Gogol Bordello: Interview with Gypsy Punks

Gogol BordelloIf a pack of gypsies known as Gogol Bordello pass through your town, beware. It means Cultural Revolution is in the air; at least that’s what the band hopes its music, inspired by Ukrainian Gypsy culture, will provoke. And if you find upon listening to the band’s new album, GYPSY PUNKS: Underdog World Strike, (SideOneDummy), you have to forcibly restrain yourself from building a huge fire and leaping over it with a bottle of whatever gypsies drink on a night out, then they’ve succeeded.

Singer/lyricist visionary Eugene Hutz explains that gypsies have a savage way of making music, coming from a culture where song is the only means of survival and that like reggae, it was created by poor people who have nothing but music. Experiencing sounds on those terms, Hutz and his collective of Gogol musicians that includes Sergey Rjabtzev (violin, vocals), Oren Kaplan (guitar, vocals), Eliot Ferguson (drums), Yuri Lemeshev (accordion), and Rea Mochiach (bass) continue their crusade to build a bridge between Gypsy music, rock-n-roll and other brands of rebel music from Flamenco to the perestroika punk that blossomed in Eastern Europe during the mid-’80s.

“I’m naturally attracted to these forms of music because of their authenticity,” says Hutz. “In the West, music became more like a luxury thing. The reasons for making music became more hobby-like. That’s why it’s so un- effective and generally shallow. Gypsy music and reggae and punk come from very particular social settings and that is why their sound and their ideological backbone is so strong and in our own way, our music is authentic, not because it is so gypsy or so punk, or because I’m from Ukraine or anything like that, or Oren is from Israel. It’s authentic because we present our own vision of global culture. We are qualified for that. We lived in many different parts of the world and we do have the comparative characteristic of all of that and we deliver what we feel. We’re not presenting words that have no life experience behind it. It’s really a product of the lifestyle.”

That existence included Kiev-born Hutz’s seven-year trek through Eastern Europe refugee camps to escape the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986, an experience that directly impacted the detailed life imagery and music on the new record, which Gogol Bordello deliver in their traditional bedlam atmosphere live.

Stand-out songs on the new album include the humorous “Start Wearing Purple,” an emphatic plea to a woman to lose her charms, wit and beauty, presumably playing on the Russian gypsy adage of “if you wear purple you lose your charm,” “Think Locally, Fuck Globally,” with a drum solo played by Hutz on an overturned fire bucket, “Undestructable,” with its hope-hearted rally cry from the masses, “Sally,” the band’s calling card, and “Dogs Were Barking,” with references to the corner of Broadway and Canal streets in New York where Hutz DJs at Bulgarian Bar.

“That’s where basically the center for the whole gypsy punk scene is,” says Hutz of Bulgarian Bar. “I’ve been deejaying the party for five years. Now there’s new DJs as well that have developed this tradition in their own way.”

And the scene is picking up momentum.

“The gypsy punk is our own biographical vision of the music, but it’s amazing there are so many kids that are coming out of the woodwork and getting with this movement,” says Hutz. “There are several others of these bands. Hungry March Band is great and Kultur Shock. Even though they may be simply infatuated with the gypsy culture, the fact that they identify with the spirit is already more of an affirmation of a new rebel voice. It’s already a sign that they’re not buying into manufactured pre-made, so-called rebel bands playing Warped Tour and shit like that. We’re definitely not part of the army of boy bands. [Being on Warped Tour] was more like overthrowing their status quo and seizing thousands of new fans. I think it’s great that so many kids in this country who come for shows are getting into music that we’re propagandizing. It’s essentially a foreign spirit, a foreign cloud that travels on the territory and it obviously reflects their starvation for authenticity.”

Part of Gogol Bordello’s new audience includes Hollywood, with tracks featured prominently in the recent Liev Schreiber movie Everything Is Illuminated, where Hutz also appeared alongside Elijah Wood.

“I have been offered roles for films before,” says Hutz. “It’s just that I was pursuing always music because that’s my most instinctual passion and I guess I knew it was going to come to acting at one point or another, I just was waiting for a good role where I felt like I could put my heart and soul into it… There was much room for creativity and much room for trying out different things and also learning things I can bring back to Gogol Bordello…I came out of this movie with great friends. When you’ve been working on something so hard, with so much dedication and going through certain struggles and come out with a bond after it— that’s the magic. I think it also speaks in the movie. I think you can see a lot of love and innovative creativity went into that movie. Liev let me do my own thing in a lot of ways and sometimes he would of course try to manipulate me (laughs), but that’s only what directors are supposed to do. Out of all of that, the whole process was done in such a good will, it was only about, ‘Let me try it this way because I think this is going to be a much better kind of style.’”

Currently Hutz is most excited about Gogol Bordello’s upcoming appearance at New York Gypsyfest on Nov. 6 at The Roxy where the band will be joined by two of Hutz’s heroes, world-famous clarinetist Ivo Papasov and saxophonist Yuri Yunakov.

“Seeing Yuri play is like solar energy. I could literally go for six months alone on that. Absolutely, those guys are heroes for me and I was lucky enough to become friends and collaborators with them, which is something that happened with several other of my favorite gypsy musicians who are worldwide known legends. It is something that is so refreshing from dealing with rock-n-roll musicians where the germ of narcissism and rock stardom no matter what you do still gets in the way…Those guys are essentially heroes to me because they remain so humane. Gypsy culture is distinguished for its love of freedom and void of status quo.”

“Back in the ’70s in Bulgaria, there was this government policy of eliminating foreign elements from the culture,” continues Hutz. “What Yuri and Ivo used to do was mix up Arabic and Turkish and gypsy with Slovac and that was considered to be basically anti-government activity. So Yuri went to jail and was working during the day digging fucking pavements with a sledgehammer in downtown—in forced manual labor work. People would walk around, ‘What the fuck. Is this Yuri?’”…They did incredibly unorthodox things in their day and they also see that what we do with gypsy music is unorthodox as well. It’s a reincarnation of the rebel spirit. Every generation has to basically invent a voice for itself…Gogol Bordello is not just a band, it’s more of a culture. You can see the way it grows. It goes beyond definition of the band. It goes much farther. There are so many creative collaborators of people that are not necessarily professional artists or anything like that, that satellite with us. It’s getting hard to count who’s in the band and who’s not.” (laughs)

Gogol Bordello perform at The Roxy on Nov. 6.