For Eugene Hütz, frontman of gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello, songwriting isn’t about words – in fact, it transcends words. Hailing all the way from the Ukraine, Hütz moved to Vermont in 1992. He eventually ended up in New York City, where he’s made a name for himself not only as a musician, but also as an actor and a DJ. We talked with Hütz about the ups and downs of songwriting, Gogol Bordello’s new album Pura Vida Conspiracy (out July 23), his musical influences and more.
Tell us a bit about your new album.
It’s titled Pura Vida Conspiracy, and that says it all! I took the Spanish phrase “Pura Vida” for “pure life” cause no other language offers that much gusto, not even Russian… every language in fact offers something that others don’t, like Brazilian Portuguese “sausage”… it’s a very particular kind of sweet sadness melancholy… anyway Pura Vida is pretty much the opposite of that… very strong anti-bummer indeed!
How would you compare it to your previous album?
It’s very adventurous and musically polyamorous as we always were, yet it has a stronger rock anchor to it, I believe we are a much stronger band these days, and rocking tighter comes natural.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Vladimir Vysotsky first of all, which is a figure I believe is similar in lots of ways to Johnny Cash but in Russian culture. Incredible brutal poet. Later came himself, Johnny Cash and Nick Cave. I’ve taken apart what they did and learned a lot from it. Woody Guthrie of course…. “Luckily” I discovered Dylan so late that I could enjoy him from a distance… perhaps if I discover him in the youth days I’d be totally fucked like many others, trying to replicate the grand inimitable…
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
Oh indeed they were fantastic right away, only I wasn’t sure about showing them to anyone… wisely enough!
What’s your writing routine – how much of your day do you typically spend on being creative?
It’s amazing, but it’s first time someone asked me this eve, while that’s the closest question to define my day… the answer is there are no rules, sometime you write for 2 weeks straight night and day, then you go down into the wall of silence to recharge, but usually 3-4 hours of table writing time is what’s up… and the table can be the jungle, Aztec pyramid, airport, or desert, they are all good… usually I’ll get somewhere, crack a little meditation, clear my mind, and see what unravels, go with a feeling… and the feeling gets set in motion by wind, heat and cold, fire, water…. I don’t trust too much the “mind” writing these days.. that’s your beginner level if you ask me, writing with your mind.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was a war song actually. Growing up with grandparents who have bullet wounds in the shoulders from World War 2 will do that… so naturally I wrote a song about kicking Germans butt, you know… that’s was also and will be the last war song I ever wrote.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I always have at least a dozen running in progress…
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Women in my life always have been very powerful force and inspiration…. there is lots of coming and going in my life, arrivals and departures, different people handle it differently…. but it does accumulate into incredible experience… needless to say traveling is a huge part of it, especially now that I think I finally know how to do it… also, martial arts again find its way into my life, and along with eastern philosophy they are huge sources for me…. I find a lot for myself there.
How do you go about writing songs?
Used to I carried garbage bags full of lyrics on paper, then I more less organized the process but it’s still a f’kn mess… sometimes I’ll cover all the walls with lyrics, sometimes I’ll cover them all with erotic pictures, sometimes for a month I will live in a room with literally nothing but mattress… all those ways are great, all are useful …. and sometimes I’ll just go somewhere where it’s just me and mosquitoes for a week…
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
“Gonzo beatnik turbo auto pilot ” I’d say. Well, actually I’ve gone through several ways, but I favor the one where melody leads the way and kind of let the melody pick the right word… I believe melody knows… and analytical mind doesn’t… brilliance happens when melody, the emotion, finds right words by itself… you are there just to write it down…
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Lost Innocent World,” “The Other Side Of Rainbow” and “We Shall Sail” are my three favorites at the moment.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
It’s not easier and not harder, it’s exactly the strife it ever was… but they do indeed get better and cohesive
Are there any words you love or hate?
I went over that barrier a while ago, words are only post signs on the road… word “river” is not a river… if you are committed to transcending message, you will grow detached from any particular words, because words are NOT the message… but if you want to operate on level of just words, as most people unfortunately do, then it’s your own semantic funeral.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Always… I have many pots running simultaneously in my cooker… some already activated, some will take years to come up… at the moment my personal favorite is my Spaghetti western scripts Dialogues… and one day I’m gonna come down heavy with no compromise like Charles Bronson with harmonica and set this fkn show biz straight.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Actually Internet allows pretty accurate information on that… no speculative bravado necessary… seems like I specialize in songs that people like to pull their hair out to… good times-wise and down time- wise… not much in the middle…. “Ultimate,” “Wonderlust King” and “My Companjera” perhaps good examples of raucous and epic good time hair pullin’, but I gotta say ballads “Alcohol,” “Against Nature” and “Sun Is On My Side” have even higher Internet hits… which is why the acoustic version Gogol Bordello was invented, and even started to tour.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Jorge Ben! Man who transcends pure feeling like no other into a hit after hit all life long…. I only really educated myself about him in Brazil in past few years, but man, what a force of raw joy!
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Well, I don’t know if Shane McGowan is underrated, but I don’t think he gets enough props per the brilliance he exudes lyrically and soul-wise, for me he is huge epic poet…
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
Almost anything by Hank Williams (the oldest) and Vladimir Vysotsky, I’ve mentioned him before… between those two names you can find all most important tools to tell the dramatic musical short story called song, in a complete way, on Shakespearian level of plot and drama… yet so simply and quickly…and the stories they chose to tell man is pure life, pure no bullshit…