Global Beat: Gogol Bordello

Matt Inman on October 11, 2017

When Eugene Hütz arrived in the United States under less than ideal circumstances, he didn’t waste any time using the experience to expand his musical horizons. The first day that he and his family were placed in refugee housing in Burlington, Vt., the teenage Ukrainian and future frontman for Gogol Bordello took a walk that would end up changing his life.

“As soon as I arrived to Vermont, I walked out on the porch of the small wooden house and saw something that looked like Kingston, Jamaica,” Hütz says, describing the “rundown and beat-up” appearance of his new surroundings. The musician, who had formed a band and already released two albums back in Ukraine, then stumbled upon some new friends.

“I saw just right over the fence, two Rastafarian guys,” Hütz continues. “Two Jamaican guys with full on dreadlocks—something I only saw in pictures before. I saw three of them lighting up a spliff, and they invited me to share this with them. It was very strong—nothing that I was prepared for—but 10 minutes later, I was upstairs in Paul’s apartment listening to reggae.”

Paul, a DJ who became a lifelong friend of Hütz’s, introduced him to a swath of Anglo-American punk-rock acts that Hütz had never encountered before—The Fall, Gang of Four, Black Flag and, maybe most important, Fugazi, who Hütz ended up seeing multiple times in Vermont. Their music, he says, made him feel at home after the move to a new country. “I was like, ‘It’s going to be alright,’” he says. From there, Hütz fell in with a crowd that was into New York and D.C. hardcore— Gorilla Biscuits, Cro-Mags, Bad Brains—and, as he puts it, he “heard that music nonstop for the next two years. All of it.”

Flash-forward to the present and Hütz is sitting in Relix’s New York offices. For the past 18 years, he’s led the multi-national New York-based gypsy punks, Gogol Bordello, whose first record in four years, Seekers and Finders dropped in late August. Harkening back to those early days of discovering his passion for outsider American music, Hütz and his band recorded the album at what he calls “two very meaningful places.”

The first side of the album, Seekers, was tracked in New York City at the Beastie Boys’ Oscilloscope Studio, while the Finders side of the record was created outside Washington, D.C., at the Inner Ear studio where Fugazi recorded their own albums. “We find ourselves to be in a kindredspirit league with those guys,” Hütz says. He calls Beastie Boys’ sound “bonanzatronic,” and explains that he’s met the members of Fugazi and befriended Ian MacKaye, who even stopped by Gogol’s recording sessions for “a cup of tea and some noise.”

“It’s high-energy. It’s storytelling. It’s expressive on all topics,” Hütz says of those two bands’ aesthetic— though he could just as easily be talking about his own work. “So it works for us—I never wanted to record at blank-space studios that have no history.”

Seekers and Finders, Gogol’s first self-produced effort in years, is also a return to the approach Hütz once employed in the Ukraine. The impetus for taking over behind the boards— after working with what Hütz calls “senseis” of producing like Steve Albini, Rick Rubin and Andrew Scheps—was, in part, how personal these songs felt to him.

“I just felt like I had to get back behind the wheel, like I did in the Ukraine,” Hütz says. “We made guitars with our own hands and took trains outside of town to borrow this guy’s amplifier. We took all these trips to compile it all and then, by the time you hit the record button, you’re already, like, having an orgasm. It was that incredible. So I wanted to do it in that kind of atmosphere, with full engagement. I felt like it’s time to revisit that feeling, just for my own evolution. And, surely enough, it was a motherfucker. I forgot how much fucking work it is. I barely fucking finished it.”

Gogol Bordello have always embraced the gypsy ethos, the wanderlust-soaked, home-is-where-you-hang-your-hat way of living. Hütz himself didn’t grow up with these principles, and instead sought out knowledge of his Romani heritage— which he says was intentionally obscured when he was young in the Ukraine—later in life, as partially documented by the 2007 film The Pied Piper of Hützovina. Hütz laughs when he explains that the Romani people he knows around the world, who are largely settled with businesses, make fun of him for being “the only one freaking out there like some guy in the 16th century, constantly on the road.”

Hütz still feels at home on the move, though, and he says that his own varied experiences are what fuel his creativity and music the most—an approach he believes is going by the wayside these days.

“I think the value of experience-driven art and storytelling is increasing,” he says. “Because we are finding ourselves in the time when people think music is made inside of an iPhone. So the idea of experience is completely shifted. And that works out up until people are forced to climb a tree and they realize they can only climb a tree with a joystick in their hand and a screen. So my music is for people who climb trees, worldwide— or at least would like to climb a tree.”