Gogol Bordello

Monday, 30 July 2007

I have to be cautious with my wording when I recommend Gogol Bordello to friends. Foremost, I have to make sure they understand the extreme matter-of-fact tone that I use when I say they are undoubtedly the greatest live act currently performing. Certainly, I could understand how my friends might find this hard to believe: how could the world’s greatest live band be so obscure? I must also tiptoe around the discussion of their “genre,” since calling them Gypsy Punk absolutely reeks of gimmickry. Remember Punjabi hip-hop? Remember Matisyahu? The idea of a culturally-rooted take on a mainstream genre is assumed novelty at this point, so I always steer clear of making this assertion. And so my description has turned into this statement: If you don’t like Gogol Bordello, you don’t like fun. You can quote me.

My phone conversation with Thomas Gobena, Gogol’s bassist, has suddenly shifted into a passionate discussion of how great they are. “In all honesty” Thomas says, “Gogol Bordello is one of my favorite bands right now.” Normally this might seem rather conceited, but Thomas is the newbie of the band. After working on a project with Spin Doctors’ drummer Aaron Comess, Thomas received a call from Aaron saying that a band named Gogol Bordello had phoned him and asked if he knew any bassists who were available and that Thomas should check them out. “So I looked into them and 5 minutes later I called them. I knew right away this was the band I wanted to be a part of.” Thomas, or Tommy T as the band’s Myspace page refers to him, is originally from Ethiopia and has earned a solid reputation for his dub and reggae influenced playing style. “It’s a pleasant surprise that bands like this can exist. The combination of people, the kind of music they want to put together, it’s absolutely perfect for me. I love that we’re such a diverse group.”

The key to Gogol’s sound is that diversity. They can sound like speed-metal one minute, European folk the next, and then suddenly dub reggae. “That comes really naturally. We’re not trying to say ‘Okay, this song gotta have this dub part and then another part hardcore.’ We just have all these influences from our past and when you put it together and write the songs, that’s what comes out. That’s just who we are.”

Thomas is speaking to me from across the Atlantic, somewhere in Italy. This distance is very apparent given the shaky phone connection (and ungodly hour I had to wake up for the interview). Still, any talk of Gogol’s live performance and Thomas’ tone becomes clear as bell, powered by his enthusiasm and filtered through his robust Ethiopian accent. “Every time we get on stage it’s like a brand new thing. That’s why we never get tired of it. Every day the crowd has a different energy, a new energy.” I ask about his favorite songs to play and he hesitates, as if I had asked which of his children he loved more than all the others. He offers a reluctant, defensive selection, “I really like ‘Mishto’.” It’s difficult to pick apart the performance in terms of particular songs, as the whole experience is rather cohesive. Eugene Hütz, the band’s frontman, once summed up their shows to me as “An Avalanche. Spirit. Gogol Self-Destruction.” And even though this chimerical description paints the show into a very mysterious corner, it is strangely fitting. Perhaps we should just accept that the only way to really understand it is to see it. That seems to be the prevailing wisdom anyhow.

Since the release of the band’s last album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, a lot has happened for the band. An appearance in the film Everything Is Illuminated showed off Eugene’s natural charisma to the world and made a Gogol devotee of Elijah Wood. The city of Baltimore and the Ravens took up the song “Start Wearing Purple” as their unofficial theme song for the ‘06-’07 season. The album released two singles with music videos and placed Gogol squarely on America’s cultural radar with a raucous live reputation. Obviously, the bar is set high for Super Taranta!, the band’s recently released album. According to Gobena, the record is an expansion and elevation of previous works. “Everything… the songwriting, the music, is elevated up to a new level.” A similar thing happened in between Gypsy Punks and its predecessor, wherein the sound quality and craftsmanship increased dramatically while still keeping the Gogol verve.

Initial reception of the album has been surprisingly supportive. Rolling Stone called the song “Ultimate” “…the smartest song anyone will release this year.” Eugene and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev were recently invited to play with Madonna at her Live Earth performance as well as to perform in her upcoming short film Filth and Wisdom. Not bad for a band who’s forged their place in the musical world on being as crazy and different as can be. But being crazy was never really the goal. Just ask Thomas:

“It’s always fun. It’s not always crazy, but it’s always fun.”

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