For three decades running, weirdo DJ and musician Little Fyodor and his bandmate and partner-in-abnormality, Babushka, have fought to keep Denver strange.
There are few who are keeping Denver weirder than Little Fyodor. In the various incarnations of his band, ranging from a solo act to a quartet, Little Fyodor has been part of the city’s music scene since 1981, when downtown Denver was a rotting husk of empty buildings and crumbling viaducts.In ’82, Little Fyodor began deejaying his Under the Floorboards show for KGNU Community Radio. “I specialize in playing the weirdest shit I can get my hands on,” he says . He still deejays the show every second and fourth Saturday of every month at 11 p.m.
It was fertile ground to develop a character like Little Fyodor with a long-standing penchant for gaudily patterned sport coats complemented by wiry, silver-tinged hair sprouting from a balding dome above a madcap smile.
He’s essentially the physical incarnation of a Daniel Clowes or Robert Crumb character. And, like any good underground weirdo comic antihero, Fyodor has accumulated a band of weirdos.
Let’s begin with his enigmatic companion, Babushka, her face contorted into a permanent scowl. “Little Fyodor & Babushka started in 1987, a year after I discovered Babushka pushing a shopping cart down a Denver alley,” Fyodor explains. “I helped her cross a puddle. She saw I was a tortured soul and saw I needed help too, and took pity on me.”
“In an act of old world mercy,” Babushka chimes in.
“We played as a duo for many years,” says Fyodor. “If you think we freak people out now, you should have seen when played just as a drumless rock duo. People could handle a solo act, but a duo without drums really freaked people out.”
The band now includes a bass player, Amadeus Tonguefingers, and a drummer, Tricky Dick Wikkit. Fyodor says they’ve been with the band for about a decade and that the songs were always meant to be played by a full rock band. “But I was too antisocial –““And cheap!” cackles Babushka.
“– to put together a full rock band,” Fyodor continues. “I was scared of my lyrics being drowned out.”
Covering everything from lust, antisocial tendencies, mental health and squirrel-watching in the park, the lyrics aren’t your standard fare. “They’re all the shit that’s going through my brain,” Little Fyodor says. “It can be different shit at different times. But it’s about the difficulties of being human.” Perhaps it’s no surprise he counts Daniel Johnston and Jonathan Richman among his inspirations.
Little Fyodor’s lyrics are delivered through a seesawing, cartoonish voice that undulates between a savage growl and a squeaky lisp. Babushka’s unholy organ offers a counterpoint, backed up by a crunchy, angry bass, rock drums and a punk guitar. Then there’s the banter coming from the interplay between Little Fyodor and Babushka that’s still refreshing after all this time.
It’s a sound that’s attracted dedicated fans locally and the band can draw a crowd to larger shows with the right types of weirdos. They’ve been described as “spaz rock” and the bastard child of Devo, and likened to early Talking Heads. They’ve played events for the Church of the SubGenius and even inspired a 2013 cover album, The Unscratchable Itch: A Tribute To Little Fyodor, which sees their songs covered by a host of fellow weirdos, including Voodoo Organist, Ralph Gean and The Inactivists. In 2015, they put out the current lineup’s first EP, Truly Rejected, on vinyl.
From nowhere land to new and shiny
When Fyodor and Babushka started, Denver was a much different place. “Denver was a shell of a town,” Babushka says of her arrival in the ’80s. “Denver had a very bad self-image. There were zines called Cowtown and it wasn’t a compliment. There was a sense of it being a nowhere land.”
“Now Denver’s full of itself,” Fyodor interjects.
“There was a sense that we were at the vanguard and the last living remnants in a dead city,” Babushka asserts. “We were like the strong fierce weird pillars of an absent culture.” She adds, “There was a sense of bankruptcy because the city was bankrupt –“
“Cultural bankruptcy!” Fyodor erupts.
“Yeah, cultural bankruptcy, but there was also economic bankruptcy at the time,” Babushka responds.
“Everyone was leaving Denver,” Fyodor remembers. “That’s before festivals began to proliferate. Now every town worth its salt has to have a festival or two or three.”
“Every town needs a music festival and film festival — they have to have a bluegrass festival and a rock festival and a country festival,” Babushka chimes in.
“Back then, only Telluride did that,” Fyodor says. “There’s just a lot more of everything now. Denver was more of a weirdos club in the ’80s. There are a lot more bands and a lot more venues now.”
In the early days of the duo, local bands “would either be cover bands or weirdos,” Babushka says. “Now there’s more in between.” She notes that some are working to keep it bizarre, like Claudia Woodman, who books the monthly Weird Wednesday shows. “She’s a huge driver of indie, underground and weirdo music,” Babushka says. “She might find a traveling act that’s a little more conventional, but she also finds the emerging artists that we don’t know about. It’s really refreshing to see somebody who is seeking it out all the time and actually introducing us to all that.”
Asked if more music in Denver has led to less creativity in the music scene, Little Fyodor responds, “That’s what’s going to happen when there’s more of something. There’s always going to be more boring stuff when there’s more of it. You can’t complain about the quantity. The quality might be another story.”
“We haven’t applied [to play Denver fests] because we’re not fit for human consumption,” Babushka says. “If you’re playing in your hometown, you don’t need to play in a festival because you can develop an audience and a following,” she continues. “If you’re going out of town, it really makes a lot of sense to play a festival because you have an audience and you have the opportunity to gain an audience.”
The band has played South by Southwest in Austin twice. “There’s just energy coming out of everyone’s ears there,” Fyodor comments. “We’ll play South by Southwest any time they’ll have us.”
Asked whether Denver still has an appetite for the weird and strange in music, Fyodor responds: “So many people are moving here. Right now everyone is into the new and shiny and trendy but after a while they’ll just get sick of it.”
“They’re potentially receptive,” Babushka says. “It just has to get on their radar. I don’t know how easy it is to get on their radar but people are moving here, looking for something different and a new culture, a new place, a new community and I think our audiences are very receptive people who can give them that.”
Babushka cautions that musicians and bands in Denver shouldn’t try to embody a genre. “They should actually originate original expression. Also you shouldn’t be shedding genres or shedding trends,” she says. “Music should be about expressing yourself in your own original way and connecting with the audience.”
“I’m for weird shit,” Fyodor says. “People expressing themselves and everybody’s fucking weird whether they realize it or not. So the more you express yourself as an individual the weirder it’s going to be and that’s good by me!”
They haven’t charted a defined future for the band. “We could end up on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or we could end up in the gutter, you never know. We’re just out to have fun and do good gigs wherever we can,” Fyodor says. He reflects for a second. “You never know when I’m going to fold and say, ‘Fuck the world!’ and go back to being a home recorder. It’s a possibility — I’ve been threatening to do that for 30 years.”
This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here.