Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello

While in Chicago at their beloved Riot Fest (and a day after the release of new album 'SOLIDARITINE'), Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz sat down with QRO....
Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello : Q&A
Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello : Q&A

While in Chicago at their beloved Riot Fest (and a day after the release of new album SOLIDARITINEQRO review), Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz sat down with QRO. In the conversation, Hütz talked about the event Gogol just played with the military in his native Ukraine, why Riot’s his favorite festival, making SOLIDARITINE in a matter of days, the “professional responsibility” of now representing his homeland (and previously of representing his fellow refugees), playing New York on New Year’s, and more…

QRO: How have you been holding up, these last two-and-a-half years, since COVID started?

Eugene Hütz: I’m alright. I’m okay. COVID… big fuckin’ deal… In Ukraine, we will talk about that when the dust settles.

I can tell you right now, as soon as the invasion of Ukraine started, nobody ever talked about COVID. In Ukraine, it stopped existing there.

QRO: Why did you decide to play Riot Fest again?

EH: I was just laying in hammock, one day, ‘Yo, what am I doing this Saturday, five weeks from now? Why don’t I just call [Riot] Mike and play Riot Fest?…’

Of course not! It’s what we do! We play Riot Fest almost every year.

It’s a punk rock, hardcore festival. It is my favorite festival. Especially now, with the situation in Ukraine, and Riot Fest is doing such an extra effort to support it. I pretty much asked for that. That’s pretty much why we’re here.

We were here so many previous years, this was the year we were definitely going to be here.

QRO: And your record came out [the first day of Riot Fest]…

EH: Yeah…

QRO: You do have a big American tour coming up in October…

When you’re on stage, how do you handle who takes step forward on the stage, towards the crowd, at any given moment in a show/song, keep from bumping into each?

EH: Um…

You know how we were put together, right? Pedro [Erazo] was the winner of Latino American Idol competition, I was the winner of Ukrainian Idol competition, and we have a choreographer. The whole thing is produced from the very beginning. We’re just like ‘remote control,’ a mastermind that we’ve never met…

QRO: How was making SOLIDARITINE?

EH: Actually, it was the shortest record we ever made, took the shortest time. The time was so urgent.

We’ve done records that took like three months long, and it seemed like it was the right thing to do. This time, we booked five days for the studio, in four days we were done. We mixed pretty fast as well. In about a week, we were done mixing.

I think it’s just the times are different, and it brings out different quality in people. The quality that we always had, always in the back bucket, is the punk rock roots. It’s really all about immediacy, and urgency, and what needs to be addressed, at the moment, what’s the most crucial issue.

Even when the war started in Ukraine, the first band, along with us, to put out a track about it was the guys from Sick of It All. They had the track out on Bandcamp literally days into it, “God Save Ukraine”. That urgency is really the key.

QRO: How do you all go about making records, with so many musicians?

EH: Since I was fourteen, I’ve been writing songs. This is actually my third band, third where I am the principal songwriter. That’s the method that kind of revealed itself.

I write the songs, then I bring it to the band, we arrange it together, people chime in, everybody brings their personal vibe, their influences. Sometimes it transforms the song, sometimes, you know, it just falls right into place pretty instantaneously. That’s usually the process.

The band synergy is really, for me, is where it’s at. That way, it’s always transformative kind of experience. You may think the song was kind of going to go this way, but then the band they find, they amplify. You kind of have to let them be what they want to be. The band synergy around it, in bringing them up, is super-important, you know?

QRO: You just played an underground show in Ukraine?

EH: Yeah – wasn’t so underground; everybody knows about it…

It was in the blazing sun, very much like Warped Tour, but for a battalion for special forces. The location was undisclosed. It was on a military base.

The importance of that is not where it was. The importance was that it was an event for the fighters, for the defenders, with musicians from their battalion. The chief bonding was about that.

This was not like, ‘Hey, what’s up, we’re from New York City,’ it’s about striking connections that’s gonna live on. And in fact, they learned our songs, we learned their songs. They’re right now performing our songs, continuing performing them for the defenders there right now.

There’s more to be done. It’s kind of the first event of meeting together, each other, and starting this project, where it’s going to be ongoing.

The band synergy is really, for me, is where it’s at. That way, it’s always transformative kind of experience.

QRO: I saw you on the Tibet House Benefit livestream this year (QRO livestream review) – how was that?

EH: We’ve done it before, several times. I know just about everyone onboard at that House, and it’s a great initiative. It always brings great names together, fighting the humanitarian fight. Patti Smith, Bob [Thurman], Laurie Anderson, Debbie Harry, Philip Glass, of course…

They’re doing something really important that gathers people that have a serious intention to keep things on the right track on this planet. I think we’ve done like three or four of them?

It’s always great, because people bond there, have more of a dialogue. And then, of course, these people that I have mentioned, Patti Smith for example, she was the first person to say that she will be down to play the benefit for Ukraine, the very first one that we did. I think that was literally the first benefit for Ukraine since the invasion. It was because of that connection, I think.

QRO: Was it weird, this year, you had to record for the livestream, from like a home and a park?…

EH: I was visiting somebody. Talking about urgency, just had to be done.

QRO: Do you feel real extra responsibility, kind of representing Ukraine, at something like that, or at something like Riot Fest, or just in general? Because in America, we don’t know as many Ukrainian musicians…

EH: There is some degree of that, for sure. I think that, for a lot of people, Gogol Bordello might be their only connection to Ukraine, so therefore, my position becomes like… It is, basically, a professional responsibility, in a lot of ways. Because not everyone has an overview of the situation, or is still learning about where Ukraine is – or is still learning about Gogol Bordello…

So, there’s a lot of backstory that I need to share this whole time. You gotta store up on patience, and delivery. Because, without it, you would be a lot less effective.

It is like almost a professional responsibility now.

QRO: Gogol Bordello has also long been on the frontlines of the immigration issue, and others. Do you ever wish there weren’t all these issues you had to deal with, that you could just write simple love songs or something?…

EH: No, I don’t wish that. That’s not what it is. I don’t write love songs. And if I do, they don’t take the shape, or form, or sound of love songs.

QRO: Did some of how you handle, particularly with handling the stuff with having to represent Ukraine, did you draw from how you & the band had to represent in terms of immigration, in terms of being an advocate?

EH: Yeah, that’s another professional responsibility.

Because even right now, you’re asking me this question: What do you mean by “immigration,” for example? I know you mean well, but even by starting this question, what do you mean? Immigration is a thing of a hundred faces.

There are people who immigrate because they have to, people who immigrate because their legs were torn off and they couldn’t get medical care in their country. And there are people simple moved to SoHo because they’re fucking loaded, and they’re looking for a life that’s way more lavish than they’re already living in their country of origin. They’re all immigrants – how are they the fucking same? Completely different thing, one from another, so which kind of immigration do you mean?

How is the immigration of people who are in need the same immigration as the people who are coming here to buy more real estate?

QRO: I’ve been talking about the stuff you’ve been talking about [in your songs]…

EH: I’m asking the ones in need, yes…

It’s a very broad subject. You need to like narrow it down, if you want to have a real discussion…

QRO: I’m sure you know way more about it than I do…

EH: Yeah, but I am also representing only one certain kind of immigrant, which is not the other kind.

QRO: Yes – I was also thinking about the band, how you’ve got people from different countries…

EH: We’re all pretty much from the similar walk of life. Similar refugee program, similar refugee route.

QRO: You have a long history at this point. Do you ever get requests for old or obscure songs, and you’re like, ‘I don’t know that one…’?

EH: Yes. We do have over 150 songs, maybe more than that.

Actually, sometimes it’s a catalyst for a really, really great comeback for certain songs.

Believe it or not, but there was about five or six years where we didn’t play “Start Wearing Purple”. Just completely forgot about it. What’s the big fucking deal? I mean, it’s a good song, but I didn’t give a fuck about it.

And then, people kept asking, asking, and we brought it back, it had a new life to it. And then we re-recorded it, and that’s how it got really known. From like 2000-2005, we never played that song. And it was just fine.

QRO: How do you go about making a set list? Like at Riot Fest, you probably want to do more from the new album, but how do you pick what songs to take off? Your time doesn’t get more, but you have more songs…

EH: There’s a kind of inner logic to the set, that alternates.

Most of the songs, they’re kind of story-telling. Maybe it’s not so linear, but to me, it is. To me, I constructed them from my particular experiences, so for me to deliver my most authentic energy on stage, I have to be engaged 100%, so I have to see the inner logic in front of me, to be the driving force of that particularly performance.

[At Riot Fest,] for example, there will be moments with Ukrainian dance troupe. There are several new songs. There are also a lot of focus on supporting Ukraine. So, the inner logic of this set is kind of threaded with that.

QRO: You always play around New Year’s Eve in New York.

EH: We play like three or four shows every year.

QRO: How did those start?

EH: A friend of mine, Jesse Malin, a really great New York songwriter, old punk rocker, really good friend of mine, he kind of dropped this seed in my head, that nobody’s doing that thing The Ramones used to do, kind of always going to see Ramones doing shows over New Year’s.

We were already kind of on that train; we just invested more in it. We do love that kind of community vibe, where people can count on you, every New Year’s, there’s a three-night stand in New York City, where a New York City band has this super friendly roots vibe, is delivering one thousand percent party. So, we really love that idea, and kind of rode it for years.

I think one year that we took off, everybody was pretty pissed off [laughs] – ‘What the fuck? I was telling all my friends, my uncle was flying in to go to the fucking show, and then it wasn’t there?!?’ And I was like, “I know – I was pissed off too…”

QRO: It’s like when Yo La Tengo would do their Hannukah run of shows, and didn’t do it one year, and people were like, ‘How can this not be happening?…’

EH: Yeah, I know. There was a backlash on that…

Gogol Bordello play December 29th to 31st at Brooklyn Bowl.