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Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz Talks Overcoming Negativity and Ego, Driving the Masses ‘Bananas’

Gogol Bordello
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

In the great liquor store of life, Eugene Hutz doesn’t stick to the beer and wine aisles.

Oblivious to the risks of mixing, he ventures into those scary international sections, swigging Caribbean rums, Brazilian cachacas, dodgy Russian vodkas and weird licorice-scented spirits with pictures of Middle Eastern cities on their labels. As the founder and frontman of Gogol Bordello, he’s long painted himself as a man of constant cultural thirst — the ‘Wonderlust King,’ as he sang on ‘Super Taranta,’ the band’s 2007 breakout — and were it possible to get drunk on travel and experience, he’d wake up every morning with a raging hangover.

Tomorrow, Gogol Bordello return with their sixth full-length, ‘Pura Vida Conspiracy,’ an album whose Spanish-language title, global theme and East-humps-West sound once again present Hutz as a tireless globetrotter.

Typically dubbed “gypsy-punk,” Gogol’s music is goofy and completely serious, intelligent and irreverent, infectious and sometimes a touch grating. It’s polka played at hardcore speed, with cumbia and ska riddims thrown in, and singing over these and other sounds, Hutz doesn’t even try to disguise his native Ukrainian accent.

Hutz has said the new album — his first since leaving Columbia and signing with Dave Matthews’ ATO label — is about realizing human potential. Like the five previous records Gogol has released since forming in New York City in 1999, it pushes an in-your-face optimism that seemingly defines Hutz as an artist and a human being, but as he tells Diffuser.fm, he wasn’t always this way. Throughout his teens and early 20s, in the years just after he immigrated with his family to Vermont and discovered punk rock, he saw the world in a very different way.

“I was in a quite negative frame of mind,” Hutz says by phone, days before launching a U.S. tour.

The image of a sullen Hutz couldn’t be more at odds with the guy heard on songs like ‘We Rise Again,’ the leadoff track on ‘Pura Vida.’ You might say he mellowed out — he did, after all, spend his formative years in the land of Phish and maple syrup — but it was more a case of wising up than of calming down.

“Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t come down from some incredible flowery part of the mountain or something like that,” Hutz says. “I overcame [the negativity]. Something inside of me kept me digging deeper. Optimisms is one way to put it. But another way to put it is, [sighs] I think that this whole idea of western thought — which, you know [encompasses] pretty much, like, two thirds of the world at this point — is kind of a f—ed-up way of looking at life.”

Hutz’s beef isn’t with the go-go pace of Western life, as few artists cover more terrain or work harder to move audiences. Rather, he takes issue with how self-centered it sometimes leaves people.

“It absolutely, on a pathological level, forces everyone into highly egoic behavior,” he says. “And egoic behavior fed constantly by fear of survival. By fear of, not survival, by fear. When a person is locked up in that kind of egoic behavior, they cannot see anything but themselves as a kind of a separated piece, separate from the world. That’s what ego is. The bigger it is, the more separate you are from the world is. The more you are inflame your ego, the more you blow it up, the more separate from everything else you feel. And it’s not a good feeling.”

“And it’s actually what drives people to self-destruction,” he adds. “Because they simply do not feel any vitality and resonance with the rest. That’s the f—ing heavy disorder of the Western thought. Not to disrespect its, like, high technological accomplishments, but spiritually, it’s pretty much bankrupt.”

And that’s where the hope comes in. “We who seek long enough, dig deep enough, stay strong enough,” Hutz sings on ‘Dig Deep Enough,’ a buoyant Eastern European fiddle-and-accordion jam that takes flight and detours through a thrash-punk circle pit and Jamaican dancehall before returning to the village from whence it came.

“The percentage of people who is digging deeper here is growing,” Hutz says. “And it’s actually growing quite rapidly. But you know, the kind of, the pathological way of Western thought must be acknowledged.”

Of course, few are more susceptible to ego trips than rock stars, and Gogol Bordello are a major live draw from Serbia to Switzerland to Rio de Janeiro, where Hutz has lived for several years. The frantic oom-pah pacing of their music is just right for making thousands of people jump in unison, and Madonna and John Cusack are among Gogol’s famous fans.

It’s not unthinkable that the scrawny, longhaired, idealist troubadour, who looks a bit like Jesus with a hipster ‘stache, would develop a messianic complex, but it hasn’t happened yet.

“I don’t think it’s necessary at all,” Hutz says. “Honestly, I think it is quite natural to look deeper and see that we are actually all there [at the live shows] making this whole thing happen together.”

“I think most of the people have this picture in their head that on the top there’s government, and then underneath it is the elite,” he adds. “All the celebrity elite, and then degradation goes on down. But it’s not really like that. I don’t view government as some people on the top. And the people in the celebrity life? It’s like, what is this? Who the f— wants that, you know?”

Hutz would rather be known for his music than for having famous friends and admirers, and that means it’s back to the road, where he and Gogol will remain until the end of the year. Hutz may be a man of modesty, but he knows he and the band offer a special live experience — an “opportunity to everybody to express to their loudest, body language-wise.”

Even in the soberest countries, Gogol’s mainlined musical cocktail gets the people buzzing, and if it’s impossible to imagine a flat performance, Hutz says, it’s for good reason: “It’s never happened.”

“If you would film the show of Gogol Bordello, just the crowd — even Japan or Brazil, or Russia, or the United States, or whatever, Greenland — unless you’d be zooming in on facial features of people, you wouldn’t be able to tell any difference,” he says. “It’s just like you would see an ocean of people going absolutely bananas.”

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