“War for me is a source of knowledge”: interview with Dmytro Kumar, frontman of metal band 1914

Anaid Agadzhanova

1914 is a blackened death metal band from Lviv, founded by Dmytro Kumar in 2014. The entire work of 1914 is strictly military-related: it is an artistic reinterpretation of war, glorification of its various manifestations, and immersion in its atmosphere to understand the consequences.

In their songs, 1914 uses samples of the sounds of the “great war”: excerpts from the speeches of military leaders, the hum of airships, gunshots, explosions, and airstrikes. At the performances, the musicians are dressed in military uniforms from the First World War, show footage from the chronicles, and even use a rifle instead of a microphone stand.

Anaid Agadzhanova spoke with Dmytro Kumar about the war as a source of knowledge, asking whether his attitude towards his previous work has changed, how the band’s performances in the context of the war are perceived in various European countries, and why making music and giving concerts are a critical need for Dmytro. 

Translator: Alina Tsvietkova

What does a person who has been glorifying war in his work for years feel when a full-scale war comes to his country?

We use a lot of samples, overlays, and backing tracks to create such an atmosphere of complete immersion – a real atmosphere so that when a person listens to our album, they felt as if they were at the scene of events watching either a good movie about the First World War or reading a book about these events. To immerse themself in this reality as much as possible. 

When I saw the first shellings of Ukrainian cities, I didn’t feel “immersed.” I understood very well that this was no longer a realistic movie or an exciting book. I realized that this is our reality, and it sucks.

I don’t even know what exactly I felt. I guess I was scared stiff because when I woke up and saw how a missile hit the Ivano-Frankivsk airfield, and here, and there, I saw the news that the war had started; the first thing I did was get together and go to my parents. We quickly discussed the options for the development of events and what our further actions could be, that is, any alarming risks, weapons, supplies, or simply the ways of their departure from Lviv in the event of something.

Honestly, the first day I was scared. Later I went to help my daughter pack and organize going abroad for her and her mother. It was the most important thing for me.

But if we still talk about feelings, then there was probably fear and not some kind of fright, but specifically, fear. First of all, for relatives. I was petrified that I wouldn’t have time to talk to everyone, to sort out important issues and that we wouldn’t have time to do some basic things that need to be done in such circumstances.

When I saw the first shellings of Ukrainian cities, I didn’t feel “immersed.” I understood very well that this was no longer a realistic movie or an exciting book. I realized that this is our reality, and it sucks.

War as a source of knowledge

I cannot say that the war was a theater set in my work, among which I live some sort of my alternative life on the stage. Unfortunately, I don’t have any spare life, I only have this one – a short one, and most part of it is already in the past. That’s why I just can’t play with theater sets anymore. I live my only life here and now, and every second on stage is still me.

For me, war is both a source of knowledge and understanding. Through the war, I am trying to understand purely anthropologically, from the point of view of evolutionary biology, the behavioral model of our species. I always try to relate. I read a lot about wars, historical wars, the behavior of people during the war, and memoirs about how prisoners were killed. I have always been interested in where our species can go on its way. Especially in its barbarism. Why do we react and interact specifically like this? 

We have an unrealistically short amount of time to live. If you’re lucky, you’ll live to be 80 years old, and that’s only if you’re extremely good at it.

Accordingly, why is it that our species, Homo sapiens, having a very short life span, so recklessly and without a second thought, destroys thousands and millions of other lives of its kind and is gladly willing to give its own life? It is something that I do not understand, specifically from an evolutionary point of view. 

It seems to me that our species should evolve and move forward, reproduce, and work to create the best, most comfortable, safest conditions for the offspring, for ourselves, and so on. Instead, only weapons and new variations of ways to destroy even more people are created. And to be honest, it’s not clear to me. Therefore, in this context, the war for me is a source of knowledge, behaviorism of our species (behaviorism is a branch of psychology that explains the behavior of people or animals by mechanical, reflective acts in response to external stimuli, — ed.). 

Perception of war

Has the meaning of war as a phenomenon changed for me after February 24, 2022? No. It has not changed because I understood well that we have been in a state of war since 2014. It wasn’t a major change for me. I have always said on the stage and in all my previous interviews that we have been at war for eight years and that we are at war with the Russian Empire. 

So since February 24, the scale of this war has simply increased several times, it has entered a new phase. That’s why I didn’t have a big shock. This is war, I see it. I do not accept it, but I understand it as a phenomenon.

If I had to come up with a dictionary definition of the word “war,” I would say “dirt.” The English language has the word “mud,” something between swamp, dirt, and something in which you can drown and suffocate. As in the Third Battle of Ypres in the First World War – people died in the trenches, drowned simply in a liquid gray swamp – this is precisely the definition of war in my view. Gray dirt in which you sink, in which you will smear yourself and eventually die.

My attitude towards my previous work has not changed; my previous albums have not ceased to be relevant. On the contrary, the last album we recorded last year, shortly before the invasion, is vital to me – it is an album about the victory of life and hope. 

In the previous albums, all the heroes of the songs, everyone with whom I associated and identified myself, died, and in this last one, most of the heroes survive, return home, they become real heroes. They are the ones who managed to overcome the meat grinder of war, to get out of this mud. I think this is important. With the beginning of a new phase of our war, it became even more important because it is an album about hope. 

In the previous albums, all the heroes of the songs, everyone with whom I associated and identified myself, died, and in this last one, most of the heroes survive, return home, they become real heroes.

Not a dramatic performance,
but a historical trance

I don’t like to use analogies with the terms “stage character” or “stage reincarnation” because I hate theater with every fiber of my soul. I have been to performances many times, and I was sometimes persuaded the theater is very cool. But it is precisely the “performance” that repels me. Theater people always annoy me; it seems to me that they cannot be sincere people, and I do not believe them. 

I appreciate directness, sincerity, and truth. Therefore, when my performances are compared or described as “a dramatic performance with the full immersion of an artist,” — it is very unpleasant for me. The one who stands on the stage – still Me. And I experience my traumas, pains, and emotions at my concert. I call it “diving.”

In everyday life, I am reasonably calm – I don’t get angry or shout at anyone, and I am not scandalous or conflicted when communicating with people. I always keep and carry my emotions; I digest and accumulate them for a very long time.

When I go on stage, I “dive” into the emotions that overwhelm me. When I have too many, when they overfill me, I can even turn off my head on the stage; I do not understand and do not remember what I did, what I said, and how I interacted with the audience. For me, a stage is a tool for splashing my emotions and feelings from my mind; it is a place where they can be poured out. 

On stage, I fall into the space of my own emotions. Although I create the stories I tell myself, I live each of them again during the performance. Therefore, my performances are not “dramatic performances”; it is the same me who simply switched to a different format of reality. It is, to some extent, escapism, a transition between one reality and another, but it’s still reality itself, not acting or playing. And what I say to the audience is said by me, simply being in a state of historical trance.

Role in the events

I am such a man that I am a bit of a fool, and in 2014 I ran to the military recruitment office as a volunteer. They did not take me, they sent me away, and even the fact that I am officially the firearm owner didn’t convince them. They told me, “Go away,” and I calmed down a little. 

Several times I went through military training. In March of this year, I came to the Military Commissariat and was sent back again. Another thing is that I had health problems – oncology surgery. They looked at me and said, “Dude, get the hell out of here for now; if we need you, we’ll call.” 

At the moment, the question of my joining the army looks very simple: if I get drafted, I go to the army, without any evasion. But not at the moment, so I try to volunteer and do what I’m more efficient at. 

As a soldier, I’m just a piece of meat, I’m a shitty soldier. I don’t listen to orders, I ask a million questions, I am always somewhere in my head and I decide where I should go on my own.

Such assholes like me don’t live long in conditions where discipline is required. Therefore, it still seems to me that I am more effective in volunteering: I can organize people, I can get necessary things, and I know how to bring the right people together to solve this or that problem. But I emphasize that if I get drafted, then I go serve, no questions asked. 

In recent months, we have played dozens of concerts, including at the largest, really very large festivals. For example, we played at the Belgian Alcatraz Festival. I can’t even count how many thousands of people there are, 15-20 thousand, maybe more. Just an unreal number of people. 

Before that, there were Party.San Metal and Brutal Assault, somewhere around 10-15 thousand each, and Summer Breeze – 30-40 thousand in total. Very-large-scale festivals. 

We were in Latvia, Belgium, and the Netherlands, followed by Austria and France. We travel to European countries and try to convey our messages about what is happening in Ukraine. It can be very difficult in places, especially with Germans – it is a very difficult audience. 

Our performance at Party.San Metal caused quite a big wave of hate and criticism there. You have to understand that this is East Germany, and when we openly announce there that their government is gutless assholes, that the Russians are bastards, and that the Ukrainian army will destroy them, many people get real butthurt and they start saying “no, no, no, music is out of politics,” etc. On the other hand, Belgians, Poles, and Lithuanians are extremely responsive audiences with huge support. 

The Belgians really impressed me: they gave me a Ukrainian flag in the crowd, they brought sunflowers to our performance, their support is very palpable there. Because when you play in front of the Germans, they look at you as if you are a trained bear in a circus, saying, “Well, come on, tell us something, a boy from Ukraine.” These are my quick observations at the moment. Let’s see what will happen in France. 

We travel to European countries and try to convey our messages about what is happening in Ukraine. It can be very difficult in places, especially with Germans – it is a very difficult audience.  

The critical need to continue making music and performing

Being able to continue making music is a critical need for me. I barely survived two years of the pandemic; I literally howled from the impossibility of going on stage. I have been playing music continuously for 25 years, since 1997. It’s a quarter of a century, really, a lot. I hadn’t had a single period in 25 years when I stopped making music. For me, two years of lockdown were impossibly psychologically and morally difficult. 

Of course, I adjusted to the mode of the home-work-sometimes studio. Okay, these two years resulted in an album for us, a good, strong album. I worked extensively with the texts and stories included in it. For example, I spent half a year researching thousands of soldiers’ letters home, obituaries, and other material from the British archives until I found exactly what we ended up creating the track from. Or about the Belgians – I had to read five books, go to the cemetery in Ternopil, find, meet and talk with the grandson of one of the Belgians. This work took a lot of time and effort, and I put a lot of emotions into it. 

I found a way how to use this “corona time” wisely, but it was tough. And these one-off performances at Zaxidfest, a solo concert in Kyiv – after them, it became even more apparent how difficult it is without music, how I lack it. Shows once in a while never gave hope but demonstrated that “dude, look, it’s impossible not to do this.” So yes, the opportunity to play music is a critical necessity for me. 

I am happy that we now have the opportunity to go abroad, and that the Ministry of Culture has given us official permission to represent Ukraine in the world as cultural ambassadors. And I am incredibly grateful to our military for the fact that we have the opportunity to be and make music at all thanks to them. It is vital. And to perform live. Rehearsals, studio work, searches, researching archives, thinking about stories, sleeping with them, dreaming about these stories, correspondence with relatives of fallen soldiers – all this is what the band does behind the scenes. Still, performances are the concrete embodiment and realization of the idea. 

It’s like sex. You can have sex for two hours, but if you don’t come, then why the heck did you have sex?! It’s just in vain. Same here, you are doing music, but if you did not finish, that is, if you did not perform live, did not come on stage – you did everything before it in vain.

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