Watch him onstage, running around shirtless with an open bottle of wine, leaning into the crowd and strumming his guitar with wild enthusiasm. Listen to his lyrics: live-in-the-moment defiance founded in Gypsy philosophy. Eugene Hütz is both a master party-starter and a sagelike thinker. It’s only natural that his band, Gogol Bordello, possesses those same qualities.
Gogol Bordello established itself in the early ‘00s as an ultra-lively “Gypsy Punk” band—a term coined by Hütz, who is partially of Gypsy descent. The mustachioed Ukraine-born singer/songwriter/guitarist immigrated to the United States as a teen and eventually moved to New York City, where he assembled his band mates (and gained personal notoriety from a debaucherous weekly DJ residency at a Bulgarian bar on the Lower East Side). The band has now spent more than a decade igniting mosh pits globally and released its latest album, Pura Vida Conspiracy, in 2013.
Gogol Bordello’s eight members hail from Ukraine, Ethiopia, Belarus, Ecuador, Scotland via China, and the United States. International appeal is central to the band’s success: its Eastern European, Latin American, and American punk influences make it feel more like a band belonging to the world than a band from any place in particular.
Hütz took time to chat on a break before a month-long European tour, which will conclude with Gogol Bordello’s return to the U.S. for New Year’s shows in Philadelphia and New York.
You moved to Vermont after leaving Ukraine. How did you make your way to New York? Did you have goals in mind? Were you seeking anything in particular?
Well, I was already a musician with a few albums out before I moved to New York. So, I wasn’t really starting from scratch, even though it appeared to be so. New York became instantly the most perfect outlet for everything I had to offer. Before, what I had to offer was too radical for a lot of people. But in New York it stuck to people’s ribs naturally.
I didn’t really have motivation or so-called “goals.” That’s a very, you know, workaholic perspective. I had an inspiration and that’s kind of my chief engine, and that inspiration just thrived in New York City. I can tell you exactly why. [New York] evokes so many different emotions and frequencies in you, and all you need to do is mirror its fucking awesomeness. (laughs) That’s it. That’s the power of New York City: it’s incredibly multidimensional, so it gives you the opportunity to bring out all the dimensions of yourself that might be dormant in another place.
You’ve lived in so many places around the world, most recently Brazil—how do you define “home?” Is it a specific place or a state of mind?
Both. I grew to be not so particularly attached to any geographical location. That’s kind of a bit primitive for me, I suppose, to be attached too much to a place. But every time I come back to New York I feel like I’m back at home. Actually, a lot of people never realized I moved away—every few months I’m still coming through. People in bodegas who I bought coffee from 10 years ago, they’re still there, they don’t realize I left. I have a nice situation with New York where it falls right back in the pocket.
You’ve mentioned in the past that the foundation of your latest album, Pura Vida Conspiracy, is the concept of human potential. Can you elaborate on what that means to you?
I guess that quest runs back all the way into my childhood, where I observed around me people living in a zombie state, while I was constantly drawn to some kind of accomplishment, whether it was athletic or musical. Back then I blamed it all on the Soviet Union, but when I started traveling the world I realized that the world is full of people doing the zombie lifestyle. (laughs)
That just inspired me to seek further and find ideas and people who already have realized that and did something about it. The awakening and the actualization of the self has become, basically, an essential idea for me since I was a teenager. That has to do with everything—it literally has to do with all levels of life.
The potential of human beings is so much more vast than people imagine. And that’s one of the reflections of Gogol Bordello, which is what you see on stage: I am very dedicated to communicating this idea. Performance and crafty writing, and composition, and arrangements, and a positive message, and its athletic powers, and everything else that comes with it. So, you see, there’s a lot to do here in this world. A lot more than people settle for.
One of the things Gogol Bordello does really well is express the idea of living in the present—living without constraints or constructs. You’ve always wholly embraced that attitude in your music, but what about in your day-to day-life? What do you do when it becomes challenging not to dwell on the past or the future?
Well, there are times when you drift away from that, and other things start dictating their own beat. But that’s your own core discipline. You catch yourself and you go back into your core, into your presence. There is no magic trick—you’ve gotta do it. People just don’t want to do it most of the time, and so they kind of let all these possibilities go.
Living in the present is like building a muscle. Once the muscle is built, it works well, you know? I mean, some people have a naturally stronger muscle from birth, some not, but the muscle is there. And that muscle is where all the creativity and poetry and invention is coming from. That muscle doesn’t come from some kind of overuse, deadline, fucking cranking mentality, I fucking assure you. The muscle comes from pure joy of being in this world—that’s how the muscle gets strengthened.
In the song “We Rise Again” you call borders “scars on the face of the planet.” Borders and immigration policies are huge sources of controversy in the U.S. What do you say to people who take issue with immigration or people who want to keep themselves closed off? Is there a way to open peoples’ minds?
I’ve never met anybody [like that] actually. I’m kind of in my own bubble, so I don’t attract people like that. They still exist? (laughs)
Well, on a more serious level I’m aware they exist somewhere out there. To be opposed to it is like swimming against the stream of evolution. The evolution will never, ever go back to the tribal level. It just will not. It will never happen. Evolution will never go back to [a] nationalistic, closed-off mentality.
Everything in the world is speaking loud and clear that this is remix time. Everything is going in the direction of absorbing into one another and creating, hopefully, more advanced stew, you know? Collaborating and cross-pollinating—cross-pollination is the only way. So what else is there to say about it? It’s as obvious as the fucking bright June sky. It’s as clear as that.
That’s a really positive way to reflect on it.
I mean, of course there are examples of the opposite in the world, but they are a real minority. That’s just the way of evolution.
You must see common threads in your travels that help you build your outlook, right?
If you’re seeing common threads, you’ll see [them] anywhere, yes. If you are focused on that, you will see it wherever you go. If you’re focused on negative, you will see negative anywhere you go. It’s like a guitar—you tune it a particular way for a certain chord. If you don’t tune it, when you strike it will not be a chord.
Is there anything you can share with us about what you have planned in 2015?
We have a lot of exciting things coming out of the band—the side of the band that people have not seen before. It’s always been kind of a factory—the big front of Gogol Bordello operations—it’s a factory of projects and collaborations and really exciting things we do with our friends on the side. I think next year there will be a lot of that Gogol Bordello factory, creative factory coming out where just about every member of Gogol Bordello will appear to be a leader of their own. It’s really exciting getting to work on that because somebody who was always kind of in a shadow will be coming out with a pretty mind-blowing solo thing. It’s like everybody’s doing something, and everybody’s helping each other. It’s really a lot of fun, I tell you.
Gogol Bordello will be playing at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on Dec. 31 and Terminal 5 in New York City on Jan. 2 and 3. Pura Vida Conspiracy is available now. For more information, go to gogolbordello.com.