Eugene Hütz is no stranger to chaos and excitement in live music. As the frontman of the gypsy-punk collective Gogol Bordello, he wears dozens of hats — sometimes literally onstage, as well as metaphorically — from writing explosive, thought-provoking lyrics, to being executive producer on the band’s newest record, Seekers & Finders, as well as cranking up the energy of his audiences to feverish heights. On the eve of the band’s 2018 tour through North America, SF Sonic had a chance to talk to Eugene, in one of the rare moments that found him NOT dancing wildly onstage with his transcontinental cohorts.
SF Sonic: How has the tour been going so far?
Eugene Hütz: We’re starting [this leg of the tour]in Vancouver in two days. The first leg of the tour, that was from October to December. Needless to say, it’s always exciting to play new material to people, conjuring up new kinds of spirits.
SF Sonic: Do you find that, lately, you’ve had a lot more new things that you’re playing and you do less of old, or do you try and keep it a pretty even mix of things that are both old and new for your shows?
Hütz: Yeah, it’s more with that principle in mind, but, like… it really all is kind of left up to the moment before the show. I mean, it’s in the zone of mixing all the new, but, at the same time it’s really — the moment is the chief, really. So, I always kind of like to write the setlist right before the show.
SF Sonic: OK. So you plan it out that day, as opposed to, like, picking a set of songs you’re gonna do for any stop on the tour, but you let the day and the night dictate what you’re gonna do?
Hütz: Oh, I’m talking about like five minutes before the show. I’m talking about THAT kind of moment.
SF Sonic: Oh wow, OK! That’s pretty fantastic.
Hütz: Yeah! Spontaneity is a pretty important part of it all. Without spontaneity, it would be just… not really that thing. It would not be art, and it would not be soulful; it would be assembly-line.
SF Sonic: Yeah, I hear that.
Has that always been pretty consistent with the way that you approach shows, or the way that you and Gogol Bordello have the message and mission of the band — has that message and mission stayed consistent with the spontaneity and such, or has it changed over time since like, days when you’d play in smaller clubs vs. much bigger tours and bigger venues, and as time has gone on and the band has shifted?
Hütz: Spontaneity was always the flame that I had fought to preserve, despite like, y’know, the kind of regimen of the music industry. I mean, you have a lot more freedom when you’re in the D.I.Y. level. Then again, you have a lot more financial freedom once you’re OUT of the D.I.Y. level. So, the key is to preserve that initial flame of spontaneity, because that’s really where everything else is — that’s where the soul is. If you can protect that and keep that uncorrupted, then you — that’s the biggest payoff.
Rock and roll music, and jazz, and all cross-pollinations of these modern kinds of music, is really quite spontaneously-driven. Look at the people who invented rock and roll: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley. It was all about packing the moment with a very… exploding the moment through catharsis of momentum, and just kind of letting your soul fire come through the means of the song.
SF Sonic: You mentioned a transition a moment ago: When you started out, things were very DIY, and the spontaneity and the way that the moments changed were kind of more focused in DIY. When you changed labels, or were more financially successful, then you could change tactics. What would you say were some big, significant changes that you found when that happened to you?
Hütz: Well, at the core it remains to be very much hands-on, very controlled by our operation — I mean, we never handed it over to anybody. So, that’s really, my personal belief, the way to do it: stay hands-on. That never really changed. One of the biggest things that impacted our lifestyle with more success is what we were able to do in our time off. We
had a lot more freedom to spend our time off, and our time away from
touring, in a very much more dream-fulfilling kind of way.We had a lot more freedom to spend our time off and time off tour in a very much more dream-fulfilling kind of way. So, there was like a whole period of years where, as soon as the tour was over, Pedro would go back to Ecuador, and Thomas would go to Ethiopia, and Elizabeth would go to Italy where she was living at the time, and I would go to Brazil, and Sergio would go to Ukraine. And it was like that for a good number of years, and that really became something like a trans-continental lifestyle. We were living it and breathing it; if we were not traveling with the band, we were traveling otherwise.
So, that cup gets full, pretty significantly! But then the forces of nature led us back to regroup in New York City, again, which is the city of our focus, the city where we became a band, and got that initial recognition. Now in this mode, we have our camp set up back in New York City again, and we look at New York City with different eyes, with eyes we’ve filled with experiences worldwide, and once again appreciating it from a new way — a new perspective of it being this tremendous PowerPoint workshop.
SF Sonic: Do you feel like you have to do less of that everyone-breaking-off-in-their-own-directions, and now that you’re able to maintain a base camp in that area, then you can pick up and draw more from the culture in the area that you’re staying, and that contributes to your songwriting as a result?
Hütz: You can say that, but… hah! Anything contributes to the song, for us. It’s really an ongoing process that never stops, so. Another thing that really helps: being able to tour in a significantly better comfort allows you to have a lot of creative time ON tour. So it’s not only limited to playing shows, and, that’s all you do. The tour becomes a whole different animal. We always have a theme for our tours, it kind of goes on its own; for example, one tour can be focused on the artwork of a particular painter. The last tour we were going on to museums of Europe, and hitting all the art exhibitions that were available. That kind of becomes the theme of the tour. Or it can be more of a “let’s all get off the vegan-and-vegetarian kick, and let’s get busy with Spanish chorizo again” kind of tour!
These things kind of vary, and it literally seems that no tour was ever the same. That allows for the tour to be a creative laboratory, also. Kind of a big tradition of ours is that we get a lot of creative work done on tour. Our soundcheck is not a soundcheck, it’s a rehearsal, a full two-hour rehearsal. By the time people come to see the show, they’re actually seeing Part Two of the movie already. That’s all really the benefits of having tour preparation running on this more professional, put-together level. There’s always enough chaos that’s gonna find its way into your traveling life, but being pros after a while really helps!
SF Sonic: You kind of have that sense of security; you’re able to do your art, carry the message and the shows and things like that, and things that would be hiccups along the way of the tour — transportation, etc. Are those less concerns, now that you’ve reached the higher level of touring financially, which allows you to concentrate more on the show and the art that you do on the tour?
Hütz: Exactly! Absolutely!
SF Sonic: When you talk about the themes of the tour, and the other projects and the other art that you do — are those things that happen within the band itself, like the moments during the day and such, or are those moments and concepts that you bring into performance (speaking to the crowd between songs, what you do on stage, etc.)?
Hütz: I don’t really orchestrate it in any particular way. I think it just evolves on its own, really — it really does! I think everything in this world is subject to various transformations from start positions, and I think we’re just pretty in-tune with all these various moods. In a way, it’s easier to see that evolve in a group of people. When a group of people gets together — like in our band, for sure — the subconscious decides what page we’re on, and the theme evolves out of that. If the majority of people resonate with a particular theme, it’s just gonna go that way — you know what I mean? That’s one of the greater things, also, about operating as a group.
SF Sonic: You were saying earlier that you work with the group and let the energy dictate how the shows and tour are going to go, and don’t orchestrate it in that case. What I am curious about is -: for this last record, you WERE the executive producer. What was it like to do that — did you orchestrate it, or just kind of let it go?
Hütz: Well, I’ve always co-produced everything. With whomever we were working with, I was very hands-on, and here it was the exact opposite — this is where you orchestrate. Live and studio are opposite, practically on the opposite sides of the spectrum; they’re very different horses to ride. I’m a night owl, and that also orchestrates a lot already on its own; the majority of people are not, so… This particular record evolved like that. I thought we were doing demos, and they were coming out so great that I started thinking “those are the takes,”, and by the time I realized that, we were 3/4ths of the way into the record, so, it just came out that way.
SF Sonic: So it still was a pretty organic process? You didn’t go into it thinking “this is the produced record,”, but it just kind of evolved out of that?
Hütz: Yeah! Once I realized that, I just drove it home. Once that became apparent, I just kind of did all the rest of the work and moved every inch of the mixing board along with our veteran sound man Frankie Lievaart — his involvement in this, too, is absolutely crucial. Once again, you can see how organic the whole thing is. There was not one single person hired from outside of the family business.
SF Sonic: It definitely feels like that, going through it!
Hütz: Yeah, for sure.
SF Sonic: For Seekers & Finders, I know that for the title track, you worked with Regina Spektor; what was that experience like?
Hütz: It was a pretty natural thing to happen after years of friendship. Beyond friendship in New York, we also share roots in Eastern Europe. As far as I can see, our band, her and us, are some of the only consistent people through the duration of time that are from New York and Eastern European. It was really just a matter of time. The song… I wrote it, actually, for my solo record, which was a record of duets that’s still in the works. But, I took it off that and looked at the song from a different angle, and showed it to her, and I was really excited that she liked that song. I think she took it to the next level, really.
She’s superbly musical and really, actually, built it up melodically, and emotionally, to a beautiful level. Once again, it’s a natural, organic unfolding of events. Essentially, it’s Eastern European people singing around a bonfire — that’s the spirit of it.
SF Sonic: So, it was an experience that you were used to; you two had that deep personal and cultural connection in that case, and so that’s why you were able to do that in this case, and why it was a very meaningful experience for you.
Hütz: Yeah! I mean, the song is also written in an Eastern European key, so it just kinds of unfolds as naturally as it is. So I think that I was pretty excited that we were doing that, and I think we got it right!
SF Sonic: You talked about the New York music scene — New York musicians with Eastern European roots — which is why you and Regina connected in that way. Are there other musicians that are in that scene, or in general, that you would like to work with in the future? Either on your solo record, or on Gogol Bordello songs?
Hütz: Yes, but at the same time, I don’t like to premeditate it for too long, you know? It seems that things always fall into place the way they need to fall into place, and if they don’t, then they don’t, and that’s fine, too. From my past experience, you’d be writing a conceptual album, and just when it’s ready to go and be recorded and you kind of have it all planned out perfectly, a whole other stream of material comes in out of nowhere, in literally a matter of hours, and sounds so much more overpowering than everything you’ve been constructing for the last six months, and you go and record THAT, and pray to the lord that THAT’s the record — and not the one that you were planning.
So, what do you say about that? Well, there’s works of creative mind, and then there’s works of creative soul, and they both have their turns, but creating work of the soul will always overshadow the works of any creative mind. So… sit back and wait for that cloud, or train, or whatever you call it, of metaphysical energy to arrive, and envigorate it when it does. That’s the soul thing right there!
SF Sonic: Well, it goes back to everything else you said — you let the few minutes before the show determine what you’re going to do for that show; you let the atmosphere of the tour determine everything. It feels like that same energy of spontanaeity and substance and letting the world take control and just GO, and that’s what drives everything.
Hütz: It’s not necessarily letting the world take control; it’s finding the dance rhythm with the world. It’s about that; it’s about precisely tuning into what is happening, and giving your best version of response — that’s really what it’s about.
SF Sonic: When people are coming to your shows, is the vision and message that you want people to take away from them the “finding the rhythm and the dance of the world,”, or something more specific? Aside from just being entertained and having fun, what kinds of feelings would you want people to take from your show?
Hütz: Well, let’s slow down a little bit here [*laughs]* I mean, it’s not like some people come to see us play, and they’ve never heard about, like, what art does. They already come pretty prepared for “what is in the range of my beat”, right? They come there for a particular experience of catharsis. And okay, so we have our special way of delivering and instigating that catharsis, or conjuring up particular humors and spirits. But I wouldn’t call it a method; that’s just kind of, like, pretentious talk. Life itself is having this moment; it’s a reminder to everybody that this is a pretty important part of life.
People have been dancing around fires since the cave age. There would be a guy who’s slightly more… eccentric? in the tribe, who would guide everybody around the fire, and get everybody to work to feel a lot better, to say like, “Hey, something happened, I think we let all the demons out, and… I think the stars are brighter now, everybody’s eyes are sparkling…” People know what this is. Whatever brand you keep on it is kind of irrelevant; what IS relevant is how authentic it is, how essentially uncorrupted it is. That’s really the gist of it.
SF Sonic: And, in the various years, whether you’ve changed record labels, or done different things because of new financial chances and things like that, havehow you ever felt that you’ve gotten any kind of pushback or pull, where you don’t get to communicate the full extent of what you want to communicate? HaveHow you ever felt any forces that have hampered that, and if so, have you been able to shrug them off and keep going, so that the energy and catharsis, as you’ve said before, still gets shown at your concerts?
Hütz: I think it’s the most important thing, yes, and you have to really protect that flame. Without it, without protecting that flame, I mean, people sometimes get seduced into this idea of the “winning formula;”; like “why fix something that ain’t broken?,”, but “formula” by itself is already broken. Any big “formula” is absolutely counterproductive, a lack of the soul; the soul is always transforming and responding. I’m very well aware of, and I respect, the artists and bands that somehow stuck it out doing the same thing for, like, fifty50 years — we all know who they are — and they actually come across as, and they are, very iconic in their quality, but I feel like possibly they’re just doing it out of spite, you know what I mean? I personally don’t know ANYthing like that. I don’t know how it’s possible to have a career like that, you know?
That’s why I never recorded a similar album twice. There were numerous changes in lineup, and we all recorded in different places, from heavy urban settings, to tropical, to desert, and that’s really what it’s about. Some records we’d done… Our previous record we did in El Paso was done very fast — it was actually recorded in two weeks! It was really like, showing up and being like “hey, we’re a bunch of pros, so, let’s knock it out,”, and delivering it like that, and being like “Wwow, it can work like that!” At the same time, the last record we did took two years. It’s that drastically different — and that’s fine, that’s great! The record in the desert, in Texas, we would be up at 9:30, 10 in the morning, all spiffily — with, like, bow ties in the studio, you know? — at like, 10:30, 11am. This one, obviously, we’d rarely come in the studio before 6, 7 PM. So, like, it’s that drastically different — the spark of life, as you say!
SF Sonic: I think it’s awesome to be able to do that; it’s exciting to know that you carry that and the band carries that, and that it’s still a thing, as long as Gogol has been going. You still drive that — “gonna let things take shape, gonna let the record and show come together in the way that it does.”. Like you said, you don’t stick to formulas or anything like that, it’s the mindset of “put every fiber of the soul and passion into this,”, and that’s what really brings life to it all.
Hütz: Yeah, I think that goes for just about anything you do in life; say you’re a chef, or an architect, or any kind of artist, or anything! The principleal must be the same. The difference, I think, is… people onstage are demonstrating it in a more visible, exhibitionistic way, for easier access for everybody else — it’s a more common way for people to be reminded if it, you know?
SF Sonic: Now that we live in the “Information Age,”, and it’s easy to record a song and put it on SoundCloud, or record a video and put it on YouTube, there’s less barriers than going from the art that you have in your mind and your soul, to actually getting it out so that people can experience it. Do you feel that there’s been more spontaneous, soulful art coming out of that, or do you feel that YOU’VE been able to embrace things more, since things are able to move more quickly that way?
Hütz: That’s… wow. That’s a very interesting question! Pretty much… I think we’re all in the process of figuring that out all together. It’s also very different for different generations experiencing that, you know? There was a time in 2000, 2001, 2003, I was the most technological kid on the block, jamming from equipment that nobody ever saw. I invented Twitter before Twitter was even there — I had my own Twitter! As a DJ, in my backpack, I carried a small printer and a computer, and I would print out flyers with, like, information of where I’ll be in two hours from now. And I’d have a friend or somebody I’d hire for, like, 50 bucks, go and pass the flyers around the Lower East Side, and we could have two, three, four gigs every night. You know what I mean — keeping people alert to where my DJing was — the following was that strong, in those who were pursuing us. And the equipment I was using was completely ahead of its time.
Now — I couldn’t give a shit less about any of this! There is Twitter, there is also the deal where you can record sitting on a plane, flying from London to New York. And my interest isn’t there; it just doesn’t interest me at all. Different things excite me, you know? So, I don’t know what people find to be so… They might just be burning through state of conquering technology and thinking that’s the most exciting thing in the world. I don’t! I think it’s quite an awesome place, and I use a lot of it, but I certainly don’t thrive on it.
I write lyrics non-stop, but I’m pretty much best writing with a pencil and stacks of paper. Even traveling — just the experience of punching numbers and letters and seeing them on the screen, I feel that something is ODD about it. It doesn’t help the flow of my psyche. It’s OK, I’ve done it; a lot of the songs were written on a BlackBerry, while I was in Brazil in a botanical garden or whatever, or in some kind of backwoods location. But… it’s not the same. I don’t know.
SF Sonic: Maybe it’s like… you had your tools when you were going from DJ gig to DJ gig, and that was exciting to you and ahead of its time; now that it’s ubiquitous and everywhere, it’s maybe less exciting. But I get what you’re saying about when you write something by hand, and are penning out the lyrics on pen and paper, there’s more a physical connection that way. Do you think that’s because it’s taking the physical effort to actually inscribe the words and everything, and that’s why you have a deeper connection to it than typing on a computer or a BlackBerry?
Hütz: Well, I actually said all that there is to say about it in a song that came out about ten years ago — “Wanderlust King”. The problem is, people really kind of experience their entire life as an echo of life, a shadow of life; it’s what their perception of life has become. They have more reference to a tree from a screen, than an actual tree; they’re never surrounded by actual trees, let alone CLIMBING trees.
So that’s all fine and dandy, until one day something as simple as, like… your car breaks down, you’re in the middle of Canada, in February, and your girlfriend is freezing to death, and then you just realize that nothing you’ve encountered in your life has ever given you any tools to deal with this situation — so, what do you do then?
SF Sonic: I remember reading an article where someone said “I always want to buy the best things, so that they’ll never break,”, whereas as you said, if you never work your way through having things break and finding out how to fix them, you won’t know how to fix it yourself. So you need to have a similar life experience that way; you need to live life in order to deal with those situations.
Hütz: Exactly. That’s exactly it!
Gogol Bordello played at The Fillmore on February 27 and 28, 2018. Read the SF Sonic review of one of these concerts here.
Photos by Jeff Spirer.