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.