Straight outta Vladivostok

Boston Globe, August 13, 2010

Most bands on their way to success have to face typical obstacles like dodgy record deals or squabbles among bandmates. Far fewer must deal with collapse and transformation of the social order, a crippling economic crisis, suspicious authorities, and a music market where 9 out of 10 CDs are pirated and earn the bands zero revenue.

That’s the setting Russian artists have faced since the 1990s, and where Mumiy Troll, a veteran quartet from Vladivostok, have not just survived but prospered. Since leader Ilya Lagutenko and his bandmates, childhood friends and teen rock rebels in late Soviet days, formed the current lineup in 1996, they’ve reached – and kept – arena-filling star status in one of the world’s most turbulent markets.

They’ve done it with music that is far from the thumping club tracks and cheesy pop often associated with Russia, but a highbrow blend of art-rock and new wave, long on melody and poetic lyrics delivered by the languid and charismatic Lagutenko, that’s had Western critics scurrying for an almost absurd list of comparisons ranging from Bauhaus and Devo to Pearl Jam and the Afghan Whigs.

Yet Mumiy Troll, which plays the Middle East on Saturday, are only on their second American tour, a reflection of low awareness of Russia’s music scene here beyond expat circles. They are reaching out with songs in English, a turn on the Craig Ferguson show last year, and an outre new video, “Polar Bear,” that has caught blog appeal.

It’s not a stretch. For one thing, Lagutenko is fluent in English (and also Chinese, his university major). And his songs are laced with the influences he gathered in a hurry in the early 1990s, when he found himself living in London and working as an interpreter for a Russian-Chinese-British investment fund.

“After the Soviet Union collapsed all of us were searching for jobs,” Lagutenko explains on the phone from San Diego. “I ended up in London wearing a pinstripe suit. But it was a really interesting time, the birth of Britpop; especially for me, a person for whom rock music was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Imagine that.”

In Soviet-era Vladivostok, a port and garrison city far out on the Pacific coast, many time-zones away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, access to rock was limited, to say the least; yet Lagutenko became obsessed with it while still a child.

“The first incarnation of the band was basically my childhood toy,” he says. “The moment that my closest friend and I decided we were tired of toy soldiers and railroads, I told him, `let’s play a rock band.’ Where the hell I got this idea, I don’t know.”

“Rock music wasn’t approved. But I saw a picture of KISS somewhere, and I thought this might be a really interesting world. Our department store had one guitar, and I would go and look at it like at an art museum.”

When his London employer went bankrupt, Lagutenko had not only caught up with the scene but written a large portfolio of his songs. Friends suggested he focus on his music. He had a few come record in London – “there were no studios in Vladivostok, and we didn’t know people in Moscow” – and the new Mumiy Troll was born.

Nine albums later, the band is a major cultural force, says David MacFadyen, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who runs a massive digital archive of new music from Russia (www.farfrommoscow.com).

“You have to start with them,” MacFadyen says. “They were the first big, important, confident rock band to appear after the demise of the Soviet system. They’ve gradually come to represent the positive aspirations of Russian music westwards.”

The fact that they’ve done this from roots in the Russian Far East – a place that few Muscovites visit – is no coincidence, says MacFadyen. “It gave them extra romance to be from as far away as possible.”

Vladivostok figures in Mumiy Troll’s imagery: the port, the submarines, the vast hinterland, and also the corruption. “Ask anyone about Vladivostok and they talk about crime,” Lagutenko says. “Our last mayor is being searched around the world by Interpol. But I still like this crazy place.”

Perhaps the Vladivostok toughness helped Mumiy Troll deal with the ruble crisis of 1998, which sank the label that distributed them but gave them back control of their publishing rights; or Russia’s endemic piracy, which forces bands to release music free and make their money from touring. (“We try not to think about home,” Lagutenko says.)

America should be easy in comparison. “But every rock band has this slight ambition to conquer the world.” says Lagutenko. “Everyone wants some of the gold on the horizon. America is where rock was born, and it’s where you come to see if you really are the greatest band in the world.”

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