Truth Is Always the Same: An Interview with Gogol Bordello

While some may find it easy to classify them as "gypsy punk", Gogol Bordello's worldview is actually much more expansive than that.
Gogol Bordello
Pura Vida Conspiracy

For Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello, creating music — and then getting out into the world to actively share that music — isn’t just an occupation: is a way of life.

Incorporating accordion and violin into its distinct brand of Gypsy-punk aesthetic, Gogol Bordello often takes on a non-stop course of touring and recording. It is through that constant evolution and ceaseless innovation that they have influenced a generation of artists worldwide as they’ve put out half a dozen albums and toured tirelessly throughout Europe and America through the last decade.

Hütz in particular never seems to run out of energy, whether on stage with more than half a dozen performers or talking to members of the press about the creative process. In either situation, he works so hard both as an artist and as a champion of the creative process, it’s impossible not to feel that power and want to soak in it. The band’s latest album, Pura Vida Conspiracy, came out last year to widespread acclaim. Alternative Press called it the best album of their career, and Slant Magazine noted that while Hütz’s optimism and energy can feel exhausting, “it is hard not to be charmed by the fervor with which they keep seeking out new borders to cross.”

PopMatters sat down to talk with Hütz in the wake of the album’s release to talk about his “singing heart”, why Russians’ literary traditions put them ahead of the Western curve as lyricists, and the paradoxical nature of introspection. As he puts it: “The more internal work you do as a person, the more you resonate and flow with the changes outside of you. You will be struggling a lot more with your life if you don’t fucking do shit.”

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I really liked “Malandrino” on your latest album, where you sing about being born with a singing heart. Do you think it is necessary to be born with a deep love of music, or should we just search constantly for music which resonates?

I think the capacity for that [deep love] is within each and every one of us. But we all know at the same time the music that is popularized for the most part is not necessarily the best quality. So it remains the job of a person to dig deeper to find music which actually has transformational qualities, and pushes them to explore their human potential.

You’ve attributed “being in the present” to your ability as a band to stay energetic and fresh. Do you think more artists could stand to focus more on enjoying where they are now rather than worrying about the future?

Everybody could do that, anybody could get right to it. Artists are a little bit ahead of the game because the very nature of playing an instrument, painting or dancing is already quite meditative. It forces you into the present. Whether artists are aware of it or not is another story. Most of them probably aren’t, but it’s not important. They are already connected into that, which is why so many people come and see them so they can literally mooch off that feeling. That’s what happens. A lot of people don’t have one single portal into that, or they have it but they don’t use it.

But as far as living in the fear of future goes, that is a complete phantom. And it’s amazing how we’re all brought up and raised with that idea. When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, all I heard about was how “the only people who live in the now are junkies and Gypsies.” That’s what I heard, and I was like “Wow, really?” Ten, fifteen years later, after traveling the whole world, I of course learned that’s the fundamental idea behind Zen Buddhism.

You commented once that Russian rock music always had the lyrics which were more superb or advanced than traditional Western rock. Do your lyrics with Gogol Bordello reach that level? And what do you look for in a lyric?

I wouldn’t call it superb or advanced, I’d just say that Russia has a much bigger literary tradition than, say, the English-speaking world. It’s a tradition which leads to digging deeper into the human psyche. You have Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, people who really were tackling existentialism a century before western Europe got to it.

Could that be because of the repressive government Russian writers dealt with head-on, before western writers had to experience it?

I don’t know if the Russian government back then was more repressive than any government really in Europe. All the governments basically sucked back then, and most of them remain to be like that. But there’s also a massive poetic tradition in Russia, with Pasternak, Mayakovsky, really powerful names who could figuratively move mountains around with words. That goes back several hundred years.

So when punk rock and rock and roll started charging people up in the Soviet Union, people who were influenced by it immediately took to putting some hairy issues into the songs. They weren’t trying to re-create “Tutti Frutti”. They went straight into the sociopolitical jungle with their songs. The greatest example of it is Vladimir Vysotsky, who in Russia is the equivalent of summing up Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan in one man. Just one guy with a guitar who had the lyrics and the passion to deliver. It’s very powerful.

I’ve spoken with many people from Russia and Ukraine who migrated here during the same era you did, and they all spoke of learning English through their mentors. You said your mentors were storytellers like Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. How do you think that influenced your take on songwriting?

Directly. My learning style is haphazard. I’ll tend to open up a book and start reading from the middle, and if I like the middle I might skip to the end and then go to the beginning. In the end I can piece together the book in my head. So English, that’s how I learned it. I’d play endlessly the music that I liked a lot, but which also had plot, a story which went somewhere. That’s what kept my interest. “Wow, what does that line really mean?”

So it was Johnny Cash with that well pronounced hypnotic voice, and his stories are fucking great! And Leonard Cohen of course was much more complicated, but those are great mentors to have. Of course there are more names I really dug into, like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. But I was always thankful that I did not get into Bob Dylan. For some reason he just didn’t strike any chord with me. I didn’t really listen to any of his until ten, fifteen years ago. Because if I had listened back then I would have probably fucked up, like most people, by trying to imitate Dylan.

When they interviewed you for Kill Your Idols you took a harder stance against the “revival culture,” saying that “there’s no time for revivals of some shit, there’s only time for moving forward.” Do you still feel that way?

That idea is in full swing for me right now. I’m not so conscious of creating any of my music out of any particular mindset. I don’t really think about it all so much, I’m a very instinctual person actually. There’s just a lot of difference between thinking and being conscious. That’s something people always confuse. By being instinctive, you actually come off to be something of a loose cannon since the mind is where all the motherfucking trouble is. Being instinctual about art is actually fantastic, not just in music but in acting. The difference between schools of acting, between people who are instinctive versus people who think way too academically about it, that difference is vast. The instinctual people are way ahead of the curve.

I really liked your definition of revolution, that it’s more of an internal struggle than external, violent. Are there other artists out there who you think are revolutionary in that sense via their music?

Absolutely! I mean a lot of them are, but I really wouldn’t use the word “struggle.” I don’t feel any struggle or tension when I’m writing. It’s really that the work is being done inside on a regular basis. It sounds paradoxical, but the more internal work you do as a person, the more you resonate and flow with the changes outside of you. You will be struggling a lot more with your life if you don’t fucking do shit. That’s the fucking struggle, the people who don’t do fuck, those are the people who struggle if you ask me.