Mumiy Troll is the biggest-selling rock band you’ve never heard of.
The Russian stars are canvassing North America on a 40-gig tour, selling out small clubs across the continent, slowly converting auds to their brand of post-Soviet rock ‘n’ and roll.
The band, founded in the late 1980s by a group of friends in the far eastern Russian port of Vladivostok, has a huge following in Russia and plays up to 100 gigs a year in a country where fans take their music seriously.
Lead singer Ilya Lagutenko, 40, says the band was formed at a time when Vladivostok — a military port — was a closed city and youngsters could only dream of seeing famous Russian rockers like Aquarium.
Picking up magazines and LPs from sailors coming into port from China and Japan, they got their first taste of rock music from records by ELO, Genesis, Duran Duran, Bony M and Abba, among others.
Early gigs in Vladivostok were distinctly “lo-fi” says Lagutenko — the band borrowed a balalaika from his grandfather and scrounged an electric guitar.
The KGB frowned on their style of music and odd name and put them on a black list, but no one was ever arrested and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms soon put an end to any potential trouble.
After studying Chinese and English at the Oriental Studies Institute of the Far East U. in Vladivostok, Lagutenko lived in China and London, where his jobs included exporting lentils and “wearing a pinstripe suit in an investment bank.”
Returning to Russia in 1995 he re-formed the band, financed its first album and musicvideo and never looked back.
Their first three albums sold in the millions — although the band saw little money, which was lost to “piracy and music industry corruption.”
When the Russian economy went into meltdown in 1998, the group seized the opportunity to take back the rights to all its music and has performed as an indie outfit ever since.
The band was the first Russian rock group to offer fans a free download via the Internet — in 2000.
Lagutenko attributes much of the success to the release earlier this year of “Comrade Ambassador” — the band’s first album commercially available in North America. It got coverage in Entertainment Weekly, the Toronto Star, the San Francisco Examiner and other media. The band has also just released an English-language EP called “Paradise Ahead.”
While Mumiy Troll pressed some tracks with Britain’s Marc Almond for his album “Heart and Snow,” Lagutenko says the band is keen to collaborate with other Western artists.
“They truly are superstars — Ilya’s work rate is hard enough to follow by emails. One minute he is in deepest Siberia making an ecology video, the next in Mexico performing to sellout crowds, a few days later performing at a private invite gig in a palace in France,” says British music producer Greg Brimson, who has worked with the band.
Brimson will help manage the group’s 2010 tour, with an itinerary likely to include Spain, Italy, Holland, the U.K., Ireland, the Baltic States, India and China. He believes the band is on the brink of becoming a global phenomenon.
“The music is unique, accessible, packed with great melody and quirky sense of irony. It kicks like a mule and can be sensitive like a beautiful child. It is clever, and it feels real. That is why they have sold millions.”