Mumiy Troll - "Swimming With Sharks" | Music 2014 | SXSW

February 6, 2014
Ilya Lagutenko was brought up at the end of the line. Vladivostok is where the Trans-Siberian Railway terminates. Japan and China were locked behind unbridgeable barriers in the Soviet Union of Lagutenko's youth, but near neighbours compared to Moscow: a 10-hour, 3-plane ride away. Still, a naval base brought in sailors who'd glimpsed life beyond this eastern edge of a then mighty empire. Isolated and unknown even to most Russians, but looking out over the vast promise of the Pacific, there are many worse places than Vladivostok for a rock star to start. With his band Mumiy Troll, Lagutenko spent the 1990s rewiring the musical mainstream of his home country. Perceiving the music industry's shaky future, this bestselling group gave away an album to their fans eight years before Radiohead. You can see Lagutenko as an actor in the hit vampire film Night Watch (2004). But his celebrity is less interesting than his experience watching first Communism then a capitalist investment bank collapse from the inside. He has served in the Red Navy, and flung himself into Camden Town at Brit-pop's height. Chaos doesn't concern him. The hunger for freedom and experience in the lyrics of Mumiy Troll's first English-language album, Vladivostok, sum him up. A decade of huge success at home has only encouraged him to go back to the bottom in places where he's unknown, to roll the dice and see what happens this time. Born in Moscow in 1968, Lagutenko's architect father died when he was five months old, after which his mother moved to Vladivostok. "People there do have this feeling that they live on the edge of the world," he says. "I had romantic dreams about becoming a sailor. The image of them coming back from, say, Japan in the '70s stuck in my head. Hitting the town with their double-breasted jackets and flared jeans, they seemed like Martians." He had his first, addictive taste of touring as a child, "in a proper, propaganda-style Soviet choir, singing songs about Lenin in Siberian factories." But the illicit Western pop those Soviet sailors smuggled back was what enthused the boy Ilya. The genre-blurring which would define Mumiy Troll started here. "They didn't follow any chart trends," he remembers. "I guess they were buying them for the covers. So that's why I learned about Genesis and AC/DC and Blondie and Duran Duran at the same time. I didn't follow any particular style. Anything you got your hands on was exciting, because it was forbidden fruit. Today I still take it as a challenge to write in between genres, opening horizons." The ritual of the record player was far more potent than in the West. "You bought the new LP on the black market," he says lovingly, "and finally you sneak it into your home, you sit with your friends and put it on your record player. I'm still fond of those times, when we spent hours just sitting and staring at the black speakers." He swapped often unlabelled tapes with friends. With no music media to tell him what he was hearing, he dreamed the details. "I remember how happy I was then, aged 10 or 11. I created the bands' names and album covers, then non-existent hits by fictitious bands, then invented my own showbiz, where I had my own band. And eventually those childish games became my life. The day I realised I'd gone that far with it, I wasn't really surprised. I said, 'Okay. What else?'" Lagutenko formed his first band, Bunny Pee, aged 11, and Mumiy Troll four years later. "It was psychedelic punk," he says of these first steps. "We couldn't play at all. So our first music experiments were noise things, with cardboard boxes, toy pianos, whatever we could get. I really regret those recordings didn't survive. They were real punk." When Mumiy Troll got the license Soviet musicians needed, it was for an unlikely debut gig. "We played at a so-called Festival of Patriotic Song, on the verge of perestroika," he laughs. "The local papers called us the most terrible thing they'd ever seen, because we called ourselves a rock band and sang about aliens from outer space, not American imperialism trying to conquer the world. We were blacklisted, as music which is not good for a young Communist Party member to hear. It gave us our first PR. I was delighted." Conscription into the Navy from 1987 to 1989 anyway finished Mumiy Troll Mark One, as Lagutenko finally saw the wide world he'd dreamed of. Then in 1991, the Soviet Union, and the reality he had been raised in, abruptly ceased to exist. "Overnight, you're free of any obligations you've been taught," he remembers. "There were no real plans, no jobs, nothing really. There was chaos, but we took it for granted. You do what you want to do, just survive. It was the start of a real adventurous journey, when you rely on whatever skills you've got."
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