Becoming one of Russia's biggest rock stars was something that Ilya Lagutenko never imagined when he was a boy, even though he was already sure he wanted to play rock music.
"As an 11-year-old boy in the Soviet Union, I didn't know where I got the idea," says Mumiy Troll's singer and lead songwriter. "It's rather strange and almost a magical thing from outer space. I tried to do the expected thing, go to university, work for investment company. In the end, it all ended up with me in a band that tours the world and plays songs. I can't explain it."
Lagutenko grew up in Vladivostok, an isolated city on the Russian Pacific Coast that was sealed off even to other Russians because of large Soviet military bases in the region. But it was also the country's primary Pacific seaport, so ships from Japan and Singapore regularly docked there, providing the young Lagutenko and his friends with their opportunity to rock.
"Those sailors, they would bring some music — tapes, LPs, magazines from Japan and Singapore," he recalls. "We got this random choice of music, but to us, all of it was good. One day you would listen to ABBA, the next day AC/DC, then Genesis and Duran Duran. It was completely different music. But it was all rock for us."
Before long, the pre-teen Lagutenko started his first band, a psychedelic punk outfit called Bunny Pee, boiling those influences into his signature sound.
"I tried to find a compromise between the prog-rock stuff, which I couldn't play, and to be as cool as some of the new wave bands like Blondie, Iggy Pop and Television, because we liked their outfits," he says. "Then we heard the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and said 'I can play that.' In the end, it all mutated into what I call 'rockapops.'"
Rockapops didn't have a chance to take off until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
"Everything happened so fast," says Lagutenko. "When you're 18, and all your life you've been told you have no choice, and suddenly one day, you do — I remember that day. I was on a student exchange in China and our teacher got us together and said, 'Your country doesn't exist anymore.' From that moment on, it's been do what you want to do. We kind of celebrated that feeling of freedom."
Mumiy Troll went on to have the first song ever played on Russian MTV in 1998. They've now released eight albums and continue to fill arenas from Vladivostok to the Baltics.
But he and his bandmates — bassist Eugene "Sdwig" Zvidionny, drummer Oleg Pungin, and guitarist/keyboardist/saxophonist Yuri Tsaler — aren't content to stay home and revel in their stardom. They want to tap into America.
So they've been making records in English, releasing Comrade Ambassador to solid reviews in the states in 2009. The band toured here last year and is now back with the catchy Polar Bear EP, playing wherever it can to audiences of all sizes.
But back in his homeland, the gregarious Lagutenko is a style-setting star who's reached beyond music, voicing the monkey in the Russian version of Kung Fu Panda and playing a zombie in the hit film Night Watch.
The singer expects that will be his last film role.
"My head exploded," he explains. "I don't like acting after that."