Eugene Hütz discusses Descartes, Eastern European roots, and the band’s new album
It’s been almost two decades since gypsy punk rockers Gogol Bordello released their debut record Voi-La Intruder. Since then the band has built a massive worldwide following and released a string of genre creating albums.
The band’s newest effort, Seekers and Finders, finds them digging even deeper into their own philosophical findings. From disagreements with Descartes to their exploration of mysticism and personal roots, the album finds the band challenging themselves and fans to look deeper.
Musical director and lead singer Eugene Hütz has spent his time exploring the world. Born in the Ukraine, he arrived in the United States in 1992 after a long journey through Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy. Recently he lived for a few years in Brazil, but it’s New York that he calls home, and it’s on the trip home where his projects come together.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Hütz to discuss Descartes, his Eastern European roots, and the new Gogol Bordello album.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your new album Seekers and Finders. Just to start, how’s the mood in camp, are you nervous, anxious, excited?
Eugene Hütz: That’s the thing, people ask me if I get nervous when I go onstage, and I don’t. Do I get anxious when an album comes out? No. First time I stepped on stage it was as if I stumbled into Ali Baba’s cave, with belly dancers and halogen lamps hanging from the ceiling. And the same thing here. It’s certainly exciting, very exciting for a an album to come out. It’s a piece of you life and you’re sharing that with the world, but it’s more of a feeling of fulfillment. I already filled the vessel.
Music comes through the otherside. You are peeking through the keyhole, who’s there? It can be quite scary, it can be bewilderingly joyous. You open up the situation, and you choose one way to do or another and you fulfill that situation after all that everything sort of takes on a life of its own. But as far as my participation with an album, the marriage is completed, and it’s in full swing.
CF: As I understand, the album was written during your time in three different continents. Do you find your environment affects the music you create because you said, “It all comes together as soon as you get back to New York.” I was wondering why does it all come back together here?
EH: Actually to be more accurate, it comes together even more so on the plane to New York. That I can’t really explain. Maybe because it is a fact that I write a lot up in the air and maybe something happens where you’re kind of disconnected from the earth, so you are physically/geographically in a higher sphere, I don’t know. But I’ve noticed that a lot of things that come together in a winning way, it happens up in the air. One of the reasons I’m not so opposed to flying. I hardly ever sleep on a plane, I don’t. I always write on a plane.
I think because New York is kind of my biggest home in the world. Historically the longest time I’ve ever lived in one place is New York City, even though it’s only a total amount of 13 years, but it’s like, “I’m going home.” And on the plane, home it kind of happens for me like I’m the long gone son coming home, and that’s when it sort of opens up. I might be in Malaysia or Greenland, it all happens on the plane home.
CF: “Saboteur Blues” takes on the philosophy of Descartes, and the whole “I think therefore I am.” How do you manage to stay in the present and how how do you feel about the Sarte response, “I am therefore I think?”
EH: I am surprised that both of those phrases are still relevant. I always kind of doubted their relevance because if you ask me it is more like, thinking and memory are certainly very important in human operation, but it’s definitely not the greatest force there is. I think that from my own experience that I perceive, I feel, therefore I’m responsible is more of a vital equation. Responsible meaning, kind of a hidden almost forgotten meaning of that word, which is response-able. So responsibility is sort of always a strange half-religious complex or something that’s laid on people, but it’s actually your ability to respond in an uncorrupted way. The more I looked around, I felt that’s where the vitamins of life are. Maybe it’s a little too ambitious to try and sum up all the sophism and Eckhart Tolle and all history of mysticism in a pop song, but those are the kind of challenges I like to take on [laughs].
Like how do you write a f***ing sophisticated song for a f***ing Warp Tour [laughs]. How do you f***ing get that to these guys [laughs]? You almost can’t, but then maybe you can, and it’s not because we are some great bunch of guys who are going to bring some kind of message. It’s not because of that. It’s because it’s exciting to bring these people a message that is so obscure for them, but while it is so much more elevating than where they’re at [laughs].
Being in the moment is, of course, easier said than done. Even though I am from Eastern Europe, and some people also consider it to be third world, but it is still quite influenced by basically Byzantine Empire, maybe not at the moment, but it’s still tentacles of Vatican, it’s still predominantly West Europe influenced. So it is counterintuitive for us to be in the moment, like it is for Eastern teaching, but I think the effort of that is quite worthy, and music is sort of a doorway into being able to vibrate and transform into that modality, you know?
CF: Yeah. You are interacting with music in the moment, and it’s a discussion that immediately interacts with you…
EH: … It’s so instant that you will find… I’m sure all musicians had that experience where all their friends are painters and actors and other sorts of other arts are just full on black magic satin jealous of musicians’ instant gratification. It’s just blanked and it’s like that [laughs].
CF: You team up with Regina Spektor on title track “Seekers And Finders”. How did the collaboration come about – I know you two have known each other for awhile – and what made her the perfect fit for the track?
EH: Actually it been way more than a little while [laughs]. So it was almost kind of amusing that it has only happened now because living in New York City and being in a bubble of artists and bands that got successful around the same time and having only one Eastern European kindred spirit in the scene, I’m surprised we didn’t get to it 10 years ago. That factor is quite strong because I feel like we both certainly embrace New York City as a chief home, but the factors of like Eastern European particularities and attachment to this kind of Eastern European melancholic emotional message is quite something to hold onto. Out of a million people, those two that have that, they will peek out of the crowd and see each other.
I was finishing the song and I thought this kind of sums up this whole Eastern European soul condition goes global, and I thought, Yeah, this needs to be spoken from several point of views. And it needs to be somebody who understands not only post immigration trauma, but post war trauma. Because we were all born and raised with people in our family with bullet wounds, and you could see them in arms and legs of your grandmothers and grandfathers, so it’s like “Wow! If that would only be like five centimeters over, I would not be here.” That kind of thing is like scratching the surface of Eastern European bond. So I thought, It has to be someone who understands all of this stuff, because the song kind of dictates characters like that who stand behind it.
It’s very heavy stuff, like death is actually life affirming, that kind of thing. It just occurred to me that Regina has all of those qualities. I wasn’t going to backpack to Uganda to find a person when that person was right there. We do our best to meet up, to keep our dinner club going between the tours because we are a small group of Eastern European musicians and artists here. So I showed her the song and I was really excited that she liked it. In fact I think that she elevates the song because when I sing, I don’t know if you can really hear the melody. I’m just a different kind of singer. You can hear other things, but maybe melody is not… I can write great melodies, but for you to know I wrote a great melody it’s going to take Regina Spektor to sing it [laughs]. It is one of those situations I have to deal with constantly. It’s quite possible I’d be a greater writer for other people.
CF: You touched on immigration for a second. Right now there is quite a lot going on with the Ukraine and the U.S.. How do you view the role of the artist in these complex times?
EH: One of my main shaping artists, someone that was influential to me, Youssef Boiz, German sculptor, who decided he was going to be a sculptor while he was in a plane crash, like peeking into the f***ing flying to crash and die into the f***ing soil, decided to be an artist in that situation.
CF: That’s quite life affirming…
EH: Well death is quite life affirming. Everything is quite life affirming if you think about it because life consists of light and dark matter interaction. Consequently, dark matter is pretty life affirming. People in the west somehow don’t see it. People in the east see it more, but getting back to what we were talking about… Artist takes a very important role in shaping political spirit of the times. There is no doubt about it. But he does it not through necessarily some kind of slogans and political proverb. Artist is coming from another dimension. Artist’s job becomes on of warming up the heart, and warming up the heart means cutting through the chains, cutting through the thinking, cutting through the political agendas. It is cutting through all pragmatic sides of humanity and hacking into their heart and warming the heart up.
From there we are going back to I perceive therefore I’m here. We are coming back to I perceive therefore I’m responsible. Instead of, “I think therefore I am.” That’s a very one eyed f***ing way of being. In that way artists can really have tremendous impact. You will often find that a particular artist can be quite dubious in his political statements, yet his work will have this very stimulating impact. Look at Dennis Hopper. I feel off the chair when I found out that Dennis Hopper was a republican. How can that be? I don’t know the answer to the question, yet his work, his body of work, is winding toward something very exploratory and it was pushing people towards self-exploration and facing their own demons.
CF: Throughout your career we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
EH: I don’t have that kind of an issue with forgetting why I’m doing this. Actually it is not really important for me to remind myself why I do this. It’s cellular level. It’s just the way I am, a natural propeller. It seems to propel other people around me, so I don’t really question that mechanism. What I do notice is that the propeller is kind of a way of agin my soul. A lot of times people seem to roughly divide humanity into old souls and young souls. There are a lot of different gradations of souls. There’s maturing souls and adolescent souls and sort of teenage souls and you can be 95 years old, but be an adolescent soul because you haven’t gone the milage, emotional milage.
I kind of think I’m in a certain groove of transitioning from mature soul to older soul. Consequently, the experience I’m drawing upon are from that league. It is not something I decided to do, it’s the way it is. It’s the way it unravelled. You can see an assemblage in the band. Something is keeping us together, and I believe it’s that kind of soul affinity. I really appreciate that factor. I feel only pity for the bands or any kind of organization where people have to take separate cars to get to the stage or that kind of thing. Our band, even though I have virtuosos in my band, which is, I am certainly outside of that league, but I do have tremendous musicianship in my band. It is really only Pedro and I, our percussionists player, who share that like, you could see us in Brazil rapping. We have that quality. The rest of the band they don’t have that quality. They are musically too far well trained, so we kind of shake up their apple cart, and we absorb all the nutrients they have. As a kind of a musical director of the band, I direct all those streams. It’s almost sort of like a complementary relationship. We’re all aging our souls into something more diamond like. Maybe to other people it still looks like cactus, but I feel like we’re going for a diamond, or maybe a diamond cactus [laughs]. Definitely a hybrid, the word hybrid has been a big friend of ours.
In general, the word experience kind of stands out in what we do, and I think in fact it is one of the big delineators why it magnetizes people is that we have lived it, breathed it, preached it, practiced it kind of approach. Some of my stuff is taken out of fringes of obscure imagination. I think what propels it is actually the idea of transmuting the experience and probably one of the magnetizing denominators is right now for young, all the kids who keep discovering Gogol Bordello, is precisely because of this. Because it is getting more and more difficult to access actual experience because your experience is “like”, heart button on your f***ing phone. With all the appreciation of technology that is quite obvious, but when that becomes your predominant experience, that is all great and dandy until you have to climb a tree or drive a car through a desert or a jungle, some s*** like that, which at some point in your life will happen. Your life is not going to sum up clicking the heart or not. Somewhere in there you are going to have to use your heart. It’s f***ing amazing to be on the intersection of these civilizations that are happening right now.
We’re kind of broadcasting from the intersection of these civilizations. We were like able to be in that space and time where we caught the last call of characters, a world driven by characters, and we are observing the world driven by this compartmentalized uniformity. I think it’s quite obvious what we are siding with. Somehow people need to, and I believe they will, discover their way to their uniqueness, that every psyche is unique. They will have to power off all these accessorized and ready made and pre manufactured world and still end up discovering who they really are. We are just one of the helpful tools that is out there for that.