Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz on the Vitamins of Art | Q&A

[Editor’s note: the following Q&A previews Gogol Bordello’s concert at Slowdown this Friday, Nov 25. RSVP here.]

Nearly an hour into Gogol Bordello’s headlining set at the 2015 Altavoz Fest in Columbia, and its mustachioed, charismatic, endlessly energetic frontman Eugene Hütz had waded into the crowd of thousands.

Forty-some dates into yet another world tour — and two minutes into the band’s raucous romp “Start Wearing Purple” — Hütz and the raging ensemble behind him flung themselves across the stage tirelessly. On the contrary, each note, each high five, each joyous refrain seemed to power them onward.

It isn’t hard to imagine that being the case with every show, because after 17 years with an essentially year-round touring schedule befitting of Gogol Bordello’s gypsy punk moniker, something has to fill the glass. Via telephone call from the Rocky Mountains during this year’s go-round, Hütz cites his drive and that shared on-stage emotion that has carried the band through nine studio albums and to countless countries.

“The reality of it is very hard stuff, and it takes people who are generally committed to their art to do it and keep doing it and still find their way to the original vitamins of their art,” Hütz says through his thick Ukrainian accent.

To be sure, Gogol Bordello is a punk band in many ways. In the next breath, Hütz rails against media’s “bedazzling” of touring and performing (which he says is how you end up at a show where the band looks like it might collapse). He sings about state borders scarring the flesh of the planet in one song and relays his childhood memories in the next, all with the same vigor, emotion and humanized intelligence. And the band performs (and dresses) with an outlandish, theatrical yet carefree sense of style.

The result — or perhaps, its origin — is very much philosophical, a worldview borne of his vast experience rather than store-bought politics. A Ukrainian immigrant himself, Hütz populates his songs and the band with the experiences and characters of New York’s (his landing spot) multicultural diaspora. Their own backgrounds add to the melting pot that is Gogol Bordello, its influences ranging from Eastern European folk to American coastal punk — perhaps the only fitting colors for a sprawling canvas.

The band’s tour brings it to Slowdown this Friday night. In advance, Hütz dished about opportunity and cultural compartmentalization, the 100th anniversary Dada celebration he’s curating in New Orleans and why, after all these years, there’s gas left in the tank.

Read on for our Q&A.

* * *

Hear Nebraska: I’d like to start with your latest album, Pura Vida Conspiracy. It’s been out for awhile, but there’s a lyrics I’m still chewing on. Right at the beginning, in “We Rise Again,”: “Borders are scars on the face of the planet.” In this country right now, feels especially relevant with its more nationalistic segments coming to the foreground. How would you best describe the sentiment behind that lyrics.

Eugene Hütz: It means exactly the same thing as 5,000 years ago. I don’t write lyrics that are focus on particular issues of the day and I don’t see them in that way. I don’t see anything for myself in the world of politics or sociology. I am more of a philosophical type of person, and that is more of a way of thinking that overviews centuries and 1,000s of years. It means exactly what it means. And it can mean only that, regardless of situation.

HN: And I feel like that kinda comes from the benefit of your well-traveled perspective. You’ve been all over the world.

EH: Something like that. Some people say I’m an old soul or something like that. Who the fuck knows? (laughs).

HN: I’m wondering if you’ve noticed, or maybe this doesn’t apply then, but I’m wondering what’s changed since you’ve arrived in this country, or how that has impacted the scope of your work. Even where you came up in New York, if there’s anything there that has changed since you’ve been here.

EH: Well, things are always changing. They are supposed to be always changing. The way they’ve been changing since I’ve been in this country, they gave me everything. Instead of some scrawny marginalized outcast role that was basically molded for me back where I came from, I was able to have career of professional artist without really starting … from scratch. And so has a lot of people in my group. In that sense, that’s a testament to the way this country is set up. It’s just like fact, ya know? Even now, being on tour, my artist friends from Ukraine or from other countries, they look at chronicles our travel and it always appears to be a pretty bonanzatronic experience to them. There’s really not a lot of places in the world you can do that. There are certain places where there’s a lot of talent but no infrastructure to display that talent. Or there’s too much infrastructure and talent doesn’t get through it all. And here, it seems to be working both ways.

HN: Yeah, it seems like those are the kind of people – your bandmates, other immigrants and experiences in New York and beyond — those kinds of people inhabit the songs you write. What have you learned by making those experiences the focal point of your career?

EH: I dunno. It’s like more … I don’t analyze my lyrics. I don’t go back to them and be like, “Oh wow, that was prophetic.” I’m not that guy, ya know? There’s other guys out there like that. I don’t really give it so much importance because I’m not that important. That’s the reality of it. We have sort of like a voice for a particular, let’s say, wave of people that are … coming up in these later decades when information went buckwild, and processing information required a new method. People lost their focus because of information explosion. You know, if you apply average intelligence to that, you can sort of get on that trip where like, “Oh, in the past it was like this but now it’s like this.” That’s not the reality of it. The reality is that after the chaos of information, people will learn how to sort information out in a new way and find what is the most important thing for them.

That’s the test right now. The options are limitless, but you can travel the world, you can get any information you want, but do you really want to travel the world, or do you want to travel a quarter of the world. Do you need all this information? I don’t. There’s specific stuff I’m interested in. For instance, back in Ukraine, you couldn’t get Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell. That was not accessible. So, you know what i mean? It’s about your personal focus.

Gogol Bordello at Slowdown Aug 16, 2013 | photo by Chloe Ekberg

HN: And I wonder if this relates to what you’re talking about at all. You had mentioned in a recent interview with a San Diego NBC affiliate that certain performers appear bored onstage. And I think you specified it by saying, or at least the article framed it this way, that we live in a technologenic time, that “the Matrix” isn’t a far off reality but a current one. What did you mean by that?

EH: Yeah, there’s nothing else to explain. There’s a lot of philosophers that have been expressing that for a long time, modern philosophers, that the compartmentalization is very much a reality. It’s not necessarily like … it’s just the way it is. As an individual, you have to find your own path, instead of like jumping into one of these pre-made rackets, and America allows that. There’s places where that’s not even an option really.

HN: So maybe that’s what’s frustrating about watching a band not appear to enjoy what they’re doing?

EH: Well, you gotta understand, it’s like this. Bands, in historical form, it’s quite new phenomenon. In the ‘30s, there was just no bands. There were soloists, and orchestras that sort of backed them. And okay, there were smaller jazz bands, but there was no real … a phenomenon of a cultural gang, self-made family of people, four or five guys or girls who take off where they came from and go on the road with their own sort of flag and quest for proving themselves. It’s not that old in historical sense. When it appeared, it was very authentic because touring sucked. (laughs) The reality of it is very hard stuff, and it takes people who are generally committed to their art to do it and keep doing it and still find their way to the original vitamins of their art.

Through media in the past decade, everything has been glamorized, as if it’s some sort of bedazzled backstage land and a lot of kids get in it for really wrong reasons. They’re interested in a lifestyle, more of, for lack of a better word, rock star or hip-hop artist. They’re more interested in the facade of it. When they’re interested in the facade of it, and they go a couple of tours and they’re barely standing up and they’re knees are shaking onstage because they are depleted. They never wanted to do it in the first place, really. That’s what you’re seeing. People who get caught in this “Matrix” compartment that wasn’t really theirs, ya know?

I forgot which movie it was, but there was this rock [biopics] about ‘50s. There’s this scene where they’re all driving together in one car, Johnny Cash is driving and Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley are squeezed into the back of this car and they’re all exhausted and they get to place and they have to perform. That’s what it was like! It takes a real brave people to do that. That’s real pros. They have a true calling to do that. But if people get into it for wrong reasons, you end up watching onstage what is not really enjoyable for either side.

HN: Well, it still appears after all these years that you still enjoy it. I was watching the live recording of Live Altovoz Fest from last year. Specifically during “Start Wearing Purple,” you had waded into the crowd and appeared to be having a blast. It made me think, is there any part of you that misses touring small clubs, or if that big environment is still appealing to you? What do you like about both of them?

EH: I really feel like I love both ways, as long as they keep mixing, ya know? Huge stage allows for the band to really blossom. It’s really a band where everyone has a large personality and they need space. They need to be able to bust out their own funk, ya know? The band really enjoys that. And it’s also playing huge stages is tremendous progress for the band. REally stepping into the shoes of guiding energy of a concert for thousands of people and enjoying it.

HN: Yeah, it really seems like your band is built for that.

EH: Yes, it is. And it’s in my own sense, it’s like … I was always a big fan of movies by Jim Jarmusch. Especially the early ones like Down By Law, where the cast of characters — which is Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni and John Lurie — already is so strong that the script can be quite loose. You gather a gathering of strong, vital, vigorous forces and then you sort of let them interact and be who they are. That’s the setup of our band. That’s a huge part of its vitality.

HN: Maybe that’s why you’ve continued to tour as hard as you have, because of that energy?

EH: Yeah, I think that’s why it’s been … yeah, that’s a huge part of that. We love to hang, we love to play together, the energy is there. And God bless that. And then when you take all that scale into a smaller club here and there, it’s a completely different kind of experience where the energy is so condensed, and you literally feel the thread into how it all began, you know? You immediately feel that thread into the clang bang, bang bang back in the garage, and that original excitement where the walls are literally dripping with the sweat of the band because it’s so tiny. And as long as you have those two elements going, I think they are very self-complementary.

HN: Totally. I should note, Eugene, when I was in college, that specific song would come on and me and my friends would go ballistic. Is there a song like that for you, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, where you experience that type of joy?

EH: (laughs) Well, there’s all the songs you see we’re playing, that’s why they’re there in the set that day, because of the feeling. “Purple,” I guess we got that one right in particular for this specific nonchalant, joyous, blast-out expression. That fills that glass. Other ones fill other glasses. Personality is a vast thing. There are many glasses to fill.

HN: One last question: you’ve been at it for some time. Is there anything left on the Gogol Bordello to-do list that you haven’t checked off?

EH: Why yes! That’s the list that seems to be unfolding as we go, quite naturally. Every form of art that you can think about, our fingers are in it. In the near future, after this tour, that is something that we haven’t done for quite awhile is going to be a big art event I’m curating in New Orleans. It’s a celebration of one-hundred years of Dadaism. That’s gonna be a big gathering of friends from New York and other creative forces, characters. That’s gonna take on more of a shape of some kind of an improv situation at the ballet with a spaghetti western soundtrack. It’s gonna be on the playground of architectural, surrealistic fantasy of local artist down in New Orleans.

HN: Seems like it’s right up your alley.

EH: Yeah, it is. I was just wondering what’s gonna happen with the celebration of Dada worldwide. People in Zurich had a massive celebration, because that’s one of the stomping ground of Dadaism. In New York, not much happened. MOMA had a pretty nice exhibition of some unreleased tracks, so to speak. But there was no true testament to the fact that Dadaism was really the most rock ‘n’ roll movement of all time. So that’s where we come in.

Andrew Stellmon is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Reach him with news tips and story ideas at news@hearnebraska.org.