The inventive NYC-based band Mad Meg takes listeners on a captivating ride through their most recent album, Who Deserves Balloons and Medals?, blending influences from the likes of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Gogol Bordello, and Sparks. As a quintessential New York band, their international lineup and diverse musical backgrounds create a unique and eclectic sound that challenges the status quo, while embracing the absurdity of the world. This track-by-track commentary from the band’s lead singer and songwriter Ilya Popenko provides fascinating insight into their creative process and the stories behind each song on the album.
The album, which has been featured as the album of the week on Ibero 909.9 (Mexico) and Nenes Buttler Presents (Germany), features six original songs and an unexpected Dolly Parton cover that incorporates Americana, dub, and Tuvan throat singing. Accompanying the release are three music videos, one animated and two live-action, each offering a distinct visual representation of Mad Meg’s unique blend of styles.
Assembled and based in New York, Mad Meg has toured extensively in Russia and the former Soviet Bloc, sharing the stage with notable acts like Nogu Svelo and Emir Kusturica. Among their many exploits, the band recorded a live album in a Lithuanian women’s prison, a testament to their daring and unorthodox approach to music and performance.
In this exclusive track-by-track commentary, delve a bit deeper, as Ilya Popenko discusses the band’s inspirations and experiences that shaped Who Deserves Balloons and Medals? Explore themes of social anxiety, the immigrant experience, aging, and cultural trends, and witness the band’s ability to create a sense of darkness that, in their words, “you can rock out to.”
Join us on this introspective journey into the world of Mad Meg, as we take you through each track on Who Deserves Balloons and Medals?, with exclusive insights and anecdotes from the band themselves.
Who Deserves Balloons and Medals
Dan and I went to see the Blind Boys of Alabama in Central Park. They utilize a lot of call-and-response in their act. That technique inspired the song Who Deserves Balloons and Medals. This song is a flow of almost random thoughts that all inevitably come back to the overwhelming desire for validation. As opposed to most other songs, which I write on a guitar or using midi, this one was written entirely on a frame drum that I bought in Tennessee, where we played a show. Initially, the song was supposed to have sort of a tribal feel with the arrangement consisting of just percussion and chanting, but as we worked on it, it formed itself into the classic it is today.
I got the phrase ‘mutant monkey’ from Sapients, the Yuval Noah Harari book that everyone and their grandma was reading at the time. Harari used that phrase to refer to all humans. And you know there’s no better rhyme to ‘mutant monkey boy’ than Leo Tolstoy.
The song has this walking groove. It’s good for doing a fast-paced synchronized walk to it. When I was thinking about ideas for a video that would accompany this song, I saw myself playing a gang leader—a mix between Michael Jackson’s Bad and West Side Story. My gang, however, would consist entirely of Brighton Beach babushkas. It would be just a gang of old Soviet ladies performing synchronized dance moves along with me as we wreak havoc on the streets of Brooklyn. The video never materialized as I couldn’t find a producer who would take it upon themselves to find and organize the talent, figure out the logistics, and most importantly, do it for free. By that time I had spent all of my budget and time trying to produce the video for Beyond Repair. So if anybody who reads this wants to produce this idea, hit me up!
I love how this song came out on the record, but I feel it is a tiny bit outdated lyrics-wise. When I first had the idea to write it, the ‘foodie’ culture was on the rise. At the time chefs became the new rock stars, and restaurants the new temples of culture. It was the pre-Trump era, and most people in NYC were not yet freaking out about our collective future. At least it wasn’t very visible. The interest in art and music though was noticeably dwindling. If you were to eavesdrop on any group of people who looked like they lived on the cutting edge of culture, you’d hear them discuss mostly food and new restaurants. I have a fine arts degree, so naturally, a very large chunk of my adult life I worked in different restaurants. Waiting tables didn’t seem like the best use of my training as an artist, but it did seem very fitting to be working in the industry that was replacing the arts.
The video for this song was created by a truly unique Russian animator Katya Mezentseva. We had briefly discussed a possibility of her doing a video for us a while back, but as the time went on, we forgot all about that conversation until Katya emailed me this beautiful finished video. It was a big surprise for us. The video stars Mooden – a cat with a slightly hungover human face, a recurring character in Katya’s work. Characters that populate this cartoon include the animator herself, as well as me in the shape of a cat. Another recurring theme in Katya’s work that makes an appearance in this video is a PO-2 cement block fence. This design of concrete wall was ubiquitous in the USSR, and to this day there’s one on practically every block.
Beyond Repair is our way of dipping our toes in musical theater waters. However, that wasn’t the original concept for this song. It’s hard to tell by listening to it, but originally I was on a quest to write a cool pop song that would have female vocals and an 808-type bass, but something went horribly wrong. It’s written from the point of view of a broken humanoid robot. I envisioned a music video that would feature someone like Sophia from Hanson Robotics. I did record a version of it with female vocals and my own arrangements, but soon the singer who had recorded the original disappeared into thin air and stopped replying to my messages. So I tried to look for other singers. Another person that I approached with this song refused to sing it as it was ‘too Disney’ for her, and I don’t blame her—it was pretty Disney. When I ran out of options, it was decided to make it a Mad Med song, and I’m glad it was. It definitely became the flagship of this record, and the video that our friend Mykola Metin directed for it turned out very fun. This album in general and this song in particular bring the backing vocals to the forefront, and they take up the role of the second protagonist. While I, as a singer, tell the narrative of the story, the melodic hook of the song relies heavily on the chorus.
I wrote that song in 1973 in Nashville. A fit of jealousy came over me when a red-headed bank clerk flirted with my husband, Carl Dean and inspired me to write Jolene. I didn’t know her name, but Jolene was the name of a young fan who once came on stage for my autograph. Of course no love song can be complete without Tuvan throat singing. Luckily our baritone sax player, Sasha Dreyshner, is a great throat singer, and he volunteered to sing one verse. He didn’t know the actual lyrics, so he sang whatever he deemed fit, thereby making it an even better song than it already is.
This is just a simple song about people. Most of them are dildos.
Cenotaph No.8 is an attempt by a Russian Jewish immigrant to write a drinking country song. The song talks about my experience of trying to date in a world where demand for 40-year-old broke immigrants, who are also recovering alcoholics, runs short. It was written during the 2020 lockdown, so the phrase “living off the taxpayer dollar” refers to the pandemic relief aid that most self-employed people received in NYC. It was a last minute addition to the record and was recorded at our home studios after the album was mostly complete. Since most of us are approximately the same age, gender, and in the same tax bracket, it made sense that we all sing it. On the record, besides mine, you can hear the voices of Dan Veksler, Jason Laney, and Igor Reznik.