The Leningrad Cowboys are sort of Finland's answer to the Monkees, a band that was originally created for a movie, but which went on to an artistic life of its own. The film, 1989's Leningrad Cowboys Go America, was written and directed by noted Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. A deadpan, surreally comic road movie about a Siberian polka band that reinvents itself as an outsider-art version of a '50s rock & roll band (complete with bizarrely sculptural pompadours that come to a needle-like point about a foot in front of their heads) and goes on a calamitous tour of the southern United States, Leningrad Cowboys Go America found favor on the early indie film circuit. (The movie also features cameo appearances by celebrated American director Jim Jarmusch, who went on to film a section of his movie Night on Earth in Helsinki using some of the same actors, and Nicky Tesco, former lead singer of the British post-punk act the Members.)
The movie's music was provided by Sakke Jarvenpaa and Mato Valtonen, leaders of a well-known Finnish art rock band, the Sleepy Sleepers, who had been prolific on the Scandinavian rock scene since the mid-'80s. The then-current lineup of the Sleepy Sleepers also played the band in the film: Jarvenpaa and Valtonen alongside Saku Kuosmanen on vocals, Puka Oinonen and Pekka Virtanen on guitars, Mauri Sumen on keyboards and accordion, Silu Seppala on bass, and Pimme Korhonen on drums. The film's soundtrack album was popular enough that the Sleepy Sleepers simply kept the name (and the hair) and continued as the Leningrad Cowboys.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. led to a brief fashion for all things Russian at the turn of the '90s, and the Leningrad Cowboys, with their flashy and humorous stage show including wielding traditional balalaikas like Stratocasters, were momentarily found on MTV and other mainstream media outlets. A second album, We C*m from Brooklyn, was released in 1992, followed by two more films with Kaurismäki, the 1993 live concert documentary Total Balalaika Show (featuring special guests the Red Army Choir) and the 1994 sequel Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses. The 1993 live album Live in Prowinzz was followed by the studio efforts Happy Together (1994), Go Space (1996), Mongolian Barbecue (1997), Terzo Mondo (2000), Go Wild (2001), and Zombie's Paradise (2006), as well as the 1999 compilation Thank You Very Many: Greatest Hits and Rarities, and a 2003 live album of the tenth anniversary Total Balalaika Show (again featuring the Red Army Choir). ~ Stewart Mason