Raucous, unstoppably energetic gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello are reaching new heights of success and popularity following the release of their critically acclaimed album ‘Transcontinental Hussle’. In between playing sell-out concerts on their current tour, I managed to grab a few moments of lead singer Eugene Hutz’s time to speak with him about the band’s current direction and journey, as well as his own individual exploits.
Q. Gogol Bordello has an incredibly distinct sound – are you still evolving musically or have you settled on your particular sound?
A. That literally never pops in my head how it evolved and where it started and where it’s going. That is just not a job of a writer. That’s… I primarily deal with actually creating things and… you know… making things happening on stage that – on record and on stage, that deal with elevating the spirits. My own and whoever is around. The rest of the aspects of it are kind of… I don’t know what to tell you about it.
Q. So you don’t ever sit down and decide to write a song in a certain style?
A. Fuck no. That would not be music making. That would be… computer programming.
Q. Whilst you are certainly gaining in popularity, as a band Gogol Bordello is still well outside the mainstream. Are you trying to get more media attention such as radio coverage?
A. [Pause] Again, I wouldn’t know what to tell you about this. This is… really, at the end of the day, it’s not the 80s anymore where there’s alternative tentacles and then there is mainstream with all it’s dumb plastic facade. Nobody knows what the fuck is going on anymore, you know, there are small labels that are basically trying to act like big labels, and then there are majors who don’t know what to do and are trying to regain credibility in authentic music. The situation is completely different, so this whole thing about mainstream and underground, it doesn’t exist. There is super-underground bands that are on the radio and super-mainstream bands, or the bands that are trying to sound as mainstream as possible that never see the light of day, you know. It’s really more like every band is having its own unique destiny, and all these things don’t apply to the situation at all. We’re one of those bands that has its own trajectory, you know… it’s big no matter what. Whether we are on the radio or not, it’s kind of irrelevant to our paycheque. We have our own grassroots following that’s been raised for a decade and when the radio gets behind us, that’s fantastic. When TV gets behind us, that’s great. However that does not prevent us from flying to completely new continents like Brazil or Australia and playing sell-out shows there without having any of that support, because the word has spread and people are there to see us no matter what.
Q. Thinking back to the late ‘90s when the band first formed, would you say your early live shows are comparable to today’s shows?
A. Yeah, absolutely. It’s very comparable. I guess over the decade there was different phases that we have gone though, but the thread, its powerful giving generous energy is always there. So in the beginning the band was a lot more… started out a lot more like… in the beginning we were embraced before anybody by the art world and first shows basically were much more often than not playing here in the Tate Modern or the Whitney Museum [of American Art] or Venice or numerous galleries, and the spirit of it wasn’t full blast. That doesn’t mean that the essential focus on my part was away from song writing. The band started basically with me with a guitar, it was a song-writing thing from the beginning in its foundation. Over the years, that became more and more focused and as you can tell from the new album, the song-writing craft is the priority and that was very… fantastic circumstance that we could join forces with Rick Rubin [producer of ‘Transcontinental Hustle’] who helped us stay focused on that.
Q. Both on stage and in your band art you use very iconic images, such as the slingshot. Are these art for art’s sake, or are they representative of a particular emotion the band is trying to get across?
A. Of course they come directly from dance imagery and the slingshot itself appeared as a symbol of self defence and ‘do-it-yourself’, youthful and aggressive enthusiasm. So that symbol lasted through the years and was really embraced by fans, and so is every other symbol that you see around. It probably comes out from one song or another, from one event or another; like the striped armbands that we’ve been wearing for almost a decade, that comes from a particular story, that comes from touring in the early years in Eastern Europe where my sailor shirt that I was wearing on stage got torn apart by me and by the crowd but at the end of the show I found that everybody was wearing it as an armband. It was kind of an improv on the crowd’s part and that was kind of… that’s how the tradition of wearing that started, as a kind of… as a symbol of our fans and our audience being very engaged and involved in the show. It’s a symbol of connection with the crowd, because the stage was so small we were literally playing in the crowd so anybody could just basically do whatever they wanted with the band. There was no distance. I think we have proved ourselves pretty reliable throughout all these years as something that always brings that Gogol Bordello havoc no matter what, no matter where.
Q. What sort of music were you listening to when you were growing up?
A. I was incredibly lucky, what I will tell you is not going to speak for the rest of the Ukraine or the Soviet Union. I was one of the very few people whose father was a Rock ‘n’ Roll musician, so I grew up to the sound of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and Parliament Funkadelic and everything that was created in that time. I was very well informed about music. On top of that I know my parents tell me now that I would not go to sleep without my father playing me a song, so my sense of song-writing was building from there. On top of that of course I had all the traditional music around me which… that was also another part of my foundation. I was always amazed later on at my father being able to play for hours at a party or out in the back yard, for hours singing in Russian and Ukrainian and English, it was a juke-box experience, a human juke box, and no wonder I turned out to be just like that. Everything comes from the family; it’s really as simple as that. Family and a little bit of creativity, and mostly dedication and passion for what you do, there is really no other recipe for a long-lasting career.
Q. You have quite a few films under your belt, some more well known than others. Is film-making something you plan to pursue further?
A. Sure. That is not a priority but with films, stars need to align… for it to happen in between making records and touring and having some good times in Brazil, where I’ve been living for the past two years, so it has to be something special and one thing I notice for myself that really makes a difference or that really allows me to have creative fun with acting is when the director and the whole film crew basically becomes kind of like a band, so what else is fucking new [laughs]? When it becomes a really tight gang full of humour, and a gang with a missionary spirit, then I’ll be fucking there, especially if it’s a director that I love like Emir Kusturica.
Q. When filming ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ you had be seen to be hitting a dog, something which I have read you were very unhappy about doing. Are you a firm Animal Rights supporter?
A. We did do some stuff with PETA, but I’m not really in a position to wail about it. I mean of course I support animal rights, but there are people who are a much better spokesman for that than I am. I mean I’m not a vegan, and look at what I’m wearing [gestures at leather trainers] so that really says it all.
Q. Is there a cause that you try to promote as a band?
A. We push the good cause, you know. There are a lot of good causes. The main thing we’re trying to push is elevated intelligence and self-knowledge. Also, I think that our band has been quite successful in promoting, or banishing, so-called ‘rock star mythology’ which is a seriously out-dated and degenerate philosophy of life and I think that it’s really a positive thing for kids to go and see a band that plays real, intense, passionate Rock ‘n’ Roll music and spend time with a band in real life and see that these are actually just passionate and hard working people who are incredibly down to earth. I think that’s probably… I think that qualifies as a good cause. Something that inspires people to be self-constructive, and not the other way around.
Q. Your band has many more members than a conventional band, including Dancers…
A. [Interrupts] We don’t have any dancers. There were never any dancers. They are participants in the band. That’s also another stupid thing that we are trying to crack, which is the idea that girls are only good for doing back-up vocals and the decoration, or at the most get to play keyboards. I think the image of the girls that Gogol Bordello promotes is confident and independent, not those once again pretty outdated ideas of what girls can do on stage, so calling them dancers would be pretty degrading. Especially since it’s obvious that what they do the most is play percussion.
Q. I have read articles about you as a fashion icon. Is that something you’ve worked on over the years, or is it something which has happened organically?
A. I worked on it as much as I worked on it this morning. Whatever was on the floor this morning, I picked it up and put it on and walked out.
Q. Your style is undeniably very distinctive.
A. That doesn’t mean I worked on it. Just because I am not wearing a grey t-shirt and black slacks, it doesn’t mean I’m a fashion icon, it just means that I like colour and I have an enthusiastic feeling about life. That’s all it really means. I don’t give a fuck about fashion.