Combining musical influences from around the world, Gogol Bordello’s albums and raucous live show have long offered up an energetic mix of feel-good punk rock and a global worldview. Their sixth studio album, Pura Vida Conspiracy, is no exception. It’s a stew of sounds and moods, from mariachi to Morricone, sea shanties to ska. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we spoke to the band’s mouthpiece and chief songwriter, Ukranian-born Eugene Hutz, about the album, his love of Joe Strummer, and why he’s still on the fence about Pussy Riot. Gogol Bordello play The Neptune Theater on August 8th and 9th.
You guys did pre-production in Mexico, Paraguay, and Vermont and then recorded in El Paso, none of which are exactly hotbeds of rock ‘n’ roll. Why those three locations and does locale have an influence on the end result? The locations are not chosen conceptually. The truth is that our creative process never stops so we chose locations along the way to rehearse. Our South American tour was starting in Mexico so we said let’s get a week there. Then we needed some time off while we were in Paraguay and we rehearsed there. It might as well have been Sweden or Italy or Germany.
Do you hear the influence of those places when you listen to the songs you worked on in each place? I don’t think there is any focus on those places in particular because essentially what we do is Gogol Bordello music. I’ve been living in South America for five years, in Argentina and Brazil. The main fuel of the creative process comes from within me and within the band but we’re still aware of the whole world.
Your albums have such an urgency and energy. Do you record in a traditional manner, doing drums first and then layering everything else on top or do you guys all get in a room together and play live? The energy and urgency, that’s us man! Over the years we’ve found better ways to record ourselves, which is all in a large room with a lot of microphones. It has to have a lot of energy flowing through it and I have to see the fingers of everyone and it’s the same for the performance on stage.
Have you always enjoyed music from other cultures? For many listeners, particularly Western music fans, I think enjoying music from other cultures takes a bit of work. Was it like that for you or were other sounds immediately accessible and understandable to you growing up? America is kind of unique in the way that it is so centered on its own music and its own language. In reality, across the world, people aren’t necessarily listening to what the press is writing about. That’s another thing that’s specific to England and America. Especially in Russia or Latin America, that doesn’t exist. There’s no rock radio station in Brazil. Where I grew up in Russia, it was not limited in any way. The majority of music of course still comes from the States and England but that’s largely because the production there is so excellent. It is far ahead of the rest of the world so American music is just much more well recorded and well produced.
You’ve been called the Ukranian Joe Strummer. Is that a comparison you welcome? Are you a Clash fan? I’m a massive Clash fan. I actually was lucky to meet Joe shortly before he died and it was a very memorable experience. At the same time, even though I love him, I don’t know if it’s fair to compare people like that. It’s very flattering to be aligned with such a prominent figure but everybody is doing their own thing and I don’t think comparisons are necessarily fair to either one.
But both of your bands have a punk leaning, plus a world music influence and political lyrics. In that sense, we are very kindred spirits for sure and I love Joe Strummer and his work with The Mescaleros and The Clash. Every night when we walk off the stage, our closing song when the lights go up is Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash singing “Redemption Song.” Joe is a very prominent spirit and he’s always here in a high regard.
Speaking of punk rock, how do you feel about what Pussy Riot is going through? I don’t align myself with fans or not fans of Pussy Riot simply because I don’t see them as a band. I don’t think they deserve this kind of attention. I couldn’t believe how long talking about it went on.
Well, being arrested for a political statement isn’t a reality for Americans like it is for citizens of many countries where free speech isn’t always tolerated. I’m not so convinced about their political message, whether it was really that profound.
As a world traveler, what appeals to you about a certain city? Are there commonalities between your favorite places? I’ve been asking myself that question because it’s very true how cities form a particular bubble, with people of a certain character. People who behave one way in New York City would behave differently in L.A. I find myself more comfortable in places that are less compartmentalized, perhaps more messy and chaotic like Brazil, Spain, Italy. It’s not that they’re better or worse, I just prefer chaos. Ukraine and Eastern Europe, where I came from, are stuck in between Western Europe and Asia. It’s a massively chaotic place where people see chaos as a form of order. One of the beautiful things about Russian culture is they aren’t necessarily trying to cure depression. They’re not trying to desperately run away from feelings. They are not trying desperately to build square streets. When you look at a town you think, “Wow, I could really get lost here.”