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Non-Prog Interviews

Mumiy Troll

Interviewed by Scott Montgomery
Interview with Ilya Lagutenko of Mumiy Troll from 2009
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

How does it feel – first US tour?
We are excited.  Obviously, this is our first tour in the US on this kind of scale that we’re doing now.  
MSJ: Is it cool to play small places again?  You’ve played a lot of big places.
You know I have never had any prejudices or illusions about playing different venues.  You know, in the history of our band…..starting out twenty years ago in the Soviet Union.  It was a wild idea.  You can’t really think that you can make a living out of it or will be widely known.  It was mainly your own thing for your friends.  It was really underground.  When I am saying Russian underground it is like really underground.  You have no sources or resources to take it to a different level.  You are literally existing underground. You know, rock music was banned.  The government didn’t want any unlicensed cultural activities.  People say that they would be jailed, but really people were never jailed for music in the Soviet Union.  They have been jailed for activities around music, like selling tickets for a show.  So they have been smart in this, in that they never say you are jailed for your song.  No way.  Most powers and governments are smart about how they deal with this.  It’s not like “we hate your song and your song will bring you to jail.”  In such a case, you become immortal.  What they will do is try to drag you into the dirt, like for speculation of selling tickets or reselling your guitar, but never just for the music.
MSJ: In many parts of Eastern Europe rock music has often been associated with political dissent.
Yes, even in my hometown of Vladivostok it was really…. A ten hour flight from Moscow and a one hour flight from Tokyo.  But Tokyo was closed and China was closed. It was a really secluded place from everywhere.  And people in Moscow they still don’t really care about the people in the Far East, because they think it is too far, and too few people to care.  So in the late 80s and early 90s Vladivostok became famous for its criminals.  Ask people in Russia about Vladivostok and they will say it’s where people shoot each other for owning a car.  Obviously, we had all these second-hand Japanese cars.  In the wild times of the early 90s it was mad, a mess.  It was the Wild West. Vladivostok – there were no laws.  Moscow didn’t care – it was too far away.  So we got a mayor of our town who was like the local Al Capone….  So for the last ten years it was a really funny place.  All of us people from the Far East, we are really proud of our place.  We still have a mess there, but we all stick to each other and we are different from say St. Petersburg people with all their history, blah blah blah, and Moscow is like New York.   But we have a sense of our own reality.  We were probably the first band who were from so far out, beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, to really make it big in Russia.  And this actually enabled us to talk and behave like we wanted.  Back home, people said “how the hell did you do this?” But we were just like real people, we did not pretend to be someone else, we did not try to copy anyone, we didn’t really follow local show biz rules, we just tried to do what we do.  Ten years ago our self-funded album sold so well in Russia that everyone knows us there.  Even then, we didn’t make any money, due to piracy and such.  But we made a name and decided to stick together.  Let’s just do whatever we do and not care about the rules.
MSJ: Did you find this to be liberating?  If they know you, you can actually get away with saying more.
In a way. You are trying to get the most out of what you’ve got already, but then you say “OK there need to be these compromises…” To develop a band, to develop a sound you have to stick to your own plan.  Anyway, there is a definition of Rock and Roll that I like: honesty and a sense of reality – this is what rock and roll is about.  (laughs)  It’s a really simple answer to what rock and roll is.  You kind of get the best parts and influences of some other people’s music you have heard, like Elvis Presley and those guys, taking bits and pieces from black music, R&B, and other influences.  This is what we did actually.  I took pieces of what I heard from my childhood, random music from the West – like AC/DC, Genesis, Blondie, Duran Duran – it was magical because we didn’t stick to any particular genre.  Because everything was banned, so anything outside what you would hear on television was interesting.
MSJ: How did you get it?
Black Market.  Sailors would bring it in from Singapore, Japan, wherever.  So basically it depended upon chance, because they would bring in all kinds of random things, maybe buying them because of the artwork.  Like, there was this band Nazareth…. They had great album covers.
MSJ: Hair of the Dog is a great album cover.
Yeah, when I saw this cover, I said “S***, I love this band!”  Before I even listened to it!  So, imagine the impact of this band Nazareth on the Russian people.  Apparently, I was lucky to see them in London in the early 90s in a club in Camden town.  There were like five people in the audience including me and two of my friends and two Japanese girls.  Then a few years later, I saw them in St. Petersburg in an ice arena with maybe 12,000 people all singing along in English.  Somehow in the Soviet Union, some bands became big for different reasons.  Like I am sure that Nazareth became big a lot because of their artwork.  People were obsessed with the Nazareth artwork.  It is the same with Kiss.  No one really likes the songs, but they love the visual idea – they are not human, they are like space people.  Who are they?  Probably the Rolling Stones are not that popular (in Russia) for this reason too.
MSJ: How about Yes?  I was thinking because of the artwork…
Yeah! – prog rock is big in Russia, like King Crimson, Genesis.  I started to listen to them from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.  I think prog rock was bigger in Russia than new wave was.  Prog rock and maybe metal, like Iron Maiden.   …   Rock and Roll..OK it was banned in Russia, but people knew about it.  But historically it was never really known in China.  So rock is not really known in China.
MSJ: I don’t know of a single Chinese rock band.  I’m sure they exist, but I am unaware of any…
Yes.  There are some, but the problem is that in the 70s and 80s it was such a secluded society…(Chairman Mao and that sort of thing…) - they didn’t really have any information from outside China.  And so they don’t really care, even now, about rock music.
MSJ: Even the younger people?
Yeah, because they have no…well, in Russia we sort of had it in our blood this kind of rebellious quality, feeling of freedom, all those Western values blah blah blah…
MSJ: …all those socio-political associations, yeah.
It is all associated with rock music.  But, in China they simply don’t know that.  I studied Chinese and had lots of friends and classmates of course, from China.  One time the Rolling Stones came – “ah, such a nice gig in Shanghai.” So I asked, “how many people were there?”  And they said “it was amazing, there were like five thousand!”  (laughter).  The first time in China – the Rolling Stones….in like the biggest city in the world, there should be a million people there!….
MSJ: Was it the ticket prices?
No, it was really not about tickets.  It’s that they just don’t care.  They don’t care.  Rock – it’s called Yao Bi (sic)  - basically a translation of “rock” and “roll” …
MSJ: And in Russia, is it the same or do you have a particular term for it? Is it just Rock and Roll?
Yeah, Rock and Roll (laughs).  But, we invented our own term for our own music – we call it "rocapops."
MSJ: How did it all get started?
I was trying to figure out what to do, after some boring jobs and one of my school mates said “just record your songs.  Just do what you do.”  That’s what we did - we actually put our own money in to record our so-called first official album.  We released it in 1997 in Russia.
MSJ: Twelve years – wow.
Yeah – and it became a huge thing.
MSJ: But you had been playing before that, had you not?
Yeah, but the problem was that it was kind of an amateur activity.  We would only get together a few people maybe for the gig.  Sometimes there would only be a couple of people there.  So that’s why I say I am not afraid of playing any type of venue.  I have played for just a couple of people – like my roommates. (laughs)
MSJ: …and that has its own freedom.
It was actually cool to play for people who I have known for nearly all my life and see them enjoy what I am doing.  That is really nice to see, so really even a few people can make it feel great.

In Russia, people are really strict about what is “Rock” and what is “Roll”.  If you are a Rocker, you gotta be rebellious and argh and all that.  And we were never really that rebellious – we were just guys for the far far east, we had no connection to Moscow really and had nothing really to rebel against.  We just wanted girls and vodka (laughs).  That is actually why we had all this that new wave approach, and actually why we had support from Moscow and St. Petersburg at some point. Because people considered us the only new wave band in the former Soviet Union.  Because, everyone was like heavy metal or prog rock, and we were almost the only new wave band.
MSJ: Weren’t you called some wonderful thing like The Most Dangerous Band?  
Yeah, it was funny.  In the 80s they used to have these so-called Black Lists.  So, the local party or committee would draw the line on a local level…. Now it all sounds funny, like from another planet, but that is how it was, with someone guiding your life in such a restricted way.  It would be like saying here, the mayor of Denver can decide what kind of music can be listened to, and these are the banned bands and if you listen to them you will have trouble.  Like, um think of some band…OK, so if you listen to Matchbox Twenty, you will be jailed.
MSJ: Wow!
Or you won’t have your mortgage approved…
MSJ: Imagine what the Grateful Dead would have done to them…
(laughs)…yeah, so it would be like that. If you had a discoteque or dancehall, they would say “OK this band ABBA from Sweden, you can play their music.”  Or “this band Kiss, no that is not allowed.”  And “this band Mumiy Troll…” – I’m not sure they even heard our music, because we were not that big (laughs) – “Mumiy Troll is a scary name, so the music must be scary and banned…”  (laughs)  So it really has nothing to do with us.
MSJ: I wondered about this because you don’t seem to write particularly political songs. More like philosophical musings.
Yeah, in a way even in my lyrics I might put forward something to think about, but not in a straight-forward way.  Not that I’m kind of hiding my feelings.  …  I would think about real peoples’ feelings, like my family.  My grandparents actually saw Russia before the Revolution…during the War.  My grandmother remembers it all.  And she is ninety now…and has a boyfriend (laughs).  I am grateful for what happened in Russia with Perestroika.  Our country was opened.  I have a chance to travel.  I have a chance to play my music more widely.  I feel like the luckiest person in the world because I get to do what I do and really live the life I dreamed of.  But lots of people don’t like the changes in Russia, they think it was nice to live in the Soviet Union and have the government tell you what to do and pay your salary.  
MSJ: Is gigging over there (in Russia) different?  Here you have the tour bus….
Not really.  The only problem in Russia is that at some point the bus would give out because the roads are not good.  So, we are kind of used to flying.
MSJ: I would think so, since the distances are so great.
Yeah.  We really have to fly in Russia, which makes your tour more expensive and makes it hard to get to some places.  But then those oil and gas cities in the north of Russia, they will spend crazy money to bring you to play.  But we just love to play for the people, wherever the place.
MSJ: So, what is you’re favorite gig ever?
I usually remember our gig in Greenland, because it was weird – 100% weird.  We did a few shows in Scandinavia and had this following there.  But, we felt we wanted to try more places, so we decided Greenland, let’s go there!  (laughs).  The only place to play is actually in the capital which has only 10,000 inhabitants.
MSJ: Was it one gig? Did you go all the way to Greenland for one gig? 
Yeah, we did one gig and we went for a whole week because there is like one flight a week from Copenhagen to Greenland and then you have to wait five days or so to return.  And the airport looks like that bar from Star Wars…there are just all these different types of people.  
MSJ: So you guys really just did this one for fun.
Absolutely.  We stayed actually five days in the capital of Greenland.  It was February and freezing cold – minus degrees to whatever it can get below zero.  And there is no television there and the one local channel played our videos twenty-four hours a day for like three days and we thought it was the greatest programming we had ever seen. (laughs).  Then we had about a hundred people at our gig.  And they said, “you are the second band ever who came to play Greenland.”  So we asked, “who was the first?”  A band called Slade, from England.  It was the second attempt.  The band called Blur had tried, but they didn’t sell any tickets.  (laughter)  “So, you were lucky, as an exotic band from Russia (laughs), you actually sold tickets.”  But, it was a nice venue – nice architecture….
MSJ: If you got to play one place, any place, what would it be?
Greenland. (laughs) Or somewhere in Africa.  We actually rehearsed one of our albums in South Africa.  It was amazing. 

I believe that my generation – we live in the most exciting time imaginable. 
 
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