Eugene Hütz: “Music can still be such a healer”

The Gogol Bordello frontman tells us about performing in Ukraine and the band's inherent ethos – with a few lessons in punk rock history along the way

Born in New York but with Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Latin America and beyond in their blood, Gogol Bordello have always embodied the communal nature of punk rock. Boyarka-born singer Eugene Hütz has been at its helm ever since the group began in 1999, and his charisma and intense energy has played no small part in the band’s consistent demand at festivals and on the international touring circuit. His outspoken love for punk rock even got him a gig as a celebrity tour guide at Las Vegas’ Punk Rock Museum in April.

As Gogol Bordello head to the UK for performances at Bearded Theory and Slam Dunk festivals, Hütz sits down with us to discuss returning to his homeland to perform in solidarity with Ukrainian soldiers, while giving us our own private tour of New York’s punk rock history.

Fire on Ice Floe - Gogol Bordello

You were recently a tour guide in The Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas. How do you think you fared?

I thought it was a very well put together composition and exhibition. They had everything from hardcore to post-punk and post-hardcore and on to the global influence of punk and all the way up to the current flag carriers. Yeah, I had a blast because I’m a f*cking nerd from hell as far as punk history goes. I spent more time in some exhibitions than others, you know, but I was so on fire talking that my tours went way over time. I’d still be two thirds through the tour when they were running downstairs to tell me that the next group was waiting. I didn’t even have the time to chill out in the bar. I basically just had to talk about punk rock for 10 hours a day. What else is f*cking new, you know? It’s what I’ve been doing among my friends and various other enthusiasts my whole life.

You’re an expert on punk. But then of course you also played a guide in Everything Is Illuminated. Did you ever have Alex in mind when you were preparing it all?

Haha! That thought passed through my mind. But, you know, I thought that was gonna be possibly too cute? Cute I don’t do.

If you wouldn’t mind being our guide for a moment… Gogol Bordelo came to be around the turn of the millennium in a city that was about to become the capital of indie rock guitar music, with bands such as The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. What was the punk scene like in the city when you started out around that time?

I think that’s kind of a fragmented perspective. All of that was happening at the same time and if you were there there was no division between those scenes, because we essentially created our own scene, which is the only way I ever knew, you know?

That scene was also all inclusive of all the others. I mean, we were playing on the same bill with Speedball Baby, which had a psychobilly vibe, more of a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion-influenced punk rock, but then at the same time we’d be on same bill with Swans and The cows, which was just crazy f*cking post-punk and post-hardcore. It was a very fertile scene, and it was so diverse, which is what I loved about it. We’d DJ after parties and everyone would turn up, from Manu Chau to Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We all knew each other before Gogol Bordello. I was DJing in the city for a year before the band even existed. The cluster of old school, new school, mid school artists was just naturally happening. You’d have people Kid Congo Powers and The Cramps and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Bands like !!! and Liars… all that was happening at same time. In fact, The Strokes were probably the last thing that anybody would have thought about in that scene. That was like the exported idea of what’s up in New York; that was nobody’s business who was already there [laughs]!

Yeah, well that was definitely a Londoner’s perspective of what was happening in New York I think. Over 20 years on now, what’s the punk scene like these days? How’s it changed?

I think the filter of “who’s who” and “who’s made out of what” brought out a vitality in the hardcore scene. That was my main scene, the one I was most heavily immersed in since I moved to the States. For the kids in my crew it was all about Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law and Mad Bull and Sick Of It All and Fugazi and Shelter and Gorilla Biscuits, you know? And then on to post hardcore. What I’m saying is that scene naturally surpassed all the tests of time and brought up new badass bands like Turnstile and GEL and Scowl. The hardcore scene is kind of the epicentre of DIY punk rock.

In fact, if we could rewind back to The Punk Rock Museum, one of the things that I was psyched about is that in a room full of The Stooges and MC Five, there was also quite a few things on no wave, which for me was always a huge inspiration. New York no wave has definitely been another huge factor for me, for one reason or another. New York music was always calling me out. I was seeking it, and it was seeking me. Bands like Sonic Youth and Suicide, the CBGB stuff, as diverse as they were, they always had some kind of frequency that was always just so inviting for me. They made me feel like I was in the right place at the right time.

From shows in New York, then, to shows in Ukraine, where you played a show in a military location last summer. Tell us a bit more about that day.

The whole escapade was a week. We played with soldiers who are musicians, who were all actually incredible musicians. Being able to contribute in such a tangible way, besides fundraising and press – especially me being from Ukraine – I just felt there’s more to be done. And until I saw their eyes, the defenders, light up from the music, I was not in peace. Only at that hour of eye-to-eye connection, I got to a point where I knew that I was fully on the track that I needed to be on. It was also probably the highest prize you can receive as a musician, when this soldiers’ band asked if they can play your songs, if they can keep playing them in their repertoire, as they keep cruising the circle of frontlines and talking about combat rock. To see that your music can serve that much purpose, outside of any kind of charts, archives or YouTube. And of course after that we went and did concerts in refugee hubs for the Romani community, because I already had the connection there from previous trips. It was a great confirmation that music is still capable of being such a healer.

Yeah, from over here it often feels like small signs of support, from putting a flag in your window to going to a benefit concert can sometimes feel so small and insignificant in the grand scheme of what’s happening. But you’ve been eager to tell the world that even the smallest things give some comfort. That’s really reassuring to hear.

I mean, everything counts. Every positive comment counts, because there are so many layers in this struggle. Those that can do big things, do big things, and those that can do only do small things, please do not feel small. Just do it. At this point, it’s just really about getting it done. It’s difficult enough as it is, so if you can provide any kind of help by putting your emotions into something practical, please do so.

Has playing there affected your attitude to live performances at all? Your shows are infamous for being raucous, high-octane and cathartic experiences for your fans, but is there also a balance of paying respect now?

Here’s the thing, probably what always set Gogol Bordello apart is that you got a feeling it was all coming from a real place. It almost has a documentary dimension, and not only because this is the music of immigrants who travel the immigrant way. If we sing about a refugee camp, it means that I was in a refugee camp. I am from Ukraine. I grew up with parents with bullet wounds in their hips and their shoulders. This is not some cinematic experience. Those real life dangers were already encoded in our music just by who we are. I mean, Pedro [Erazo] is from Ecuador and he emigrated when the military police were on every f*cking corner. All those topics of perseverance, through wartime or through growing up in a dictatorship, really comprises the original DNA of Gogol Bordello. That’s where we came from.

You mentioned Fugazi earlier on, and you include a cover of ‘Blueprint’ on Solidaritine. What was it about that song that made you want to include it?

Whatever my upbringing was like in Soviet Ukraine, I was already in a punk and hardcore scene. I responded to that music because it just spoke to me, because of its class elements. In the States, mostly it was intellectual kids from the outskirts, or, you know, from some kind of troubled walk of life, but there were also sons of millionaires or rich girls who wanted to be punks. But back in Ukraine, the scene didn’t have any diversity like that. It was just kids who were from anti-Soviet families, flocking together, but they were all working class. I mean, even if they were families with teachers and professors, everybody was making about the same amount of money – which was no money. So I walked into the punk rock scene and they instantly befriended me, and it’s been like that ever since.

So in a way, as punk rock culture became global, it served as a kind of a cultural, humanitarian corridor. ‘Blueprint’ is one of those eloquent, timeless songs that has an absolutely essential message spelled out in a simple and unforgettable way. “Never mind what’s been selling/ It’s what you’re buying.” It’s something from Pre-Socratic times that goes right into the golden age of disinformation. Those two lines are instrumental for survival. Heraclitus is one of my favourite philosophers, and he’s always harping on about people being unable to exercise any kind of cause and effect. That we’re all easily manipulated by the stupidest sh*t possible. And that was when people were surviving in a very under-informed world. Fast forward to now, where people are over-informed – and that Fugazi line still remains to be. It’s like your survival kit: don’t think that somebody else is going to do it for you.

You have a long standing tradition of playing New Year’s Eve shows in Brooklyn. Are you the kind of person who sets yourselves resolutions? Or do you just try and take each day as it comes?

Nothing stays the same. Just when you figure it out, the world changes, there’s some kind of quantum leap. And if the world isn’t changing, then you might be changing. The things that worked for you when you were 25 are not necessarily going to work for you when you’re 35. As somebody once said: “if you’re not embarrassed by the sh*t that you were doing a year ago, you’re f*cking sleeping!” [laughs]. So that that’s my vibe. The new plateau is always evolving. And you get to tap dance, but you get to figure out your dance on one particular plateau for a little while.

Luckily, I do enjoy that process of cracking the case and learning new language and discovering new technology or letting go. Letting go of the things that I thought were instrumental. So, yeah, I like the feeling of work in progress. I think that’s a good working balance to have; understanding that it is all one big f*cking work in progress. I mean, nobody ever saw the same Gogol Bordello show twice, because it was never supposed to be like that.

Gogol Bordello play Bearded Theory and Slam Dunk festivals 25 & 27 May – find tickets here