Gogol Bordello (Eugene Hutz): Interview
“The motherfucking idea of space and time has fallen apart.”
Everything about Eugene Hutz showed me he didn't want to be interviewed. The tour manager said I would only have 10 minutes with Gogol Bordello's frontman and principle songwriter, and he seemed more interested in eating his sausage and bread than answering my questions. Time began to dissipate, and I started to worry. Would this be my worst interview ever?
But something changed. Maybe Hutz realized I knew my stuff or maybe he was just hungry, but that 10 minutes of interview time quickly bled into 40 minutes. Hutz opened up as we discussed his philosophies, songwriting, and Tom Waits, and I found him to be engaging, thoughtful and passionate about his art throughout the interview.
Welcome to Portland!
Have you been here before?
What do you think of this town?
We always look forward to getting back here, because I think Portland was literally the first town where we would sell out places on Monday nights. Know what I mean? This was one of our solidest, as they would say, markets in the country. The vibe is good always. I have a lot of friends here, and something special always happens here. I'm not just saying this.
Is there something specific you like to do here when you come to town?
Have you played at this venue before?
You guys seem like you're always on tour, and it's been a big year for you. You put on a high energy show. What makes you bring it every night?
What makes me what?
Bring energy to the show.
[As he chewed on bread and sausage] I eat a lot of lettuce and oatmeals and drink Poland Spring water.
But it's been a couple of big years for your band. You're getting bigger and bigger in stature. You have a new movie ([Filth in Wisdom}, directed by Madonna] coming out soon. What's that all about?
You gotta see it, man.
How did you get hooked up with? I know it was directed by Madonna and you've worked with her before.
I didn't get ‘hooked up.' She just called me. I picked up the phone and there she was.
So, something about your music must have spoken to her.
Well, it's been awhile since I knew she was a fan of Gogol Bordello. Every time I would play in London, there was a rumor that she was coming. So I wasn't absolutely surprised because of that. The way we met was absolutely natural and person to person. No agents, no managers involved. That's the best way to contact me. Pretty much everything fell into place, I would say. We had good vibes right away. I don't think there was much as far as a script goes in the beginning. It was kind of gonzo/beatnik style. Some autobiographical stuff, a little abracadabra editing. There you have it. I think it's a fun movie, people like it. In Berlin, I sat through three screenings, and people were laughing and sighing for an hour and a half. So, there you go. That's kind of a good sign.
How is an audience different when they're watching you on a screen or on a stage?
Well, I don't know, because I can't watch myself on the stage. It's just absolutely different muscles that are involved in those two kind of performances. I was psyched to learn about this different set of muscles. Both of them are leaked into each other. Some stuff from the film experience comes on stage with me now with Gogol Bordello. For example, I think that in the past I had a very frantic sense of control of the crowd through franticness. That's still a big part of the show to make sure that I keep everyone so on edge and tense that even the guy who's basically trying to go and take a piss at the end fucking crowd over there a mile away, even keep his attention and not let him take that piss. I also learned that it can be done through a different, lot more internal control with not so much franticness.
"Luckily, the music itself is powerful enough to drain people to the last fucking drop."
As your audiences are getting bigger, is it more difficult for you to control them in this manner?
No, absolutely not. It's actually a lot more easier. It's not only because of things I learn in acting. It's just that the band has become a lot more mature. You can hear that in the sound. As overflowing as it is, there is a certain sense of coherency that entered in our sound with this last record especially. Every musician, if he is an evolving musician, comes to a point of listening to others in the band. The band that doesn't listen to each other is an arrested development band.
I actually think my favorite Gogol Bordello song is on the new album.
Yeah? Which one is that?
The first song.
“Ultimate.” Yeah, see that's actually a good example of that kind of coherency. As unorthodox as that song is, as it develops and goes through the parts that basically don't repeat, one sits on top of the other. It's not an ABC song. There is a lot of understanding of the flow. That's actually exactly what I mean by saying a certain maturity kicked in where people really know how to take turns. When everybody wants to shine, they know what comes after what so there is no train-wreck.
By being on the road all the time, how do you find time to write and record new material?
That's the time for it! I always write. On the road or off the road; it doesn't matter to me. I wake up and I go straight into it. It's my style of thinking. It's a non-stop thing. We literally have rehearsals before soundcheck. There's four bands that we work in. My band: I write the songs and give them an approximate, final structure. Then rehearse it acoustically on the tour bus with the band. Then there is a soundcheck band where the band will go electric with that and fixed the rest of the things up and then it's out on stage. It's pretty much an ongoing process.
To what extent does folk music from your childhood inform your songs today?
In childhood, I was automatically infused by it because that's where I was born. Any party or wedding, even national TV, was packed with folk music. If you went to Romania or Ukraine now, there is still a lot of it because they don't have a lot of other shit to show. [Laughs] Especially back then, when it was three channels from the government, 50% of the time you just saw folkloric music on TV. Nothing else was allowed. People were hating it. I was able to see that that shit was actually pretty rocking. Like maybe it's kind of sterilized and cleaned up for the TV, but I could see the melodies were really powerful and connected and epic.
So, when I got into punk rock I started experimenting with some of these melodies into things I was writing. But, then I realized that was not working for me. It's not what I wanted to do: to quote. I didn't want to quote. So for awhile, I just forgot about this idea. It just didn't work for me for years. I didn't want to write new words and use old melodies. Like for example, The Pogues did. It's basically three old melodies with new words. Brilliant words, but that was not my voice. So, with the help of one, that is Béla Bartók, Hungarian composer, I finally cracked that case. That took years. He was a very fanatical researcher of Eastern European. He managed to make it into a completely new entity. Listening to his stuff, I realized that quotes are not necessary; it's just an emotional message. Even if you listen to the String Quarters 3, 4, and 5, it more sounds like early Sonic Youth played by symphonic orchestra.
At the same time, the desperate drive of all of that emotionally puts you somehow into Hungary and sets your imagination with Carpaty, the mountains between Romania and Ukraine. It really hit me that that's the way. Ever since I write my songs and my own melodies. I am proud that from there still find affinity. They probably find more affinity than if I just played restaurant medleys. That would be too cheap. I think one of the biggest compliments that I hear is when people say, “I'm Serbia,” or “I'm from Georgia,” or Bulgaria or Greece. Just from that part of the world. Like, “ But I live in Canada, I live in Germany, I live in Brazil, but your music makes me feel home.” That's why I made it! I want to fucking feel home too, you know? [Laughs]
So combine punk and folk music. Punk comes from a tradition of anger and anti-establishment while folk music comes from hardship. You use both of those elements, but at the same time you have a very positive world message in your music.
I think where we are at this point of time is kind of hard to interpret. Everything accelerated and get more... the idea of identity itself fell apart.
Do you mean as an individual?
As anything. As a scientific entity. The motherfucking idea of space and time has fallen apart. Like if you talk to brothers down in the lab, the scientists, it's pretty much becoming common wisdom that there is no such a thing as space and time. The fucking whole thing is banded and no one knows where it starts and where it ends.
Latin American authors have been writing about that for decades.
Latin American? Naturally, I gravitate to that part of the world. I live in Rio now, but I haven't drilled into that literature as much as I could, I suppose. So, it's almost like when people a few centuries ago were hit with the idea that world is not flat, it's fucking round. That was a big shock for the system. Like, all this time you were growing and thinking that all this shit was rotating and revolving around you. Suddenly, it was completely inside out. You were not there. I was not there. We don't know. There was no media. That was like bumping news. But that was a pretty big fucking shock for everybody's system. People were like walking through the street probably thinking, “Fucking hell! I'm about to fucking collapse.”
It's similar now. I think this is the point where the mind has to go on an evolving stage. The lazy mind cannot grasp it. The lazy mind cannot function. Things like cynicism and irony and negativity, those are syndromes of a lazy mind. It takes no effort to give in. It's too easy to be a cynic. It's too easy to be ironic. It's too easy to be negative. It's a lot more harder to be like Charles Bukowski or Tom Waits and find a piece of trash on the street and be like, “You know what? This is the best fucking thing I've ever seen in my fucking life.” It's a hardcore romanticism. I kind of come from that school of thought. I think that being here on Earth is a gift to make a full use of before whatever the next stage is. A lot effort is required for that. I'm not scared of the effort and willing to give my 100% to speed up evolution. Something has got to happen.
Things are not going so well in some regards. I just read today that the entire country of Iceland is possibly going to go bankrupt. It seems we're spiraling to some sort of conclusion and something needs to change.
It's all spiraling towards the collapse of material values. In the Latin American prophecies, it's written all over. It's about acquiring the other knowledge, the knowledge that's going to know no status and no social separation, where social climbing will not be prime sport. Because everyone with material value is not going to make it through.
"A lot of people, thanks to the plague of average intelligence, they go for the lowest denominator of the levels."
Now that your band is getting bigger do you feel yourself fighting urges against this stuff?
No. Actually, that is an often asked question. I don't think my life changed in any bits since. First of all, the whole transition. It's not like we're a band that fell out from the sky and suddenly got signed and like all this shit happened. The whole rise was so slow.
Well, for you. With a lot of new bands, the internet makes them big, and the next day they can sell out a place like this just because on some blog someone said they were good.
I know, but they are also going back to working at Starbucks three days later. So that's the difference. As elusive as it seems, the idea of the real thing, it's still pretty prevalent on people's minds. They crave it and they want it. It's hard to pinpoint what the real thing [is], but people gutturally know and can sense what it is. In music, you always have voices that are hyped and then there are voices you can trust. When you hear Johnny Cash, you know it. You are listening to thousands of years of culture talking. It goes back to Cash's personality and his approach, his respect, and everything. It's the same thing with Joe Strummer. He didn't have as much mileage, of course, as Johnny but it's the same. It's a certain peak of sincerity that people just can't dismiss.
Yeah, you also mentioned Tom Waits. He's a great example.
Tom Waits, exactly! Just voices that you trust. That doesn't happen because of internet. That happens over a longer period of time to people who are there for a long time. I think maybe for some people we appear to be one of those bands that suddenly made it, but the Lord knows it's been 10 years of Gogol Bordello already. We're only scratching the surface.
Well, I saw you at Bonnaroo two years ago and you were playing the side stage. Then I saw you there this year and you were playing the big stage. I waited in the rain for you to come out for the Superjam. You did some Tom Waits covers there.
Yeah, it was an all-agreed idea. Since we toured with Primus, we became great friends with Les [Claypool]. We record a bit of things. Maybe he will release it on his label. But, when the offer came for us to do something together, it's like, “Why don't we do Tom Waits?” Plus, I didn't have to go through learning all of the lyrics. I already knew a lot of the songs because I used to perform them all the time in the bars.
Do you have a favorite Tom Waits album?
Yeah, my favorite Tom Waits stuff actually is the difficult stuff. It's the Black Rider.
There are some great songs on the Black Rider.
It's the best album.
You think so?
Yeah, absolutely. I also love Frank's Wild Years, for sure.
I'm a Rain Dogs fan.
Yes, of course, but I think that Black Rider is my favorite because it's truly, truly fucking surreal.
Well, you started with “That's the Way,” at the Superjam.
Nobody would ever fucking pick that song probably. That's why Tom was psyched that we picked that. We didn't do “Midnight Train” and...
What can we expect from Gogol Bordello?
Who fucking knows? I guess aside from the new record with Rick Rubin we have coming out, I think I am really looking to venture forward into directing a film.
Maybe you can direct Madonna.
[Laughs] No, I think I'm going to start with my guys in the band, because I know them well and I know what they can do. There's so many of us, you fucking can make a war movie with us. [Laughs] We'll have enough people for both sides.
Who would you pick for your side?
For my side? Well...
You don't have to answer that.
Obviously, directing is my natural form of operations.
Well, you are the conductor on the stage.
Yeah, at the same time, I found an interesting parallel through speaking with Jim Jarmusch. I've always been a great admirer and now is my time to enjoy this fantastic circumstance of life where some of my heroes I am able to meet or even become friends with. Gogol Bordello is a lot similar to how Down By Law was made. The characters are already so strong that the script is pretty much okay to be very loose.
"It's like getting three emails. I just opened them up and I was like cut, paste, it's done."
Probably Roberto Benigni's best film.
Probably. Yeah, exactly. Well, I also liked Johnny Stecchino. That is also really good.
Better than Pinocchio.
I didn't even bother to see that. I didn't want to run in shame. [Laughs]
Well, you got John Lurie and you got Tom Waits…
Exactly. The personalities are already so strong that just creating a context and letting them display their creativity and natural charms is already bombastic. So, I think I'm looking forward to something like that. Especially, I have quite a few ideas, script-wise. Generally, most of the time of the day I spend as a writer. People always ask, “Do you feel more like a performer or an actor or a songwriter.” I feel like a writer. That's the way I do it. I walk around with a pencil or a pen and write shit down and then create. Okay, maybe this goes into a script instead of a song, maybe this goes out of this into that. I shuffle them and then re-shuffle them. Of course, songwriting is the main focus. It's funny that when you create layered work you are making this thing that you want to attack people on all levels. From physically to intellectually and emotionally, and still put some icing on the cake. But a lot of people, thanks to the plague of average intelligence, they go for the lowest denominator of the levels.
That sells the easiest.
Yeah, that was something that really caught me by surprise, actually. I'd been writing songs for a very long time, and by the time Gogol Bordello came together, I was at my own evolution as a songwriter where I completely rejected even the idea of writing ABC songs -- where it's verse, bridge, chorus, then guitar solo, and then fucking one more time double chorus. That's like something I did when I was 15 and 16. But, little did I know, people are not ready for that absolutely. As an artist, you might be so far ahead of your own biggest fan that he can't even digest the idea. So people really were thinking that I am still struggling how to fucking write a ABC song. It came to that point where people were thinking, “Wow, on this album he really actually wrote like a song that actually had that kind of flow that we know!” It was one of the most absurd points of my life.
In a way, I think I came back full cycle around to like, “Okay, motherfuckers. You want to have a real song? I'll fucking write you a real song. Like the way you fucking you understand it. Let's beat you with your own argument at your own fucking game.” That's how songs like “Wonderlust King” and “Supertheory of Supereverything” appear. They are very flowing. They are still unorthodox in a way, because I can't just go for ABC really. That just makes me want to fucking puke. That exactly hit people on the head in a way I had to walk them through it. Through my own jungle.
When I'm thinking of Gogol Bordello songs that I prefer, it wouldn't be those songs. I prefer “Mishto!” and “Undestructable” and “I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again.”
“I Would Never Wanna Be Young Again” is actually very ABC.
I really like the energy behind it.
I'm talking about building it structure-wise. In my eyes, set writing is not the only criteria there really is, because there is also brilliant improvisation skills that Yuri, our accordion player, has. There just so much musicality to the whole thing. Sometimes things like looser structure is where that should be explored.
I saw what you're saying with “Undestructable” because it starts here and gets building and building and building until the end there is a whole spectrum of things going on. Meanwhile, it started with a very simple melody.
There will never be a recipe. When you are writing non-stop, you are basically swimming in an ocean all of the time. Maybe some people swim in a puddle, but for me it's an ocean. As much experience I have writing songs, I still don't know how it's going [to] start or how it's going [to] finalize. It might start sometimes with one word. “Ultimate,” actually, I literally wrote the whole song in 15 minutes. It is the most compositional song on the whole album, and it all came to me like, “Part and part and part.” It's like getting three emails. I just opened them up and I was like cut, paste, it's done. [Laughs]
It's a great song.
Yeah, that was a real inspired piece, where subconscious did all the work for me. Other stuff you just dwell forever on, and finally it comes together. It's like “Through the Roof ‘n' Underground.” I think that song was kicking around for three years before I found all the rhymes and stuff. Anyway, there is no rules. How can there be? If there were rules, we wouldn't be doing. [Laughs]
I appreciate your time. Do you still do the drum ride?
It comes and goes. There's other things. I don't want it to be everybody's expected treat. If we feel like it, it comes; if it doesn't, it doesn't. Luckily, the music itself is powerful enough to drain people to the last fucking drop. As I said, things like riding on the drum is the icing on the cake.