CL Interview: Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello (audio + video)

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Leilani: You write it and you maestro it?

Eugene: Well of course – that’s my religion. That’s what I do. Since I was 14 years old in my first band, I wrote songs and I wanted to be successful as a leader, in every band that I was ever in, starting in the Ukraine back in 1986, when I was just a crazy kid with a dream.

Leilani: You do have a super vibrant stage persona… Is that just how you always were?

Eugene: Well, what really happened is that in my childhood, I was put into very hardcore long distance running program. And parallel to that I was, of course, a musical fanatic, so when punk rock came to Ukraine, and I got into it, I simply took my abilities of marathon runner on stage, and it didn’t seem to me anything special about it, because running ten miles was quite a normal activity for me. So then, joined with loud amplifiers … (he laughs). You know it escalated a bit more, and people started coming to see it and say “Wow, what a great stage presence.” But for me it was a normal thing I’d done for years, going through adrenaline rush of running so many miles every day, or 5, 6 times a week. So it’s kind of a combination of art and…

Leilani: Endurance?

Eugene: Endurance is the word. You know stamina and endurance is a big part of the warrior mentality we were raised with.

We were obviously raised in the cold war time, and everyone who grew up then was supposed to be a great warrior and soldier, and nevermind that war never started, but the abilities are there. Even though it can be seen in a kind of a, a you know, propagandistic light, this upbringing, but in the same light it is also a profound way of seeing it, because the archetype of a warrior goes much deeper into cultures than its political meaning. It’s a very particular spiritual realm…

Leilani: And that’s the type of thing you draw on when you perform and you write your music?

Eugene: For sure. I mean, from Carl Jung to Krishna Morty to feminists to punk rock, back to Dionysus – you know, there is an archetype of a warrior, and being a warrior doesn’t mean necessarily you need to win and succeed. It’s just a spiritual condition of living a worthwhile life.

Leilani: Is there anything you do to get yourself ready and pumped up for live shows?

Eugene: In the past, yes there was a lot to prepare, because every show was about surviving. It was always so intense and breathtaking ‘til about an hour before …

You know, for years it took me to work out, what is the right mixture of athletic warm-up and alcohol dosage to kind of get into that right frame of mind, but now, after doing some 200 shows a year, I just kind of became professional enough where I don’t need any preparations. Just give me the fucking microphone and I’m ready to go. Like now, I’m ready, where’s this fucking thing, let’s do it, I’m here for rock and roll.

Leilani: I know when I saw you guys at the State Theater [last June] there was one girl in particular who jumped on stage, and you guys had a funny little flirtation going on. Usually people tend to get thrown off stage immediately, but you seem to incorporate it into the show, and you don’t usually see stuff like that.

Eugene: For me, music is a way to feel brotherhood and closeness, so anything that has to do with any kind of social model of behavior that is dragging us down on a daily basis can basically fuck off, in that magical time on stage. And I love building all possible bridges and giving people opportunities to flip out. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I mean, one of my favorite things to do is to craft and to write songs and tell stories, and another thing is to really just flip out basically, and release kind of my unruly energies. But that girl was obviously having a great time, and as much as I can I never let security or somebody ruin it for them.

That’s what music is really all about. Music is a uniter, so anything that has to do with VIP and ropes and barriers is not my way. Sometimes I have to deal with it, and sometimes I’m put behind those barriers, but I do all I can to bring it down.

Leilani: Do you take credit for bringing gypsy punk to a wider audience?

Eugene: I don’t really care about things like that. I’m not from hip-hop world, and I don’t need to beat myself in the chest and say that I invented the fucking hip-hop, or I invented this or that. It’s for me great enough to know that I wrote my own songs, and that those melodies found ways into people’s hearts. So, I know what we did, and I was there when it was happening, and that’s beautiful enough for me. And yes I know that there are kids in San Francisco and skate punk kids down in California who are now listening to gypsy music from Romania, and I know how they got into it, but it’s not really about taking credit for it, it’s just the beauty of it, that it happens.

I don’t really believe in any isolated powers of the individual. I think that cultural tendencies for that were there already just like they were there in the ’60s for the Beatles and for Dylan, and just like they were there in ’70s for punk rock, you know?

It’s just culture, like anything else, goes in certain ways, and it reaches a new plateau were a new injection is necessary, and it usually comes from the outside, and in the late ’90s, it was very obvious that the U.S. was in a musical crisis, big time, and it had to take influences from outside because it was a real, you know, regurgitation bonanza.

Leilani: Do you find that all the travelling you do has helped you to incorporate different cultures and different styles of music into your own? And fueled your creativity?

Eugene: It’s a direct reflection of it. You’re not going to walk out unaffected and I welcome those things. But for me, it’s never about directly kind of taking on the so-called fucking flavor. I don’t care about that. It’s more about like, about actually spending time and becoming part of that culture, and more like telling their stories through your filter, and so of course, all the influence that we take is layered and textured in, but essentially it’s really about just writing your own songs, there is really nothing more vital than that, you know?

Leilani: Are you guys working on a new album right now?

Eugene: Yeah, we just finished a record with Rick Rubin. We’re very excited; it’s going to be fucking bombastic! It’s a very, very energetic record.

Wait ‘til you fucking hear it. It’s going to be exactly what it needs to be.

Leilani: Was Rubin more hands-on than other producers you’ve worked with?

Eugene: We had the most creative time, and a fucking great time, you know what I mean? The studio is a very complicated thing for any band, but really, it was just like our beings opened up to everything that we ever wanted to say.

Leilani: You have a pretty notorious mustache – I’m a mustache connoisseur and I’ve got to say it’s a pretty fantastic mustache. Any plans on ever shaving it, or…

Eugene: See, that’s like the last thing that I ever thought about or cared about … It’s always amazed me that it has any kind of notice whatsoever, or it’s considered to be some kind of fashion statement or anything…

Leilani: Well, it’s just so fabulous!

Eugene: Well … thank you very much, but I’m still going to withdraw back from backing it up by any statements. It’s as simple as like, my father had it, and my grandfather had it, and my great-great-grandfather had it, and I just came back from Ukraine where we headlined a festival, and everybody there had it, as simple as that, the roots.

But, well, you know, if it helps to kill fascism, I’m not going to get in the way of that.

Gogol Bordello plays The Ritz Ybor Monday, July 27, at 7 p.m.; tickets are $23 and are worth every penny.

Gogol Bordello with Madonna at Live Earth, 2007, performing "La Isla Bonita."

Gogol Bordello performing Not a Crime live on Later with Jools Holland


Google “gypsy punk” and most of the dozen or so results relate back to Gogol Bordello. Search the band specifically and you’ll find more than a million pages that mention it. While Gogol’s Ukraine-born visionary/composer Eugene Hütz isn’t interested in taking credit for spearheading a whole new movement in American music, his band’s influence is undeniable.

Gogol grew from NYC's underground music scene, just as much a melting pot as the city itself. Hütz immersed himself in it and assembled a motley crew of talented, multi-ethnic musicians to create his gypsy punk orchestra and make his vision of infusing East-European culture into Western music a reality.

The nine-member band represents seven nationalities all told. Their sound combines gypsy and Slavic music traditions with punk rock, dub reggae, metal, rap and even some funk and grooves, and the lyrics are delivered in English sprinkled with Spanish, Ukrainian and Italian verses. Since 1999, they have released four LPs; the most recent, 2007’s critically acclaimed Super Taranta!, fully launched Gogol into the international spotlight.

Many of Gogol’s songs (including "Wonderlust King, below") are about living a roving, responsibility-free lifestyle, though various other topics are touched upon, from the absurdly catchy “Start Wearing Purple,” about letting loose and being silly, to “American Wedding,” which pokes fun at our country’s stuffy wedding traditions (“Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring? / Where is the supply that gonna last three days?”), to the hilarious God vs. Science debate in “Supertheory of Supereverything.”

Everyone contributes vocals to the boisterous, colorful music, like violin virtuoso Sergey Ryabtsev, capable of some of the fastest and most furious fiddle playing I’ve ever witnessed; accordion player Yuri Lemeshev, who also moonlights with the studio band on Late Night with Conan O'Brien; and attractive lady entertainers and pandemonium makers Pamela Jintana Racine and Elizabeth Sun, who alternately sing, dance, and play marching band-style percussion throughout the live shows.

Hütz is the captivating and unpredictable center of it all. He sings lead, plays forceful acoustic guitar, and, usually shirtless with sweat dripping from his thick handlebar mustache, marches back and forth encouraging playful unruliness and leading spirited singalongs. He pilots the vigorous musical spectacle and keeps both his band and the audience as amped-up as he is.

Leilani: So, tell me about the role you play in the band as ringleader. How much of your songwriting goes into what happens on stage?

Eugene: I think it’s quite obvious (laughs robustly) that I write all the songs. (VIDEOS AFTER THE JUMP)

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