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Gogol Bordello - Interview with Eugene Hutz

  by Denzil Watson

published: 14 / 11 / 2014

Gogol Bordello - Interview with Eugene Hutz


Denzil Watson speaks to Eugene Hutz, the frontman with Gogol Bordello, about his group's theatrical stage shows and their forthcoming European Winter tour

Gogol Bordello first hit the headlines in the UK back in 2005. Led by their Ukrainian-born front man Eugene Hutz, the release of their third album ‘Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike’, and the growing reputation of their theatrical stage shows, ensured the UK quickly took them to their hearts. Since then they have never looked back, as they have become favourites on the main summer festival circuit while releasing a further three critically acclaimed albums. With their as-yet-unnamed seventh album set for release in 2015 plus a Winter tour of Europe to bring 2014 to a close, the gypsy-punk band formed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York in 1999 are now truly a gobal phenomena. Pennyblackmusic caught up with the charismatic Eugene before they hit the road in December. PB: You’ve got a 17-date tour looming in December. Your touring schedule is relentless. Do you still love playing live and how do you find the energy to play so many shows? EH: In the music itself. The energy lies in the music itself, my friend. And the music is energy. PB: Most bands would burn themselves out after only a few shows if they played the way Gogol Bordello play. EH: As I said, the energy itself lays in the music. If you burn out from playing music, it means you are playing music you do not like. PB: Do you ever tire from touring? EH: Of course, as human-beings we get tired, but after you get tired what happens? You get recharged. There is a continuous cycle of things. It’s like everything is going in a flow. It’s not like I’m on some insane mission that’s prescribed to me, and I don’t know how to finish it. It’s not like that. I wrote the script that I liked and I’m executing it. That’s the idea of life. PB: You really are a global phenomena live, aren’t you, if you look at all the different countries you can play around the world? EH: Man, that is a true fact. And it is true we can go and play fucking Chile or Australia or Turkey or Greece or London or Sheffield or Alaska on a Tuesday night, and there will be several thousand people there to see us. That’s a fucking fact. PB: That must make you think that you are really doing something right here. EH: Yes. If we wanted to we could play 365 days a year. PB: But it’s not just Gogol Bordello. How do you find the time to DJ and act as well? EH: Well, I don’t find it. I do what I do. And as much I can get in the day, that is enough. I think maybe on paper, conceptually, that looks like some kind of on-going hassle. But it’s really not and I’m enjoying my life. There is a certain pace to it. There is nothing strenuous about my life. PB: You've had an interesting life. Not too many people can say they had to flee a post-Chernobyl Ukraine in 1986 and made a seven-year trek through the refugee camps of East Europe before settling in New York, can they? EH: Well, that wasn’t the fun part. That’s not the enjoyable memory at all. Life takes its own course, and you are not supposed to be at war with life. You are supposed to dance with it. Life is a journey and nothing is supposed to be permanent. PB: Talking of journeys do you prefer to travel or arrive? EM: Both! Most people seem to be stuck in a mould where they are like sailors. While they are at sea they are missing the soil, and on the soil missing the sea. I’m the kind of sailor that when he’s in the sea he loves to be in the sea and when he’s on the soil he likes the soil. That’s the kind of sailor I am. PB: That excitement of travelling really comes through in your music. EH: Of course, it’s in the music. Music is just a product of life. PBM: I first came across Gogol Bordello in 2006 when I bought ‘Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike’, and that’s when you started to get quite big in Britain. Were you surprised at the success of ‘Gypsy Punks’, given the modest success of your first two albums? EH: No, not really surprised. I always thought once we go to the UK they are the sort of people who know it when they see it. And I was very excited to go to the UK. I was plain excited. PMH: I remember seeing a live review of you in the ‘NME’. It had a picture of your crowd-surfing on that big drum of yours, and I thought, “I’ve got to see this band”. And I did see you and your live show blew my mind. EH: Well, thank you. There are a lot of things going on in Gogol Bordello’s music, even more than there appears to be to someone even who is quite knowledgeable about music. The winning thing is our connection with audiences who have a huge history with music. They read into the complexity of it. They can dig its rowdiness and power, and they can still feel the subtle elements of it. I remember playing with the Specials once and one of them said “Man, that song ‘Pala Tuta’ that you have. That song is such a mind-fuck hybrid. The melody and the riff is some Balkan insanity, the bass line is like the Specials’ early stuff and the backing vocals are like the Beatles,” and he just went on and on. So many things that he said were so UK actually. It was a really hilarious comment. You could see that someone in the UK who knows music really well could take it apart. PB: In some ways there are so many influences in there that it shouldn’t work but it does, doesn’t it? EH: Yeah, because we’re not trying to make it work. It’s a wrong way to assume that we get together and try to combine something. I ain’t trying to combine shit. I write a song and I hear it in my head, then I strive to mirror that in the arrangement and all these various elements are there on their own. I don’t even know if they are this or that. It’s mine and the entire band’s arsenal of knowing a lot of music. Knowing and listening to a lot of music. And DJing a lot of music. And really digging into the whole song-writing science and how it comes together. A lot of it is taking music apart and then putting it back together. PB: Given you are so renowned as a live act, do you find it difficult to articulate the energy of Gogol's live performances in the studio? EH: Absolutely not. I don’t find it to be anything difficult or hard. We just get in the studio and work toward the sound that I hear in my head. And when it’s done, it’s done. I don’t really beat around about it any more. PBM: In terms of the last two albums, you blended the Gypsy punk theme nicely with Brazilian influences on 2010's ‘Trans-Continental Hustle’ and then Mexican/Hispanic influences on last year's ‘Pura Vida Conspiracy’. EH: Yeah, I’ve been living in Brazil for the last six years. And the latest album was recorded on the US/Mexican border in Texas. Literally on the line. The barbed wire was just literally thirty metres away from the studio. So, okay, on that album some kind of mariachi line organically found its way into a song. It wasn’t like we chose a place on the map and then tried to mimic its sound. It wasn’t like that. We are just having creative fun with our life. That’s what life is supposed to be. It is suppose to be about joyous exploration of things and not some conceptual mind-fuck. PB: One track that stands out on the last album is the opening track ‘We Rise Again’ where you sing "Borders are scars on face of the planet". EH: Yeah, absolutely. All the borders, all the countries, the different nations, the different styles, the different political opinions, they are all forms of egomania. PB: Given your Ukrainian/Russia background, it’s quite poignant given what’s been going on in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, isn’t it? EH: That area that I came from is nowhere near any kind of enlightenment. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Anywhere where there is national-driven conflict, it’s fucking bad news. The more people trawl-up and elevate past beliefs there’s a tension, and they start panicking. Outwards and in a façade, a façade of themselves, a façade of everything else really, and façade is just good for what it’s worth. It’s only great for people who don’t understand there are things beyond façade. It’s tragic to see so many people throwing some much energy away on that type of façade really. PB: Do you make any sort of pilgrimage back to your home land? EH: I did that for a number of years, and I kind of forget what the real reason was for that. It was just a feeling. I think I filled that cup up pretty significantly, living in Latin America, not just Brazil but also Argentina and travelling around different countries in Latin America for the last five or six years. And I’m not the kind of person that looks back at something too hard. I really don’t. It wasn’t like a ‘I’ve got to try and hold on to my roots’ kind of thing. That’s the most absurd kind of idea. Trying to hold onto your roots is like trying to hold on to the air, man! Like, good luck. What’s all that about? Life is now, and it will never be not now. It will only always be only fucking now. So. fuck the time before the time fucks you. PB: And sort of following on from that I was going to ask you about the fact that over the last couple of years you've lost two of the band's long-serving members. I'm thinking Yuri Lemeshev on the accordion [2001-13 -Ed] and Oren Kaplan on guitar [2000-12 - Ed). Were they mutual partings? EH: We didn’t lose anybody! Yuri has re-supported his career where he wants to be domestic and record chamber albums of symphonic music, which is what he always wanted to do since he moved to New York. So he’s doing that now and he also found and trained, absolutely brilliantly, Pasha Newmer, an accordion play of his own choice, for our band. It’s a progression – it isn’t any kind of loss. Things are not suppose to be permanent. If a band exists for five years, they usually go through one or two changes as it is and that’s normal. But the band that exists for over a decade it is going to go through other changes, and that’s only normal and that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how it is. PB: Have you started writing for your next LP yet? EH: My friend, it's already recorded. I literally just left the studio and the band two days ago in Washington DC. It's an important place to record because it's the studio Fugazi and all the discord bands recorded their records. PB: Does that mean it's going to be a heavier album? EH: Why? Is it supposed to be heavy? PB: Because you were taking inspiration from bands like Fugazi? EH: Well, Fugazi isn't really a heavy band. It's an intense band and a brutally honest band. And that's the link. We've been friends with Fugazi for years. In fact it is my favourite band of all time. I have my song-writer heroes but as far as the band dynamic goes Fugazi is the band. It's a good vibration when Ian [MacKaye - vocals/guitar - Ed] stops by for a coffee during the day because he lives in the neighbourhood. There's no type of concept or stylistic approach to my song-writing. There never was actually. If somebody thought that then, it's their own kind of interpretation of it. The value and the power I see in the Gogol Bordello is we are driven by a raw spirit, and that's how it's going to stay. Spirit dictates, and don't stand in the way of it. In fact I'd say once the spirit starts dictating you'd better get the fuck out of the way. And don't ruin it, with your mind and your conceptual thinking. In that respect, that's just a pure form of communication. PB: Almost like a stream of consciousness? EH: Part stream of consciousness, but not to fuck it up by being self-conscious. You have to let it be what it is. It's really about dancing around the fire together. And that spirit. That's the recording spirit. The fire always needs to be there. It doesn't matter what kind of dance you are going to dance around it. It's your own choice what dance you are going to dance around the fire. The fire is there, we done our job and the fire is there. PB: One of my favourite songwriters recently said to me that, "I don't go to the songs, the songs come to me". Is that true for you? EH: Well, it is. I've been writing songs since I was fourteen, maybe thirteen years old. Little by little and more and more. I've tried all types of writing at this point. And I swore by every method I used while I was into it. I wrote only intoxicated for several years. During all my teenage years. Then I switched to a more methodical table and typewriter type of writing and took that very seriously for a while. Then I threw the whole fucking thing out of the window, and covered all the walls with pornographic kind of pictures and wrote in a room that exhilarates my libido beyond all mother-fucking belief and that worked great for a while. And then having written on the road with a trash-bag full of lyrics before I had a gadget in my pocket. Then, when I was working with Rick Rubin I leant towards a more monastic way of writing and now basically I don't have any rules for writing. I basically write whenever it is, on top of the fucking tree, while I'm scraping the ocean's floor or while I'm playing the show and something comes into my mind. There are no rules any more. There's not supposed to be any rules. It's just a fucking mess. I just handle the mess a lot better now! PB: Have you even been through a period where you've had writer's block? EH: No I don't have that problem. In fact I have to consciously work on setting down my writing process. I wind it down and walk away from it. Because otherwise I have sleeping problems. My mind is like a stream train. It's like, once I get going watch out brother! PB: Do you take songs on the road and then record them or have an intense period of writing in the studio, record them and then take them out on the road? EH: I'll tell you what, it's like an ongoing factory. There are about 100 songs, roughly, that are being written sometimes. I don't push it in any way. I'm not a deadline kind of person. If there's any deadline, I can tell then it's not going to happen. I only go where the mood is taking me. If I feel I can go back to these several songs and work with them on that topic because I'm in that frame of mind, then I'll do that. And that's it. That's it for the day. A couple of hours. It's exciting and it's joyous, but you need to know when to stop. Basically I don't push it and I don't buy into any kind of motivation. I let the joy write it basically. And go where the joy is bringing me. That's why, when you listen to our music, you can hear pure joy in every song. PB: That really does come through in the music, definitely. After your tour in December what have you got planned for Gogol Bordello in 2015? EH: Lots of stuff going on. Lots of collaborations. Cool things that have been in the cooker for a number of years. I'm going to fly around a bit and complete some projects with my friends, and lots of people are making things on the side. A lot of friends from other bands are making very exciting side projects. Sometimes when we play and play together at festivals you can never get thing done in the Summer because you are too busy playing, but when Winter comes it's like,”Hey, let's get all this shit done'” PB: Talking of friends, are you still in touch with Madonna? EH: Not in active touch. It's like once in a while. PB: That's was quite a big moment back in 2007 when you joined her on stage at the Live Earth Festival and brought you to a very broad audience. EH: I don't know really. Be your own judge for that. I don't really see it like that, but some people might have seen it like that. I didn't really see anything transforming. It was not done for any kind of reason really. It just happened. Everyone is free to interpret it how they like. I know for a fact that during the course of that year our audience had grown ,but our audience had grown every year since the beginning of the band, pretty much on the same never-ending progression. PB: Thank you. More information about Gogol Bordello's live dates can be found at www.gogolbordello.com and www.livenation.co.uk

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