overdubbed tape loops, they diverge in their creative approach. Shukai delves into the archives, unearthing lost gems often banned and suppressed by the Soviets, while Muscut crafts new music that evokes the feeling of a lost vintage soundtrack to a picture promising visions of a brighter future.

The mood in which Muscut’s musical direction will be carried was revealed with the first release in 2012, the 7-inch compilation Test Pressing. The label’s catalogue is quite broad in terms of genre. From the surf-rock, funky and sometimes even dub aesthetic of Chillera, to the woobie jazz of Hennadii Boichenko and the dreamy drone-ambient of Bryozone, to work by the label founder Dmytro Nikolaienko, which mixes library music, muzak, easy listening 50s exotica and analogue sound. All released on vinyl or audiocassette, each visually treated in a DIY archival aesthetic: catalogue stickers, stamps, forms and poorly scanned lo-fi images. 

​​Shukai began its journey in 2019 with the debut release of Ukrainian composer Victor Vlasov’s music for the anti-utopian sci-fi film Air Seller. This pilot album clearly outlined the future aesthetic and direction of the label, which in the following years often covered never-officially released music by Ukrainian composers. Volodymyr Bystriakov’s music for the surreal, almost psychedelic animated film Alice Through the Looking Glass, the tape archives of New Age experimentalist and violinist Valentina Goncharova, and the hidden treasure of Ukrainian avant-garde and neo-folk Cukor Bila Smert’

With hauntology as a leitmotif, Dmytro Nikolaienko from Muscut and co-founder of Shukai unveils the relationship between art, politics, nostalgia and a future steeped in echoes of the past.

Can you briefly introduce Muscut? what were the motivations behind its foundation, what is the common theme of the catalogue, and how do you select the artists and music?

I perceive a label as an artistic unit. It’s like an individual artist/collective with its concept, aesthetic and sound palette. It’s like it’s a gem, a crystal, and the artists are the edges. Or like it’s a single artist who makes music under various monikers. Or, like the label’s artists, they are characters from different comic books but from one sound universe. So, for me, everything I release on the label is organically consistent. 

I recall that, in the early 00s, I was a fan of Warp Records, but the fact that there were too many different artists in their line-up bothered me. I felt in harmony with Broadcast, Vincent Gallo and Plone, but Autechre felt too out of the plate. At some point at that time, I made a note for myself that if I were to curate a label in the future, I would rather not do such a wide-genre label. In the late 00s, I found the labels that really felt coherent, and they influenced Muscut – Ghost Box and Faitiche. I can (and I do) literally collect all of their releases with no exceptions.

“(T)he blurriness that multi-overdubbed tape loop does with its overtones and haunting tape echo – there are no plugins able to replace that.”

Muscut’s musical aesthetic often involves experimentation with magnetic tape. Despite the boom that audio cassettes have experienced in recent years, magnetic tape is often associated with a reference to the past, even though it is approached through mechanics and processes that were not available at the time of its creation. In what way is working with ferric tape important to you, and to what extent does the physicality of the medium influence the actual process of creation? 

I like tape as a collectable medium format, but using it as an instrument is a different dimension. I perceive tape as an instrument, similar to a guitar. The guitar is a really old instrument, but people still play it despite the lack of rationality behind this fact when you have plugins and VST – it’s the same with tape. 

I started using it way before it became mainstream, and I’ll continue after the hype fades away. There are several characteristics of “tape as an instrument” that I love, and they are essential and irreplaceable for my sound universe: the blurriness that multi-overdubbed tape loop does with its overtones and haunting tape echo – there are no plugins able to replace that.

"Muscut releases mostly new music, while its sublabel Shukai tends to concentrate on archival releases. But without looking at the logo stamped on the sleeve, you’d often be hard pressed to know which category a given release belongs to.”"

Philip Sherburne

What is Muscut’s relationship to hauntology, and what is the background to the self-created term pseudo-archaeology”? What role did Mark Fisher’s texts play in this?

I didn’t know about this term or about Mark. In 2014, one of my friends in Kyiv suggested reading “Ghosts of my Life”. “He writes about what you’re doing,” they said, so I had to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Mark is a truly great writer.

Regarding “pseudo-archaeology” – it’s a kind of similar definition of hauntology, but with an accent that the music made under this label is still new music. It smells old and it looks old, but it’s new, even when it sounds like it’s from some lost future or parallel universe past – in fact, we are where we are now, and it’s an attempt to counterfeit an artefact from those realms.      

In opposition to this concept, there’s also the Shukai sub-label, which also releases similarly sounding material, but those are real audio archaeological artefacts. So there are both pseudo and practical audio archaeology activities under the Muscut label.

The term “hauntology” was coined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his book Specters of Marx (1993). Derrida uses it to describe the persistence of Marxist ideas and the spectre of Communism in a post-Cold War era, suggesting that certain ideas and possibilities from the past continue to haunt the present. The term was taken up in the 2000s by music theorist Simon Reynolds and pop culture theorist Mark Fisher, who adapted and popularised it in the context of cultural criticism for the specifics of the socio-cultural climate of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For Fisher, hauntology in music was a response to what he called the “slow cancellation of the future”, a sense that innovation in culture was stagnating and that the optimistic visions of the future presented to us by 20th-century modernism and the utopian aspirations of the post-war world were failing in their own inability to materialise. The neoliberal turn, with its focus on individualisation and the logic of the market mechanism, has effectively shut out scenarios of alternative futures, leaving us in a perpetual present haunted by the ghost of lost possibilities. In music, Fisher (2006, 2014) refers to artists such as Burial, Boards of Canada, William Basinski, The Caretaker and the catalogue of the Ghost Box label, whose work evokes a sense of dislocation and nostalgia. The sound of crackling vinyl, analogue synthesisers, obsolete recording techniques, motifs repeated in loops and decaying sounds are at once futuristic and nostalgic. They blur the chronology of what is the past and the future, reflecting a sense of being stuck in a perpetual present, swallowed up by the unrealised potential of the past and its unfulfilled promises (editor’s note).

A kaleidoscope of abstract sounds, library music, nostalgia and exotica, immersed in the sound of an enriched, repetitive magnetic tape. A kind of melancholy feeling rises to the surface. However, melancholy does not occur without cause and has a political dimension. To return to Fisher is a lost promise of a future that never materialised. Is there a political aspect in Muscut’s aesthetic?

It’s not for Muscut, but it is for Shukai. It was important for us to make a statement with the first releases. We release music that was banned, suppressed, underrated, or ignored at the time of creation — the period of Soviet Ukraine from the 1960s to the 1980s. Those are not reissues; they’re the recordings that were gathering dust in the archives due to not passing censorship at some point. We stated this in all of the press releases. That was also a message to all those westerners-romantic-lefties in our cultural bubble who still think there was any good in the USSR. Sometimes it looks like only Slavoj Žižek is the only mature leftist among the international community, but still, he’s not a Westerner – he’s one of us.

Muscut has its origins in Ukraine. Do you see the label’s location not only at national level, but also in the context of Eastern Europe as something that influences the way you approach the curation of the catalogue to some extent?

I always self-identified as a European (not to be confused with the EU) citizen/patriot in general. Lately, since I moved to the Netherlands (due to my work as a graphic designer), I have started to feel more specifically like an Eastern European citizen. I also like Western Europe, but everything is so different – not bad, just a different way of living. I feel at home in any Eastern European country (except Russia and Belarus). So it’s natural and organic that the priority for both labels is Ukraine and Eastern European artists and communities. The fact that we haven’t released any archival material from other EE artists is just because it’s harder to manage it. 

Unfortunately, we have had a couple of unsuccessful attempts with senior artists in Estonia and Lithuania that have just been stuck in negotiations forever.

“It’s like it’s a gem, a crystal, and the artists are the edges (…) everything I release on the label is organically consistent.”

After the early parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2023, Slovakia made a radical turn to the right and opened its arms to Russia. This turn was demonstrated, for example, when the Ministry of Culture officially resumed cooperation with Belarus and the Russian Federation. The depoliticisation/political neutrality of art is increasingly being articulated. 

At the beginning of the invasion, you signed an open letter from the Ukrainian electronic music scene calling for a ban on the Russian music scene. You didn’t just stop there, but you even withdrew some albums from the Muscut catalogue or cancelled upcoming collaborations with artists who chose to remain silent. Is it possible to accept music, or art in general, without a political message or which calls for political neutrality?

It was necessary to demonstrate that the label would not tolerate artists remaining silent at a time when the label owner’s relatives and friends were at risk of extinction and genocide. To be honest, it’s very rare that Russian artists (like any other Russian Federation citizen) are not imperialistically minded. They grow up that way. They’re really different from us. 

The militarism and the ideas of their greatness are the essence of their domestic social propaganda at home, the office, school, public transport, etc. It’s what they’re taught in kindergartens and schools as well. Have you ever seen those photos from a Russian kindergarten in which the kids cosplay WW2 soldiers? It’s just what their empire has to do to remain united, although they have around 20 other colonised nations within it. 

Empire is a rudiment, a dangerous one. They must be defeated and decolonised for the sake of global security, not only in Eastern Europe. I wish more Westerners would understand that sooner, while it’s not too late.      

As for separating the art from a person – it’s a good question for the debates. Personally, I hate Brian Eno and Vincent Gallo as a persona for their “useful idiot” position on Ukraine in favour of the Russian invasion. However, I still can listen to their music. I haven’t sold their records yet. So time will tell. At the same time, I think I won’t relisten to those Russian artists whose releases I cancelled on Muscut anytime soon – it’s too painful. I’m glad there was at least one – Pavel Milyakov, whose releases proudly remain in the catalogue as he’s both a great artist and a good person.

“That was also a message to all those westerners-romantic-lefties in our cultural bubble who still think there was any good in the USSR.”

Apart from Muscut, you’re also behind the sister label Shukai, together with Dmytro Prutkin and Sasha Tsapenko. While Muscut focuses on so-called pseudo-archaeology, Shukai is a practical demonstration of an archaeological approach. A lot of constant searching, archive work and digitisation. What was the inspiration for Shukai? How does its curatorial approach and content differ from that of Muscut, and how do you approach technology and, in particular, magnetic tape (Muscut – aesthetic material, Shukai – restoration) within Shukai?

Founders of Shukai: Dmytro Nikolaienko, Dmytro Prutkin and Sasha Tsapenko

The two labels are different but try to be similar – one trying to release timeless music by contemporary artists, the other looking for timeless music lost in the archives. The tape is the thread that ties both labels together 🙂 Philip Sherburne recently wrote the following in his review of one of the label’s releases: “Muscut releases mostly new music, while its sublabel Shukai tends to concentrate on archival releases, but without looking at the logo stamped on the sleeve, you’d often be hard pressed to know which category a given release belongs to” – I found this formulation so good and accurate that I even put it in a press release, replacing the old description of “pseudo and real archaeology”.

Can you give an insight into the experimental/avant-garde music scene in Ukraine during the Soviet occupation? How complicated was it to create, and was it safe at all? Where do you see the main differences between what was happening in Ukraine at that time and what was happening in genre-like music on the other side of the wall?

Regarding the creative minds being prosecuted – it wasn’t safe for some, some were killed like Alla Horska, and some were imprisoned like Sergei Parajanov or many other great artists, directors and musicians of the Sixtiers movement. Some great musicians and dissidents were banned from professional activities and were doing their weird and experimental (at that time) soundtracks for animation films for kids or educational documentaries about science – the safest place to put a dissident, or so the authorities thought. Which was also the only way for those outsider artists to earn a living and express their creativity.

Cukor Bila Smert’

I imagine that, within the Muscut catalogue, most of the communication related to release and distribution is done online. On the other hand, there’s the practice of Shukai, where a physical presence is required at every stage of production. What is the process of sourcing material for Shukai, and how does it differ from Muscut’s practice?

Most of the time we were digging not through the actual, physical archives (except Goncharova’s case) but YouTube! The holy grail of the modern way of digging through archives. It’s funny how people are built, so they upload literally everything to YouTube and it’s great for us as investigators that are hunting for very specific material. We find something on YouTube by searching names and the titles of the films and animations to check whether it’s good or not, then looking for the sources for getting hold of the master tape or a nice copy of the file. We contact state and private artists’ archives for this step.

How has the full-scale Russian invasion affected Shukai’s and Muscut’s work and projects?

Well, apart from the cancellation of the artists on Muscut, on Shukai we have lost contact with many artists due to the Russian invasion. There were projects in progress, which are on hold at the moment. The artists are older people without email, for example, and we’ve been talking to them via mobile phone, but they’re no longer responding. We think they might have left the country with their families and their phones are simply out of roaming.

Shukai and Muscut don’t just manifest musically, but there’s also a strong and unifying visual identity behind them, which, especially in the context of Shukai’s catalogue, refers to the archives. How are the visuals for each album created, and how important is the visual language to you?

I’m a graphic designer. I studied in Ukraine between 2001 and 2004. Luckily, my course was one of the last ones that still had a Soviet Ukraine educational programme with old-school senior professors, so I basically studied pretty much the same thing as a student in the 60s or the 80s (typography, composition and layout, drawing and painting, mosaics, stamps, engraving, etc). So, influenced by that, for me, it was organically important to have its own visual language in that tradition for both labels. 

There’s no strong guideline for every design in a row. The releases have visual rhymes every three to five releases. Some have stamped labels only, some have riso printed jackets, some have DIY-sh stickers or, in the case of Shukai, it’s a library-catalogue-ish look and feel.

What are the next plans for both labels?

Time will tell. There aren’t so many plans for now. We’re currently in sabbatical mode till the end of this year – just enjoying what we’ve done so far…


Photo credit: Dmytro Prutkin

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Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are, however, those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union (EU) or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the EU nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.