I went to meet the members of Optometri at the Local Tavern on King Street last week, but none of them showed up. They all sent their personal assistants instead.
It was no surprise. The six Russian emigrants who make up this Madison band have largely avoided the local media since they were secretly discovered here five years ago.
During that time, the six members of Optometri have hidden behind their "personal assistants," who, coincidentally, all happen to be Madison musicians. The assistants have played in many esteemed Madison bands, including Yid Vicious, the Theramones, Cement Pond, Killdozer and the Gomers.
Optometri are due to appear onstage at Mickey's Tavern on Friday, June 26 at 10 p.m. They'll celebrate the release of Love Is Not a Potato. The album is the first American release by these former Russian superstars.
Optometri's Madison chapter began in 2003, when lead personal assistant Bob Jacobson met Optometri frontman Yuri Mishkin. Mishkin was begging for change outside the entrance to Woodman's East.
Jacobson recalls that moment in some detail. "Mishkin was hungry," he says. "So I took him in and got him cleaned up. Then he started telling me stories about his past."
As it turned out, Jacobson remembered Optometri from friends of his who had traveled through Eastern Europe around the time the band's career peaked.
"They brought me back some Optometri bootlegs," says Jacobson. "I thought they were brilliant. So when I found out who Yuri was, I was astounded. I wanted to help him reestablish Optometri's career."
Over the next several months, the five other original members of Optometri were also discovered to be living in Madison. Each one partnered with a local musician to act as his or her personal assistant. Ironically, all members of Optometri play the same musical instrument as their corresponding assistant.
Bassist Alexi Smirnoff is represented by Matt Appleby. Keyboardist Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov is represented by Geoff Brady. Accordionist Svetlana Rimsky-Mussorgskikov is represented by Kia Karlen. Drummer Victor Korchnoi is represented by Dan Hobson. Lead guitarist Dmitri Shostakovich is represented by Steve Burke.
Optometri were big in Russia about the time the Soviet Union was crumbling. They were a hip young band that represented the glasnost spirit of the time. But Jacobson says the members of Optometri became disenchanted and decided to quit the counterrevolution.
"The leaders of the counterrevolution weren't too happy about it, and they made Optometri disappear," he says. "No one really knew what happened to them. They just vanished off the face of the earth for 14 years until they inexplicably showed up in Madison in a new millennium."
Love Is Not a Potato takes its name from a genuine Russian adage: "Love is not a potato. You can't just throw it out the window."
Despite Optometri's odd origins and the awkward title of their first American release, the new CD is no gimmick. The songs live up to all of Yuri Mishkin's vodka-fueled bravado. Mixed tempos and varied instrumentation provide a range of moods.
"Everybody Take Some Drugs" is lively comedy-rock built on power-chord adrenaline and broken-English vocals that espouse the benefits of sinful freedom. "Estonia" is dreamy nostalgia that commemorates Mishkin's favorite Russian republic. "Volga" is freaky psych rock. It's a song about a treacherous ride across the great Russian river.
The album is as energetic and joyful as any Madison release this year.
The previous albums released by Optometri are believed to have been redacted by Russia's Ministry of Culture, says assistant Kia Karlen. Meanwhile, Jacobson says Optometri's assistants are having a hard time countering a rumor buzzing on the Internet.
"There seem to be rumors that Optometri is actually a bunch of Madison music veterans posing as Russian emigrants," says Jacobson.
"I have read that. Where they get these ideas, I don't know."