It is difficult to change how the world perceives you. Think about a comedian taking a dramatic turn and how loudly the skeptics chatter, and how closely the performance is scrutinized. For the move to pay off, the work has to support the risk. Just because McDonald’s started selling salads doesn’t mean people aren’t still driving through at 1 a.m. looking for burgers.
It is doubtful that Eugene Hütz would apply this idea to his own life and passions, partly because as frontman and songwriter for the originators of “gypsy punk,” Gogol Bordello, he was able to do just this, change the perception of gypsy culture around the world, at least in a small way. On some of the biggest stages, Hütz and his band of merry wanderers sang songs with boozy breath of being citizens of the world, forever immigrants, celebrating and mourning in the same moment, all to the foot-stomp rhythm and accordion whine of Eastern Europe, the land of Hütz’s birth. Gogol Bordello may be a band that garners a range of varying opinions and experiences with regards to their albums, but the general sentiment is that Gogol Bordello is a great live band, and few would debate this.
“Without fun and celebration, there is no Gogol Bordello,” Hütz says about the band’s live experience. “It really came down to after a decade of being together, we looked around at other bands, and we realize that we are just a different kind of brothers. Bands are usually so consumed with negative drama, about how the recording was so hard and fighting and throwing shit around. And, that’s just not us, there’s a different kind of drama here. We leave the recording space saying ‘that was fucking great, why are we leaving?’ It feels like it is all apples and peaches all the time.”
The latest fruit from the collective, Pura Vida Conspiracy does not strike as a major departure for the band, though the writing of the album in Hütz’s residence in Brazil does seep into the songs, pushing their transcontinental musical vision further into its sonic melting pot.
But, Hütz reacts adversely to a question about intended audience, asking if he writes with Eastern Europe or Latin America or the U.S.A. in mind, with the frontman saying “That’s never occurred once to me in my life.”
“Our music comes as a beam of light,” Hütz tries to explain, “and the light comes way beyond any contemplation. Our job as an artist is to transcend the beam of light and try to get all of the obstacles out of the way of pure energy coming out. The mental work that enters all around it, enters only when the record company is setting up the release date.”
The songwriter explains the “fucking messy and unpredictable” business side of things, saying “I had amazing artwork done before the record was recorded, I had to completely abandon it and put up new artwork for the record. There is no way around doing things. If you’re doing pure energy channeling and art with any type of authenticity, that’s what is going to happen.”
Authenticity had never been a problem for Gogol Bordello. Born in the Ukraine where his family fled following the Chernobyl disaster, Hütz arrived in America after a seven-year immigration journey, with his breadth of music influences literally the result of traveling and living around the world. The three years following the last Gogol Bordello album, 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle, have seen Hütz pursuing other interests, notably the creation of a 1,200 capacity, two-level venue in his native Ukraine that combines where he came from with where he has been living, Brazil.
“I was really inspired by that cross-pollination going on,” Hütz explains, “and it’s not conceptual anymore, now it is physical. People are starting to go other places now. The place I’m setting up is the physical house that is dedicated to the cross-pollination. The lineups will that a band from Colombia will play with a band from Greece, and the DJ will be from London or New York. That kind of lineup, I really believe, is a pure impact.”
Later, Hütz gives some backstory regarding his interest in the interaction between Eastern Europe and Latin America, two regions that share a common history of political turmoil.
“There is amazing dialogue going on between West, analytical minds and technology, and East, people like Dalai Lama, who are writing books and making studies with leading biochemists and quantum physicists,” Hütz explains. “That dialogue is fascinating. It’s historical dialogue, never has East and West come together in such a positive spirit. I’ve been studying this dialogue for years and a lot of my songs kind of came out of there. People that know a bit about Eastern philosophy or martial arts, they can understand the power of my lyrics.”
“Then I started realizing, that dialogue is already fertile enough without me,” he continues. “I’m not really the guy who orders things. So, I realize there is a different dialogue going on between Latin America and Eastern Europe. After I popularized the whole phenomenon of Balkan music in Eastern Europe, and then I went and popularized the Balkan music in Latin America. Teaching and playing with Gogol Bordello and performing in Chile and Colombia and Argentina and Brazil and Mexico. After a couple years, I had gathered so much good stuff, that I though I needed to bring it back home, where I was sure it would be embraced, because we are both full of high energy, just the shapes and forms are difference.”
“The only reason American music is popular all over the world is the powerful technology behind it,” Hütz says, illuminating his interests in the non-American traditions. “The rest of the world has richer music, but shittier equipment. In Eastern Europe, we’re still using military equipment to record music on, and the everything is maxxed-out because nobody told them they had to set some kind of levels. It’s all distorted as fuck, including symphonic orchestra stuff. They skipped the whole transition from feudalism to technology.
“In terms of richness of music, American is one of the most simple and monotonous styles,” he concludes.
Is this the “Pura Vida Conspiracy” that the title of Gogol Bordello’s new album refers to? No, that is something else.
“Well, obviously it means ‘pure life,’” Hütz tells me after I run through a short list of possible ways the phrase is used, from a greeting to a Latin equivalent of “Hakuna Matata” in Costa Rica, a reference Hütz either does not get or does not appreciate. “And by adding conspiracy, I’m suggesting that the driving force of life is an invisible force. Cynicism and negativity is the main product, that’s what sells. Everything that is cynical or negative in spirit is already almost ready-made hate, that more and more people are consuming. That is why we live in the age of endarkenment. Endarkenment is optional. We are the ones who are inventing it and inflicting it upon ourselves.”
“Pura Vida Conspiracy is a reminder of the all of the undercurrents that are actually running this world,” Hütz continues. “No prediction of the end of the world has ever come true. All the end of the world slogans are marketing techniques for people to buy more things before the shit hits the fan. It’s a reminder that people who are desperately trying to figure out what is wrong with the world and how it is all falling apart, there is no way to figure it out. It is a pure waste of time. An exercise of their own negative energy.”
Musically, the July release still sounds like the same Gogol Bordello people expect, with a little more Latin American-influence, sure. But Hütz seems to have changed, or at least be less the person I had perceived, whose performances were filled with such joy and energy. When asked if he ever struggles with the balance between humorous and serious songs, he takes it personally, and asks, “Do you look at a van Gogh painting and ask about the colors are balanced correctly?”
But his turns of phrase, and sometimes imperfect use of the English language, are humorous, whether intentional or not. “We Rise Again,” the album’s opening song, repeats “We rise again with a fist-full of heart and a really cool future,” and if there is not supposed to be an implied smile in that wording, then my sense of humor is off. But, despite my pulling specific lyrics that I find playful, like “You taught your parrot to stutter” in “It Is The Way You Name Your Ship,” Hütz is not amused.
“I don’t judge my songs in any way, that’s just what you think about it,” Hütz replies, a chasm of understanding between us, with him moving on with “I do it and I don’t really question it.”
Whatever way the listener reacts to Gogol Bordello, there is little room for debate about the work that Hütz has done for international music, specifically the gypsy culture and Balkan aesthetic.
“It is a fact that we were the locomotive for that whole thing,” he notes. “As far as infiltration and enrichment of world-wide musical sound with Eastern European flavor, fuck yeah, I’ll drink to that any day. But also, it’s important to understand than I never had a plan for that to happen. I am not driven by any patriotic feeling. I am not interested in waving in any kind of flag, and I am not interested in proclaiming any culture having superiority. I completely departed from that type of thinking when I was 10 years old in Ukraine, because the whole ‘totalitarian nation scene’ doesn’t work for me.”
“What I had when I started the band was a purely emotional message,” he says. “It was completely free of any ideology. I didn’t hate any kind of ideology, but it was just much more inspired by Zen Buddhism. I’m talking about ideas that are the driving force of the human potential movement. That is my chief interest in life, actually. That’s why Gogol Bordello is what it is, and why we keep pushing the envelope of what it can be.”
“Human potential is the most interesting thing to me,” Hütz continues. “Music is just a way to explore it. And the idea of presence. Here and now. and not living in the fucking past and not living in the fucking future. Right here, right now.”
“That is exactly what I’m talking about with ‘you taught your parrot to stutter,’” he says, returning to our early confusion. “Obviously it’s a metaphor. And obviously it’s a metaphor for the conscience and the sub-conscience. The more you comprise yourself with negative words and thinking, the more you sub-conscience will repeat that fucking crap, or your life will go to hell. That’s what it obviously is a metaphor for.”