Mumiy Troll has had one of the most interesting career trajectories of any rock and roll band you’re liable to hear. Formed in the early 1980s in Vladivostok, Russia, the band was deemed socially dangerous by the Soviet government, yet managed to become the most dominant pop-culture phenomenon the nation has seen. Globally recognized as the example of Russian pop music, the band now has set its sites on that holy grail: the American audience. Their latest effort, Vladivostok, picks up where 2009’s all-Russian Comrade Ambassador left off, bringing the band’s classic rockapops sound to bear through English rearrangements of some of their most popular songs.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with lead singer Ilya Lagutenko about the band’s wide-ranging career and how they intend to conquer the American rock audience without losing their original flavor in the translation.
Many of the songs on Vladivostok have been released before in Russian versions on albums including Comrade Ambassador. Were there any songs on the new album which were written first in English?
There is a track called “Lightning” which was initially written in English, so we don’t have a Russian version of that song. But the challenge for us was how to make a compilation of tracks which would really reflect the current state of the band. I really had a hard time putting together a certain number of tracks in English for the person who doesn’t have the experience of enjoying the songs already in Russian.
We’d thought about how that music would appeal to the listener who wasn’t ready to hear the songs in a foreign language. What has been particularly challenging about this album was that we replayed these songs together, rewriting with changes in tempo and arrangement, because you can’t just translate the meaning of the lyrics. You have to write a whole new story or it doesn’t work, especially with rock and roll.
As for the language variations, though, I’ve dealt with this for the last ten years. In our case, I’m really well prepared for fan criticism: “I remember when you played this song in a demo in 1997, and I really loved that sound.” When we tour different places I’ll try to play at least some songs in the native language even if they aren’t necessarily our songs, just to feel a different kind of connection with an audience.
I read that you used to hear your music was too Western for Russian audiences. Are you hearing the opposite now, that you’re too Russian for American audiences?
To be honest, I’ve never heard that we sound too Russian for American audiences, because I guess American audiences really don’t know that much about Russian music. There’s really not that much you can learn about Russian pop music in general, let’s be fair about that. You have to understand the way of life in Russia.
Sergei Zhuk, a professor of Russian History at Ball State University, wrote a book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City, which suggests Rock and Roll helped bring down the Soviet Union. It wasn’t so much that Western music was finding ways to reach Soviet youth, but that the apparatchiks would bring the music home and their kids would spread it through the black market for personal profit.
That’s an interesting idea, because I still remember the first TV reviews of the state of rock music in my hometown, and one phrase became so popular because a famous Russian reporter said: “No one could ever make money off this rock music in Vladivostok.” And we still laugh about that today, because I guess there are ways to make anything self-sufficient.
What was it like being dubbed “socially dangerous” despite your music rarely delving into political subjects?
It was really a good compliment in those times, because being noticed is very important for a teenager who starts playing music. To be noticed in a rebellious way is probably even better! We knew criticism was coming not from really knowing us. It was from people who didn’t know what we were really about. They just heard our name and it sounded so strange, like Black Sabbath or the Sex Pistols.
A few years later we had an interesting situation when we got a request to play a club in Denmark. We said: “Sure, why not? But how do you know of us? We’re not well known over there.” And they said: “Oh, because we’re the best venue in the country for death metal!” They didn’t even know what we were playing, they just liked the name Mumiy Troll and thought it suited their goals.
Now it’s easier, you just Google Mumiy Troll and you’ll know what we sound like. I remember one day I was going through customs in the United States and the guy was looking at his computer. And I was curious, what are they looking at on those computers – an FBI or CIA database? And he asked: “What do you do? You’re a musician?” And he turns the screen to me and asks: “Is that you?” He’d Googled my name, and the band page popped up with YouTube information!
Do you think having all the music available online has helped Mumiy Troll attract a more global audience?
I guess in general it is a way to do that. But at the same time, right now you have zillions of bands online so you need a good guide to be introduced to listeners. Any new band, like us, in the United States has the same challenge – how do you direct fans to your music?
How have fans reacted to the new album?
To be honest, I don’t really know yet. The album hasn’t been available to anyone yet and we can only judge from a few comments online or the audiences coming to our gigs. The people coming to see us live in the United States enjoy the shows, but that could be because of the music or because they’re enjoying mixing with the Russian girls in the audience. Where else can you get this chance?
What would you want audiences to take from the new songs?
I like them to follow us further, so for me it can be hard to understand what people find to be meaningful in my songs. Most of the time I’m not sure when I’m writing that what I write or perform is going to be interesting to a general audience. Then the real people give you their life story, how they connect to the music.
I heard this story that Russian police, when they killed a sniper in Chechnya, a 16 year old girl shooting at them, she’d been listening to Mumiy Troll on her Walkman. That kind of story can make you really think about your audience. I also remember playing a morning radio show in San Francisco. We did a couple of acoustic songs live, and this couple in their seventies came to me: “We’re pleased to meet you, because this was the first time ever in our lives we’ve been able to meet a real Russian.” All this time spent in the Cold War mentality, they’d remembered hiding in bunkers under “red alert,” and now they liked our songs. We were just normal people! I don’t want to sound too political, but it’s musical diplomacy.
One entry point to your music I’ve noticed is the sense of humor. When you watch a Mumiy Troll video, we can tell you enjoy every bit of the process. How do you keep things fresh after so many years as a musician?
The first rule, it never hurts, is that we’ve decided its too boring to practice songs. If you play it too much, you lose the whole enjoyment factor. That’s why I don’t enjoy many live shows these days. What keeps our band together is that I don’t want to let my bandmates sit on their laurels, or their lives become too easy in Russia. That gets us nowhere. We have to feel the excitement as if it’s our first show every time. I remember when we first played in Mexico, it was cool that by the second or third song people were jumping around, enjoying the music when they’d never heard anything like us before.
You once were quoted as saying: “You can’t speak one language to the entire world, you have to learn from each other.” What advice would you have for American bands hoping to open their music up to a global audience?
Someone once asked our guitarist: “Is there any advice you’d give American guitarists they could only get from a Russian?” And he responded: “Yes, they could learn how to drink Vodka.” But I guess to conquer the United States, for bands around the world, is one of those “top five ambitions” everyone has, because Rock and Roll was invented in America, not Siberia.
But at the same time there are no rules. It is a body which grows and we don’t know where it will go tomorrow. We take what touches us as individuals and make it our own. I’ve never liked those guitarists who play really fast; I want to hear the notes, even if it’s just one chord. Yet in a band you’ll have four people with different views on how to make music, and there’s this unexplainable process of delivering your own music to an audience. We make it work the best we can and hope someone out there listens.