I thought my plan was clever — get Eugene Hütz on the phone and ask him about global politics.
The ringleader of the gypsy punk band did, after all, make his way to the U.S. as a political refugee from Ukraine in 1992. He is of Servitka Roma decent, a subgroup of the nomadic ethnic group known as the Romani people. The Romani endured slavery, deportation and forced assimilation throughout Europe for centuries. English speakers sometimes call the Romani “gypsies,” a term some Romani people find offensive, as it can imply a swindler or a cheat.
But it doesn’t offend Hütz. No, Hütz has proudly reclaimed the word and become what some might call the godfather of gypsy punk rock. He told Vermont’s Seven Days in 2005, “I invented it, man. I coined that phrase, I did everything for it.”
He has penned tunes like “We Rise Again,” an anthem to a world without nations: “Borders are scars on the face of the planet/ So heal away my alchemy man/ Every atheist holds up the candle/ We rise again.”
So naturally, with his background and lyrics like those, I thought Hütz might like to talk about some of the goings-on in the world, like Europe’s refugee crisis.
I can hear the reluctance in his voice as he explains that his immigration was different, “more sociopolitical” in nature.
“Now I can’t even tell what is the reason for this wave of refugees,” Hütz says in his thick Slavic accent. “It’s a completely different mix. Their experience is so different from ours. I can only speak from our experience.”
Even if his experience was different, I wonder aloud if Hütz sees his music as a political statement, with its many lyrics about border crossing, jingoism and life as an immigrant.
“I think music and art is more of a spiritual matter really,” he says. “I wouldn’t dwell on it as being some sort of manifesto. The underlying premise of what we do lays in maybe invention of some kind of a new, modern, more progressive lifestyle that merges creativity and kind of resilience to the modern times via being more open-minded and more accepting. So that’s kind of where it’s at — it is its own dojo where we practice our own form of personal musical mixed martial arts.”
Here I laugh, and say I’ll stop with the political questions.
“Thank God,” Hütz says. “I was starting to get a headache.”
Hütz is pleased, however, to talk about Gogol Bordello’s recent performance at the annual Tibet House Benefit Concert, which supports Tibetan culture in the face of extinction from outside influences.
“It’s an amazing cause,” Hütz says. “The dialogue between West and East is very important for evolution of the planet. It’s like the East has got the spirituality, the West’s got the technology. It’s time for a dialogue, and it’s happening. People are tuning in and it’s becoming more than a clichéd story of finding your soul by going to Himalayas. There’s nothing there — you really don’t need to go there.”
During that Feb. 22 show, Gogol Bordello shared a stage with Philip Glass and Iggy Pop, who Hütz calls his “mentor of all times.”
“It’s an amazing atmosphere. It gathers a very alert audience. It’s our second time doing it and I love the whole community that emerges from rehearsals — even the rehearsals … everyone is in the same studio, there are gallons of coffee, and it goes on all day.”
Hütz tells me he’s living in New York City again, after having spent the better part of a decade in Brazil. He can’t say how long he’s been in New York again, because “it all runs together.”
He can say that Gogol Bordello is finishing up a new album that will be out later this year. And he says his musical interests have expanded.
“Ironically enough, after seven years in Latin America I started craving blues progression,” he says. “Beats that were completely not exciting to me. I wasn’t used to doing anything in the beat of 1/4… But give it space and I found myself craving those very vitamins.”
For a number of years, Hütz took annual trips through Ukraine and Eastern Russia, searching out the foundation of his Romani heritage, the inspiration for the music he’s created over the past 20 years.
But he no longer takes those trips.
“In first decade of being in America and loving it, but being in deficit of my native vitamins, I set out on those trips and did it all, from Siberia to Hungarian gypsy ghettos,” he says. “That was my kind of jam. But then I discovered a new trajectory that was from New York City all the way down to Buenos Aires, getting inspired by all those places. After that, that kind of rounded me out. That kind of left me with a renewed interest in American folklore, older, better country music and Appalachian ballads.”
He points to a staple of American country blues — Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
“There’s not one single line that’s not moving the train forward,” he says “That appeals to me, and the dynamic of that, that ability of American story telling is appealing to me.”
Hütz says he has to leave for the studio in 10 minutes, and I offer an apology for starting the interview off with so many political questions. He laughs.
“What political questions? There’s only one answer: Bernie Sanders all the way.”
On the Bill: Gogol Bordello Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.