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For the average unsuspecting American rock fan, Mumiy Troll, Russia's biggest independent rock band for the past decade and counting, can present a lot to take in. At first there is, of course, that curious name. It translates literally to "mummy troll" but is really a play on Mumintroll, a Swedish/Finnish children's book series that is wildly popular in Europe but relatively unknown here.
Then there is the language barrier. Though the band, led by cheeky frontman Ilya Lagutenko, has been around since the '80s, the group has only recently begun to record in English. (The band's drummer reportedly doesn't speak the language at all.)
Its new EP, Polar Bear, is the first official release in this direction — and even the video for its lead single, the title track, hardly makes a stab at mainstream crossover.
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A built-for-YouTube tour de force, the clip involves human-size pickles pleasuring themselves in peep show booths and then lustily attacking some bear mascots. Later, the mascots pleasure themselves and engage in the kind of pile-ons that might turn on some bona fide furries. Add some racy shots of human asses on fire (literally), and you get the kind of thing that commies back in the day would have hated. That makes for Internet gold in 2010.
In fact, in Mumiy Troll's hometown, the remote eastern Russia naval port of Vladivostok, the band was once dubbed "socially dangerous" by the local Communist Party. "Back in the Soviet Union time, I would say rock music was not really welcome, to put it the polite way!" Lagutenko recalls before letting out one of his frequent laughs. "If you were brave enough to start to play music differently to what they would show on TV, instantly you became a rebel. I never really had any antigovernment lyrics, but I guess they were afraid of tricky lyrics about fashion or boys on the beach, even more than antigovernment propaganda!"
Lagutenko's louche, vaguely lusty stage persona might not rankle the American government, but it still thrills in a way that is pure, flamboyant rock 'n' roll. And the music matches it. Despite the overtly titillating "Polar Bear" video, the song itself remains in the brain far after the last images of vegetables fade.
A remake of the band's wildly popular single "Medvedica," the tune is a slab of loose-limbed dance-rock that flirts with glam and New Wave and sounds ready-made for an indie disco. The rest of the Polar Bear EP follows suit, managing a raw yet slick sound buoyed by a clear enthusiasm that almost cloaks the disc's stilted lyrics.
In other words, you don't need a lot of post-Iron Curtain cultural context to really dig Mumiy Troll for its essentially carnal pleasures, something that Lagutenko recognizes and makes him confident in his plot to conquer the States. "When I'm onstage, I don't really care what language people speak in the audience or whether they understand me at all. I feel a totally different method of communication; call it telepathy or something like that," he says. "You come to a Mumiy Troll gig, you don't really have to be educated about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Russian dollies. You just have to have a beer and be open to seeing something else."
Still, it's a long way from Vladivostok to Miami. And while Mumiy Troll is accustomed to playing for thousands and thousands of fans in Russia, here the band is playing two nights at the small, relatively unknown South Beach venue Nowhere Lounge. (The promoter, Lagutenko says, promised there is enough of a Russian expat community in South Florida to support back-to-back gigs; perhaps the entire population of Sunny Isles Beach will head south on Collins Avenue those nights.) Similar-sized club gigs mark the rest of the band's national tour, although an exceptionally positive reception at this past edition of SXSW has created a buzz in the biggest live music markets.
But Lagutenko and company know they're in for an uphill battle; otherwise, why bother recording in English at all? "I don't have any illusions that because I'm such a cool guy and we're a really great band, that the whole world will start listening to Russian," he says.
He remains confident, though, that Troll time is nigh. "We definitely consider it a challenge for ourselves as songwriters and as a band just to basically prove to ourselves that we are not limited to our hometown," he says. "The world is so different, and people are different, but they're still the same. They still value things by heart. Sometimes you meet a new friend, and instead of trying to speak your own language, you try to learn theirs. Call it music diplomacy!"