Photograph by Lauren Dukoff
On The Fence: Led by Eugene Hutz (in striped pants), Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello straddles cultures and musical genres.
Rock for Revolutionaries
The superhuman superrebellion of Gogol Bordello
By Traci Hukill
Gogol Bordello's breakout album, Super Taranta, opens with a call to arms issued in the crooked, outraged patois of frontman Eugene Hutz. "If we are here not to do/ What you and I want to do/ And go forever crazy with it/ Why the hell we are even here?" A split second later Hutz belts out a cavalry yell and the band explodes into slow-motion mayhem. Gravelly Western guitar leads the melody over a base of one-drop reggae while Gypsy fiddle and accordion twirl into oblivion. "There were never any good old days," the eight-member band chants like a crew of Cossacks in the early stages of a bender, "They are today, they are tomorrow/ It's a stupid thing we say/ Cursing tomorrow with sorrow." And at that point, you know something has happened to rock & roll.
Gogol Bordello, named for the Ukrainian novelist Nikolai Gogol, burst into popular view last year with Super Taranta, an amalgam of Eastern European Gypsy punk, dub, speed metal, Italian tarantella and whatever else shouldn't fit but does. Rolling Stone named it No. 14 of its 50 Top Albums of the Year; NPR's Robert Christgau called it "the best rock album of the decade. Period." The shows are famously riotous, sweaty affairs, epic spectacles of nonstop energy.
The songs cover string theory, the white slave trade, wanderlust, the seductions of alcohol, social and political repression, complete global revolution. It's one extended call to freedom from pointless rules, in musical genre as well as in human behavior. "No can do this/ No can do that/ What the hell can you do my friend/ In this place that you call your town?" goes the chorus to "Tribal Connection." So accordions were previously outlawed in the realm of mediated cool; get used to them. It's a new day, and Gogol Bordello has been playing this party since late last night.
Half-Assed Crippled Creatures
On the phone Hutz is by turn peevish and generous. In gemlike Ljubljana--capital of Slovenia, the first Yugoslav state to break away from the Communist regime after the Berlin Wall fell--it's almost time for a sound check. This is his fifth interview today.
"All right, so let's get going. What you want to talk about?" Like a lot of Gogol Bordello's new fans, I first saw Hutz in 2005's Everything Is Illuminated. His character, Alex, is some version of the person Hutz might have been had the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl never malfunctioned, setting his family on a seven-year flight from Ukraine that ended in the United States. Alex is tall and lanky, a good-natured, hip-hop-obsessed kid in track suit and medallion (Hutz was already into punk in 1986, the year of Chernobyl.) He's proud of his ornate and inadvertently comic English, but in his limpid eyes is an expression both more wary and more kindhearted than his eccentric American counterpart, played by Elijah Wood. Alex doesn't realize it, but he already knows too much to be an American.
Hutz's lyrics get you thinking about such things. When he talks about getting grilled in the embassy over potentially subversive relatives, or when he sings, "Your country raised you/ Your country fed you/ And just like any other country/ It will break you," it's coming from experience most middle-class Americans don't have. The song "American Wedding" skewers a coddled culture that can't even throw a good party. I ask him about this song, whether his adopted countrymen seem naive to him. It launches him into an extemporaneous tirade made all the more awe-inspiring by the fact that he is a world-class slinger of the F-bomb.
"A bit, yeah, for sure," he says. Then, impatiently: "You have to understand. The song doesn't claim to be a full sociopolitical analysis of situation. And of course it's not really about wedding, it's metaphor for lost tradition of celebration. You can write songs that are just as hilarious about the way Eastern Europeans work, you know what I mean? Eastern Europeans have a very questionable work ethic, for example. It's mind-fucking-bending experience to pull off any production here. And we are behind in a lot of other issues."
"It's not about any kind of supremacy, one way or other," he continues. "It's just pointing out the parts that would be best to learn from each other, so we can get along with the motherfucking evolution, for fuck's sake, and become real fucking human beings instead of half-assed crippled creature, mentally and physically.
"I mean, I personally don't believe evolution is over." Hutz says he doesn't think of his songs as political. "I see it as basic humanitarian position," he says, adding that getting involved with political news is a waste of time, since the problem is a set of existing systems. What's needed is massive change.
"It's hard to imagine, but it doesn't mean it's impossible. You have to understand, we're all subject to cataclysm at any moment from outside forces. Anything could run the planet into another shape and form." He laughs. "So, you know, don't be so sure it's all set in stone. From my life experience alone, growing up in Soviet Union, which seemed to be the most solid thing in the world, 10 years later, bam! It's completely broken apart and isn't worth a fuck."
Twin streams of music--the Gypsy-inflected ethnic music of rural Ukraine and the punk rock he discovered as a 14-year-old in Kiev--came together for Hutz in 1999 in New York. After DJ-ing for local Eastern Europeans and trying in vain to master the accordion ("It was impossible; it gave me nothing but scoliosis"), Hutz found the musicians of Gogol Bordello. Accordion player Yuri Lemeshev and fiddler Sergey Rjabtzev were fellow Russians. Guitarist Oren Kaplan, also of Balkan Beat Box and Firewater, came from Israel; drummer Eliot Ferguson was from Florida. Elizabeth Sun and Pamela Racine danced and played percussion. The band paid "every fucking due there was ever to be paid" until 2005's Gypsy Punks got them some notice.
And then, of course, came Super Taranta. After so many years of toiling in relative obscurity, was he surprised by the lordly Rolling Stone's endorsement?
"Surprised?" Hutz snorts. "I was surprised our first album didn't go platinum. That's what was surprise."It sounds arrogant, but why not? Hutz has struck zeitgeist gold. True story: not long ago, Super Taranta served as my personal soundtrack to a strange period of grief and joy. After something like my wedding, bombed on cheap champagne on a school night, it was Gogol Bordello. Three weeks later, after my future mother-in-law's funeral, it was again Gogol Bordello. Nothing else was human enough to encompass both. I tell Hutz this. He's seemed annoyed for much of the last 15 minutes, but as I talk the quality of the silence at the other end of the line changes. He says: "Thanks for saying that. That's what the music is for, to resolve all the joys and sadness and ups and downs. That's why I do it. I hope that's what it does."
GOGOL BORDELLO plays Saturday, April 26, at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Ages 16 and over. Tickets are $22 adv/$25 door. 831.423.1336.
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