Interview: Mumiy Troll - Russian Mummy Monsters Invade!
It’s tough to decide what to admire most about Russian rock vets Mumiy Troll: the fact that they pursued a music career knowing they’d take home next to nothing no matter how well their records sold, the fact that they became the most popular band in a land where rock was banned when they were kids, or the fact that they had the foresight to name themselves after the only undead creatures that haven’t been bandwagoned into the ground in modern times.
Forty-three-year-old singer/ guitarist Ilya Lagutenko first started using the name Mumiy Troll for the lineup he put together when he was 13 and living in Vladivostok, the port town 100 miles from North Korea and China where he got hooked on Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and Sex Pistols records smuggled into the country by cruise-ship employees.
“You had a whole generation of people in the ’70s and ’80s who would practically die to get a new record,” he recalls. “And long-play [LP] records would cost, like, a month’s salary in Soviet Russia—like, 80 rubles. A Russian engineer would probably get a hundred rubles a month. So imagine the love!”
Back then, Lagutenko was still a long way from teaming with current Trolls—lead guitarist Yuri Tsaler, bassist Eugene Zvidionny, and drummer Oleg Pungin—to storm their homeland, but that fact probably just underscored the coolness of having his teen band publicly singled out by a local Communist party leader and lumped in with the likes of Black Sabbath as being dangerous and subversive.
Even so, it looked like Troll domination would remain a childhood fantasy when Lagutenko dissolved the band at 19 so he could serve in the Russian navy. After his military service, he graduated from college with degrees in Mandarin and Chinese economics and worked all over Asia as an interpreter, then later as an investment bank employee in mid- ’90s London. But within two years of basking in the thriving Britpop revival, Lagutenko decided to bring Mumiy back from the dead.
With production help from big names who’d worked with the Stones, Duran Duran, the Cure, and Tears for Fears, 1996’s pop-y Morskaya [Sea] and 1997’s more rocking Ikra [Caviar] made Mumiy stars back home. But despite working mostly with British and American producers and being huge in their homeland (they’re often called “the Rolling Stones of Russia,” and rock is purportedly sometimes discussed in “before/after Mumiy Troll” terms), Lagutenko and Tsaler’s quartet has only recently begun to make inroads abroad. Their 9th—and first English-only—studio album, Vladivostok, aims to change that.
Recorded in L.A. with Lagutenko producing in tandem with Mike Clink (Guns N’ Roses, Megadeth), Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, the Shins), and Greg Brimson (Bush, Eminem), the 10-song outing finds Mumiy Troll reinterpreting some of its past hits, but also going for a more organic, live-feeling, and guitar-centric vibe. Through it all, Lagutenko (an avowed fan of Fender Esquires and Music Masters) enchants you with an inimitable voice that’s half Bela Lugosi, half David Bowie, while Tsaler wields vintage axes—a Tele, Strat, Jazzmaster, and Gretsch—to crank out liquidly sustaining leads, glorious atmospheric washes, and spaghetti- Western warbles.
We recently spoke with both players to get the fascinating story of their formation behind the Iron Curtain, playing stadiums in the East post-Perestroika, and now effectively starting over again in U.S. clubs.
What first got you into playing
guitar, and who were your
Ilya Lagutenko: I guess I got into it because of pictures of guys with guitars—Japanese magazines with hair-metal bands. Probably Van Halen and guys with flying Vs [laughs]. I said, “Yes! This is cool.” I didn’t know what the music was like, because I only saw the pictures, but I liked the band logos and the guitars. My first hero was probably Paul Stanley, because he had that star eye! [Laughs.] And definitely Ritchie Blackmore, because Deep Purple and Rainbow were a big thing when I was a kid—I followed all their albums. Pink Floyd, too. I think the first thing I ever learned to play on guitar was the introduction to “Wish You Were Here.”
Yuri Tsaler: My father played saxophone professionally and played in jazz bands. I went to music school in the little industrial town of Pervouralsk. It was a very conservative school. However, one day a new young teacher came to school, and he wore long hair and played electric guitar. I enrolled in his class, and my life changed forever then. I learned my first three chords, and that was enough to proceed on my own. Then I heard many guitarists—from Paco de Lucia to Wes Montgomery—but Jimi Hendrix was my real hero.
What was your first guitar?
Tsaler: My first guitar was an Orfeus made in Bulgaria. It was such a heavy instrument—you could easily kill an animal with it—and it was very hard to play. However, I was the lucky owner of a Vermona amplifier made in East Germany, which had a really powerful sound that helped almost any guitar. I also had a flanger—Electronika was the brand—made in one of the Soviet Baltic republics. It’s actually still a cool piece—I’d recommend it for experimental guitarists even today.
Lagutenko: I actually built my own first electric guitar myself. When I was 11 or 12, I took a neck from an acoustic guitar and went to this kids’ sailing club that I was enrolled in, and took this white plastic thing from an old sailboat and sawed a V shape out of it. Then I put the neck on it and bought an acoustic pickup to put on it. That was my first electric-guitar experience. My first real amp was probably a Roland JC-120s. I’m originally from Vladivostok, and it was a port where you would have sailors on small cruise ships coming from all over the world. They would bring in mostly Japanese tourists, and every ship had a band. Those bands were a unique source of equipment, because the players would usually buy stuff in Japan and eventually sell it on shore. Now I like Gibson amps.
A relatively recent convert to Teles, Mumiy Troll lead guitarist Yuri Tsaler channels his enthusiasm through a Tele Deluxe and a Vox, while bandleader Ilya Lagutenko sheds his guitar so he can flail away unimpeded.
Ilya, do you still have that
Lagutenko: No, unfortunately not. My family moved too much, and they would hate me if we had to carry that around. But it didn’t really sound at all like an electric anyway—it didn’t sound fuzzy. Somebody told me I had to buy a special box [stompbox] for doing this, so I went to a music shop in the Soviet Union—and, believe me, it was far from [being anything like] Guitar Center [laughs]. They had maybe a couple of Russian-made guitars that were heavy as hell and cost a fortune—a few hundred rubles. Anyway, I bought this fuzz box that also had a built-in wah pedal. It was Soviet made and really noisy, and because it made a lot of noise you couldn’t actually hear what you were playing. I was, like, “Yeah! This is what I really like!” [Laughs.]
What are you mostly playing
Lagutenko: Live, I’m kind of doing a rhythmic thing to help Yuri create this wall of sound. That’s why I’m using these simple, one-pickup guitars, like a vintage Music Master, and recently I bought a ’57 Fender Esquire. I like them light, simple, and thick sounding. We usually do our guitar shopping in the United States, because in Russia it’s very expensive and there aren’t that many. There are brand-new guitars, but not a good variety. So, every time we come to the States, we go into vintage shops, like Norman’s place [Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California] or TrueTone [in Santa Monica] or West L.A. Music, or Chicago Music Exchange—Yuri likes them a lot. He thinks we really need a good Gibson ES-335 in our arsenal, but for some reason we can’t find the right one. We used to play a Gibson ES-135—live and especially on the first few albums—but then I opted for lightweight guitars.
Quite the opposite, Yuri tries lots of stuff. He used to like Gibsons a lot—Les Pauls—but then he suddenly switched to Telecasters. That’s his whole thing now. He likes all those vintage guitars and sounds, but he’s not a vintage freak. He always tries to see the difference between good, well-built modern guitars and the old ones. Usually the vintage guitars have some unique tones and appearance, but mostly they wouldn’t really work universally. We’re trying not to carry lots of stuff with us—we can’t really afford to waste money on extra luggage—so we carry the most universal kind of guitars that will suit any need. When we’re on tour, we have only three or four guitars with us.
On eBay you can buy Sovietera
guitars from companies
like Kavkaz, Aelita (Borisov),
Ural, and Rostov. Did you
ever play any of those?
Lagutenko: Yeah. Those guitars look good on the wall, but you can’t really play them—we tried! People chase these vintageinstrument revivals, but y’know … they may produce one good sound, but they can’t hold their tune—and they’re definitely not built by [actual guitar luthiers].
You guys have been a big deal
in Russia for a long time.
How does it feel to be sort of
starting over in America?
Lagutenko: It’s a great challenge, but we hardly separate what we’re doing now from what we do in Russia. Since the first release, we didn’t really enjoy any financial success over there. Records in Russia have always been pirated—you would never get a cent out of official sales. We simply went on tour since day one, and we’re still doing over a hundred shows a year, which is a pretty hectic timetable because it’s really difficult to travel in Russia: It’s quite big, and roads are not as great as they are in Europe or the States, so you have to fly everywhere. It consumes a lot of time. The great thing about nonstop touring is that I’m pretty sure our band can play anywhere, on anything.
You guys got screwed and
didn’t make any money on
your first album from the mid
’90s because the label went
bankrupt. But you’re saying
you still don’t make money off
record sales over there?
Lagutenko: Yeah. Physical [album] sales really mean nothing these days: By the time the market started to stabilize and the government started to do something about intellectual property [theft], we’d already lost the market for physical album sales. With what’s happening online now, everyone knows it’s not that kind of money. It’s kind of just, “Okay, we’re grateful” remuneration—but you can’t really live on that. So, touring and sponsorship deals are a big part of what we have to be involved with.
(Left) Tsaler barres Fmaj on his ’60s Gibson SG Junior. (Right) More chorus, comrade! Tsaler adjusts the Ibanez BC9 on his pedal board.
Let’s talk about Vladivostok.
Did you guys feel a need to
adapt or change your style
at all for the new album,
or are you writing music
pretty much the same way you
Lagutenko: We’re basically doing things the same way we have throughout our career. My idea, since day one, was not to do what someone else did already. I would go through [the albums from] my favorite bands when I was a kid in the ’80s—from AC/DC to Blondie, heavy metal to New Wave, Pink Floyd to Genesis, Sex Pistols, and the Clash—and I would say to myself, “Why wouldn’t you take a bit of this and a bit of that?” So, I always tried to write and perform in a way that would incorporate the best bits of what I really liked.
When we tried to publish our first official album in Russia 15 years ago, everyone would tell me, “It’s too Western sounding—no one will really dig it in Russia.” And then it became the No. 1 album. No one can really know what real people really want. I heard it so many times—“This album sounds too American”—and then you take the same music to America, and it’s not very commercial at all [laughs]. So I don’t listen to anyone—I just do what sounds organic to myself.
Tsaler: At some point, you don’t really give a damn about that and just write and play the way you do intuitively.
Ilya, did you get exposed to
the Clash, Blondie, and other
Western bands while you were
in Russia or during some of
your adventures abroad?
Lagutenko: There was quite good underground exposure of Western music in the Russian Soviet Union. You would never hear that music on the radio or television, but for some reason the Communist party would allow some artists from Italy or France to come to Russia and play. But this underground black market for Western music was a big, big thing in all of Russia. I guess it’s one of those things where, when it’s banned, people really get into it.
Did you just hear about the
records by word of mouth,
Lagutenko: Sailors [from the cruise ships] would smuggle them from Japan and Singapore and wherever else they went. Another funny thing was that sometimes they would buy those records only for their artwork, because no one really followed any [official hit-single] charts or anything. So that’s how we ended up with absolutely catholic tastes.
Do you worry that having an
all-English album and concentrating
efforts abroad will
alienate fans back home?
Lagutenko: Yes, we do. And apparently we’ve had this reaction from Russian fans. They don’t like you singing in different languages—they like the fun side of it from time to time, but not full-time—so we only sing in English outside Russia. But we have Russian fans who will travel anywhere, so you’ll find a couple of Russians in the middle of Ohio, and they always like to hear familiar choruses and sing-alongs. So sometimes I like to do half and half—a verse in English, and then one in Russian. I’m still researching the best way to present our songs. It gets pretty tricky—especially in my head. Sometimes you just think to yourself, “What am I singing about?” and you forget what language you’re singing in, because a live show is more about emotion and energy and connecting with the audience.
Though he doesn’t take it all on the road, Tsaler’s tastes definitely lean vintage. Here he shows off his ’69 Gretsch Anniversary, Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue, Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, Xotic AC+, ProCo You Dirty Rat, MXR Carbon Copy, Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe+, and Maestro Fuzz-Tone.
What was it like working
with producers Mike Clink,
Joe Chiccarelli, and Greg
Tsaler: We actually recorded most of the stuff ourselves so that we would put a thousand different takes out there and see if they could choose the best. It didn’t quite work like that, though.
Lagutenko: The initial idea was to get someone onboard who would know the Western audience a bit better than we did. I met Mike and Joe via Village Studio in Los Angeles, because we recorded a couple of our recent albums there and they’ve been to our live gigs. So, we decided to do a few songs together—we didn’t want to have one option for the whole album, we wanted to try different things—and those three guys had completely different approaches. Joe likes to let you play live and pick up the best performance out of that. Mike did live recording, too, but he also did his homework: He had us do a lot of multitracking, and he came up with a lot of different versions, level-wise and arrangement-wise, and then we would choose what worked better. Sometimes he would even invite someone to redo a part without me even knowing. I’ve known Greg for years—more than 10 years ago we produced some electronic albums for a Russian band. Basically, I just asked him to add some programming to what we do. In the end, we did this online collaboration with him and James Sanger [Dido, Keane, Phil Collins], who’s based in France. We exchanged files in a circle between London, Russia, Los Angeles, and France, and built some tracks from scratch that way. It was like an online jigsaw puzzle.
The rhythm-guitar work on
“Fantastica” sounds a bit like
David Bowie’s Let’s Dance
album, while the super-catchy
leads have a more fluid,
almost Satriani-like vibe.
Tsaler: We had three or four different rhythm structures for that song—and we could not make up our minds which was the right one! Come to our live gigs—we are famous for not playing the same arrangements live.
Lagutenko: To be honest, we struggled a lot with that song. Originally, I wrote it for a movie [Vladimir Mizoev’s Signs of Love] … and my friend [Mizoev] said it should be like this and that and have this kind of attitude. It’s a bit of a different arrangement and pitch in the movie, but I thought it was an interesting song that we could explore more. I like working with film directors, because they show you a direction that you hardly would think of for yourself, so as a favor you try to explore unknown things, and you get something out of yourself that you wouldn’t expect.
The lilting vibrato of the riff
in “Lucky Bride” is especially
beautiful. How did
that evolve from the 2000
version, which is much more
electronic and pop-sounding,
with almost no guitar?
Tsaler: That started as a nonguitar, almost reggae song when Ilya wrote it, but we were lost in different approaches so I tried something different. That’s how the piano riff was born—which made this track famous in Russia. This time, though, we tried for more of a rock attitude, and our ambition was to mix funky piano with live attitude. It didn’t really work, though, so it was Mike Clink’s idea to simply forget the piano and come back to guitar-based arrangements.
Lagutenko: We tried to keep the original piano riff, and Mike said, “Just imagine there was no riff—ever.” So we tried it, and this is where we ended up. For me, it became kind of Santana-ish—a midtempo, guitar-based song, which is not very characteristic of us. But it still fits our intentions, so I was pretty happy—it was such an unexpected take on that song.
You also redid “Vladivostok
2000” as “Vladivostok
Vacation,” this time around,
but it sounds fairly close to
the original. What was the
goal for the new version?
Tsaler: We could not fit English lyrics to the existing master multitrack, so we realized the best way would be for Ilya to sing it to a live version. So we played it in the studio all together, the way we do in concert.
Lagutenko: We played it the way we play it live, because it evolved over the years to be more energetic. So I guess it’s one of those things where you try to recreate the original sound but make it better.
Let’s talk a little about
some of the larger lessons
you’ve learned from the new
album. You formed your own
management and publishing
companies after getting
burned in your first record
deal. As you’ve gotten more
familiar with the music business
in the West, what similarities
have you seen—and what
wisdom do have to offer?
Tsaler: We come from a country that knows how to dig oil and gas. If you play rock ’n’ roll there, you have to understand you’ve chosen the most difficult lifestyle ever. One of the famous ’80s Russian rockers—Boris Grebenshchikov—once sang, “We’re all victims of a nonrhythmic country,” and it’s true—our motherland does not care about rock too much. So you’re totally on your own and in unknown territory [there].
Lagutenko: To be honest, the only wisdom I have to share with younger artists is … When I signed my first contract, I knew what would happen. In other words, I was completely clear—I totally understood—that I would get nothing out of it. But I also knew I had to take that first step with those people just to be able to make a second step. I’d been informed about the bad side of rock ’n’ roll. I’d met a famous Russian rock performer—his name is Konstantin Kinchev from the band Alisa—and he told me, “Ilya, I know where you’ll end up in a few years. First, you’ll get bored, then you’ll get into drugs … ” all the stereotypes of the rise and fall of the typical rock guy. I said, “How do you know this will happen to me?” and he said, “It will happen to everyone. Trust me, I would know—because I’ve been through it.” I said, “No, no, no. I’m pretty sure I have a different idea how I can handle that.”
Through the years, I’ve proved that I can handle any situation, but you have to be in charge of everything yourself. So, whatever you sign, whatever you do, don’t blame other people. If something bad happens to you, consider it an experience and nothing more. You don’t have to kill yourself because you made a mistake.
If you think Mumiy Troll’s whole “Russian Rolling Stones” thing is a marketing gimmick, all you gotta do is click to the links below.
Ilya Lagutenko ravages upstroked rhythms out of his Gibson Melody Maker while Yuri Tsaler wails on a Telecaster Custom before bringing things down at 2:40 with Andy Summers-like arpeggios awash in modulated echo—and then the whole band explodes with seething energy and badass double-stops until the quirky close.
Yuri Tsaler conjures twang-tastic Strat tones tinged with delicious echo during this 2008 performance of “Alien Visitor.”
Ilya Lagutenko uses his Martin acoustic-electric to whip a crowd of untold thousands into a sing-along frenzy that builds and builds in tempo until the 4:00 mark, at which point Tsaler launches into Gilmouresque leads that languish in the huge Russian square like post-climax cigarette smoke as the band brings things down in a very Dark Side of the Moon manner.