Mumiy Troll BIO — January 2012
Voted “Best Band of the Millennium” by Russian music fans, Mumiy Troll (pronounced Moo-me Troll) isn’t merely that country’s most successful band, it’s without question the most significant musical entity Russia has produced since Perestroika. The group’s popularity is so great that contemporary Russian music is broken down in terms of what came before and after Mumiy Troll. This ambitious band has sold out tours all over the planet and is recognized as one of the most well-traveled and hard-working bands on theplanet. Mumiy Troll’s sound is an amalgam of glam flamboyance and Stones-like swagger with inventive wit and giant hooks—a sound that continues to be imitated by both wannabes and mainstream acts throughout the former Soviet Union. The talent, charisma, intellect and work ethic of band founder and frontman Ilya Lagutenko have made him the quintessential Russian superstar, putting him in the vanguard of contemporary cultural trends, impacting the clothing, hairstyles and behavior of the millions of Russian kids who idolize him.
Mumiy Troll’s new album, Vladivostok (April 24, The Village), the band’s first full-length English-language effort, was recorded in L.A. and produced by Lagutenko in collaboration with Mike Clink (Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth), Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, The Shins) and Brit Greg Brimson (Bush, Eminem). This provocative, hard-hitting, wicked-clever collection is Mumiy Troll’s ninth studio album, following 2009’s Comrade Ambassador, a limited-edition, Russian-language compilation of tracks intended to introduce Mumiy Troll to America. “The songs are nothing if not compelling to hear, with the history of their land interwoven into each track,” AllMusic.com raved in its review of Comrade Ambassador. “For being pioneers in their own land, it’s impressive how closely they come to near-current American rock trends…. A thrilling cultural experiment, to say the least, with hopefully more to come.”
Vladivostok represents the next step in Mumiy Troll’s cultural experiment. Lagutenko describes the new album as “a magical trip through the vibes and emotions of my countrymen, a virtual Trans-Siberian trek, like a Russian guide taking a Western backpacker across the vastness of Russia—but in reverse.”
Prior to Comrade Ambassador, Mumiy Troll—which also includes guitarist Yuri Tsaler, drummer Oleg Pungin, and bassist Eugene “Sdwig” Zvidionny—wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the animated feature film Neznaika and Barrabas, created a new score for the classic Russian silent sci-fi movie Cosmic Journey and contributed tracks to several films, including the Russian blockbuster Night Watch, in which Lagutenko starred as a vampire. More recently, Ilya voiced the monkey in the Russian-language version of Kung Fu Panda, while covering “Kung-Fu Fighting” for the soundtrack. The band has played gigs throughout Russia and all over the world, in locales as far-flung as Kazakhstan, Greenland, Japan and China—where Lagutenko wowed the massive crowd by singing his songs in Mandarin.
“I wanted to travel all my life—I wanted to be a sailor just to see the world,” Lagutenko says. “And now I realize it’s much better to see the world by playing your songs for people. Having been a professional interpreter for so many years, I understand you can’t really speak one language to the entire world; you have to find a way to learn from each other. We’re on a mission, and every show we do proves to us that the mission is going well. At the same time, we’re breaking stereotypes about Russians and the ‘evil Soviet empire.’ If you want to see how people behaved in Soviet times, go to a Russian community in America like Brighton Beach. That’s no longer the way people live and act in modern Russia. Some people may see what we do as childish entertainment, when in fact we’re not just building popular culture, we’re building liaisons between continents. I call what we’re doing ‘musical tourism.’”
Mumiy Troll’s back story is a fascinating one indeed. Lagutenko was born in Moscow to an architect father and a fashion designer mother, but after Ilya’s dad died when he was just five months old, his mom relocated to her home town of Vladivostok, the Trans-Siberian railway terminus on Russia’s Pacific Coast—much closer to China and North Korea than to any other major Russian city. Ilya started his first band, which he called Bunny Pee, at the age of 11, and two years later he cobbled together the initial lineup of MumiyTroll, the name a bastardization of Moomin Troll, a series of Finnish children’s books by Tove Jansson. But for Ilya, the band name has taken on a greater meaning. “Mumiys are a symbol of eternal life,” he explains, “and Trolls are magical creatures who are good more than evil.”
At the time, Russia was still isolated behind the Iron Curtain, and rock music was considered subversive by the Soviet government, forcing bands underground. Though Lagutenko considered the band merely a hobby at the time, he was surprised and delighted when a local Communist Party official condemned Mumiy Troll as “one of the most socially dangerous bands in the world,” right alongside Black Sabbath.
In 1987, Ilya broke up the band in order to serve in the Soviet Navy and further his education, graduating from Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok with degrees in Mandarin and Chinese economy. He then worked as an interpreter, which took him all over Northern Asia, before landing a job with an investment bank in London during the height of Britpop in 1994. It was “an amazing experience to be in swinging London,” as he puts it, at that vibrant moment—so inspiring that two years later he decided to reform Mumiy Troll. Writing a batch of new material, he rounded up some fellow Russian expat musicians, borrowed the equivalent of $20,000 from his family and friends and recorded his first professionally made album, Morskaya.
Six months later, after being turned down by all the major labels, Lagutenko signed a deal with a Moscow-based company, which released the album in 1997, and Ilya was flabbergasted when this shot in the dark from an essentially unknown band went straight to the top of the Russian charts. Morskaya’s breakthrough—and the fact that he didn’t see any money whatsoever from album sales from the label, which had gone into bankruptcy—led Lagutenko to solidify the lineup with musicians he’d played with back in Vladivostok and embark on a tour of Russia, where Mumiy Troll sold out arenas throughout the country and collected the receipts.
A quick study, Lagutenko soon realized that the only way to properly control the band’s business was to take it over himself, so the budding rock star became a budding entrepreneur as well, forming his own management and publishing companies, self-releasing Mumiy Troll’s albums—each of them a hit—and personally organizing the band’s subsequent touring. It was in this way that he managed to successfully navigate the Wild West-like chaos of Russian capitalism.
In 2006, after seven albums and more than 1,000 gigs, Lagutenko and his band mates became intrigued by the possibility of recording in L.A., a notion reinforced by Ilya’s future wife, who hoped to further her modeling career. “We Googled ‘best recording studio in Los Angeles,’ and the Village was the first one that came up, so we booked a session there,” Lagutenko recalls. “Jeff Greenberg, who owns and runs the Village, came into the studio while we were recording and started telling us how great we sounded. He promised to help us in any way he could, and he came through.” Greenberg is now managing the band. Lagutenko now splits his time between Moscow and his home in the Hollywood Hills, as he continues to push the cross-cultural envelope.
“This is a different experience, and something to remember,” he reflects. “It’s what keeps the band vital. I don’t like to rest on our laurels. I want to explore possibilities, to do things we’ve never done before. So in a sense we’re starting from scratch all over again.”
Welcome to the latest offensive in Mumiy Troll’s excellent adventure.