“No. No naked.”
I am at the Russian and Turkish baths on east 10th St. with all four members of witchy Canadian synth-pop group Austra (Katie Stelmanis, Maya Postepski, Ryan Wosniak and Dorian Wolf), plus Maya’s lovely French girlfriend Mathilde. At least two of them are nursing green juices. All of them are hung over from the previous night’s excursion to Coyote Ugly, which they didn’t realize was the Coyote Ugly, infamous frat bar, when they stumbled upon it after their triumphant Webster Hall show. Despite being a bit surprised, they were enjoying the kitchiness of it all until Dorian tried to get up and dance and was directed to a sign that said “NO DICKS ON THE BAR.” How heteronormative! Not to mention off base; it’s not like he was literally trying to place his dick on the bar.
It’s a coed day, which means we are not allowed to be naked, as the stern Russian receptionist has just informed a baffled Mathilde. (In France, she tells me, this is not really an issue.) We have to wear bathing suit bottoms or the spa’s weird black shorts or we’ll be kicked out, but equality dictates we can be topless, which seems preferable to the awkward samurai robes which seem designed to create excessive sideboob. (I’m talking 50, 60% here.) After taking a few pictures outside, we get changed and go downstairs to see what’s what.
The main relaxation area consists of a long, thin corridor with several saunas coming off of it, which opens into a larger room flanked by showers, massage areas, and a larger steam room. At the center of it all is a decent sized pool of water, which looks inviting until we realize it’s a cold plunge. “Is there a hot tub?” asks Katie hopefully. “Jacuzzi?” responds a brawny Russian woman. “No. This is real Russian banya, no spa.”
We start things off in the aromatherapy steam room, which is like sitting in a hot, moist room full of Vicks vapo rub. A few of us cough productively. I tell them they played a great show last night and mean it; they’re one of my favorite bands to go see, as well as to dance around naked to by myself in my room, and I’m trying not to be too big a dork about it. I’m also trying not to look at their boobs. I don’t mind if they look at mine, though.
“This feels like we’re coming full circle as a band,” muses Maya. “In Munich on our first tour, one of the first things we did as a band was reveal our bodies to each other.” How intimate! We talk for a bit about how nobody danced at their show (besides my friends, of course, who were fuh-reaking out), and what a big bummer that was—perhaps the venue’s expensive drinks meant everyone was too sober?—until Ryan says “I can’t see” and we realize we’ve all had enough.
Out in the main area, we encounter a sage looking old man with a beard like Socrates wearing his robe like a toga who tells us “this is where you wanna go,” gesturing towards the largest sauna. We obey. Once inside, he instructs us to sit on the lowest level (which is slightly less hot) and tells us about the traditional banya experience: “The oak leaves are picked on the first full moon in June…they bind them together, soak them…a Russian man puts you on a shelf and he beats you and stretches you, heating you to a point of excruciating ecstasy.” Hot! Then he tells us he’s been growing his beard for decades because a spirit guide appeared to him during a mushroom trip in the ’60s and told him to, adding to my thesis that all the best personal grooming decisions are made under the influence of psychedelics.
When the banya gets too hot to stand, Katie and I try out the cold plunge, which makes us feel like we being stuck by pins and needles all over our bodies. Katie lets out a single shrill squeak, while I am a bit louder. I’m totally sober, but I feel dizzy and weird. There’s no free water at this place, so I start drinking from the sink like an animal. We’re about to go looking for the others when Socrates brings a muscular Russian masseuse down and directs him what to do. “Those two,” he says, pointing at us. We are getting hooked up with a platza, so why do I feel like we’re about to be kidnapped?
We go back into the big sauna, where I am instructed to lie face down on the top (hottest) platform. The masseuse begins wordlessly beating me with the oak branches, which he alternates with pouring a lukewarn olive oil soap solution over me. Sometimes my limbs get so hot from the sauna I feel like I’m getting burned, but I deal with it as a bizarre point of pride. There’s some scrubbing, a bit of aggressive stretching of my limbs, a lot of massaging that’s a good bit harder than I like it, and a bit of foot stuff that makes me giggle uncontrollably. It’s not exactly enjoyable, but I think it’ll be good for the stiffness left over from two nights ago when I got stoned and fell asleep in a weird position on the couch. When that side is done, he tells me to turn over for the other side. “Nice!” he says, looking at my boobs. (I’m pretty sure they’re not supposed to do that.) Then he boops me affectionately on the nose and sends me on my way. I’ve got some questions for this guy, but I need to get out of the sauna before I faint.
After Katie’s treatment, he brings us out by the severe Russian cold tub and puts a mud mask on our faces. “Ten minutes,” he says, and walks away. “I think the Russian man likes us,” says Katie. “Did he ‘boop’ you on the nose, too?” I say that he did, and ask her if she always meets wise old hippies who give her presents on tour. “No, I’m not very charming,” she replies. “This is the best stuff we’ve been given…better than free Reeboks.”
While our masks are drying, we talk about the road. Katie is staying at a $300/night Airbnb place where she has to feed four cats, but she doesn’t mind. “We’re animal deprived on tour,” she says. “My girlfriend is our sound engineer, and she’s always had pets, but it would just be impossible now.” Note to Austra fans: give all of your cats and dogs to Katie.
We go in the sweet-smelling redwood sauna and talk a bit more about various chill sauna topics like Vice Magazine (“I can’t get behind them ’cause they’re too misog”), the recession (Katie’s dad is a house painter and she’s got lots of friends who are going into the trades), dancing on bars (she says she wouldn’t do it at Coyote Ugly because “I refuse to exploit myself”) and fashion journalists (“this cheesy magazine asked me what my style was and I made up words like ‘industrial psychedelic’ and they totally took me seriously”). She might not think she’s charming, but I want to take her home and introduce her to my cat and drink tea with her and be BFFs forever.
The mud is starting to get in my mouth and it’s weirdly salty, so we shower it off and head up to the roof deck, where the rest of the crew has been hanging out for a while. There are some signs that say you must be accompanied by a therapist or “MGMT” to go in the massage rooms, and we wonder if they’re talking about the band.
Ever the gregarious fellow, Socrates has found out my companions are Canadian and is trying to talk to Maya about hockey, but she’s not interested. “I don’t know anything about hockey,” she says. “I’m a musician.” Socrates (who moonlights on Youtube as Messiahsez; look him up!) asks what kind of musician and she says drummer, at which point he tries to make that old drummer joke with the genders switched. “What do you call a drummer without a boyfriend? Homeless!” I start trying to tell him why the joke doesn’t work at the same time Maya says “I’m with her” and gives Mathilde (who is grabbing her single exposed breast) a smooch, but Socrates is so engrossed in cutting me off and explaining why the joke does work that he doesn’t notice. “It’s funny, because I stay at your house all the time,” says Maya to Mathilde.
Messiah Sez has sparked up a bit of hash and he passes it to me, instructing me to inhale the smoke coming out of the lit end. I cough a lot. He starts talking about how he’s going to meet up with his genius son later. “Is he single?” asks Ryan, but Messiah Sez is on a riff that will not be interrupted.
Eventually it’s time to go, and we say goodbye to Messiah Sez/Socrates and to each other. “Rock the fuck on and feel good all the time!” he salutes us. We promise that we will. Ryan and I are going to the same place, so we get dressed and take the L train together. “It’s weird to see you with a shirt,” he says. Then, later: “Boobs in real life are different than I thought.”
Gimme Danger: educating gay keyboard players about female anatomy, one questionable platza at a time.