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My life: Ilya Lagutenko

The front man of Russian rockers Mumiy Troll talks to Mark Footer about singing, sailing and studying Chinese in Soviet times

 

THE TROLL STIRS I was raised in Vladivostok, the biggest port in the Russian Pacific. We were very distant from what was going on in Moscow; even Russian citizens needed a visa to get there in Soviet times. We did, though, have commercial ships coming in … and sailors who smuggled in records and blue jeans. There was no radio broadcasting Western music, no shops selling it. The only chance to get into rock music was via those sailors. Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore: I still remember the thickness of their vinyl records. The thickest ones were from Singapore. In my childhood, pop music was my hobby; I would enjoy Kiss albums as well as Duran Duran; totally different kinds of music, but we liked the album covers. It wasn't usual for Soviet teenagers to form a rock band; I got this idea, I guess, from Japanese magazines. This was the birth of Mumiy Troll; I just wanted this cool band that travelled the world.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME I started learning Mandarin at the age of six. The Soviet Union and China were friends in the 50s and 60s, then, with the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap, there was literally no communication, but we still had some Chinese people left in Russia - and we had a Chinese school, probably the only one left in Vladivostok, five minutes walk from where I lived. My mum said, "OK, you're going to this school. You have no choice, because I'm not carrying you every day to some school three train stops away." China reforms started and Russian perestroika started, so suddenly you got this demand for people to translate and interpret. That was my first real job - I interpreted for Chinese businessmen in Russia and for Russian businessmen in China - and I went to study Chinese and Chinese economy and Chinese history in China, in Dalian.

GROUP THERAPY The situation in Russia became really tough; you had to survive somehow, and music didn't pay well. I spent a few years studying in China, working in China and then I went to the United Kingdom, to work for a Chinese-British-Russian joint venture. They had a big project to build a toll road connecting Russia, Korea and China - it never happened and the business collapsed, so I had to decide what my next move would be. I realised, though, that I don't really enjoy the traditional side of life. I'm not obsessed about making money; selling this, buying those. At that time - the mid 90s - the music industry in Russia started to grow, so me and my friends thought, "Why don't we record an album and try to promote it?" Our first album was released in 1997 and it was a big hit; it sounded so fresh in Russia it has become iconic now.

Hopefully in Hong Kong and Shanghai we will do songs in Chinese; I'm fascinated about how the same song can be transformed into another language. It's not a literal translation; being a professional interpreter helps to understand the process. I did a lot of research about how they translate classical or modern Russian poetry into English. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

WE ARE SAILING Our Asian tour has been part of a voyage on a sailing ship, the Sedov (which arrived in Hong Kong for a brief stop on February 22, without Mumiy Troll, who were recording in Los Angeles). I have been a fan of sailing since my childhood. I did sailing courses and sailed yachts and I was always fascinated by 18th-century explorers who would go to the Arctic on a sailing ship. We recorded on board - I don't believe in hi-tech studio equipment; sometimes an iPad, an iPhone and an acoustic guitar is enough. We rehearsed, we wrote songs and we tried to play for the public in every port the ship called in to. In Nagasaki, we played on deck in heavy rain. It was fun because you had people ranging from curious Japanese babushkas to school girls watching. In Korea, we played inside the ship, because it was freezing outside.

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME My co-operation with the charity (Amur) started about 10 years ago. I was a guy from Vladivostok, basically the home of Siberian tigers, and I met people from England who knew about the situation with the tigers more than I did. There were horrible things going on back then, so I decided to use my popularity to raise awareness. What we do now is more educational programmes - for kids. It still needs work but from what I know, the situation in eastern Russia is much better than that in India.

My generation were born in the Soviet Union and we've seen so many changes - some people just don't believe in anything. I truly believe that the current teenage generation are growing up without looking back into the Soviet past, which is good. Whatever the media say about Russian people being nostalgic for the Soviet Union - don't believe it. (The Pussy Riot stunt) was a silly act - and there were lots of mistakes; the girls made them, the establishment did - everyone did. I feel pity for the girls in jail but they don't seem too artistic to me, let's put it this way.

HEARD IN THE HARD ROCK With me as curator, the band are setting up an annual festival in Vladivostok. We are so far from Europe that it's really expensive, even for Russian artists, to come to Vladivostok. Sometimes it's easier to bring people in a region together. One of the reasons we're coming to Hong Kong is that we'd like to establish connections with bands and media and festival promoters. I love Hong Kong. I go almost every year, usually for holidays and to meet friends. When I met my wife, Anna, she said she'd never been to Asia, so I took her to Hong Kong. It was our first romantic trip, and my oldest childhood friend was in Hong Kong. At four o'clock in the morning, we ended up in the Hard Rock Cafe, in Kowloon, and there were no other people in. We decided to have one last drink and then go home. Then I realised the in-house band was still playing. I asked my friend to ask them if they would play a song if I explained the chords; I wanted to do a surprise song for my wife - she was my girlfriend then. It was just me and the in-house band. When I had finished, there was lots of shouting from a distant corner - there were some Russian sailors there who had recognised me.

 

Mumiy Troll will play at Kitec on Wednesday, at 8pm. Tickets are available through www.ticketflap.com.

 

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