Q&A with Ilya Laqutenko of Mumiy Troll
Mumiy Troll from Vladivostok, Russia is one of that country's most popular bands. The act's combination of energetic rock and moodily atmospheric pop, for which lead singer Ilya Lagutenko coined the term "rockapops," has been gaining popularity in America despite the fact that, up to the release of the new English-language EP Paradise Ahead, the band's albums are all in Russian. Anyone lucky enough to have seen Mumiy Troll's recent U.S. tours witnessed a lively and charismatic performance that would have made an impact regardless of the language used in the songs. Critics have called the band the Russian Rolling Stones, but its songs, while spirited on stage, contain smartly crafted hooks that weave in an introspective quality revealing a deep reservoir of feeling and an incisive intelligence behind the songwriting. We caught up with Mumiy Troll's charming and engaging frontman and talked about the band's history, its songwriting and other underground artists of the Soviet and post-Soviet era.
Westword (Tom Murphy): I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing you perform in a small club in Denver earlier this year. Have you been playing mostly venues like that in the United States and how does that differ from your tours in Russia, China and Europe?
Ilya Lagutenko: You know, it's pretty exciting for us. I understand your question about how it's different because we've played places like the hi-dive and at venues in front of a hundred thousand [or more] people. I've always been realistic about what we're doing with our music. It's not about if you've gotten to this level of stardom where you play to over a hundred thousand people and everyone is singing along together with you. It doesn't mean that it's your fate forever. We gained our popularity as a band back in Russia when I was over thirty-years-old, so I wasn't really seventeen.
When I was seventeen, my most memorable gig was when two of my friends came to see me. It was just two people in the audience, and they were two of my closest friends whom I had known for ages. Now, probably hundreds of people claim that they were at that gig in our hometown. I still remember the names of those two guys! I didn't have any illusions in my teenage years because obviously I grew up in the Soviet Union, and rock and roll music was simply banned. So any thoughts of forming a band was kind of a joke for us--like a good hobby like collecting stamps or some kind of sport. You couldn't make a living at it because it was out of the picture completely. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the situation changed in Russia almost overnight and you'd been given huge choices. Then you had absolute freedom to do whatever you want to do but no [real opportunities]. There were different jobs like working for an investment firm in London that was building a toll road in China. But it was never anything I found rewarding.
At some point we decided to just record our songs -- it will be so fun and it will sell brilliantly in Russia just enough to kind of fulfill our teenage dreams -- which is what we did in 1997. We were in the right time and the right place, finally. So we still competed with the biggest commercial, independently successful bands. At a certain level of self-confidence, whatever you dream about can come true. You can attain a level independence, even financially, to do whatever you want to do. But we don't have private planes or the like because back in Russia. We've never been paid for our CDs because of illegal piracy, downloading -- it's been there all the time. The music industry never caught on there.
So for the last six years it's been touring, touring and we usually do at least one hundred to a hundred fifty dates a year. This situation keeps you in a realistic frame of mind so this question about small clubs and arenas...If you fly too high it's more painful to fall down. We're just trying to keep our altitude at a safe level. At least we understand what we're doing and we enjoy it. We never get bored with it. You go to all those new places, like Pontiac, Michigan, and you rediscover your music because everything works on a purely emotional level. It's about finding a common language with the audience, it's not about whether or not they speak Russian. It's about a global universal language of music or more a language of emotion.
WW: Why did you name your band, in part, after the Moomin series by Tove Jansson?
IL: It started like that because, at some point, back in [the] underground, Russian [music scene], we would name bands after different fairy tales. So we came up with "Moomin." A few years later, I said to myself, "It's too childish." It's like calling yourself Mickey Mouse. So we decided to play on the letters, and I changed it to "Mummy Troll"-- which sounds like a combination of Egyptian mummies and the scaly trolls. Apparently, that kind of name [was threatening] back in the Soviet Union, and the Russian police considered us the most dangerous band in the world because the name was as scary as Black Sabbath or the Sex Pistols. So that's how we got the name. I considered it a great achievement for us, because we had never released any albums and had played a few gigs and we're in the same league as the Sex Pistols and Black Sabbath.
WW: One of my favorite songs from Comrade Ambassador is "Hey, Tovarishch!" The lyrics and music have a wonderfully melancholy tone. Can you tell me what it's about?
IL: That's the most difficult to ask the people who write music. I usually try to play with double meanings. In any language, you can do this. It's like one of those pictures where you see lots of points but then when you look at it at a particular angle, you see a combination that's a triangle or something like that. "Tovarishch" is basically "comrade" and the word that is famous from communist times when it was a really formal thing. But in the end, it means "friend" in Russian. Basically, the song is about relationships between people so that they can see themselves more like friends, rather than take a formal attitude toward each other and to be more open minded.
WW: A lot of your songs have a melancholy, downtempo feel, but your live show is an exuberant, celebratory affair. Do you change how you perform the songs for the stage or are they similar to how you perform them for recordings?
IL: What happens with us is that we never really rehearse our songs. But the studio is one thing and they have all those nobs and you can tweak things around. I know some bands try to copy their albums; it's kind of a competition for them in achieving the same technological feat live on stage. But we just realized that the moment you try to copy your studio sound, it means you depend on all those click tracks and the rest of that technology. We don't like to do that, we like to enjoy what we're doing on stage. Some songs sound different but the level of energy plays a much larger role live. It's the difference between listening to an album in a car and what you're supposed to get at a live show.
I remember seeing some of my favorite bands in the '80s and realized it would probably be cheaper for me to listen an album. It's supposed to be a different galaxy. Bands like Kraftwerk are great at setting up a show that they can't really play differently. But with rock and roll, it's supposed to be raw energy that you're creating at that particular moment. It's about the band and yourself on stage and that particular guy in the audience and how you two build momentum, because it will never happen again. That's why I like playing live gigs because it's kind of an exclusive, unique experience. Even at other venues, every situation is different because so many things make each gig so memorable. Even if there is a technical hiccup, it's still a memory.
WW: Why did you decide to release Paradise Ahead as an English language EP rather than in Russian?
IL: We did Comrade Ambassador in Russian. It was our introduction to an American audience. We didn't want to do a Best Of compilation. We tried to introduce ourselves as that band we are. Then we got all these nice reviews and we thought, "Okay, our new potential audience has been nice to us so let's be nice to them." So this was kind of a friendly gesture. You can understand it more than just reading the translation of the lyrics. It's also a challenge for me as a writer trying to reach the same excitement lyrically in a different language. Trying to explore new things.
WW: Did you ever meet or see Egor Letov or his band Grazhdanskaya Oborona perform and are there other Russian rock or experimental bands you'd recommend people check out?
IL: I never saw him perform, but I listened to lots of his albums and songs, especially in the late '80s. They were hugely popular, and I still love some of them. If "Russian punk" ever existed, it meant him. The whole attitude, performance and ideology -- it was there. It was totally in his own way. I can hardly compare anyone in Russia who gets nearer. It was definitely not your mainstream cup of tea. It's not the way of life I would choose for me or my children. He was a brilliant lyricist, and I actually consider him more of an underground poet.
There are some bands which I really liked from the '80s, the era of Russian underground rock clubs. There was the band Aquarium, with Boris Grebenshchikov, has dozens of albums but I kind of like what he did in the late '80s. This band called Zvuki Mu was one of the most interesting art bands. I guess they released one album produced by Brian Eno -- a live album. They were terrible musicians, but the whole performance was excellent. One band, Sensor, was probably the first new wave band in Russia. Today they're more like an electronic, conceptual band. But they were imaginative guys and hard working -- more than what's going on now with young bands in Russia.
I kind of like this Russian hip-hop, but it's more for people who understand the language because the music isn't as important as the lyrics. Like this band called Katsch -- one of the most amazing political satirists. He's really intellectual but he has a sense of humor about what's going on in Russia and politics.
WW: How did you end up playing in Greenland, and what was it like playing there?
IL: It was fun! Sometimes all that touring is not just about money. Sometimes it's about having new experiences. We were touring Denmark and our manager told us we had toured to every city we could possibly do and we had one more option and it was Greenland, but no one knows you. But we just went there for fun. We were probably the first band ever to play in Greenland. There were a hundred people in the audience. I remember they had five local television channels and one channel played all of our music videos 24-hours-a-day to promote the show. It was an amazing experience; it was like another planet. And it was in February; it was worse than Siberia, let me tell you.
Mumiy Troll, with ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Future of the Left, 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax, $16.25 - $18.00, 303-830-8497.
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