It is Saturday eve and it is the second day of the Olympics. I just experienced hell getting into the West End (courtesy of an earlier cycle rally that saw main traffic routes closed), so I’m relieved to finally arrive at my destination and in time for a Russian music festival.

The destination in question is an open-air concert at ‘Russia Sochi Park’, Kensington Gardens, with various acts performing for an almost entirely Russian audience and in their native tongue. Fascinated and bewildered all the same, I’m introduced to the PR who in turn introduces me to >I>Ilya Lagutenko – charismatic frontman of hugely popular Russian ‘rockapops’ Mumiy Troll.

Cheekily, we agree that you simply can’t interview a Russian star sober, and Ilya promptly offers me to make use of the generous free drinks rider – and conduct the interview after the show. I hope the idea doesn’t backfire.
There are lots of people in the park, and even more Mumiy Troll fans - or so it would seem. Thunderous cheering greets the band, and the PR explains to me that Mumiy Troll will mainly perform songs from their current album ‘Vladivostok’ – the band’s first English language effort. However, tonight the songs will be performed in Russian, indeed, even the banter in between the songs is in Russian.
Really, I don’t understand a thing, although at times it seems as if I can feel the words. Having listened to the English language versions of the songs prior to the show, I can tell they sound a little harder and harsher when delivered in their native tongue. I’m equally baffled by Ilya’s choice of stage outfit – resembling a mix between a striped swimsuit and a Russian sailor outfit – a gimmick that might be lost on audiences not familiar with his background and history.

After the show, we meet again in the tent (bubblies still flowing freely) and get down to business.

Do you go on stage thinking, “This audience is Russian but tomorrow we’re playing for an English audience”… I mean, does that influence your performance other than the obvious difference in language?

Ilya Lagutenko:
We’ve been to different places in different situations; also, we’ve been playing for 15 years. This is why I like playing to audiences outside Russia and perhaps a culture/audience we are not really familiar with, because that way we are learning from the experience. See, we played in Greenland once, and this is a very strange place I tell you. Not many bands have played there, I think we were the third band ever, the locals told us. To play in Greenland was certainly a strange experience for us. So you have to find a way maybe not to ‘please’ different audiences but just to get some kind of connection. Another time we played in Mexico, where people don’t really care whether you sing in Russian or in English because the Mexicans speak Spanish. But they have rock ‘n’ roll in their blood for some reason. So gaining from all these various experiences is the main thing for me, because then you can apply all the different techniques. The most difficult thing for me is to play in front of an audience that is half Russian and half English speaking, because the Russian part of the audience will be familiar with our music and make demands on us etc, while the English-speaking half still tries to get familiarised with our sound.

When I observed you playing tonight, some of the songs kicked off with a groove that was in parts almost funky or even a bit Stones like. But the minute the Russian lyrics and singing came in, it changed the whole feel of the song and to a certain extent also the rhythm…

Well, this is the reason why I formed a band. I try to follow different music styles and bands, even back home in Soviet times when it was really hard to get Western music I listened to tapes that sailors brought into the country. I never did stick to one particular style you know, I always wanted a good combination of everything. As a concert goer for instance, I would like the band to sound as they do in the studio, but then you see them play live and you think “Why doesn’t the singer do this or do that” and so on. At some point you think “Why don’t you do it like so and so if you know how to do it better”. Also, live is supposed to be different in emotions and attitudes, things like that. In the end, every musician wants to be unique but there is no science teaching you how to put this jigsaw puzzle together.

Do you have different expectations from your Russian fans compared to Western fans?

Ideally, I would like to find a way to unite two totally different audiences. It’s a really great thing to apply your own experiences and skills to help it make happen, but what is also helpful is technology like the internet, because it has made the access to different information really easy. I mean, look at fashion for instance. Now it’s allowed to mix totally different things and styles, while ten or twenty years ago things were a lot more set. You were either a punk, or you wore your Dior, or things like that. You didn’t match your leather jacket with Gucci shoes, but now you can. And the same I guess happened in music worldwide. Now it is possible to be a band from Vladivostok and reach a worldwide audience outside your hometown, but for us it was hard to get to this point.

I recently watched a TV-program about Russia and how traditional values and conservative and right-wing attitudes are on the up again BECAUSE all these Western influences are now allowed there. Would you say the director of the program has a point?

It is a pretty accurate observation and I would probably agree with it to some point. This is what is happening in so-called mainstream rock ‘n’ roll in Russia now. I truly believe that the most interesting things happened to Russian rock ages ago, because it wasn’t commercial at all. So at some point those people who devoted their lives to that kind of music really were obsessed with getting Western or whatever influences. Combined with their own Russian language and studio skills they came up with interesting mixtures. If you listen to some of these albums now, they remind me of the Hip Hop albums of the 21st century. Other music sounds more like folk bands. I guess everything goes in circles and your country says ‘this is good’ or ‘this is bad’. It’s just what happens to us depends on different aspects of our lives.

Can you tell me a bit about the outfit you wore tonight on stage, it seems like a strange sailor-style bath suit – do you think foreign audiences get the idea?

Haha, to be honest I don’t really care about this kind of ‘market research’ and whether people get us or not, we do it to delight ourselves but also because we want to have an identity. Let me explain. If you are Russian but you are not from Moscow, it’s very difficult to identify yourself with Mother Russia. You are perhaps ten hours drive from Moscow and whatever happens there might be the opposite of what happens to you, and you have a different lifestyle and so on. Then you come to Moscow and they say “you speak with a different accent and you live different” and so you grow up with this idea. So finally, you identify yourself with the place you grew up at and you form a band. Vladivostok is a big sea-port and ships come and go and people come and go. The Vladivostok sailors usually sail the world ten months a year, they only come home for a few weeks to get drunk and spend their money, haha. As a kid I always wanted to be one of those sailors, and in a way the band and I have become sailors because now we are travelling the world. We come back to Vladivostok once or twice a year but we probably have stronger connections now to places like LA or London. I mean, we recorded three albums in LA! We googled and found the studio – it was the same studio in which bands like Fleetwood Mac and Red Hot Chili Peppers have recorded!

So now that you have conquered LA, what’s your next plan?

To conquer the world, haha!

(Please read my review of Mumiy Troll’s ‘Vladivostok’ in the Album Reviews section)