There is a musical ensemble traveling the world, spreading positive vibes and a contagious energy. With strong Slavic and Latin infused beats, this is a band that’s hard not to move along with. Ringleader Eugene Hütz’s strong Ukrainian accent spills over verses and choruses with lines that will play on repeat in your head for days on end. The skill and beauty of every note played by The Professor, Sergey Ryabtsev, cuts straight through you like butter. And if you’re lucky enough to see these troubadours live, the onstage presence of Boris Pelekh, Pedro Erazo, Pasha Newmer, Ashley Tobias, Eliza Sun, Thomas Gobena, and Alfredo Ortiz will leave you in a stupefied splendor.
This nine piece band is known as Gogol Bordello and the pureness they bring to the music world is an old world magic almost long forgotten. With members from all around the world, Gogol Bordello is a cultural mixing pot ready to feed the world. The main course is packed with a strong dose of fun, with a big hit of showmanship and a whopping portion of throwback melodies to a time long past married with a new kind of sound.
When I was given the opportunity to not only see a live Gogol Bordello show but to interview Eugene Hütz, I was able to cross a big item off my bucket list. I’ve been a HUGE fan since college and love not only the music, but also Eugene’s acting in Everything is Illuminated. Talking with Eugene about everything from the film to the band’s new album was as awesome as I dreamed it would be. Of course I had no patience and jumped straight into asking him about working on the film with Elijah Wood.
You starred in a film, Everything Is Illuminated, with Elijah Wood, what was that experience like?
I mean, you have to understand my experience on the film set was nothing like any actors experience on a film set because I am not a struggling actor who had to be “on the money”. So I was completely under slept and hazed out most of the time. It’s really a chuckle fest for me to rewatch it because it’s so clear that I was obviously DJing all night long in Prague and like would come straight from the party at AM straight onto the set. Sometimes I would manage to take a shower and act like, you know, I’m ready for a 12 hour day of shooting. And my experience with it was, I mean, I think I was creating chaos for everyone around there. In fact, I was talking to Liev (who directed the film) the other day, we were really actually cracking up about the way it went. The thing is, the maelstrom of my activities was starting to bring chaos to Liev and Elijah’s performance. They started attending my DJ nights and the producers of the film were really kind of, you know, they had to call in the disciplinary speeches. You know we were being rascals. It was a relief when the film got great reviews and it was a beloved film of many people because during the making of it, you know, we were being kids. I mean, I’ll speak for myself but I know the swirl of that summer in Prague was kind of leading people astray. Leading the professionals around me astray.
How’d you get that part? Did you audition for it or did Liev just come to you and say, “You have to play this part”?
I did not audition. I was originally involved in the soundtrack and the music for the film and so I met Liev in the next few days and just kinda looked at me and said, “Hey my friend, have you done any acting by chance?” and three weeks later I was in Prague on a set.
That’s really cool.
It was very cool indeed. You know the team that was working on the film, it was like a band for a while. I operate in a band reality and that idea that several people are on a mission- a themed crusade so to speak. It was similar here, things came together pretty fast.
You produced this last album, Seekers and Finders, how was that experience?
Well it gives me incredible freedom to be the night owl that I am. That’s one of my my main criteria in life. Being kind of a naturally born night owl that draws a pretty serious definitive line on the mode of operation. You know when you make a record, your lifestyle changes, you’re consumed by just that and I kinda wanted to revisit the magic, or what I think is magic, which is making music in the nighttime. Something that I’ve really admired since my childhood, since I was 13 or 14 years old, always waiting for this time in the night when it’s after midnight and everything just kinda goes away and you’re transported into this other dimension. That was really the key, why I ended up producing it, to do a night owl record.
Your music is constantly moving and there’s an evolution to it. Especially on this last album Seekers and Finders. That album man, was there a muse behind that album? Where was your head those late nights you were working on it?
Well it’s been many places. I’d say what you’re hearing is coming from a magical kinda place you can dwell in. It’s really where the soul lives. It’s when you can really focus on things and it’s really a souls expression in a really unhindered way. That’s what you’re hearing. There’s no destruction of unnecessary advice and unnecessary suggestions and all that crap. It really just like putting a lens to the sun, except in this case I was putting a lens to the moon. A very, very full moon.
For someone who’s never experienced one of your shows, how would you describe it?
Well it’s like gypsy Christ Superstar, you know, on all sorts of natural steroids and energies. It’s a very old chemical kind of rock n’ roll show. That’s what we put into it and what we put into it is essentially who we are. Once again, it’s a reflection of a group of people, very much excited to be alive… that kinda really get a kick out of dancing around a fire. It would be somewhere along the lines of yes, dancing around the fire. Bringing people along to this communal celebration of who we are, of people overcoming our inherited problems of human condition and still finding a way to get a kick out of it, and finding a way to evolve and surpass the hurdles and still have our eyes sparkle. Essentially for me, the show, it’s all about the sparkle in peoples eyes. It is a huge addition at this point. You’re in a room with so many thousand people and when collective eyes are sparkling you know, collective souls are sparkling.
Yeah in a way that’s the biggest payoff of it all. I mean, it’s fantastic to make a living. Absolutely crucially appreciated, it’s very important but the biggest payoff really is that. It’s the sparkling of souls.
Your band celebrates cultural diversity for sure. There’s a flare for travel, new places and people- is that a seed you try to plant in your audience?
I think that “try”- no. We don’t try. We DO. It comes naturally. The whole feeling of getting into music or art or any kind of explorative activity is really all about experiencing the world on a much larger scale. I mean music becomes your compass to the world. Growing up in Soviet Union where there are not a whole lot of variety of shapes and colors, it was pretty regimented environment but as I look back at it, I don’t remember it like that actually because of the music. And because of the art and all these things, it felt like life was quite colorful. But once again, I was pretty fanatical about these things. I mean I was really into music, from early on. My father kinda got me up to speed. From the time I was five years old, I’d heard everything that had ever been released on a record! I had a huge advantage because of that. I saw the world differently and when you play a show, you give people your own version of that. They literally hop on your back and you take them places, you know?
You’re a songwriter?
Yes, which is kinda becoming a dying art. The songs that are timeless are from that place where you put the lens to the full moon. I believe, it’s going back to that place where the soul speaks directly. That is very
much where the song comes from, the other side, and you are the receiver. Song writing has turned into at this point, is extremely non experiential and people don’t understand a lot of the time that it’s not written from experience. Most of the songs are just manufactured by a handful of people sitting in a writing room. It’s constructed rhymes and okay lines but really don’t have any substance. So you know I kinda draw the line there. It has to be experienced, it has to come from an experiential place. A place where William Blake was coming from you know? You know what I mean?
It’s rawness but it’s not only rawness, it’s very precisely captured. The art of song writing isn’t really about crafting, I mean the crafting is important but it’s more about capturing. It’s more about hearing what’s knocking at the door and letting that in. Molding it is sort of secondary. Mostly what’s out there is just molded shapes without any substance, without anybody knocking on any door.
How many languages do you speak?
Perfectly only three really. What we speak in the band is a kind of meltdown of English, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish, and is very much a hybrid. A lot of slang, a lot of old world lexicon just from people being well read. We have fun with language you know?
So when you write a song, how do you know what language to put the words in?
I don’t. It’s whatever comes, that’s how I proceed. A great majority of my stuff is in English, which is great, I love English. What I find exciting is that English is a very useful language. It’s easy to learn, it’s easy to master and it’s a very pragmatic language. It cuts to the chase and it’s a great language to tell a story in, however, it’s not nearly as emotional as Slavic languages or Spanish or Portuguese. My chief excitement comes from bringing in all these idioms from my roots- our emotional background creates new formations within English. So pushing the envelope of English a certain way by making it more emotional. The world of adjectives or adverbs that exists out there in Russian, Ukrainian or Portuguese exceeds English by worlds. It’s that much different. If you were a person who tries to master Ukrainian or English, you’d get on with English a lot faster. It’s really a strong, action language. So I like marrying those two dynamics. The emotional qualities of Slavic-ness and Spanish-ness into English storytelling.
Getting to talk with Eugene about everything was a highlight that I still can’t believe happened and getting to see them live in Chico was also a treat. Live music anywhere is a treat but it’s so much more special when you are singing along to songs you know and love, seeing that band in front of you, and feeling the base roll through you.
I would say if you are curious about Gogol Bordello, go listen to some of their tracks. If you like what you hear then you definitely deserve to see them play live. You could also check out the movie Eugene was in with Elijah Wood called Everything is Illuminated. Because it’s an independent film, it might be a little hard to find but in my opinion it’s worth the hassle.
This is a band with a sound that might not be for everyone, they are raw and very real. With instruments like the violin, accordion, charango and marimba, their music has a freshness that demands attention but they bring it home with a familiarity that pulls at something innate to their fans. Maybe that familiarity has something to do with using the magic of the night, maybe it has to do with capturing the essence of dancing around a fire, or maybe it’s just listening to whatever is knocking at the door. Whatever it is, Eugene Hütz and Gogol Bordello have mastered it and are doing their best to share it with audiences world wide.