(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 always have?
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?
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, or what?
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?
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 Brimson?
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.
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?
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?
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.

Ilya Lagutenko’s Gear

Vintage Fender Music Master, ’57 Fender Esquire, Gibson Melody Maker, Taylor K16ce acoustic-electric, Martin Alternative X acoustic-electric

Gibson GA series tube combos

D’Addario and Ernie Ball .010 sets (electric), D’Addario .010–.047 and Ernie Ball .010–.050 sets (acoustic)

Yuri Tsaler’s Gear

1968 Fender Telecaster, 1964 Fender Jazzmaster, 1963 Fender Stratocaster, 1969 Gretsch Anniversary

Fender Twin Reverb, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe

T-Rex Replica delay, Ibanez TS9DX Turbo Tube Screamer, EHX Double Muff, Xotic Effects RC Booster, Ibanez BC9 Bi-Mode Chorus, Ibanez CS9 Stereo Chorus MXR Phase 90

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario and Ernie Ball .010 sets (electric), D’Addario .010–.047 and Ernie Ball .010–.050 sets (acoustic), Dunlop .73 mm Nylon picks, Russian “military” 1/4" cable, Russian vodka-bottle glass slide, Russian Krona batteries (for pedals), U.S.S.R. soldier’s guitar strap

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 you have to offer?
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.