Eugene Hutz, the vocalist and sprightly frontman of Ukrainian Gypsy punk rockers Gogol Bordello, could not care less about what Vladimir Putin has to say.
I sit down to speak with the military-cap sporting vocalist on what most consider to be a landmark day for the war in Ukraine; Russia's incumbent despot has announced a “partial mobilisation” of Russian citizens to support the ailing war effort, and reiterated his threats of nuclear destruction to the West.
Eugene, though, isn’t phased. His band draws its very essence from challenging Russia’s long-standing appropriation of Ukrainian culture and have, in the form of worldwide tours and nine studio albums, been spreading the now-familiar message over the course of two decades.
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“What statement?” He asks, when I seek his response to the announcement. He’s even less interested when I offer him the update.
“Oh God please, more bluff?” he exhales. “Who cares about these statements? It’s like one bluff after another.”
Far more interesting to Eugene than the hyperbolic threats of a deranged leader is the unbreakable spirit of the besieged Ukrainian people.
The singer was born just outside Kyiv, and although he might not have returned to fight on the streets, he recently took his own stand when he visited his home nation, and played a secret gig with a military orchestra for battle-hardened troops.
“I’m still processing this incredible experience. It was the most efficient and at the same time cathartic experience I’ve ever had in Ukraine; I was born and raised there and I’ve been going back there almost every year,” he reflects.
“[The] extremity of war, it calls for a big performance, and big performance is something Ukrainians do well.”
Gogol Bordello know a thing or two about big performances. The group’s outrageous orchestral punk-rock drips with Ukrainian influence, with its name inspired by Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian artist who snuck his country’s culture into Russia at a time when it was banned.
“The very name of the band Gogol Bordello tells that story… Because it’s a deeply Ukrainian writer who always championed Ukrainian culture, and smuggled it into the world of Tsarist Russia, because at the time Ukrainian culture was forbidden,” Eugene explains.
By touring the world with their riotous rock shows, the band have continued Gogol’s legacy. Search for the group on Twitter, and you’ll find countless videos of their recent appearance at Riot Fest, where Eugene can be spotted surfing the crowd on a bass drum, while draped in the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine.
The festival gig was part of the musicians’ US tour, and coincided with the release of their ninth full-length album, Solidaritine, which arrived last Friday (September 16).
And, as much as the new LP makes a statement on Putin’s illegal invasion, Eugene stresses that Russian appropriation of Ukrainian culture started long before enemy soldiers crossed the border in February this year.
“Our music has always been about perseverance against all odds, if you had to boil it down to one sentence. Punk rock is really about perseverance against all odds. That’s the way I understood punk rock and that’s the fire that excited me about it,” he says.
“In a way it could be said that we could have put out an album like this at any time as well. In fact the album was basically completed when [the war] started… [But] there were several co-operations with Ukrainian artists that were really written out of the place of resistance in a higher mode.”
The result is an album that roars against the injustice of the invasion instead of wallowing in the inevitable misery of it. Like a kick to the head, album opener Shot of Solidaritine smashes the senses with its mish mash of violins and Hutz’s gravelly vocals.
There’s barely time to gather your thoughts as each track slams into the next, but Take Only What You Can Carry, which was released as a single, is a particularly stark reminder of the reality of what Putin’s invasion has meant for thousands of uprooted civilians.
Combine this with a collaboration with Ukrainian artists including Nobel Prize nominee Serhiy Zandan on Forces of Victory, and it's fair to say the band have produced a powerful piece of resistance art.
“If you really zoom in on the feeling you get from it, it’s actually joy and sadness at the same time,” Eugene points out. “The perseverance of it comes off as joy… People, once they are in that gear of resistance, they are not there trembling, they are kicking ass, they’re going strong.
“One of the tiring things is people saying to Ukrainian people right now, ‘I’m so sorry what’s happening to your country. Yes, it is a tragedy for sure, but it’s not the situation that Russians came in and they’re wiping their feet on [us], that’s not what’s happening.
“They got there and they are getting their asses kicked… There is not one single Ukrainian who thought that this war would end in a Russian victory, that was absolutely not on anyone’s mind.”
Unlike the raving boasts of Putin’s bizarre Russian State TV pals, Eugene is not bluffing when he predicts a resounding victory. Nonetheless, he admits that he has been feeling the pressure becoming a mouthpiece for the Ukrainian cause in the West.
“This is the first year where I actually have felt like I do have some kind of job, because the situation called for it,” he acknowledges. But, if Eugene ever needs reminding of the importance of his mission, he need only look to his idol Gogol.
“The reason why I chose Gogol as a name is because that’s the right angle; you’re being authentic without overplaying it. He was being Ukrainian from a cosmopolitan kind of view. He made this pretty much perfect synthesis of worldly view and telling authentic stories from his land,” Eugene observes.
When Eugene arrived in New York as a teenage immigrant and founded his band of punk misfits, he became a disciple of that message. Over twenty years later, his viewpoint remains unchanged.
“It’s all about a code of cooperation. It’s planet Earth and gravity works equally for everybody. If you don’t think so, gravity will f***ing teach you,” he smiles.
As gravity teaches Vladimir Putin a lesson, Gogol Bordello dance on.
You can find Gogol Bordello's ninth studio album Solidaritine here.
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