Until last month, Sasha Boole spent his days writing more of the ruminative folk-rock songs he’d been releasing in his native Ukraine for about a decade, with titles like “Waiting for the Doom” and “Music to Watch the World Dying.” But these days, his focus is elsewhere — on, he says, “roughly speaking, how to stay alive and how to kill more Russian pigs.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended and ravaged the nation in innumerable ways. The country’s thriving, eclectic music scene hasn’t been immune: Musicians have fled or gone underground, venues have closed, festivals are up in the air. But the most striking transformation involves those who have been transformed overnight from creatives to soldiers. Although it’s impossible to ascertain a precise number, everyone from metal, rock, and folk musicians to electronic DJs has put aside their day jobs and taken up arms against an invading force. “You’re leaving your home and your family,” says Boole from western Ukraine, where he is stationed. “Suddenly you discover yourself in a completely unknown place. New rules, strict discipline, new people. A bit different surrounding [than] I got used to from working as a musician.”
Until very recently, Ivan Kozakevych had held down a regular job for more than 20 years — as lead singer of Sectorial, a Ukrainian metal band. Prior to the war, the group had released several albums and EPs of what it proudly calls “atmospheric blackened death metal”; its latest album, 2018’s VYR, incorporated ethnic instruments (the drymba, better known as a Jew’s harp, and the bagpipe-like duda) into its sonic onslaught.
Late last month, of course, Sectorial’s world changed, and the ravaged world the quartet often depicted in its songs — with lyrics like “I see beasts in human form/Skinning teeth, ready to choke on the throat/Ready to tear flesh, and drink hot blood” — became a reality. The same day as the invasion, Kozakevych volunteered for the army. “At 4 a.m. on February 24th, the first attack took place on my country,” says the singer, who, like Boole, communicated with Rolling Stone by email. “And at 2 p.m., I had already been with my unit as a volunteer, equipped and with the weapons ready.”
When the war erupted, Boole initially worked in western Ukraine as a volunteer, helping to shelter refugees and to counter Russian disinformation by feeding news to the Western media. But feeling he wasn’t doing enough, he, like Kozakevych, enlisted. (In late February, Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were banned from leaving the country and were urged to join the army.) “We were supposed to meet for rehearsals now and start a tour on the first day of April,” says Boole. “But it looks like our shows will be postponed.”
As unlikely as it sounds given their profession, both Boole and Kozakevych say they were prepared for what was looming grimly on the horizon. Boole says he was already a gun owner and had undertaken military training when he was a student in Ukraine. “Shooting and different ballistic details weren’t something new for me,” he says. He’s now learning tactical medicine (EMS for soldiers), which had already been on his New Year’s resolution list.
Kozakevych says he had been in training for several years before the invasion. “We have already had experience with rifles,” says the Sectorial singer, who already had the necessary helmets and protective body gear for the grim task ahead. “With my unit’s friends we had a shooting team, the Mutants Squad. We have already passed all necessary courses before the war started: tactical medicine, divisions-actions tactics, shooting training and others.” He’s now learning how to use what he calls “weapon systems we have received from our friendly countries.”
For Kozakevych, the “fog of war” enveloped his first day on duty. “The information differed a lot from different sources — where are the enemy now and what he has already captured, what he hasn’t, where was a landing, where is the shelling going on right now,” he says. Their days of sleeping in late and gigging at night are, for now, over. “The only thing I can tell about my schedule is that I’m waking up very early and going to bed at night,” says Boole, who is “waiting for further instructions” about his new job. In a way, he says, his new regimen is strange blessing: “Less time for scrolling news feed, which drives you insane. Sharp focus on tasks you get, and a full concentration on improving your skills.”
Kozakevych, who is stationed outside Kyiv and therefore closer to the front lines, says he has seen Russian troops and their equipment by way of thermal imaging from drones. “It’s mostly serious preparation of certain defense locations, fortifications, and creation of a new position and fire systems and work with air reconnaissance for the interests of our Gods of War — the artillery forces,” he says. “We are on duty and changing with a certain schedule.”
Both men say they have met other musicians in their units, some of whom they’d known in their previous, calmer life. According to Kozakevych, Sectorial bassist Boris “Karis” Krivous is also serving; guitarist Dmytro “Trit” Vashchenko has evacuated his family “to the west of Ukraine, but he is hot to go to the military enlistment office.” No matter who they run into, the result is a far deeper bond with their fellow musicians than anything they’d shared before. “War changes a lot of things inside of you, inside your head,” says Boole. “Of course everyone is afraid to die. But I feel the spirit of brotherhood, being surrounded by the same guys as me.”
“I believe that this pain can be transformed in some beautiful sad songs.” —Sasha Boole
Kozakevych and Boole also share a sense of optimism for the future of Ukrainian music, if and when the war resolves. Some musicians may stay, some may not return, but for Kozakevych, “The scene has already become united like never before. Everybody is cheering up everyone and Ukrainian military forces. For obvious reasons there are no gigs. But when the war will be finished, with our victory there will be a new big jump for all the kind of art and music — mainstream and especially underground. It will positively cause the popularity of our musical bands in the world.” Adds Boole, “When a fog of war will be gone it will be a time to cry for relatives and friends we lost. And I believe that this pain can be transformed in some beautiful sad songs.”
But in general, music is far from their minds. Kozakevych has brought along a few musical instruments, including a low whistle. “When I have time, I play,” he says. “It really helps to relax the head and the body. Sometimes I really feel hungry for the music. In this condition my favorite music helps a lot — to motivate, cheer up, reduce the stress and negative emotions.”
Boole says he has tried to write new songs a few times, but nothing has come. “It was hard to find a place for music inside of me,” he says. “A couple of days ago I listened to some of my favorite tunes for the first time [since] the day when war has started. Today I even played couple of songs on a guitar and sang.
“Being honest,” he adds, “I can’t say I miss music now. At all. I miss peace. When we’ll get it — then I’ll think about music.”