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

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2013-07-23

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."

* * *

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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.