Interview: Ilya Lagutenko of Mumiy Troll Heads to Sochi, Starts a Festival, Talks Pussy Riot

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Interview: Ilya Lagutenko of Mumiy Troll Heads to Sochi, Starts a Festival, Talks Pussy Riot

Posted on: February 20th, 2014 by tommyj

Click here to view original web page at www.craveonline.com

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Sitting in the corner of a quaint, unassuming coffee shop in Beverly Hills is one of the most influential figures in modern Russian pop culture. Ilya Lagutenko is not a household name in the United States, but the lighthearted Vladivostok native is a pioneer of modern rock ’n’ roll and a cultural revolutionary in his home country. Lagutenko founded the band Mumiy Troll, which defined the “rockapops” style of music that combines pop and hard rock with his unique, outré performance style. Mumiy Troll’s “Vladivostok 2000” music video was the first to be played on MTV Russia (1998) and also one of the first to be banned by the Communist Party—which Lagutenko only laughs about because the ban put him in good company alongside the Sex Pistols and Black Sabbath. Listen to Mumiy Troll’s new song "Flow Away" right here.

Lagutenko’s rise to fame is attributed to his success in music, but its the coy rockstar’s off-stage activities that are receiving global attention. Lagutenko led the charge for the first annual Vladivostok Rocks (V-ROX) Music Festival in Summer 2013 in Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Nicknamed East By Far East, the groundbreaking festival highlighted emerging artists from Russia and Asia, and was the first step in putting Vladivostok on the map as the “Austin of the Far East”. But Lagutenko’s foray into music festivals isn’t the only thing this renaissance Russian has in the works. In the midst of planning a festival and virtually changing the culture of an entire city – not to mention Lugatenko’s abiding impact on Russian music and fashion – Mumiy Troll released its first English album (Vladivostok) in 2012, and for several months in 2013, took to the Russian seas for a somewhat unorthodox promotional tour—and filmed it.

Lagutenko enlisted American producer/director Danny Drysdale (known for The Killers’ “Human” and “The World We Live In”) to film and produce a rockumentary which chronicles the band’s latest tour across their native Russia. The film, which is currently in post-production, will be released some time in late 2014.

I sat down with Lagutenko (who would dispel any rumors that Russians are all stone-faced and overly consumed in politics) at a quaint Beverly Hills coffee shop to talk about his many endeavors in music and film, as well as his upcoming concert in Sochi, where Mumiy Troll will close one of the Olympic Games’ largest concerts (Red Rocks) on February 21st in the Sochi Olympic Village.

 

CraveOnline: How did you get linked up with Danny Drysdale (Producer/Director)?

Ilya Lagutenko: We met by accident, actually. We were in one of those music showcases a couple of years ago. I always like to meet creative people. Initially my attitude towards music videos was, here’s the director, he’s got an idea—let’s create. At that time I was not really interested in doing music videos because we didn’t have any plans for marketing [them], but I got this idea for…let’s call it a documentary. At that time we had a deal with a Russian sailing ship, which goes around the world [where] basically, we can do whatever we want to do. My idea was that it would be a good thing to tour this way, because every port you can get together with the local bands and just try to explore the world. But at the same time, it may be a good idea to document it – not like a kitschy band movie – but a rock documentary. We tried to get some Russian guys to film it but it all ended [up as a] sort of a reality show, and I didn’t like that. It’s not like “musicians trapped on a ship”, ya know?

 

Was this a military ship or more of a commercial vessel?

It’s a one hundred year old three-masted barque. They said it was one of the oldest ships still surviving these days—like the good old days.

 

Now, why did you want to tour on a ship?

I did sailing when I was a kid and I was always obsessed with the ocean and sailing. It all kind of came together because back in Russia a few years ago, we did a so-called theme tour—like a Russian Navy Tour. Basically, I’m just obsessed with concepts for touring. I’m bored with going to the same places and the same markets every time. You can’t make all the money in the world, let’s put it this way. It’s not all about making it, it’s more about meeting people, exploring places. You can’t have enough holidays in your life to visit that many places. That’s why I always thought it was great to be a musician and be in a band. You are actually able to travel and also share what you are doing with other people. Music is a universal language.

So we did this so-called Russian Navy tour. We went to every Navy base in Russia. We are originally from Vladivostok, which used to be the headquarter for the Pacific Navy for a long time. Then you’ve got the Black Sea and the Northern Sea, St Petersburg with their [Navy] heritage. So we went to all those places and we basically were making calls to local military authorities saying, “This is us. This is the band. We’re willing to play for the sailors.” We would usually do a gig either on the ship or just for the sailors, and in the same day we would do a commercial gig for the same place.

I did my Navy service for two years. If it was [during] my two years of service and someone would come up, say one of my favorite singers to play even an acoustic, I would probably recoup another year [laughs]. It’s a great kind of impression and obviously, we’re living in a bit different age. When I used to do my military service it was the Cold War and right now it’s more like, it’s a bit different—let’s put it that way. I did it in the late ‘80s. The mentality has kind of changed.

 

How much artistic freedom do bands have in Russia?

Artistic freedom in my terms, which I have in my head and my life, I have no limits now. It was much worse, yes, in Soviet times. Let’s be straight. But, when we are talking about political actions including like, some art elements, that’s a totally different thing.

 

Like what happened with Pussy Riot?

Yes, like Pussy Riot. But the main thing about Pussy Riot… When it had, I don’t know, a million hits on this video, whatever they did, I went online because I didn’t know about them. I just said, a punk band? Nice name. What about music? My first questions was, what about music? I don’t care what they did in church. I went online. It was dozen, one-two (counts on fingers), views of their song. On their YouTube account. One. Two (scratches head). I was like, they’ve got the attention of all people on the globe right now and its twelve people who actually came to listen to the song. It was just the music. I actually Tweeted it, so the next week it was at 800 views [laughs]—we’re getting better now.

But while people were dealing with what’s wrong, what’s bad I was thinking, why don’t you do some kind of LiveAid show? Not in Russia. Like London. Let all those people who supported them, like Madonna, Sting, Red Hot Chili Peppers, play it for free. They play for free, broadcast it to the entire world, let the proceeds go to whatever—educational program on political tolerance. Something like that. A few million dollars, probably. It might help for people like me, people who aren’t really politically conscience to understand what they’re talking about. I guess its the same with what’s happening with the so-called anti-gay propaganda.

Yes, there are some silly people. There might be some gay people who don’t want to be open about it, who invented those laws—I don’t know. That’s my first guess. But you have to look at it from the other end. Twenty years ago in the same country, in Russia, my teacher in my middle school was always asking, “Why are you smiling Ilya? Why are you smiling? Is there something funny about what I am saying here?” No, I just like to keep everyone happy and in a good mood. I’m not trying to be evil to you, I’m just smiling. It was like a serious issue. She even complained to my parents, “He’s smiling. He’s smiling in my class.” I was like, I’m not laughing at you, I’m just smiling, enjoying the weather, whatever you’re talking about. This was twenty years ago. You know it takes time. It takes life experience even to learn who is who and how people live in this world. If you’re not happy with something, just go there.

 

How important is social media for bands in Russia—and for your band?

I guess, it is major for the general change in music. Public television or whatever we call it – federal television- doesn’t make any sense, to be honest, these days. There was a kind of culmination of music in the MTV era, like we call it, when they launched it in ’98— If I’m not mistaken. So yes, for ten years it was where young people got music videos, and it was basically the main source for information and the main tool to promote acts. And I know this because our video was obviously the first video MTV Russia ever showed in Russia. And when they shut it down, our video, well…[laughs].

But the last five, six, seven years, the television really lost its…it’s not about discovery anymore. Lets put it this way. And people know that. I mean, they’re there for TV shows. So the young people who are normality the driving force for music, they can find whatever they want on social media. But in the end, its’ really hard to get that global exposure based on social media, because I guess historically, Russians didn’t have a habit to pay for anything on the Internet—let’s put it this way [laughs].

 

 

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I know pirating music is something that hurt the Russian music industry…

I’m happy to donate my tracks for free to anyone who can take it further than I can myself. So in this particular case, for emerging artists, new artists, domestic artists who want to make it internationally—social media is the only way to promote. Until you get a certain amount of people who can come to your shows, then you really are not in business. [laughs]

 

I think that’s true. As far as rock ’n’ roll in Russia. How much rock is on mainstream TV or radio?

Not a lot. The Clear Channel people would probably be really envious of the people in Russia who own so-called Federal Radio stations. I guess its a heritage from Soviet Union times. Some stations can really broadcast everywhere in Russia. So in other words, we’ve got so-called Russian Radio— Ruskkoe Radio is what we call it. You really tune in anywhere in Russia. It’s like [a] really massive kind of machine. I guess what happened the last few years [is that] radio people, the same like they do here, realized to keep people concentrated on their particular station, they had to provide what the potential listener really doesn’t mind to hear. Let’s put it this way. So its not about discovery anymore, it’s about familiarity.

 

Popular, Top 40…

Popular, yes. And I heard these discussions here in America too. Basically, the playlists are narrowing down and everyone wants to hear the song which you heard before. But how the hell would hear it before if…(shrugs shoulders)? People are more and more mixing genres so it’s not like heavy metal radio or pop radio anymore— it’s all blended together. In Russia, its either only Russian music or only foreign music. For some reason they don’t like to mix it a lot. And the most efficient money-wise radio stations, they just kind of follow the unwritten rule. The other problem for emerging artists [is that] the established Russian rock bands kind of formed out of those niche things for the audience, so people also kind of stick to the standards of bands [who are] fifteen or twenty years old and aren’t really looking for new names.

 

Your band included in those established bands….

Yeah. I mean, we have this unique situation because we’ve never been a part of any major deals. I own 100% of all our masters and copyrights and everything. Fifteen years ago [artists] didn’t really think about that.  They think, “I’ve got some money, and I got paid well,” but they don’t own any copyrights. And I know lots of people who I adored when I was a kid, legendary Russian rockers who started when it was Soviet Union times, and I was like, “Can I use your songs or videos for some new startups.”  “Oh ya know, someone owns the copyrights. We don’t really know how it works, really.” I thought hmm, interesting. Young people now really know how it works.

The situation is that we were part of that time in the ‘90s when the Russian music market started to shape itself, and because we gained this huge, whatever, popularity—somehow we just clicked [with] the audience. I guess we’ve been lucky to do that. So yes, we are kind of a part of it but I was always trying to say to the people, it’s not about why I did all of it, why I really launched my band. It wasn’t about my ego or [that] I like to be a rockstar who ruled the world and blah blah. Initially I was a music fan. I didn’t want to form a band for myself, I just wanted to hear different types of music, which I couldn’t find. Sometimes I wouldn’t find the right combination for myself as a listener. I would say, I like how this band looks but the music they’re playing (gestures disapprovingly). I always say that we should probably have a hundred times more bands like ours to keep the machine running because in the music business, well,  business is business. This is what moves things forward and the music business is not about staying on stage and getting royalties from the radio. It’s about the worker who does the stage, it’s about the guy who’s piloting the private jet, it’s about the guy whose working in the kitchen in your live venue. It’s an economy for god-sake. One band can actually feed a hundred people around here. This is what it’s all about and that’s why, for me, it was so important to find, even to promote myself in a a kind of not regular, not ordinary way. You can do this live. You can live this life. You just have to be a bit more eccentric—maybe not crazy.

 

How do you like being in Los Angeles, the kind of hometown for American rock ’n’ roll?

L.A. is great. For cultural heritage and the weather, obviously. We came here seven years ago to record our album. It was Winter time and the sound engineer were asking where should we go? We usually go Moscow or London. We didn’t want to go to Moscow in Winter, and London, ehh, we didn’t want to go there. Why don’t we go to the United States?  Los Angeles? Yes!. Let’s go to Los Angeles.

It wasn’t about, “Let’s break America.” We did a couple of tours in the U.S.. You know, a mini-van, on tour, driving around [laughs]. I’ve been everywhere. Its interesting. You learn the country and I’m not saying that I somehow am trying to change my music so American audiences would love me. It’s been a lot of, “Why don’t you do this TV show” or maybe, “You should meet this person.”  I’m pretty happy to do what I’m actually doing. At some point I heard all of that back in Russia being a band from a remote part of Vladivostok, and people saying that music couldn’t you anywhere.

It’s interesting. You know, what’s happening in the world today is also amazing. For instance I’m comparing the Chinese rock scene –  what’s happening now – with the Russian rock scene fifteen years ago. They used to have these so-called underground rock bands ten years ago.  It has been really niche sort of underground [thing] but the last few years, rock music, electronic music, is kind of booming in China. They’re having those big festivals, which you couldn’t really think about five years ago in China, and its mainly what they call New-Asian bills. You see what’s going on.

 

Then there’s the festival that you started.

That’s basically why we set up the festival Vladivostok Rocks, V-ROX. My vision was always for this place, because it’s kind of far from European, we call it Pacific Russia, between us. It’s not official, but it’s what it is. It’s ten hours flight from Moscow but it’s only one hour flight from Tokyo. It’s like from here to San Francisco. It’s two hour flights to Beijing, three hours flight to Hong Kong.

Vladivostok now has a new university with 30,000 capacity. 30,000 young kids and every time I would go speak to the mayor or governor of Vladivostok I would ask, “Ok, what are your plans for Vladivostok? You built this new university with 30,000 kids sitting there—what are they going to do here? Just tell me—what are your plans? To build some gambling zone? Like new Macau? How do you combine gambling and education? It just doesn’t work together.” Music is the most convenient medium for this. And it goes together with movies and fashion—all those creative aspects. Basically I had in mind, things like SxSw tat kind of showcases music and shows [bands] to the industry people. The next question was, how the hell do you get those industry people to Vladivostok?. Maybe it wasn’t possible ten years ago, but now, now that everybody knows that’s happening in Korea and China. And I’m talking about every single agent here in Los Angeles, who would like to put their band on tour in Asia. I did a China tour ten years ago and I know how it works. I just did it out of my own curiosity, not really for business. But now I know that I can use those experiences and connections and network for common goals. So I said ok, you are planning an Asian tour? Add Vladivostok.

And people there would be happy for the time being, they’re not spoiled like in Moscow where they have national acts playing every night, a dozen of them. People are hungry for new music, new acts. They’re still open because this situation we talked about before. Social media is good for promoting but it takes time to become a global name through social media. In other words, a general audience in Vladivostok wouldn’t know any chart topping artists in America today because they simply don’t care. They don’t know who Bruno Mars is. This is the reality. There may be more fans of some Silver Lake band in Vladivostok because of social media than ya know, some big artists. They don’t care about television, they don’t care about the radio. Vladivostok would be your Eastern gate to Russia. And people want to get to Russia to tour because the market is there. Believe it or not, the approximate ticket price in Russia is twice as much as here. The cheapest show, like our show, would be twenty-five bucks minimum. Even I would ask them to get some cheap tickets for the kids.

 

It seems like this festival and the importance of music in Vladivostok is pretty groundbreaking?

Yes. I guess so. What happens in Russian cities, usually, is that they know how to spend money on their own [checklists]. Like we did this, we did this, and then we’ll report to whoever. But some of the stuff doesn’t make any sense. It’s not about wasting your money. It’s about how to efficiently explore the possibility to your own advantage. I guess like being a musician who’s always on a tight budget [laughs]. Okay, you get your hundred dollars for your event— so now where you would spend that hundred dollars? On the booze? On the girls? Or on the recording studio? On the most expensive producer in Hollywood? Or the guy who is really enthusiastic about what you’re doing and maybe will do it for a share of your profits. You have to be reasonable about what you do.

And I always said that places like Moscow, there’s too many things going on there. They have expos and stuff but it’s all about money, commercials. Take Woodstock or Luxembourg. It wasn’t about selling tickets in the first term.

 

Is that what you want V-Rox to be like?

It’s like a big party. Which kind of excites everyone. It is, who is the guy from Manchester? “Some people make money, some people make history” [laughs]. Money always follows the history.

 

How much are tickets for V-ROX?

It’s free.

 

That’s great.

It’s free for the time being. I mean, we just realized, if we would like to get a proper headliner, which lots of people have been requesting. It would cost $100K, blah blah blah, and we understand that. Business is business, but I’m pretty sure if we keep it exciting for several years than we will be in a situation like what is happening in Austin where record companies would pay so their international act could present their new album there. To be honest with you, I didn’t really expect that much media attention for our debut year but I guess because of its unique geographical position, and we made a really exciting event. Every single journalist or musician or agent who was there said [they] had this feeling of discovery again. It was kind of lost the past five years. All the bills are the same and then you come to Russia and you meet all these Asian bands. And some Asian and Russian bands have really proved that they are more exciting live than established Western bands, which kind of makes sense. It’s also a good time of year in Vladivostok, there’s a beach downtown, sailing, seafood—its a really picturesque place with just really ugly Soviet architecture. You’ve got both worlds. I guess we have to use this momentum and last but not least, I’m really in love with my hometown.

Whatever is happening in Russia is happening in Russia. We can’t flip a switch and make it totally different. Every place on Earth has their issues and their problems—we just deal with it. Yeah, there was corruption, okay there was crime. I remember a time in the late ‘80s in Vladivostok when people would shoot someone over a parking spot—I know, because I saw it. And I don’t really want to get back to those times and I think the only way to do it is to give young people something to do what they’re interested in.

I know people love to talk about politics in Russia these days, but come on, when I was 16, whatever, 14 when I formed a band—I didn’t give a damn about, “What’s that Communist Party?” I just took it for granted. Okay, it was there. And we did our little music bans and and stuff, and those KGB blah blah blah “watching you”—I mean, we just heard it. Yes, we heard it, but nobody was really persecuted.

 

 

Tell me about the show in Sochi.

We are doing this event called Red Rocks. It’s been sponsored by Russian banks as a tool to promote, you know, Olympic Games all over the country for the last two years. They basically staged gigs in major Russian cities where the Olympic fire would follow. So for two years, they had Russian and international acts get together to play music, sing songs together, the songs were recorded… They started in Sochi two years ago. And by the way, Scissor Sisters were the first band to ever play this event.

 

Oh yeah?

Scissor Sisters. Yes, you can Google that. They played in Sochi when they just started to advertise it—so I guess they were fine with it.

 

That seems fitting.

Yes. So they built a stage in the so-called medalists’s square where they present the medals and they have a free concert. We are doing it on the 21st (February).

 

Now, as a Russian. Are you proud of these Olympics in Sochi? I know there have been mixed feelings with these games.

To be honest, I don’t really have mixed feelings. I really love whatever is happening. I’m not a big sports fan, let’s put it this way. But with everything that is going on good or bad, and let’s be honest, any attention is better than no attention [laughs]. To be honest with you, as a person from the Russian Far East, from Vladivostok, I really have this feeling about Sochi. The place where I wouldn’t really go on holiday because at first it was too well-established, and all the sanatoriums and whatever. Sochi was known in the Soviet Union as [the place] where all the rich people would go and where all the crooks would get together. They even had this saying in Russian, I’m not really familiar with the gambling card terms, but I guess you could translate it like, “If I know where my Ace is or whatever, I would live in Sochi.”

 

We definitely know about that here.

Yes, so if I know where my best card is—then I would live in Sochi. Sochi was always kind of a place where everyone would want to go because it’s the only place in Russia with palm trees. but for me, it’s always been kind of tacky. It’s like here with South Beach. How can you compare South Beach in Miami with Zuma Beach in California? It’s like two different worlds. I always [preferred] my Vladivostok. Dramatic landscapes, nice people, proper oceans, over this Black Sea, hundreds of people, kids, babushkas, everything is expensive. But apparently now, and my friends texted me, they built everything new in the town. I always thought it was impossible to do that kind of stuff in Russia. We have a different approach. They would just fix things, or just (gesturing like he’s stacking blocks), or just put something in between—like what happened to Moscow. But I guess what they did in Sochi may be more attractive to people like me who were kind of snobbish about this “resort place”.

From a PR side, and a media side… Okay, my general opinion is that the Russian office, whatever, probably could have handled their own image better outside of Russia. Take Pacific Russia, Russian Far East. You can’t pour money into the area all the time, you have to develop it. It will only be possible with international corporations and economic business ties. We just have to work. [laughs].

 

Switching gears a bit. You recently released the English debut album (Vladivostok). So now what is the plan, are you going to continue to tour on this album cycle or go back into the studio?

No, my idea is first to concentrate on that movie. Hopefully it will be released later this year. And promoting our tracks outside Russia, one by one. We can’t really talk album terms anymore. It’s not the thing that you go shop around to record labels who would release your album. What they do now is put it online and sit and collect money and charge you commissions. This is what I can do myself. It’s more about collaborating with different like-minded music or music business people. 

There is no certain path. You just have to explore possibilities. This is what we are trying to do. Trying to work in different markets, trying to be involved in different types of media like movies, animation, music, trying to get it together. You can’t be just the bass player. You have to do something else. It’s basically life as a young band again. You are not only playing drums. You are driving the van, you’re counting merch, you talk to press. Then you’re a band. All bands now have to be like little labels, little corporations, otherwise they get lost.

 

Anything else on the horizon for Mumiy Troll this festival season in the U.S.?

We will be at South by Southwest March 12th at SoHo Lounge. I’m also going to be taking some courses at UCLA on film financing.

 

What don’t you do?

You have to understand how it all works. I don’t want to be cheated, ya know?

 

Click here for more on Ilya Lagutenko and Mumiy Troll.

 

Submissions for the second annual V-ROX Festival are now open. Bands can submit for the festival here.

 

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