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-120. 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 Soviet-era
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 vintage instrument 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.