Pussy Riot

Behind the scenes of Pussy Riot's video for "I Can't Breathe."

Denis Sinyakov

Pussy Riot are back with their first English song, "I Can't Breathe." Inspired by Eric Garner's death last July and the subsequent protests this winter, and produced with an all-star cast of musicians including Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Russian bands Scofferlane and Jack Wood, Russian feminist punk icons Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina recorded the haunting track and video in New York City in December of last year.

In the official video for "I Can't Breathe," Richard Hell reads Garner's infamous final words, which soundtrack the film's closing minutes. His monologue is preceded by a slow pan over Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, who are buried alive while wearing Russian police riot uniforms. It's uncomfortable to watch the two women flinch as dirt is unmercifully thrown over their bodies and faces, crumbling in between their teeth until they're completely covered. 

Max Pozdorovkin, who helmed the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, also shot and directed a second video that features footage from the protests, helicopter lights flickering in time with the crackling static beat and ominous bass thumping. Friends and family of Garner also appear throughout the video, lighting candles and staring penetratingly at the camera.

"Guys found us (me and Sasha) out of the blue," says Scofferlane's Matt, a.k.a. Stuart Stumpman, of how his band connected with Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina. "They just connected us and offered different kinds of collaboration. I have always supported freedom of expression and sympathized with what Pussy Riot do and it was nice to know that they appreciate our music. Anyway, it was unexpected when we soon got an invitation to New York. We fell in love with this city immediately. A perfect place for artists to create. As a result, instead of one song we've almost recorded a cycle of new songs. 'I Can't Breathe' was the last song in this cycle and it means a lot to me. I felt the same heavy feeling far from home sitting in a small cafe, my heart was beating fast and I couldn't help but write those lines: 'It's getting dark in New York City.' Not because I didn't like New York -- I've never felt so cozy far from home -- it's just about the same problems that connect and keep us together. Sasha got her kicks singing with Richard in one booth. Her voice sound amazing and his part is just tearing me apart. And what's more my lyrics were honored -- to be edited by Richard fucking Hell!"

Adds Sasha Koklova of Jack Wood, "In this record you can hear the voice of trembling girl who felt a big responsibility by every inch of her skin. All this great musicians around and the main idea of the song . . . It was impossible not to fall in love with everyone in the studio, not to fall in love with this moment. I couldn't even imagine to meet Richard Hell personally, but that night he was standing behind my back during the whole record session like a guardian angel! It's hard to describe how much this song means to me. And I'm sure that girls, I mean Pussy Riot, are very grateful for kind-heartedness and availability to work with their ideas, too. Now I'm missing my new friends a lot -- it's easy to get used to good things in your life, you know . . . I wish this sacred 'nuit blanche' would never end.  

"We gathered that evening at the studio of Shahzad Ismaili in Manhattan and at 7 a.m. the song was recorded."

In addition to answering Billboard's emailed questions about the video for "I Can't Breathe," Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina supplied their own questions and answers via email. Read them all below.  

Pussy Riot: Why is the song's name "I Can't Breathe"?

Pussy Riot's first English song is dedicated to those who can no longer breathe. To Eric Garner and to all who suffer from state terror -- killed, choked, perished because of war and police violence - to political prisoners and those on the streets fighting for change. We all have to protest for those who are silent, and we have to protest for each other, no matter the geography, no matter the borders.

"I can't breathe" -- these are the last words of Eric Garner. Those words are his, but we hope they can also stand for us and for many around the world, for all who can't breathe because authorities act with impunity and feel invincible and above the law in using power to humiliate, intimidate, hurt, kill and oppress. We've known, on our own skin, what police brutality feels like and we can't be silent on this issue.

Why are you both wearing Russian riot police uniform?

The police uniform carries special powers on the street in the United States, in Russia and around the world. Those who put it on are granted a monopoly to enact violence, that's a power we delegate to them. And those who wear it may not understand until the end the true extent of the responsibility he or she is now bearing. Illegal violence in the name of the state kills not only its victims, but those who are chosen to carry out these actions. Policemen, soldiers, agents, they become hostages and are buried with those they kill, both figuratively and literally. Hundreds of Russian soldiers who are secretly sent to the war zone in Ukraine have been killed in combat and it is forbidden even for their families to know where they have died and why. Russian riot police officers that have stood up in court and testified under oath about their actions during the violent break up of the rally on May 6, 2012 in Moscow, that they could not always overcome their conscience and do what they are ordered to or lie under oath in court about acts of organised violence from peaceful protesters that never happened during that rally. Some of those riot police officers have gone against their superiors, told the truth and refused to testify against the accused protesters. Other policemen were forced to choke their conscience.

How did you record this song?

This song was composed and recorded over one night this December in a studio in New York City, during the demonstrations. We had been taking part in the protests, walking with the protesters who were demanding that the police be held accountable for Eric's death and demanding change.  We got together and decided to make a dedication based on Eric Garner's last words because we felt these words so deeply. And this was felt by artists from two different continents -- Pussy Riot, Richard Hell (who read out Eric Garner's last words), Jack Wood (vocals), Scofferlane (composition), Nick Zinner (piano and bass) and Andrew Wyatt (beats) spent a whole night recording the song from beginning till the end.

The genre of this isn't like other Pussy Riot songs. It's an industrial ballad. Dark and urban. The rhythm and beat of the song is a metaphor of a heartbeat, the beat of a heart before it's about to stop. The absence of our usual aggressive punk vocals in this song is a reaction to this tragedy.

Are you being buried alive?

Yes, we are being buried alive. The video is composed of one very long take and all that time we are lying underground. And we're sure that our burial will be a bit of wish-fulfillment for some people out there.

What's up with the cigarettes we see in the music video? Is this an advertisement of some sort?

In the beginning of the video there is a pack of cigarettes of a brand that has not existed several months ago and that is named after one of the most defining ideological concepts of today's Russia: "Russian Spring."

And what does "Russian Spring" have to do with all this?

Since our previous music video, "Putin will teach you how to love" that was shot during a violent battle with thugs and militants during last years' Olympic games in Sochi, Russia has seriously changed. Since last spring we have been living in a condition of war and hatred towards the rest of the world that the Kremlin has called "the Russian Spring" following the annexation of Crimea. A bloody war in Ukraine, fuelled and controlled by Russia, a civilian plane that was shot down by a rocket that killed hundreds of people from around the world -- a lot of our plans and artistic conceptions were changed by news from the war zone that were was arriving daily. We really could not breathe for this whole last year. Our previous ideas did not speak to what was happening in the conflict zone in Ukraine as we were realising that Russia is burying itself alive in terms of the rest of the world. Committing suicide. Daily.

And so the song "I Can't Breathe" is about us and our country as well. It is also about Russia, too.

Billboard: When, where, and how did you connect with Richard Hell, Nick Zinner, Andrew Wyatt, and those other musicians? Can you tell me about the recording process?

We were really shocked about the events of 2014. The war began in our country, in a matter of months, Russia became the aggressor for the whole world. We, Pussy Riot, decided to record a series of anti-war songs, so they'll understand that we can not ignore the cruelty which has been going on not only in domestic but also in foreign policy by Putin.

On Dec. 14, during the recording of this cycle of songs we were in New York. At the same time there were huge demonstrations in memory of Eric Garner, racism and police violence. And we were in the heart of these demonstrations. People of completely different social strata, different from each other, but over and over again went out to the streets of New York, stopping vehicular traffic, hanging posters "I can not breathe" and shouting "so what democracy looks like" inspired us. We felt that the last words that belong to Eric Garner actually belong to us -- the people of Russia, who can not breathe, can not protest and can not be in charge of the country, according to any democracy standards.

We talked about our experiences with Nick Zinner and Andrew Wyatt. We met them at an evening dedicated to the 20th anniversary of Vice Media. And so we decided to record a song, song dedicated to memory of Garner and protest song. The next day we talked about our idea with [Columbia history professor] Richard Hull. 

How many takes did you have to do of the video? Was it terrifying to be buried alive? How did you decide that this was how you wanted to convey your feelings about Eric Garner? 

For about a month we could not find a decent metaphor for suffocation, which is sung in the song. The idea, in which we buried alive came suddenly.

We can not breathe because our freedom buried alive every day. In the clip we buried alive for real. To make it at one take, extensive training was required. We were helped by cardiologists who have spent a day with us without a single moment of rest. Total it took about 5 doubles.

Is "I Can't Breathe" the beginning of a larger musical project, like an album, or more songs? If so, what other issues are you tackling, or writing songs about?

"I can not breathe" opens our series of anti-war songs.

Pussy Riot songs never were released without the video. For us, the song and video -- is a holistic conceptual product, releasing of songs in the classical way: singles and albums -- is not entirely about us. We will continue to talk about the war, the police and speak with antimilitary positions in the following works, which you'll see soon, if nothing unpredictable happens.

"I Can't Breathe" is more a comment on American politics than Russian politics, but it makes a powerful statement -- how do you think it will be received?  

We do not feel ourselves like completely strangers in American politics. We have been in US quite a lot over the past year and during those visits we have met all kinds of people -- musicians and employees of NGOs, activists of Occupy Wall Street and Hillary Clinton, filmmakers, journalists, small independent publications and heads of media corporations, with guards of american prisons and prisoners in these prisons, police and protesters, with senators and congressmen, with graffiti artists and directors of large art institutions. We have met Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher and, I must say,  those guys can give anyone  an excellent idea of what the United States are, in the minimum amount of time. Yes, we were not born in this country and were not grown in it, but our eyes we are not in our asses, so we can see things happening.

For us it is important to have an independent opinion about what is happening in the United States not to sink into the phantoms of the Cold War, in which are still relations between Russia and the United States are build. The Russian propaganda machine has convinced us that the West and especially the US -- is evil, is the enemy. To counter this irrational installation, we need to have an independent view of the situation in the US, because any one-sided position is ultimately losing. We have lots of things to notice in the media and politics of America, we would like to see in Russia, but this does not negate the fact that there are things that can and should be criticized. Things such as unjustified police violence.

And if you are interested in nationality of song creators, the song recording was attended by at least four Americans. We hope that this is enough for its, so to speak, legitimacy.