Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Dec 5, 2022
The ‘hardcore celebratory’ spirit of Gogol Bordello
Eugene Hütz discusses the Gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, which returns to Brooklyn Bowl this month, and his own amazing life story
Over the course of the past 24 years — almost a quarter century — Gogol Bordello has become a hardcore gypsy punk and global party music institution, rooted here in New York, but with an international orientation. The group — which infuses Eastern European folk and Romani melodies with punk energy, Latin inflections, touches of dub and polka — is known for its live shows in particular: Frontman Eugene Hütz calls a typical Gogol Bordello show “relentlessly hardcore celebratory.”
You can see for yourself at the band’s run of New Year’s Eve shows this month, which has become something of an annual Brooklyn Bowl tradition. The group’s eighth studio album, “Solidaritine,” came out in September and is a nod to both the group’s harder roots and Hütz’s own Ukrainian heritage.
Hütz, who is the founder and really the core spirit of Gogol Bordello, joins us on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” this week to discuss not only the band but his own incredible story.
Born in the Ukraine, Hutz was forced to leave home with his family in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. At first internally displaced, his family would ultimately spend seven years trekking through Eastern Europe, where his musical education picked up its Romani edge, before settling in Vermont. Hütz, a punk rock obsessive from the time he was a child, would ultimately make his way down to New York City where found pockets of hardcore and Ukrainian culture in the Lower East side. That’s where Gogol Bodello was born and that’s more than you need to know to enjoy this interview.
The transcript of this podcast interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow. Listen to the whole conversation above or wherever you get your podcasts.
We’re talking today because you’re doing a run of shows here in Brooklyn, coming up. You’re doing a Philly show at the Brooklyn Bowl there on the 28th, and then Brooklyn Bowl here for New Year’s Eve, as well as the 30th and 29th. We can start there. Any surprises planned?
The concept itself of standing for three, four nights is something that we’ve done for years. Just because of sheer love of celebration and cleaning the slate of all year and making space for all the better things to come. That’s one thing. But when you live in New York City, it takes on a bigger communal job to do. And so a lot of our friends and musicians fell into habits of doing it with Gogol Bordello. You’ll see all your friends there and make new friends there. World is very much not in a perfect place, but you got to recharge, you got to power up, you got to go back to the communal fire and dance around it together. That’s how we recharge. I mean that’s how humans recharge.
All right, so expect some new talent, maybe some legends.
Legends. Big time. I’m going to put it out there. I mean, Murphy’s Law, one of Gogol Bordello’s major influences, is going to be with us on New Year’s evening and I’m super excited about that. So much of my musical influences came from hardcore music, especially from the New York streak of it, and Murphy’s Law, is probably one of the most kindedest spirits out there for Gogol Bordello, being so relentlessly festive and hardcore celebratory.
There’s a great quote attributed to Walter Schreifels, who produced your most recent record. He says,“When they play live, there’s the excitement of so many unique players swinging in and out of musical view like pirates whipping the ship within inches of its capsize but only by the strength of the songs does it keep from tipping over.” I think that’s a perfect depiction of what one of your shows is like. How did this flamboyant theatrical performance style develop?
First of all, double what’s up to a super eloquent brother, Walter. That’s some quote right there. All respect to introspective music, I’m a hugely Leonard Cohen fan, sure, don’t get me wrong. But music that goes out and whips us together as one being — music that’s super extroverted, and punk rock, of course, and hardcore — just influenced me in such a way. Even though Gogol Bordello was, “okay, let’s make a punk rock of our own kind, let’s take all these things that we missed from back home in Ukraine and Latin America — whoever’s from where. Let’s rip together this new form of punk rock that’s going to have all those vitamins, but at the same time, the crucial influences of music that just generates slam dancing. And mosh pit is just essential.” And I always went back in my head to conjuring that up, what I saw at the hardcore shows as a kid.
It’s not, strictly speaking, hardcore. It’s got that spirit, but like you were saying, you’re incorporating Eastern European elements, Latin elements, there’s folk elements.
Yes, there is.
Romani or Gypsy elements. And melodic. So it sort of almost stands as its own category.
It does, because the melodies that we bring — those archetypal melodies from Europe — they bend your body in a particular way … it might be not necessarily so angular. It’s a certain European musicality, singular in a way that it actually has — this is going to sound drastically weird at first, but then it will make sense — it has no sense of rhythm. It’s about whipping your melancholy like a wild horse, and to such a speed just gradually perpetrating and raising speed to the point until it all drops. And when it drops, it starts again. Like groove is not our thing. That’s why the Latin American element here is very important because even though there is a lot of groove, it’s not coming from Eastern Europe, it’s coming from those other influences. We are driven by super passionate melodies. In that way, it’s very cathartic, in that sense. It’s like a catharsis of perseverance and catharsis of going against all odds.
You had a big year. You put out a new album “Solidaritine,” which you wrote after a tour on which some of your band members got Covid, and it comes from this mindset of keeping things going no matter what, the spirit of perseverance, which seems to be what you’re all about. “Solidaritine’s” also very much about what’s happening in the Ukraine, right now, which is where you were born. You’ve got songs like “Forces of Victory,” “Huckleberry Generation” that deal explicitly with your homeland. Can you talk about those songs, and the spirit of perseverance?
I mean, it’s actually such a national trait of Ukrainian people. It’s not really something that’s just materialized now. Look at the location of Ukraine. It’s right between Europe and [the] Wild East. So Ukraine has kind of been caught in between those two different worlds, forever, and it’s the story of the world. There has been a lot of warfare throughout the history of the world, particularly viciously in the Middle Ages. So all those traits evolved over time there because it was so intense. In a way thank God, because now it’s super necessary and now what the world is witnessing happening in Ukraine is that incredible stamina. Nobody there is going to back down. That was just complete moronic miscalculation on Russian part, which they’re masters of, those miscalculations. Victory is inevitable.
It’s been astonishing to watch.
It’s been astonishing to watch, but what I’m kind of getting back to is that these traits are always in Ukrainian back pocket. These are the same traits that I observed in my family and my grandparents and their wisdoms. They went to World War II for four-and-a-half years and then came home and lived the whole normal life and never even talked about it, like that never happened. I’m talking about going to war on the front line for four-and-a-half years when you were 18, you [can imagine] what that can do to your psyche.
The PTSD that they must have been carrying around with them.
Then they just sat around the tables and raised their grandchildren and talked about life as if that wasn’t even there. There is some knack there for overcoming difficulties. I’d ascribe it to a historical trait. Even in immigration, that’s why I end up here, is because I would come here in the ’90s to see shows or to play with my previous band, when I used to live in Vermont, in the first years in America. I’d come and be like, “Okay, here’s Coney Island High, that’s great. Love the place.” And I was like, half a block away, there’s a Ukrainian restaurant. Then, there is Brownies, and next to it is a Ukrainian bar and then there is Pyramids, and then there is a Ukrainian sports club. So it’s like, I think this is my place.
Well let’s talk about how you got here because you were born in Ukraine. You guys left in the aftermath of Chernobyl, when you were 13. You lived in refugee camps for a number of years before coming to the U.S. What were those years like for you? It was at a super formative time in your life.
Yeah, absolutely. This is when you get a lot of things on your hard drive, those years.
Were you moving around a lot or were you staying in one place? What was the nature of those years like for you?
To be more correct, at 13 when Chernobyl disaster happened, yes, we were in evacuation, in different areas of Ukraine. People just split up staying wherever they could, just to get away from the radiation. We had opportunity to be as far as almost a thousand kilometers away, which put us, me, more in touch with the root-ical side of my family. Ukraine is very rootsy country. Everybody has relatives in countryside. It’s rare to find somebody whose family is just from Odessa or Kiev or Lviv. That the ability of being closer to the grass and chopping wood and just seeing how animals are grown and riding horseback, and things like that, are just more normal for Ukrainian people. That, I think, does a lot for people’s understanding where they’re at, how this planet works, that things don’t come out of the iPhone. They come out of earth and from the trees.
We’ve lost that thread a little bit.
There is a little bit of thread. It gets pretty foggy now, but there, it’s pretty on. After evacuation, we did go back to the Kiev again, and then our family was able to leave when I was 16, and then we went to Poland and Hungary and Austria and Italy and yes, that was basically roaming around refugee program facilities, and it all coincided with me just getting more and more active with music.
How did you learn? Where did it come to you from?
I already got into punk rock back in Ukraine. The scene was there, pretty fertile, small but fertile. We had our heroes, and we had bands from Poland, Dezerter, and Siekiera, and Tilt, come to Ukraine and play shows, and those were bands that were known in underground worldwide. I mean, the Dezerter record was produced by Joey Shithead, from D.O.A. Like Jello Biafra knows about those guys, back then. So [I] was pretty active back then in Ukraine, writing for fanzines and doing all the things that people do in punk rock scene, helping to load in, load out and start my own band.
We already had two albums out by the time I left Ukraine. I saw also some influential bands like Sonic Youth, who came to Ukraine also play, was major influence also in the early days, and once I was in Poland and in Austria and in Italy, I hustled up some cash jobs, and working on construction or in winery or just doing manual labor basically. I kept buying records. You wash cars on intersection all day and then you get 40 mille lira in Italy, and then you go on by a record or two.
Were you not in school then? You were just hustling and working?
Well, I finished high school back in Ukraine. You finished high school when you were 16 there. And so when I came to the States, I went to high school again for one more year, just to learn English and pick it up, kind of get on the program of what’s up in a local mix here.
And you arrived in Vermont, through a program, and as you said, you didn’t speak English at that point?
My English boiled down back then only to names of the bands. I knew Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols and Clash and things that I translated with a dictionary. But I learned English pretty quick. Once I got here and started going to shows, and saw Fugazi, and just kind of really clicked with me that the community that that music generates, is going to be like my corridor continuing. It’s the same corridor.
It’s a borderless community.
It’s so awesome because now these days are always talking about this amazing “diversity.” It was always like this in punk rock scene. There were people of all ethnicities. You go to punk rock show, there’ll be like kids with Dr. Marten shoes on from Vietnam or Philippines from another refugee program, cats from Newfoundland. It wasn’t a big deal. Occasionally son of some kind of millionaire. It was just all mixed up. Mostly, of course, it was kids from the working class and intellectual side of working class.
You’re in Vermont, you find your tribe, and then you start going to shows in New York. I guess since you had your community, you had your people. But having gone through what you went through, were you surprised by Americans at all? Were you let down at all? They’re not really plugged-in necessarily to what’s going on around the world. Or did you feel at home as you say, once you got to New York?
I wasn’t let down in any way because how could I be let down if you’re [an] active explorer of music and art, that tied in with philosophy and all stuff like that. I immediately started going to this anarchist college in Vermont that was all about Noam Chomsky and that kind of thing. That kind of music goes hand to hand with those ideas. Within three or four months of being here, I jumped into a car with some punk rock kids in Vermont and they were like, “Hey, you want to go see our hardcore show?” And we ended up at Shelter show, Krishna hardcore band, that were singing about free will, and just taking a very drastic stance on a lot of things. So it’s incredibly stimulating.
So for me, I was going into very interesting places, with very interesting ideas. I think you can get that done pretty much anywhere you are in the world, unless it’s of course a total dictatorship, like North Korea or Russia, but for the most part you can find your tribe. And the American tribe on that level is pretty advanced. One other thing that really impressed me about American punk community is that, back in Europe, punk rock doesn’t go well together with anything athletic. It was just very decadent, very artsy, but it doesn’t have the bridge into skate punk, like it does here. So me, as somebody who skateboarded back in Ukraine, and spent a lot of years long distance running as a kid, I kind of had to hide that in Ukrainian punk scene. However, here I was like, oh, here’s Henry Rollins kicking ass in the most athletic way. I think this is kind of a good mix right here of vitamins and qualities that do go well together.
Your shows are very physical. Do you still run at all? Do you go to the gym, do you skate? Do you stay in shape?
I remain to be kind of explorative. I’ll take one martial art or another for a while. I’d never gotten to high levels in that, but I’m more a playful person. As long as it keeps my enthusiasm and playfulness going, I’ll keep exploring different things and yes, as soon as it’s raining, I do want to go for a run. I don’t know what it is. If it’s like great weather, I don’t care. But if it’s raining and windy it’s like I think I’m going to go and run for about 45 minutes.
Finally, you move down to New York. How did Gogol Bordello come together?
Gogol Bordello was actually a continuation of a previous band that I started in Vermont, the latest incarnation of it called The Cossacks, and it was proto Gogol Bordello just a lot more hardcore. I mean I come from playing electric guitar. [Today] I’m kind of more perceived as a guy with acoustic guitar, which was actually a completely new thing for me, because at some point in the ’90s I played in thrash crossover bands. It was its own brand of punk hardcore, with a lot of melodies from back home.
After a decade of just going completely loud and fast, at some point that glass got filled. I just felt like the shift in quality of what I’m writing. Influences like Johnny Cash and Nick Cave grew on me, too. I was like, “I want to start something that has that distinct storytelling quality because my writing is changing towards being more literary.” Consequently, once I came to New York, I kind of already approached everything from that angle. The story drives everything else. And so I started Gogol Bordello as an acoustic … I started by myself. I just went to Sidewalk Cafe and signed up on Monday night with Lach, who was a great guy who was running that whole operation. Around ’96, ’97, I would just go up there on Monday night and do something and then start going there as a duo, with a Korean player, at the time with Sasha, also a great musician. Then it became trio, then four people. It kept snowballing until it reached seven, eight people shape.
You’re the main through-line. There have been lots of different people in and out over the years.
Well, it kind of was meant to be like that. Nobody starts a band and thinks, “let’s get eight people.” [A] band is an organism. It needs very precise communication, so you think of it as something more distilled. In our case, it just happened because we kept meeting amazing players. We reformed the band and boom, we meet Ori Kaplan. Later on he went to start Balkan Beatbox, but at that time I was like, wow, here’s a saxophone player who’s also obsessed with Gypsy music and looking to split from jazz scene. To put it simply, he was an unbelievable jazz player. This guy was like, serious mother fucker.
You’re back in New York now, but you had moved to Brazil at one point, didn’t you?
Seven years. Absolutely loved the culture and the daily operation, all the archetypes that Brazil has within it. It’s such a drastically different lifestyle and drastically different priorities.
Great music too. I mean incredible music.
Amazing music, and gives you insight into sides of music that you don’t even think about here. For example, anonymous musicians who basically live gig to gig and who are a respected thing in Brazil. They’re actually phenomenal, but a lot of them don’t have a record out. There’s different angles to that, and it’s one of the ways to go in Brazil. Or odd things like, I don’t think they still have one single rock radio station. Their rock music is not like here. It’s a very radical way of life. Rock music is still underdog, fighting music there, especially punk rock.
You’ve lived away from Ukraine now longer than you were there growing up, I think. Does it still feels like home? I mean you were talking about how rooted Ukrainian people are.
I’ve been going there regularly almost every year, whether to play or to visit or make a film, documentary film, or just to explore. It’s been ongoing, so the connection is strong. That’s a huge part of me. Not to mention the fact that being Ukrainian is a very specific thing. That’s not something you let go. So the connection is there for sure.
Well, the new album, it’s all over it. Also you’ve got HR from Bad Brains on this album. There’s a Fugazi cover. There’s, I guess, a recalling of your punk roots, or an acknowledgement or bringing some of it back. Is that fair to say? Not that you ever lost your punk roots, but this is really deliberately explicit.
For me, it’s exciting because there was a time when people kind of thought of it as something kind of disposable, but on the contrary, you can see how timeless it is now, and how only more timeless it’s getting because it’s so distilled and boiled down in its expression. It’s very masterful, not all of it, of course, but that goes without saying. We’re talking about the gold of it. It’s so impressive how well it’s put together and how it defies any ideas of its disposability.
Who are you listening to right now? Are there any new bands that you want to shout out?
There’s tons of great new bands. Mindforce. That just has that grind all over it. It’s just so powerful. There’s Crazy & The Brains. We just took them on tour with us, who have all the sensibilities of more melodic punk rock, but still with that street edge. Those are bands I would just put on during the day or at night and that really hit the riffs, stick to my ribs.
Are you going to record any of these upcoming shows? Do you have another record coming up on the horizon? I know you just put one out, but you bang that out in just a couple days.
In fact, these shows the 29th and the 30th and the 31st in Brooklyn Bowl, this is like our hometown record release party in the city. We didn’t have one. We had it in Vancouver and in LA and San Francisco, but not here. So we’re psyched for that. People love the album. I usually don’t give much fuck about the reviews, but they’re pretty sizzling. So we’ll take it. It was great to make a record with Walter. Rather than making a record in some serious location with some serious expectations, that’s going to take two months. It’s like, no, let’s book five days. We booked five days and we left in four.
Do you have anything else you want to say? Anything about Brooklyn? Do you have any restaurants that you want to shout out or venues or-
Yeah. Mogador. It’s like my Cheers. I wrote more lyrics there than anywhere else in the planet.
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