Gogol Bordello lead singer Eugene Hütz has lived all over the world — an experience that influences his songwriting. Born in Ukraine, the musician, who is of Romani heritage, fled persecution as a seventeen-year-old refugee with his family and arrived in Vermont in 1992. Since then, he has spent time in Brazil and Argentina, but mostly New York City.
“I came to the States essentially to go to New York,” Hütz says. “I just couldn’t afford to live in New York straight off the bat, so I waited some years and learned my English, and then moved to New York without a dime. At that point I had a language, you know?”
As a kid, Hütz made his own instruments from found materials. He grew up with a deep love of revolutionary Western music, from Leonard Cohen to The Pogues. More than twenty years later, Hütz, now 46, delivers monumentally energetic performances with Gogol Bordello, which plays a mix of Eastern European folk music, feverish punk and anthem rock.
The band has been touring in support of 2017’s Seekers and Finders, its seventh full-length album. The title track is a mellow, idealistic duet with Regina Spektor; that’s followed by a collection of blazing songs sure to inspire Colorado fans to move when Gogol Bordello celebrates the arrival of 2019 — and the band’s twentieth anniversary — at four Colorado concerts (one in Fort Collins, another in Boulder and two in Denver).
“Everybody gets real jealous in New York City if we don’t do a three-, four-night New York bonanza,” says Hütz in his thick Ukrainian accent. “So it’s good to ruffle up the feathers, you know? We did one in Montreal a couple years ago, and it was great to see a passion...passionate flames of New York City base calling us back. We thought this might be a good thing to do every now and then.”
Gogol Bordello has played many memorable concerts in Denver, and the wild-hearted “Start Wearing Purple” — one of the group’s best-known tracks — has been played at Rockies games, a fact that Hütz calls “fucking cool.”
“We do have a great history in Colorado, and it’s a unique population there, a unique fan base,” he says. “We just thought that time has come to do a Colorado special. And it’s kind of adventurous. Playing the same stage in New York City three nights in a row is a sign of fantastic success, but at the same time, it’s the same stage — which is definitely doable with all our love for improvisation and general celebratory madness setup of Gogol Bordello. But it’s more inspiring to be in a different place. It’s more inspiring to switch it up, for sure, and it’s just nice that it’s kind of a short, sweet mini-tour.”
The shows promise a certain amount of decadence — a value that Gogol Bordello has always embraced in songs such as “When the Trickster Starts a-Pokin” — along with the revolutionary politics Hütz discovered in his childhood heroes like Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash, embodied in lyrics like “Borders are scars on the face of the planet,” from Gogol Bordello’s 2013 song “We Rise Again.”
When asked to compare this country’s current immigration policies with that of the United States into which his family immigrated in 1992, Hütz quips, “Well, are we gonna be here until five in the morning? Are we gonna start getting down with this question?"
“In a lot of ways, America did great in that category,” he adds. “Much better than other countries. Right now is not particularly that sizzling time, but everything in this world goes through tribulations and stuff like that. Plus, there are many, many reasons and ways why people immigrate and how they immigrate, and many different intentions behind it. There’s hard-core necessity — people need to be rescued. But also there are a lot of immigrants seeking a slightly better life than the life they already have. I wasn’t in that category, you know? We had to split and figure out what’s gonna be the next move.”
Ultimately, Hütz notes that things have changed drastically since he came to the U.S. “Everything’s shifted so much that I can’t necessarily relate to the entire situation, you know?” he says. “It’s pretty complex, your question. I’m already getting a headache.”
It’s hard to imagine many things wearing down Hütz, who has maintained his notorious on-stage energy without changing how he has taken care of himself over the years.
“One of the great things about coming to States for me was that I transferred from, like, this kind of European intellectual punk-rock aesthetic that despises anything athletic and looks down on it. That’s a European thing, for sure,” he explains. “In the States, I was liberated from that, emerging myself into going to shows of Fugazi and the hardcore scene and seeing Iggy Pop perform, and realizing these elements actually work together, and how a skateboarding lifestyle and that kind of energy actually can be a part of the subculture that’s connected with music and other alternative lifestyles. In that sense, States is ahead of everywhere else.
“Back in Ukraine, I had to kind of hide the fact that I was very athletic kid when I got into punk-rock scene, because it wasn’t cool — just like it wasn’t cool to let anybody know that my family was partly from Romani, from the Gypsy descent,” he adds. “Those facts were basically completely un-cool in Ukraine at the time, and those are the very strengths that were actually instrumental for the whole Gogol Bordello thing when it happened.
“That’s the thing,” Hütz concludes. “Gogol Bordello alone is a kind of workout, and I do very little [exercise] outside of that. It’s more, like, in your mind, actually. All the foundation that I did as a kid basically gave me some physical and physiological stamina.”
He has put that stamina to good use, exploring music from around the world and finding inspiration in various cultures.
“Living in different places, in Brazil and Argentina, I was absorbing all their gold mine of their folklore and all their alternative music, and while I was there soaking it all up, I was at the same time developing this interest to get back to the blues and to American folklore,” he says. “Once I revisit that, I was, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know a thing,’ you know? You can just go back — even Ukrainian folklore, it’s just enlightening. It’s, like, endless. And I go back into John Lee Hooker...and it seems like it’s one string and an old man’s voice and some chair crackling, and there you have it. The hypnosis already ensues.”
As the band’s first-ever end-of-year Colorado run approaches, Hütz stresses that the most raw kind of music — which “doesn’t need to be perfect” and is “thrown together without any particular refinement, kind of a rough jewel” — is what he keeps discovering is most important in his explorations of music, along with independence. But his inspiration doesn’t just come from outside himself.
“Remember that I also tell my own story, really,” he says. “Aside from musical information you’ve taken in, there is always just life information, because you are never the same age. You’re always moving through time and space, and you encounter different feelings and different perspectives, and that’s a self-fulfilling kind of creativity and concept. That’s a self-fulfilling whale of its own.”
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.