Monday, March 2, 2009

Interview: Mumiy Troll

Since 1983, Russia's Mumiy Troll have been a unique musical force with their self-described "rockapops" sound - a combination of rock attitude and pop melodies. Not releasing their first official album until 1997, the band has gone from illegal underground shows in the last years of the Soviet Union to being dubbed "one of the most socially dangerous bands in the world" to being recognized in schoolbooks as the nation's most popular band and representing their country in the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest. 2009 sees their first release in the United States - Comrade Ambassador - a combination of the band's last two records, coupled with a North American tour. A few weeks back, we conducted an interview with the band's frontman and leader, Ilya Lagutenko.

Update: Lagutenko fell ill yesterday following a concert at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Lagutenko is recovering after a successful appendectomy. The band was scheduled to play San Francisco and Los Angeles this week, however those dates have been postponed.

You've said there was no independent music scene in Russia when you started. How did a scene grow and what goals did you have for an independent music scene?
There was A SCENE - mostly in big cities like Moscow or St Petersburg, but there was no music market scene. In other words, to be able to produce records, sell them, publish and even play concerts - you gotta be licensed musician in Soviet Union. Rocknroller simply means you are kind of non-existent personality for the State. All rock gigs mostly were in deep underground, and simply called “flat shows” meaning they are held at someone's apartment where only close circle of friends can come.

When perestroika came, and all those new “Russian capitalists” started to show their entrepreneurial skills, they hardly thought they could make money on all those “underground indie bands”. They did not want to notice them –guessing they appealed to very limited no-money kids audience.

But when we released our first official and 100% self-funded album in mid-90s and it suddenly proved there are millions of fans of that music all around country-indie scene starts to grow...still lots of Russian music big fishes remember how they would throw our demo tape into rubbish bin saying that kind of “western pop rock indie alternative “ hardly has any potential audience. Time proves totally opposite. So in this case we made a history-setting an example for them.

What made you want to play this type of music, and what were your early gigs like? How did it evolve to the wait where every Russian schoolchild knows your name?
I did fantasize about those different worlds I knew from books – other galaxies and Cowboys and Indians..they all looked like they never would be fulfilled in real life. Apparently in the world of rock music you can create yourself in your bedroom.

As my personal game I have invented hundreds of bands names, their histories, their artworks and chart day I decided that one of those band should materialize into real life. Twenty years later a textbook on Russian modern history said that Mumiy Troll was most significant band in New Modern Russia. I have met that profeesor who wrote the textbook. He was not our fan apparently. He said he did scientific research, asking thousands of students the same question -- what was in your opinion most significant music thing happened in 90s Russia despite their own style preferences -- all in common apparently said Mumiy Troll ... funny isn’t it?

What do you think made the local communist party characterize you as "one of the most socially dangerous bands in the world."
Probably the name of the be specific they were saying ”Mumiy Troll together with Black Sabbath and Sex Pistols”. Honestly I even did not know Sex Pistols at that time, but I loved the company! When you’re 15, such words send you on top of the world, culmination of teenage angst against whole world.

When international acts try and break into the US, I think there is often a pressure to perform in English. Was there a conscious decision not to go that route?
In fact, no record company in US including most famous indie labels – and believe me, we sent our promo packages to all of them over last 2 years – did not want even consider Russian band to release. So I’ve just decided to set up my own indie label and introduce the band from that point who we are indeed back home. All songs are from our recent recording sessions, no Russian chart singles included, all in Russian. Sounds insane? But this is what Mumiy Troll is all about. I guess this is what rock n roll should be – no fear, from the heart, truthful to yourself.

So you've started your own label to release this in the U.S. - what has been your "strategy" and how do you feel about the response you've received so far?
My strategy is no strategy at all. We live in times where all old music promo tools never work like it was before. We’re launching the album in totally new and unknown territory for us. What I can rely on is only enthusiasm of people who happen to come to our shows and listen to the record. So far I’ve heard “delightfully fresh” sound, “devilishly slick” and “stand out from the pack of repetitive music scene”...what else rewarding you can expect? Especially from Americans who probably know more than anyone about rock music!

The internet has become so incredible influential to music in America. Do you see the same thing in Russia? How do you utilize the internet and how do you connect with your fans?
Oh yes! I guess Internet download possibilities were explored in Russia full-time for last 10 years. We never had that Napster discussion back home, download for free - is good go ahead and do not give a damn. WE advertise free downloading for our fans of our Album “Exact Mercury Aloe” back in 1999!!!! Long before Radiohead guys came up to this decision. And it has no commercial value at all. We were just screaming from our total non-security about publishing rights etc.We only could rely on live shows and still are. So this move was to familarize fans with new songs..ten years later you do the same in US...funny isn’t it?

You were thinking about the internet and free music very early - what were the indicators to you that this would bean influential force?
I’m not a geek or new gadgets man. All new technologies I ususally judge by how I can relate myself to it. Only if its totally “idiot-friendly”, that is my thing then.

For some reason I had my vision that Internet is future. However, I’m not a naturally born entrepreneur so I never make a buck out of it. I sometimes think I just live ahead of time or in some parallel world.

What were the band's major influences when you started, and how have those influences changed?
I felt on seventh heaven if I only had a chance to listen any type of music from the West, so AC/DC was the same adorable for me as Duran Duran and Nitty Gritty Dirt band. I guess it helped me to listen and find a special appeal in any kind of music later. I’m really a very curious listener, so I’m one of those reasons why music market still survives... I still look for and buy new records!!!

How has the band evolved and how is that reflected in the new record?
For last ten years I tried to get various producers to record Mumiy Troll album, but all those “rickrubins” never agreed to do so. So every time I told myself “OK, ILYA then you gotta be in charge - who else?” So every album is my personal reflection and research - what kind of sound we have to develop, how deep or shallow we gotta dig in our studio sessions, be more live or eccentric...last album is not an exemption. It just real Mumiy Troll circa 2008/09.

What made you choose "California Dreaming" as a cover?
It was our “thank you” to the guys at The Village Recording Studio - we did most of those songs on the album there. Before we came to LA first time, we simply Googled “best recording studio in LA “ and The Village came up. I called them and they were really helpful and kind to us. It was best times of our lives-recording lives for sure. And it was really good value in comparison to Europe/Russia..of course we were not able to spent months there ... but if I could, I’d live in this studio ... truly became our 2nd home.

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