Gogol Bordello - Biography
New York’s Gogol Bordello, is an ensemble of multi-ethnic musicians who have managed to combine Gypsy music with punk and a breathtakingly bizarre stage show to become one of the world’s more unique and off-the-wall acts. Often likened to The Pogues, who infused traditional Irish music with a punk influence, Gogol Bordello have alienated just as many fan hopefuls as they have won over. They’ll never be as big or as beloved as, say, Madonna (even though they have already shared the stage with her), but the band’s eccentricities, as well as its absolute refusal to tone down these eccentricities, have made them, if nothing else, entertaining.
After the events of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, the young Eugene Hütz was forced to move to Western Ukraine. Once there, Hütz fell in love with gypsy music. Before this discovery, he had given himself what little musical education he could by finding tapes of The Birthday Party and Einstürzende Neubauten, which he purchased on the black market. Hütz and his family became residents of refugee camps during their post-Chernobyl lives, staying in Hungary, Italy, Austria, and Poland, and hiding their partial Gypsy background all the while. It was during these years of hiding his background that Hütz developed a staunch loyalty to it. The family eventually settled in Vermont, but Hütz went off on his own to New York where he joined musical forces with guitarist Vlad Solofar and squeezebox player Sasha Kazatkchkoff. Soon came drummer Eliot Ferguson and fiddler Sergey Rjabtzev, who contributed more to the band than violin parts; Rjabtzev had a background in theatre from his time in Moscow, an experience that would greatly help to shape the band’s unconventional, over-the-top stage performances.
Borrowing their name from Nikolai Gogol, the Ukrainian-born playwright and novelist who assimilated his works into the scope of Russian literature and culture, Gogol Bordello (originally called Hütz and the Bela Bartoks until they concluded that no one in the US was familiar with the Hungarian composer) had a relatively simple beginning in 1998. Claiming to have no official first show, they took what gigs they could find, which turned out to be mostly Russian weddings. At first their songs were deeply rooted in Gypsy music. Over a short period of time, their style became more and more infused with lead singer Hütz’s post-punk and rock influences, resulting in a fevered and frenetic combination that was readily embraced by New York’s indie scene. The group’s intense and admittedly freakish stage shows got them banned from CBGB, Mercury Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, and Fez the first times they played. Eventually, they found a more nurturing environment in PIZDETZ, a performing arts space on the Lower East Side where Hütz became the house DJ and Gogol Bordello expanded on their stage spectacle.
Signed by New York indie label Rubric, an imprint that sprouted up the same year Gogol Bordello began recording, the band released its first single, When the Trickster Comes a-Pokin’ (1999 Rubric). After that, the group hooked up with producer Jim Sclavunos, a man more well-known for his drumming in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds than for his production work, and set about recording their debut full-length. The little-heard Voi-La Intruder (1999 Rubric) appeared in 2001 on Rubric. After the release of the debut, Solofar and Kazatkchkoff bid the group farewell, and guitarist Oren Kaplan joined up. Also added were saxophonist Ori Kaplan (the two Kaplans, both Israeli, share no relation) and accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, who was over 50-years-old at the time and from the Russian island of Sakhalin.
The band’s (or at least Hütz’s) popularity was beginning to flourish. Hütz had found another DJ-ing gig, this time at Mehanata, a Bulgarian club frequented by Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians, and Gypsies. The one-time outsider and refugee had become a local celebrity in New York’s hipster scene. On September 17, 2002, the band released its second LP, the self-produced Multi Kontra Culti Vs. Irony (2002 Rubric). In 2005, they put out their follow-up EP, East Infection (2005 Rubric). Mere months later, the group had left Rubric Records in favor of SideOneDummy, the Los Angeles indie imprint and home to punk bands such as Anti-Flag and Flogging Molly. Gogol Bordello debuted on their new label in August of 2005, releasing their third full-length, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (2005 SideOneDummy). The Steve Albini-produced set catapulted the band into the realm of critical acclaim and, thanks to their label, they were able to expose themselves on a much wider scale. Touted as a “gypsy punk” band (a tag the band found at least mildly frustrating), they appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Late Show with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Henry Rollins Show, and Later with Jools Holland before touring as part of the Vans Warped Tour.
One month after the release of Gypsy Punks, Hütz appeared in Liev Schreiber’s 2005 film Everything is Illuminated, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Around this time, Ori Kaplan exited and the band recruited bassist Rea Mochiach. The also added two singer/dancer/percussionists named Pam Racine and Elizabeth Sun. Before recording their fourth album, Mochiach left and bassist Tommy Gobena was added. The group hired producer Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey) to helm their new recordings. Super Taranta! (2007 SideOneDummy), Gogol Bordello’s most ambitious and experimental album yet, became their best-reviewed and their first foray into the album charts. It peaked on the Billboard 200 at number 115. From there, the group toured and played with Primus, Manu Chao, Dub Trio, and others. By the end of 2007, they had won a BBC World Music Award.