At a time when Russia is making global headlines for all the wrong reasons, it is important to remember that, amidst all the wide-reaching political machinations and life changing military decisions, there are still people in every country with a story to tell.
With that in mind, FAULT was privileged to be able to speak to one of the one of the most influential voices in contemporary Russian popular culture – Mumiy Troll‘s Ilya Lugutenko. Since starting the band in 1983, Ilya – raised in Russia’s Far Eastern port of Vladivostok (on the Sea of Japan) – has shaped the face of a generation. Mumiy Troll is as popular in Russia now as it has ever been. In total, they have released 16 albums over a period of almost 30 years. After initially serving in the Russian Air Navy, Lugatenko speaks Mandarin, has worked in both China and the UK, featured in the globally popular cult film ‘Night Watch’, recently started his own music festival and is an outspoken supporter for ecological conservation. Mumiy Troll were also one of the first musical acts to support the activities of PSI organization fighting AIDS in Russia.
It is a cosmopolitan story from a driven, complex and, above all, creative character. If nothing else, it is a pleasure to be able to take a step back to focus on an individual – their passions, achievements and creative spirit – rather than on the collective judgments of an entire nation.
FAULT: In 2012, you released your very first album in English entitled Vladivostok. Could you tell us a little more about the meaning of your single ‘Love Contraband’, which also appears on that album?
ILYA: These days Russia is usually associated with vodka, spies or oil fortunes …not even ballet anymore. I guess a Russian rock band is still not a very legit term for most westerners… I have a really simple message here – we love to write and perform good songs and would love to share them with as many people as possible.
Your songs sound like a romantic declaration to the world… can you tell us from where do you draw this romanticism?
I hate to hate anything. I would love to be able to love every single thing on the planet and beyond. I know it’s not easy. I know it is almost impossible but I am still trying to be “the Poet and not a Revolutionary”. I came from a little town on the sea, which happened to be major Russian navy base on the Pacific. I never wanted to jump on the Trans Siberian train. I was more curious about what was behind the ocean’s horizon.
In 2012, you decided to release your first ever album in English [Vladivostok] – why?
I’ve never won a lottery. I’m a bad gambler. It took me quite a lot of hard work to prove to myself that my writing and performance abilities had the potential to expand beyond my hometown. We never had a major recording deal and our international touring experience grew very gradually – limited by the band’s own resources and aspirations.
This album is not really an experiment. It just shows the current state of where the band is at in this moment. It’s a mixture of our life experiences forged with a rather universal rock sound.
Our very good friend and owner of The Village Studios in Los Angeles, Jeff Greenberg, has pushed the idea of making an English language record – he once heard us recording our Russian material at his studio. After falling crazy for it he kept on us… saying, “Guys, this has to be heard in English”. It took us few years to came up with an album and finally we arrived at Vladivostok.
The album presents Mumiy Troll’s spirit to people who do not understand Russian. It is named after our home city where I and most of the band members grew up.
How has living in Vladivostok influenced your music (if at all)?
It has influenced in many ways. All of our songs have something to do with the Ocean and being from Vladivostok. You can understand that. I have even written a song named Vladivostok Vacation. In Russian it’s called Vladivostok 2000 which has put the city on the map in Russia in a way. It has actually been quoted that this song did more for the city in terms of promotion than anything the government has ever done (which only used to be stereotyped before as a place for drunken sailors and lots of crime on every level). I always believed Vladivostok to be a place to Rock. Being almost 10 hours flight away from Moscow and 3 hours drive from China certainly affects your identity. I grew up to be an alien to my countrymen in general and to world music tastes in particular.
In your book, My East, you recalled that Khrushchev predicted in the year 2000, Vladivostok would become Russia’s San Francisco. Do you believe his successors succeeded in this?
That’s still only in our dreams. I have also co-written a fiction novel named Vladivostok 3000 which describes my vision of how the city could be in a totally different dimension. However, whatever the public criticism of the APEC summit, etc., I sincerely welcome and support all changes including new bridges and a new university into my hometown. My own graduation was in Chinese History and Economics and I remember discussing the futuristic visions of Vladivostok back in my student years. I never believed in the industrial revolution in the area but I was sure that it could be an Educational and Entertainment centre fed by the biggest Port on the Russian Pacific.
For a few years I was obsessed with the idea to stage a Pacific Rock Festival in Vladivostok where bands and artist from Siberia, China, Korea and the rest of Australasia would meet annually. However, the local government is still thinking of different priorities with their agendas (ed: see below – VROX Festival is now up and running).
Where was your first performance abroad as Mumiy Troll?
North of Japan we played a festival. It felt like home as it is very similar to Vladivostok weather wise. Also, Greenland where nobody had heard of us and they never really had rock bands come over to play a gig then. It was truly a memorable experience.
Who is your greatest musical inspiration?
Characters who can make it on their own terms. It does not relate to particular music styles and they are maybe not the biggest acts on the planet – probably more of those who can explore, change, unite different cultures without compromising pop sensibility… Ryuhci Sakamoto or David Bowie for instance…
You have sung your songs in Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and English, what is next?
Good question. By the way, I also did versions of our songs in Ukrainian and Latvian, though as of yet they have never been released… It’s simply life experiments to see how it feels. I’d like to try Portuguese. Sounds funny but Portuguese and Russian have so many similar sounds which is kinda tough to pronounce for any others in the world.
One of the things that we find most interesting is your support of AMUR (named after the Amur tiger). What is your goal with the AMUR project and why have you been so supportive of it?
The Amur tiger is a symbol of the area in the Far East that I come from. I was introduced to the head of the AMUR fund in London and was asked to help with some public awareness projects which gradually developed into quite a mission. Ten years later I [found] myself launching an idea. [It was] an international charity music/ball event, Saving the Tigers, which ended up being a part of an important International Tiger Summit in St. Petersburg – we not only had Vladimir Putin and Heads of States of the13 so-called “Tiger countries”, but also celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio. He personally donated a large sum of money to the cause and Naomi Campbell co-hosted the event with me. I compare Tigers to Independent music – rare, hard to survive, but brave and beautiful.
What were your expectations for this year while touring in the US and the UK, and has performing there been what you anticipated?
To reach out to non-Russian speaking communities we do not have any media resources behind us. So, the only way is to physically go their and play. For me, it’s a big privilege to perform in front of people no matter where and no matter to how many. One day could see us performing to 10,000 hardcore fans in Russia and the next day in a small club in a ghost town of Pontiac to couple dozen people who just came to see us out of curiosity.
Does fashion play any role in how you wish to portray your band’s musical style?
I always thought that music and fashion should walk together. However, I’ve never paid too much attention to what happens in the fashion world. I guess, like in music, I’d prefer things which never get out of fashion… I’d prefer to set the trend unintentionally instead of follow any.
Do you have any favorite fashion designers?
My good friends from Britain – Bolongaro Trevor (who were the original designers of All Saints). Also, Arsenicum, the Russian brand by Dima Loginov who is a great example how our music really influence people to do things – standing out from the usual crowd by being very stylish and an instant classic.
And finally, as you travel from country to country, how would you define success?
By seeing results. You have to work hard for them and you have to work hard to be successful… to have genuine enthusiasm, passion and energy – and not to be so afraid of failure that it stops you trying. Because in the end, you learn from mistakes in order to keep going forward. That’s what Iv’e always done. That’s what I will continue to do. Keep moving.
What is your FAULT?
I trust people too much.
In August 2013, Ilya welcomed musicians, artists, and creative talents around the world to join him at the inaugural VROX Festival in Ilya’s hometown of Vladivostok, Russia.