Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz on Their New Album, Ukraine, and the Struggles of Progress

Gogol Bordello is a gypsy punk rock band from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Lead singer and songwriter Eugene Hütz founded the band in 1999 when he moved to New York after being forced to evacuate Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Through stage theatrics, humor, and surreal costumes, Gogol Bordello tells the story of New York’s immigrant diaspora and are known for their incredible energy and passion. Though it is composed of several core members including Hütz, Pedro Erazo, Boris Pelekh, and Sergey Ryabtsev, the band is constantly rotating in new members, evolving with each release and tour.

Their newest album, Solidaritine, was produced by Lower East Side underground icon Walter Schreifels and released in September of 2022. The thirteen tracks advocate for solidarity and change amidst the chaos and difficulty of the past few years, and pose a poignant and raging response to the recent invasion of Ukraine.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Hütz over Zoom. While Solidaritine centered our conversation, we discussed Ukraine, the struggles of progress, band synergy, new projects, and much much more.

AllMusic: Could you tell me a little bit about how this album came to be?

Hütz: It’s like a remedy for all the tumultuous things that have been happening in the last couple years. It’s literally like a survival kit for the insanities and atrocities of what the world has been going through. Life was so much lighter, lighthearted, before Trump, before the pandemic, before the war in Ukraine. You look at group pictures of people together just some several years before that and look at the group pictures of people now and you can just see the cloud of, you know…. It’s trying times.

So art oftentimes comes to the rescue and this album kind of was initiated and set in motion by the batch of songs that were kind of old, dancing around topics of how to keep your anchor, your inner core, your center, in the middle of all this disinformational havoc that was thrown onto people just like in spades. During Covid… I don’t want to mention those topics, those topics are completely old and forgotten for me. Because then when the war in Ukraine started it brought in a whole other quest for solidarity and connecting people of good will who were not going to be spectators, but who were going to participate and ensure a Ukrainian victory.

AllMusic: You’ve been doing this for so long and talking about so many different topics with your music, how do you feel your fanbase has changed in that time or stayed the same?

Hütz: It didn’t change. As an all-inclusive band, as a band that’s been championing all-inclusivity from the get go, we’ve just been expanding our audience in all those ways. And it continues to be so.

AllMusic: I know there’s been many different members coming through in the time that Gogol Bordello has been a thing, what is it like to work with so many different musicians all the time. Does it change the energy of the album? And what do you see as the throughline through all the changes?

Hütz: Well most bands consist of three or four people, and so does Gogol Bordello, we have core members, which are unchangeable. Gogol Bordello is like a band with core members that has on top of that our revolving door of players and performers who, when they come in, have the understanding that that’s the nature of the band. It’s kind of a musical rubik’s cube. We’re constantly putting it together and dismantling it and putting it together again. That’s why we’ve gone on the same tour twice. Nobody’s seen Gogol Bordello twice in the same way. They are people who are part of Gogol Bordello’s extended family. There’s never any kind of auditioning or anything like that. It’s usually someone who already knows Gogol Bordello’s songs for one reason or another, whether it’s somebody who’s already played with us or jammed with us, or a close friend of somebody who is in the band.

The extended “familia” of Gogol Bordello is big in that way and everyone who joins us brings their unique synergy, brings their unique impact. I mean you can hear it from album to album, you can hear like the core of the band, and you can hear some new blood about it, on every record. They’re all actually quite drastically different. People who don’t see that, they’re not seeing Gogol Bordello. It’s actually drastically different from one to another. And that way of the band is kind of the key to its longevity. That way the core members are always excited about new synergy that the new players might bring in. And it kind of evens out to being like it’s always that thing, but it’s always a new version of that thing, which is exactly how we like it.

AllMusic: It makes for really very exciting music. I was going way back to your first album Voi-La Intruder, and there’s actually a lot of accordion on that. And that’s gone in this album, there’s much more fiddle on this one. So just watching the change in instrumentation is really exciting and engaging.

Hütz: Exactly. Thank you, it was never a plan, per se, to keep that variation going, but it is how it’s going and that’s kinda how we like it. And people who are appreciators of Gogol Bordello and they’ve been with us since… I think they develop the same taste for Gogol Bordello. There’s a certain solidity to it and the band has a lot of reliability, a reliable consistency quality in as far as energy and hyper-manic performance. I sometimes see online people arguing about how that album kicks that album’s ass or vice versa, but I welcome that too [laughs]. Things should be like this.

AllMusic: Do you feel like, when Covid was happening, were you disconnected from that fanbase and the connection you have with them?

Hütz: No. During Covid, we actually had an incredibly prolific time. It allowed for collaborations that were kind of impossible to do because of being so go-go-go and busy in previous years so we got a lot of music done. We collaborated with some of our favorite musicians who were always too busy to do this and released some music. Bringing Walter Schreifels in as producer to the album was also allowed because we were all just sort of chilling in NYC and we started talking about it. “Hey, listen, let’s make a record together.” Walter is a renaissance man in his own right, so no I actually think it allowed us to connect, it allowed more for connection that was usually hindered by going, going, going.

AllMusic: Do you think that when you were able to perform once again, you found a greater appreciation for the stage?

Hütz: Definitely. I was never not appreciating it, but I even found a greater appreciation for all those tasks on tour that people grow to hate [laughs]. Some of those elements of tour hustle, I just welcome them with an open heart. Just like, well if I’m going to have some stress that’s the best stress to have right there, that’s the kind of stress I want [laughs].

AllMusic: Earlier you said “hyper-manic performance.” Do you feel like that really comes from the band members or does it additionally have to be fueled by the crowd?

Hütz: It’s who we are. I mean audience is as important as… [pauses] Audience is the wood, we’re the fire. The band ignites the audience. And if the band doesn’t ignite the audience, the audience… it’s not going to happen [laughs]. There’s just going to be lots of smoke and murky waters. It’s who we are. I mean people in Gogol Bordello, all the core members are notorious for having energy that exceeds the usual standards. Right now we’re on tour and everybody’s as busy as it gets. I’m producing young bands in New York City and Pedro [Erazo] is out in Mexico on a DJ tour.

Last week we did three performances in the city including Carnegie Hall with an amazing lineup of New Order and boygenius and Laurie Anderson, just mind blowing performances, mind blowing lineup. And two days later we had a night with symphonic reinforcement for the Grammy Museum with a conversation moderated with my dear friend Jim Jarmusch. My favorite film director who has been my friend also for [pauses] since the early days of Gogol Bordello, and it was amazing to have him… to have a conversation with him about Gogol Bordello’s trajectory and his films at the same time and Gypsy music and mutual friends, like Iggy Pop and [famed tattoo artist] Jonathan Shaw. It was an amazing evening. And a day later I called Pedro about getting together to do some beats and he was like “yo man I’m in Mexico I’ll be back on the 20th.” [laughs] So that’s the vibe. It’s like an ongoing Hitzville.

AllMusic: For this album, were there a few influences you were focused on or really inspired by?

Hütz: I think this album actually was more about stripping away from influences. Influence is something [pauses]. I mean the word influences implies something like, that’s the flavor. This was more like digging into the essence. And the essence of Gogol Bordello is punk, post punk, hardcore… that’s the kind of the musical aesthetic that was fundamental for the band and it remains to be. Of course the band outgrew the punk smaller scenes of where it came from, outgrew long ago, but we feel home also there, when we go back there. This is where our friends are, this is where… a music that was fundamental for kind of, music like punk and hardcore was, I would consider to be more than influence.

I would consider it to be something that made so much of an impact that it turned into essence because that’s like, you know, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, that’s where your essence kind of gets distilled. This was like stripping away back to a great song. It’s all about great songs, in my personal philosophy. Any song needs to be still a great song if you do it just stripped down on guitar by the campfire. Kind of a corny analogy [laughs], but it works. So if it has that quality and then the immediacy and the energy… Does the band respond to this song in an immediate, synergetic way? And so you hear that in the songs. Everything you hear in the album is the third, fourth, or, maximum, fifth take of the song that the band ever performed together.

In part, that ease comes from kind of knowing what we’re doing in our own musical playground of gypsy-punk-rock which is like pretty abstract words for a pretty wide range [laughs]. But we kind of know what we’re doing in our own playground so we put things together pretty fast, and it has to be a great song immediately. Can the whole band jump into that song and bring in their parts, bring in their unforgettable touches? And when it is so, that is what you’re hearing. And the songs that don’t take on those wings [motions as if throwing something behind him]. They go back into the cooker, or they end up being elsewhere…. Some solo record or something like that.

AllMusic: Was there a lot of improvisation? Did you, and potentially other core members, come to the band with …. Like I saw your acoustic version of “Focus Coin” [played solo for I Know We Should video crew at Bar Freda in Ridgewood, Queens] Did you try to come with a basis [like that] and then build up from there and have the band add their touches, or was it a more holistic process?

Hütz: Well, since I was 14 or 15, I was starting out initially as a drummer, but I quickly switched to singing and writing for the bands since I was still in the punk scene in Ukraine. And I became the lead singer. I wanted to play drums [laughs], but somehow I ended up in front of the band, and quite quickly, like within one year. So, I kind of felt like I could write songs all day, which is what I do all day [laughs] in various shapes and forms. Whether I’m walking down the street or on a flight somewhere or out in Brazil somewhere or in Ukraine on a military base, supporting the troops. That’s always going, and I’ve accepted that that’s my path of life.

It seemed like nobody was questioning that either, the musicians that I was with, they were happily supporting that idea [laughs]. That Eugene was going to write songs and we’re going to play them. So I bring in the song while it’s already pretty tangibly ready. And then that’s when the band magic begins. That’s when Sergey and Pedro and Boris and the fundamental parts start growing. Some of those parts I come in with preconceived. Like “Okay this is the main riff so let’s get that to you in the song” but some of it transforms to some degree. But that’s why I say it has both things. I bring the lyrics and general structure of the song and when the band chimes in it becomes that thing that takes it to the next level, the band takes it to the next level. It becomes what you hear as Gogol Bordello. Blazing, scorching, crisping [laughs] and sizzling and all that.

AllMusic: You mentioned writing on a military base. What’s that like for you? To visit and support through your music?

Hütz: Oh I felt, when the war started, like the importance of a cultural front and the support from great artists that we join forces with, like Patti Smith and Primus and Ministry. And it was crucial. And I’m [just] naming bands here, but bands in Ukraine are a whole other story and more. People from Ukraine: Serhiy Zhadan, great ukrainian punk rocker and a novelist and a poet, and then there’s sort of a synth pop band called Kazka. They’re actually featured on the album, (the singer, she’s on it). So that was clear that our work was very necessary right now. It’s like music with purpose, but I felt like there’s perhaps something more we can do than just fundraising and cultural work.

I always felt like that’s something more that we can do, and that notion was satisfied when we got there and were playing for the troops that were just hard-fighting, badass motherfuckers. And I felt that perhaps the highest compliment to receive would be something that we heard there; when the band from the military said “Hey, you guys, after the show, do you think we can keep playing your songs, and put them in our repertoire? Because we’re going to keep touring the Ukraine and supporting the defendants, and people… this really boosts the mood and morale and the spirit.”

Actually five particular songs, “My Companjera,” “Forces of Victory,” “Pala Tute,” “Suddenly,” and “Teroborona” were written specifically for/in support of Territorial Defense Units that were formed from civilians to fight, to defend in the beginning of war. So you feel me? That’s something so moving to hear from people who are there who don’t have the option of getting tired of hearing about the war. It’s like they’re there to win it because that’s their only option, because that’s our roots, and it’s a really deep thing to hear when people say, “Hey we need that. That’s not entertainment. That’s something way beyond that.” So to be making art like that certainly feels … to be making art that has that kind of impact is definitely a pay off, and gratifying, incredibly gratifying to us as a band, and me as a writer.

AllMusic: In addition to that I think, especially here in the States, your music is doing a lot of work to wake people up a little bit more to what’s happening in Ukraine. So in so many ways, yeah, it feels like you’re doing such important work with your music that, like you said, goes well beyond the entertainment level.

Hütz: Thank you. I mean I think a lot of music is intended actually to be that and I think a lot of artists aim to do that, but I think in times like this where people either really really latch on to certain music as their rescue floating device, or they don’t. I think those are the times where it kind of Stands out, you can tell what’s made with what intention.

AllMusic: Definitely. For example, like “Take Only What You Can Carry” was one of my favorites from the album. Were you inspired by some of your own experiences being a refugee or was it in addition to all the refugees who are forced to flee Ukraine right now?

Hütz: I’m actually glad that you brought that song up because this is exactly that synergetic collab of three Ukrainian, four Ukrainian, artist entities. It’s Gogol Bordello, it’s Future’s Serhiy Zhadan, the person who I mentioned to you earlier, punk rocker, novelist, and poet, who’s actually in New York right now for two weeks. We’re doing a theater production together about [the] Ukrainian Jazz scene in the 20s which was eradicated by you-know-who, once again, the Moscovite dictatorship. And he as a poet, as a person who is from East Ukraine where most of the– where all the warfare has taken place, he wrote a poem about being uprooted. [He says the poem’s name in Ukrainian which I unfortunately can’t find untranslated] is very tight wordsmith work here in our native tongue. “Take Only What You Can Carry” is the translation. It’s a little more, sounds a little bit more pragmatic, because American English is a very pragmatic language [laughs].

The poem was translated into English to become this song, to become the lyric of Gogol Bordello. Then we featured Sasha [Oleksandra “Sasha” Zaritska] from Kazka on it, who just flew in from Ukraine at that time (also completely shocked from the war) to do fundraising work here. And the video was shot by all Ukrainian people…DP [director of photography], cinematographer, and all the volunteers who participated on the video. It was an all Ukrainian effort, so it was actually quite amazing.

And it was all put together in one day. One day on the bridge in New York to film and recorded also in one day, in an all Ukrainian studio, Atlantic Studios in Brooklyn. So now I’m counting 5, 6, and 7, and 8, 9 and more Ukrainian entities and businesses who chimed in in making that. And I just wanted to say how incredibly powerful that poem of Zhadan’s is. Because it is literally the only time when I wrote a song—out of hundreds of songs I have written—this is the only time when I’ve felt that this is an already made lyric for Gogol Bordello. Let’s translate it, let’s soak together in this collaboration that’s a real collaboration. And those are really, really powerful, alarming lyrics and it turned out… made for a really really powerful alarming, from experience, song. And of course I do have experience of being uprooted. So it was kind of deeply entangled, and that cluster of entanglement is what you’re hearing.

AllMusic: I think that definitely shows, I mean it is just such a moving and powerful song, like everything you said. And that’s really interesting that that’s the only song you’ve ever done that with. I mean I think it goes to show how powerful your own words are. I called that one out specifically, but I found myself quite inspired by all of the songs on the album.

Hütz: Thank you, thank you.

AllMusic: Could you talk a little bit about the funds for Ukraine that you’re making from this album and where they’re going?

Hütz: Well, I mean fundraising doesn’t really stop in one kind of avenue. There’s big and small things we do all the time. It’s not like… some people are able to do one certain project and they say, “Okay, we got 70,000 people, raised 30,000 dollars for humanitarian aid for Ukraine” because they had one project. In our case, there are so many big and small things that are going on, we’d have to hire a whole team to manage those affairs. And that’s not really what we do. The very first benefit we did for Ukraine, like a year ago, we gathered a quarter million dollars then, so it’s like that was a year ago that was the beginning. Here, even when we’re off tour, new things come up right here in the neighborhood. A new organization that we try to help a lot is Kind Deeds which brings wounded soldiers from Ukraine and helps them to gain mobility here with prosthetics. It’s a really, really amazing project.

We meet those guys who came from the battlefield essentially with missing arms and missing legs and go meet them and do fundraisers for them. I mean just last week we did two. Some things happen without even Gogol Bordello being there, like organizing it with younger bands. I’ll go and DJ, do an acoustic song, or organize the event. Just last week through efforts with several young artists, like people who are literally playing their first gigs in the city, we raised like 7,000 dollars right here in a small club. So it’s kind of like an ongoing thing, and I would say that the album is not really a centerpiece of it. It’s just like one of the things that helps along.

Plus all the collaborations that are going. I’m super excited to say that I just finished a track with Ministry for their new album that is in support of Ukraine, and I have another collaboration I’m mixing right now. It’s in the final stages, and that has members of Green Day and Fugazi and Agnostic Front and the one and only Jello Biafra [laughs]. And members of Ministry, you feel me? Like that’s going to be a huge support for Ukraine, generating that, so I already forgot where that begins. I mean I remember where it begins, but it’s like [laughs and throws his hands up at the enormity of it all].

AllMusic: It feels to me that you wrote an album about solidarity and that’s…. Your work behind the scenes, in a time where everything seems to be breaking apart, you’re doing so much to bring everyone together.

Hütz: Thank you for seeing this. Yeah, because at times you just feel like you’re just kind of lost in the dynamic of the progress and not necessarily hearing any feedback. Actually, it can be for long stretches of time. I mean being caught in the moments of progress kind of a lot of times feels like living in obscurity.

AllMusic: Especially with the issue being eight, nine years long. And not a lot of people paying attention over here until very recently, I understand how that can be extremely discouraging.

Hütz: Yeah, I’m glad you’re aware of that because that’s kind of like the…. It seems like most people found out about this situation like one year ago and then they keep on saying things like, “But why is this war getting so much more attention than all these other wars?” And the answer to that is all those wars need to be getting attention for their own tragedies that are not dealt with. But the explanation to why this supposedly sudden war is getting more daylight attention is to understand, once you look at the scale it took on; the insanity of this full scale war and invasion is a direct result of people ignoring it for so many years. That’s why you’re hearing about it now. Because when you’re not paying attention, not hearing about it for eight years straight, while it was blazing away, because it was festering for so long. And they were letting terrorists get away with terror. Now it is officially recognized that Russia is a terrorist state, everybody is hearing it, but it’s like it’s been like that for centuries.

AllMusic: Hopefully we’re moving towards progress, but I get what you mean about when you’re in the middle of that progress, you don’t see it so often or it’s harder to see.

Hütz: Yeah, but at the same time, huge respect to everybody who does come out in support. Pink Floyd, people who are trusted voices. Patti Smith, Pink Floyd, their words were very much instrumental here in getting people to listen about it, and hear about it and bring some clarity to the people who are malinformed, but trust those voices because those names have some serious street cred.

AllMusic: And in the art world, I think just using your platform to do as much good as you can is very important which is again part of why your story is so inspiring.

Hütz: Thanks a lot. Thank you.

AllMusic: You’ve mentioned all these projects you’ve been working on. What should we be looking out for?

Hütz: I’m starting to produce young bands in New York city. It’s another thing that I get very excited about, getting our first EP of my first producing work. The band is called Puzzled Panther. It’s two girls from New York City and they’re post punk, kind of like Siouxie and the Banshees, but more punky. Brian Chase, the drummer from Yeah Yeah Yeahs and we’re playing on that record and helping it to launch. But that’s kind of like what I’m really really busy this month with is getting this release out, so look for that!

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