The early ‘90s were an interesting time in Europe. In Bulgaria, an Eastern European country ravaged by shock doctrine capitalism, crony corruption, and rapid high inflation after the fall of the Iron Curtain, young people didn’t see a lot of positive things worth fighting for. Except for the emerging DIY punk scene in Varna, the biggest Bulgarian port city on the shores of the Black Sea that produced great anarcho-leaning bands like Dissident, Confront, and Ignore between 1989 and 1994.
By 1995, the American hardcore sound was also finding its way through the ears of Bulgarian punk kids, and so the story of Varna hardcore band Meanstream begins. Their guitar player Hristian Iliev was one of the earliest proponents of straight edge, veganism and mid-‘90s metallic hardcore sound in Bulgaria. He was interviewed in many fanzines around the world, produced a newsletter/fanzine himself and was always willing to send demos or write a Bulgarian scene report to whoever was interested at the time.
I put together some questions for Hristian, who lives in Las Vegas now, that he was glad to answer and give a good history of the band and the early Bulgarian hardcore scene. Many thanks to Hristian and to Brob Tilt from Belgium for providing scans of Bulgarian scene reports and zines from the mid ‘90s.
Hello Hristian, great speaking to you! What was it like growing up in Bulgaria in the early ‘90s? Can you talk about the hardcore punk scene in Varna that gave birth to your band in 1995?
What’s up Dimitar, great to talk with you! It seems so long ago, but I still remember those days. It was dangerous and wild but also a very fun time! Especially when you are 15-16 years old and feel like you can take over the world. We were just a group of friends who were united by the underground music scene. And those days, if you find out that someone else is interested in punk, hardcore, grind, or noise, you find a way to talk to them, because you share something that barely anyone else knows about. It was about music at first, but the culture followed very quickly. The way you look, your social and political beliefs. We were obviously influenced by the scenes in Western Europe and USA, through penpals, fanzines, and records. We were absorbing it all, until we could make it our own. People from the Western scenes would send us materials all the time, they were thinking: “these poor kids from the other side of the Iron Curtain can’t really afford much”, and we were poor indeed. The last thing you can afford to spend your money on was records and CDs, or should I say: the little money that I had would go towards fanzines, records, and eventually building the scene; through shows, newsletters, demo releases, etc.
What was the impetus for the formation of Meanstream? What made the scene shift from the anarcho-punk inspired sound of pioneer bands like Confront (not to be confused with the US band of the same name) and Dissident to a new band clearly influenced by the likes of Earth Crisis, Snapcase or Congress? What was the reaction when you started playing shows?
Well, Boro (Meanstream’s singer) and I were getting more into that sort of early ‘90s US hardcore, bands like Madball, Agnostic Front, Unbroken, Earth Crisis to name a few, and he had a really solid voice for that sound. We wanted to play this style of hardcore more than anything else. We were friends with all the bands from Varna you mentioned, so another anarcho-band would have been kinda pointless at the time. That’s how Meanstream was born. Krassi already played with Dissident, Rostislav and Chefo were dear friends who had more like a post-punk band called Just a Product, but we somehow convinced them to play with us. We were hanging out all day anyway, so I don’t think they had a choice, haha.
We were all one scene, really didn’t matter that much what you sounded like! We were all friends, and you support your friends’ band! And of course, Studio 33 gave us a place to call home, where we could practice. We were really well accepted right off the bat. The few shows we played were always wild, with tons of energy, it almost felt like even more people started coming to the shows. You didn’t have to be punk or crust, we weren’t dressing like that anyway, so people were like: “I guess it’s ok to listen to aggressive music even if I don’t have a mohawk or a leather jacket or ripped jeans.”
What do you remember from the recording process of your demo? What was it like to be a DIY band in the mid ‘90s? What about the venues and stand out shows that you played?
It was amazing! Maybe the sound quality wasn’t that great, but no one really cared that much! Even before Meanstream, I played in a band called Incase. We put some sad equipment together, and practiced in Evgeni’s basement! Even at that point, the lyrics were very political, about social status, environment, pollution, freedom… We thought that the lyrics are more important than the music. It was such a great time, I think we played one show with this band, it was also Confront’s first gig! We were kids, but with a mission, and it was spontaneous and amazing.
Later on, two studios where we could practice opened, Dani’s and Studio 33. These two studios supported the scene, they were affordable and it was nice to just hang out there. We recorded our demo at Dani’s studio. Can’t remember how long it took, but I know how super proud we were with the end product. It’s such a great feeling when you create something and you are ready to share it with the rest of the world! I was sending it all over the world!
A youth center called Orbita was our place! It was very easy to book a show there and Vasko from Studio 33 brought all the equipment! If you were willing to put your name on the bill and organize everything, you had a show! For all the shows I’ve booked, even with all the bands from Sofia coming, we never lost any money. Of course we also didn’t make any, either. But none of the bands were getting paid. They did it for the scene, for fun, and to spread the message.
In 1996, Meanstream appeared in the international compilation We May Fight a Battle… That Can’t Be Won in the company of bands like X-Acto (Portugal), Personal Choice (Brazil), SC (Lithuania), Autocontrol (Argentina), By All Means (Italy), and Stonewall (Serbia). At that time, no other Bulgarian band apart from Confront released anything on CD. How did Yann Boislève get in touch with you?
Yann and I were pen pals for years before he decided to put us on his compilation. To this day, I really love this CD, it is so informative, covers bands from different parts of the world, and it’s more of a compilation of EPs instead of putting one song each from dozens of bands. I am still very thankful to Yann! It was a great experience recording these four songs. We went to a professional studio in Sofia with a small crew and we had lots of fun. Of course, it was a chance to hang out with all our friends from Sofia as well.
Besides Boislève’s International Straight Edge Bulletin #22, you were also interviewed in many other hardcore zines at the time. Do you think there was a genuine interest in Bulgarian hardcore, or is it mainly because of We May Fight a Battle…?
I think there was a genuine interest! I used to send out all the demos that came out from Bulgarian bands: Face Up!, Last Hope, Confront, Meanstream, Indignity/Outrage (had a split demo), Just a Product, later on, BFH. Not only from people in the West, but also there was a genuine interest from Malaysia and Indonesia who wanted to hear what is going on in Bulgaria, the scene was starting to happen and people from all over wanted to support us. I used to send all these demos way before Yann’s compilation came out.
In Bulgaria, there was the Never X Again hardcore newsletter ran by Jordan Argirov (who played in Sofia’s hardcore bands Humanmask and Forward), later compiled into the only issue of Never Again fanzine, featuring a 1997 interview with Meanstream. Can you talk about the Bulgarian zines in the ‘90s?
The fanzine front was not as strong as the bands putting out demos. We used to read a lot of zines from the West, though. It was the first thing pen pals would send us. And that’s how we were learning about the scene, bands, political views, animal rights, anarchism, social issues, etc. Ilia and I had a few fanzine projects, where we’ll type everything on a typewriter at my mom’s work, and he will do most of the graphics. He is a great designer to this day.
Counter Attack was another fanzine from Sofia, done by Emil Saparevski. It was directed more towards metal and goth, but he also interviewed Meanstream for the second issue, I believe. Emil used to tattoo all of us! He started tattooing in 1993 and he is a great artist to this day, nowadays he runs Inky Dragon Tattoos!
Jordan really wanted to push the boundaries with his Never Again zine. He published it in a professional print form and it was great. One of the most legit fanzines done back then. I also had a four-page newsletter called Freemind that I distributed at shows, it had articles on animal rights and environmental issues, and some interviews I did. I interviewed Stole [Miloš Stošić] from Unison (Belgrade, Serbia’s hardcore band). Unfortunately, I can’t find any copies of this newsletter, if anyone has some, please send them to me!
Later on, I released the first BFH demo with my Freemind label. And when I moved to the United States, my cousin Stoyan from BFH asked me to use the name for the festival he started putting out.
Is it fair to say that you were among the first vegans in the Bulgarian hardcore scene? What is it like being straight edge and vegetarian/vegan in the ‘90s? What kind of activism did you do at the time? Was your straight edge and veg(etarian)ism also part of some kind of broader political ideas and social justice issues?
Yes, I went vegetarian in 1992. A friend of mine, Climent, was talking about how he hasn’t had any meat in three months, and I thought, “so it is possible!” My father was the director of the biggest slaughterhouse in Bulgaria. The place was huge! So, we used to eat meat three times a day. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he opened his own meat packing factory. One day he took me on a run, to buy two cows and slaughter them! It was so fucked up. I experienced this cruelty first hand, so after we got home, I told them I am not eating meat anymore! I had one last sandwich with salami, and that was it! Few months later, my sister went vegetarian. And around this time many of my friends stopped eating meat. It was getting popular, which is amazing! We started spraying slogans on the walls all over Varna. This was our way of spreading the message! I created a poster that talked about cruelty to animals and stuck it on walls all over town! We were getting traction, so even the local newspaper interviewed us, which gave us an opportunity to spread the word even more.
Meanstream had a song about animal cruelty and destroying the Earth. We named our demo after that song, “Understand”. Our singer Boro is still vegetarian as well. It was kinda hard being vegetarian, and especially vegan in those years. Not so much from the point of finding food, but dealing with family and people that try to prove you are wrong! And in the pre-internet times, doing research about the health aspects of the vegan diet was very hard! I used to read a lot of books by Lydia Kovacheva (famous Bulgarian healer who taught fasting and eating fresh fruits and vegetables) and even Peter Deunov (Bulgarian Esoteric Christianity guru). I was trying to find enough facts to prove the health benefits of a vegan diet to my relatives, many of them medical doctors! The constant discussions during dinner time were getting exhausting!
The straight edge was not a big issue. I was still hanging out with all my friends who would drink and smoke. I just learned to have a good time without being intoxicated or under the influence. I did not need a booster to get comfortable and happy. But I would go to the same parties, same shows, same daily gatherings and hang outs, just not drink, smoke, or do drugs!
I think veganism is a political stance. It may be a diet for some, but it’s also a choice towards a better future; a way to change an ugly tradition that enslaves and tortures other creatures, just because human society has done it for thousands of years! Traditions are meant to be broken if we want to evolve as a society.
Have you ever played any shows outside of Varna and Sofia? What were the main differences between the two cities?
No, we only played Sofia and Varna. We were gonna play Belgrade, because Jordan and I went there a few times in 1996, and became friends with the local hardcore scene kids—Aca, Stole, Marco, to name a few. They loved Meanstream, we did some interviews for a fanzine from Belgrade, I can’t remember the name, and also these kids had a small label. They wanted to release the demo with their label, and I was cool with that.
You know, both Varna and Sofia felt like home to us! We were friends with the Sofia scene, they used to come and play in Varna all the time, and slowly started setting up shows in Sofia. It was actually great, because we would play in front of so many more people! The last show we played in Sofia in 1997 was probably in front of a thousand kids. It was a big venue and it was packed! We have always received so much support, it has never been awkward, and playing these shows was one of the best experiences in my life!
What are your favorite Bulgarian hardcore punk bands and records of all time?
That’s a tough one! As I said before, we were (and still are) friends who support each other! I love all of them from the early and mid ‘90s! Face Up!, Confront, Last Hope, Just a Product, Outrage, Indignity, BFH, Dissident.
Tell me about your life in the United States at the moment? What kind of bands and current music do you listen to?
I am a family man now! So I do spend a lot of time with my children and my wife, but still go to shows when they happen here in Vegas. I will travel to California as well, if there is a band that I really want to see! At this point, I’ve seen all my favorite bands but Unbroken and Judge!
I also went on this super long stretch of instrumental sludge doom wave. I love ISIS, Red Sparowes, This Will Destroy You, to name a few. But lately I’m getting back to hardcore! I really like the bands Triple-B Records are releasing, like One Step Closer, Magnitude, Mindforce, Wise (check out Wise!) I love Change from Canada/US! And I can listen to The Black Queen for hours!
You are still a vegan after all this time, right? What keeps you motivated to care about the hardcore culture and the ideas associated with the scene?
Yes, there is no other way for me! It is a moral stand, I can’t imagine eating meat or using any animal-derived products. There is absolutely no reason to do it! I work in the Food & Beverage industry, which is heavily dominated by the meat industry, that is why it is important for me to take a stand! Times are changing for sure. I see more and more celebrity chefs, basically the movers and shakers of the food industry, turning towards plant-based menus. I want veganism to be super fashionable. I don’t care what haters are saying, because at the end of the day less and less animals are getting slaughtered.
My children have never had meat, and they are healthy with strong immune systems! They are in their early teens, and they know the reasons why we are a plant-based household. They feel strong about our beliefs, and know how to deal with the big mouths at school. The hardcore scene teaches you to be strong, independent, and to question the status quo; to follow your heart and don’t give a fuck what society has to say about it.
Stick to your friends, and have integrity! I think these are traits that are valuable in any social group or setting, once you grow up with them you take them anywhere you go.