Russia's Mumiy Troll brings "socially dangerous" rock to the U.S.—but not by submarine
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Founded in Russia’s port city of Vladivostok in 1983 by frontman Ilya Lagutenko, the self-described “rockapops” group Mumiy Troll has translated remarkably well from one historical context to a drastically different one. But perhaps even more extraordinary is the band’s proven ability to redefine “Russian music” for a wide-ranging global audience, most recently with the new self-released, five-song Paradise Ahead EP (which features the band's first track sung in English). That’s no easy feat (thanks, bands like t.A.T.u.). The A.V. Club recently got in touch with Lagutenko to discuss the band's upcoming U.S. tour (which includes a show at First Avenue on Friday Night) but wound up talking about grandmas, submarines, and the Kama Sutra.
The A.V. Club: Do you prefer English or Russian for this interview?
Ilya Lagutenko: We should also consider Chinese. [Lagutenko is fluent in Mandarin.] And I’ve done interviews in Japanese, though I don’t know a word of it.
AVC: Improvisation—a fine segue for talking about your live shows.
IL: [Laughs.] Those are always good experiments for myself and for the audience. Live music isn’t about singing a song exactly as it’s recorded on an album. It’s more about noises and sounds working together with music, with energy. It’s not about, you know, reading a book on Kama Sutra positions, then going to bed with your lover to experience “Page 1: Do this and that.” That’s not real life. In real life, if you feel it, you dive into it. It’s the same thing with music.
AVC: Nevertheless, if your album is a Kama Sutra book, it's certainly well-edited—there’s a certain poetry and narrative to your lyrics. They’re premeditated. Russian critics, in particular, note this.
IL: I never thought of it that way, but hell yes! I do feel I’m a kind of poet. But why and where the lyrics come from, I still don’t know. Someone up in heaven or in the depths of the ocean is giving me all those words. [Laughs.] I’m not a storyteller, as in “A person goes from A to Z and this and that happens to him.” I’m more about emotions and—how to put it?—hallucinations without drugs.
AVC: Even in your recordings from 1985, one can still recognize the band that exists today.
IL: It’s funny—we still play tracks I wrote as a 14-year-old. I’m not shy about them. I’m happy those songs have passed the time test. That gives me a certain amount of confidence in what I’m doing. And those early songs were written in the Soviet Union, under totally different rules and ideologies. Back then, I never actually felt myself “the rebel who has to go to the barricades.” I don’t think I had that teenage ambition to explain the world and how it’s structured. I realized, then, that I don’t know these things, and I thought it better to write about what exists only in my mind, to share my personal world. As a matter of fact, millions of people decided to join that world. [Laughs.]
AVC: No wonder Soviet politicians called you “one of the most socially dangerous bands in the world.”
IL: We never claimed to be “socially dangerous,” but even our name—Mumiy Troll—scared them. What a big joke. In those times, people wouldn’t dig too deep before saying, “He sounds crazy.” Unexplainable things were, in fact, more rebellious than straightforward propaganda. In that context, we were more rebellious than anyone else around! [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve maintained your inexplicability over the years —you’re a pleasure to Google search. One weird rumor after another. Is it true you travel Russia’s coast by submarine?
IL: Oh yeah! Of course! We’re from Vladivostok, after all. If we could, we’d add wheels to the submarine and travel the interstate highways of America in it, too. But, for the time being, we have to keep it in a secret location near the water. [Laughs.]
AVC: And what of this nickname given to you: “The Dostoyevsky of Modern Pop”?
IL: Throughout our career, we’ve had many, many tags given to us by the media. But “Dostoyevsky of Modern Pop”—that’s really good when talking with my grandmother. She might hesitate, and ask “What exactly are you doing for a living?” I answer, “Oh, you know, I’m kind of…Dostoyevsky.”