(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Interview - Ilya Lagutenko (Mumiy Troll)

Earlier, I reviewed Russian rock band Mumiy Troll's album, Comrade Ambassador. Now they're on a North American tour, with a stop coming up in Denver on October 20 at the Bluebird. Listen to some of their music and come out to hear them. I had a chance to talk to Mumiy Troll's leader, Ilya Lagutenko, about their music, their lyrics, and their experience here in America.

Jester: Hi, Ilya. I really enjoyed listening to your album Comrade Ambassador. The sound is fresh, but at the same time there are a lot of retro sonic elements. You’ve also got a new EP coming out soon (October 13).

Ilya: Thank you. We’re thankful to our supporters and audience back home. So we do not only rely on new audiences to sell. It’s like you delay leaving your parent’s home and everything is open and there are lots of things to discover. But you know that if you really need to, you can come back to your parent’s house and be more than welcome.

The new EP is called Paradise Ahead and it consists of 5 tracks. Three of those are in English and you haven’t heard them. Two of them are from Comrade Ambassador. When we finished our last tour in the US, there were really good reviews, some were even better than back home. It was our first intention to introduce the band as what we really are at that particular moment. So, Comrade Ambassador wasn’t a “best of” compilation, it was basically our latest songs in the original language. Now, Paradise Ahead is a second start with us. So you could know more about us if you really want to hear more and you would like to understand without taking Russian lessons (chuckle).

How do you think your sound has changed for these new songs or over time?

To be honest, I do not know. Because in my mind, we have not really changed since I first started to write the songs we’ve made since we were just teenaged: 12, 13, 14. Some of those songs we still play live, but the general concept, which is somewhere inside my brain, it’s kind of still the same. This is live music, live instruments. We don’t really use a lot of technology just because we bought it. The moment you depend on those click tracks, you know, computers and stuff, something accidental can ruin your show. Computers crash and then what else do you have to do? We are doing it in a really old fashioned way, having guitars and amps. So, even if there is no electricity… I mean it happened just two days ago, we were in Providence RI. The electricity went out at the club but we still can sit on the edge of the stage and sing those songs to the fans. The general idea didn’t really change. Yes, our fans say “this album’s different” and they can follow some change. I don’t know. It depends on our personal lives and what is happening to us and what’s going on in the music world.

How was it writing the new songs in English?

It’s a challenging task in a way, because I’m really careful about my lyrics in Russian. People in Russia, historically, were really concerned about quality of pen. Bearing in mind, all the greatest authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin came from Russia. We have it in our genes probably. I tried to apply it to our popular music, to be really careful about what to say and how to say it, what kind of words to choose. I don’t want to use too much slang; I don’t want to use too many foreign words. I like to keep it really unique, still like Russian. I’d like to do the same thing in English, but here you have a different mentality, different words, it’s a different time. It’s not about simply translating lyrics into a different language. It should work in the song. Some of it was really just to get a sense of what it’s all about, just general ideas, general sounds. It’s more like the sounds of your soul inside, than the exact translation. I don’t mind making mistakes with grammar. I don’t mind my accent. It simply has to work all together. That’s the whole idea. Whether I succeeded or not, you will judge (laugh). But I really did enjoy creating it.

I don’t speak Russian, but I did find translations for Comrade Ambassador on russmus.net. Are you familiar with this site?

I don’t know. The official translations of the songs were included in our booklet on the CD. But I’m sure that there are lots of different translations which our fans did. We’ve been to Japan, and we met students from a Japan university. They said “We’re studying Russian. Your songs, we’re using them as a textbook. You know it’s got things which are not really stereotypical, but still sound right.” I’m really glad that our lyrics also serve a scientific purpose (laugh).

Reading those translations, your lyrics seem very poetic. It’s a different style than a lot of typical pop music here.

Yes, I guess so. In England, they usually say, “Your songs remind us of the kind of writing that Morrissey would usually do,” which compliments us. He’s one of the greatest lyric writers in English pop music. So, it’s not really the expected pop lyrics, just kind of really good feelings. This is where I started, initially. I wasn’t really interested to describe what is all around me, because I didn’t really find it exciting. So I would imagine “how would it happen if?” If, if, if…and lots of people just don’t really like that “if” attitude. But I don’t mind. You know, inside me, I’m a rather pragmatic and realistic person. I don’t really live in worlds of illusion and stuff. That’s why I’ve never really dreamed of my band being so big. But now, sitting in, where am I now, North Hampton? (chuckle) Knowing I’m on a 40 state tour in United States, Canada and Mexico, playing my songs! Yeah! I could imagine that I lived in that kind of world, and here it is. It was hard work for that and then I made it true. Some people would rather have a magic wand in their hands, but… well, I’d rather have it, but I know it doesn’t exist.

But what does exist? Real people, real me, real you. You’re on the telephone, but we talk, we communicate. The moment we build communication with the outside world, then something’s happening. Maybe I would still write something that, in Russia, they would call it writing to the drawer. You know, when you write it for yourself, and no one would hear it. You think no one will like it or you think you are too genius and other people wouldn’t understand that. But the moment you make the first step, then you realize: it’s not just a couple of friends of yours who appreciate your music. The moment I realized that several million people actually liked what I’m thinking about, that’s probably when I had to give up my day job and not think about doing careers in whatever I tried to do. I had to stick to whatever I enjoyed more and what people enjoyed around me.

You’re playing smaller venues in the US. Are you able to get closer to fans here in the US?

Yeah and it’s been fascinating. We’re doing open air events and big arenas back home in Russia but at the same time, I’ve never been that kind of personality that says, “I’m only doing those big stage shows with lights and all those big things”. Even back in Russia, I sometimes play in small clubs and would go to some godforsaken place in Siberia and basically talk to the people, look in their eyes. And it’s what’s happening here in the United States. There are some big places, like New York or Los Angeles where there are huge crowds, but last time we did Denver, a small club again, it was really, really nice. We had this mixed crowd of Russians, Russian speaking people and the American ones curious about what those Russian guys are really about. It was rewarding.

How does the rest of the band enjoy the time here in the US?

They really like it. It’s been a great change to be in your country and to experience a different lifestyle. Okay, we’re living on a bus, but they can experience things like going to Laundromats (laugh). Little things which are a bit different from how they’re organized back home. It’s nice. I would say it’s not that hard at all. In Russia, we’ve spent a few years traveling on a bus which can’t really even compare to a bus in America. It’s the equivalent of an out of session, junk school bus. And those roads back home in Russia? You can’t really compare them to the nice roads here. And distances: here, we hardly drive more than 3 or 5 hours. It’s really nothing. In Russia, to go to the closest people, you will drive for 20 hours. It means you finish a show, you get on the bus, and you drive for 20 hours on the really bumpy drive, no beds, just sitting. Then, you come to a city and go straight to the gig. No sound check and sometimes they don’t have enough gear. I would say this is some of our best time over here. It’s like a holiday for us.

During your time here, have you had any chance to collaborate, to play with American musicians?

I’m not really a big fan of so-called duets or proper collaboration. We’ve never been signed to any major label. Usually it’s the task of the label to unite a few artists for promotional purposes. In our case, it’s been more of an accidental thing. I remember when Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) came to Russia to do his version of classical Russian songs. We did one song together and it was a really good experience with me singing in Russian and he sang in English. It was one of those old cabaret songs from 1920s and we did it in a more electronic way. It was really good memories. Another time, I got together with Brett Anderson from Suede. It was funny because some Russian movie company thought it would be nice for both of us to perform a track together for one of their action movies for some reason. Some people have odd ideas, but it worked fine. It might be interesting maybe to work with some American musicians, but it’s supposed to happen in a natural way.

Thank you for your time, Ilya. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Denver. It will be good to see the band in person and hear your music live.

Absolutely, come all. It’s probably the best thing you do in your life (laugh). It’s good to get to a live gig. Come to say hi to us, and chat. It’s really a nice place, really we like it. Because we’ve traveled in the Midwest, mostly in the winter and it was something like being back in Siberia (laugh). In Colorado, the weather was nice: warm and sunshine. Right now people, ask me what places I like in America. I like California, basically for the weather. I really like Colorado. I wish we had more time to explore. Maybe get back for a holiday or something.

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