NEW YORK (Billboard) - Eugene Hutz, guitar strapped over a shirtless shoulder, sweat shining atop his narrow frame, grabs the microphone and raises one arm over his famously mustachioed face, closing the night with a final coda: “We are your f—-ing friends Gogol Bordello!”
Behind, his band of gypsies — including a Russian violinist, Israeli guitarist, Ethiopian bassist, Latin American percussionist, Brazilian rapper and Russian accordionist — take their bows, while down in the mosh pit below the stage’s edge an equally sweaty, multilingual and cross-generational horde raise their arms and howl in solidarity.
For the past two hours, Hutz has led his band through a turbocharged set of international dance music, mashing up punk, klezmer, ska, polka, samba, salsa and reggae into the distinct sound that has made Gogol Bordello the hottest global touring act to come out of New York in the past decade. And Hutz, a Soviet refugee from the Ukraine who arrived in the United States in 1988 with $400, a beat-up guitar and a handful of black-market vinyl, now carries Madonna’s number in his mobile phone and is well on his way to rock-star status.
For his next metamorphosis, Hutz aims to turn what could be dismissed as a “world party” cliche into a fully developed musical vision. In the past two years, he’s enlisted Red Light Management — home of touring titans like the Dave Matthews Band and Phish — to help steer his career, signed a long-term global record deal with Sony-affiliated American Recordings and written some 70 new songs, 13 of which appear on its major-label debut, “Trans-Continental Hustle,” which was released Tuesday (April 27).
And he did it all while maintaining a 200-plus-show-per-year touring schedule and relocating from New York to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he moved to live with his girlfriend, Diana, a Romanian samba dancer who inspired some of his most emotional lyrics.
But it’s Hutz’s other new relationship, a partnership with Columbia Records chairman, Metallica producer and noted yoga enthusiast Rick Rubin, that may have the most dramatic effect on his future.
Rubin first discovered the group when Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello texted him from a show to exclaim that Gogol Bordello was the greatest band in the world. After seeing a typically raucous gig at Hollywood’s Palladium and meeting Hutz backstage, Rubin was so taken by the group that he not only signed it to his American imprint but also gave Hutz the full Rubin treatment: long, deep discussions about art and spirituality; months of prodding and coaxing that eventually led to a geyser of new songs; and his daily presence during three months of round-the-clock recording sessions. It’s a mysterious process that’s the stuff of music business legend, one that has turned many a jaded musician into a glassy-eyed disciple.
“So many things are known about Rick as being so guru-matic — it’s all true,” Hutz says one night in a Lower East Side hotel lobby, where he’s now just a tourist in the city that served at Gogol Bordello’s incubator. “In my case I was just able to experience it and see how strong his gift is. He’s always able to see the light in a very messy creative process.”
“Trans-Continental Hustle” was recorded last spring when the entire band took up residence at Rubin’s Malibu, California, estate and the nearby Document Room studio.
Rubin views the relationship as the beginning of an entirely new approach to recording for Gogol Bordello. “Previous albums were self-made experiments,” he wrote in an e-mail interview with Billboard. “A great deal of time went into, first, the songwriting, then the band learning the songs, then the band learning how to play sounds decipherable in the studio, then learning how to be a band in the studio, and finally, Eugene getting in touch with his true self as a singer.”
“It’s very impressive,” Hutz says in his signature Eastern European syntax. “It’s mystical but practical. It’s powerful, man.”
For Hutz, Rubin was the sole reason for signing with American and putting his music in Sony’s hands.
“I signed with Rick,” he says. “I signed with American. The rest comes with that. Our deal is very independent. I came far too long a way to do something as funky as a 360 deal (in which recording artists share not just revenue from album sales but concert, merchandise and other earnings with their label in exchange for more comprehensive career support). We’re not losing anything. Right now everything is so upside down in the business, it’s like, indie or major, it doesn’t matter.”
The band is now picking up on the road exactly where it left off after ending the lengthy tour behind “Super Taranta,” its 2008 SideOneDummy release that saw Gogol Bordello grow into not just a club- and theater-filling act but a festival headliner too. It played Coachella in 2007 and 2008, graduating from the Mojave tent to the main stage; both Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza in 2008; and was one of the top-billed bands at 2009’s All Points West in New Jersey.
“This band has been all over North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia,” says Val Wolfe, one of Gogol’s two longtime booking agents at the Agency Group. “We’re going to see the band continue to expand the regions in which they can tour, and in the places they’ve already been to they’re going to do bigger and better things.”
The band’s 2010-11 itinerary includes Australian and European trips. This year’s tour is dubbed Casa Gogol, and the group is bringing along like-minded acts like DeVotchKa, Forro in the Dark, Jesse Malin and Mariachi el Bronx.
“Hustle” is a major leap forward from 2005’s “Gypsy Punks,” Gogol’s best-selling release to date (107,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), which includes the band’s most anthemic song, “Start Wearing Purple,” and concert staples like “Immigrant Punk,” “Not a Crime” and “Undestructable.”
That album crystallized the “gypsy punk” aesthetic that the band had been cultivating since releasing its first single in 1999 and performing weekly at the downtown Manhattan dive known affectionately as the Bulgarian Disco. In his lyrics, Hutz repeatedly returned to the themes of humiliation, discrimination and fear that are often the hallmarks of the immigrant experience. Musically, the ever-expanding band took the gypsy-folk traditions of Eastern Europe, Hutz’s cantor-like approach to singing, and the minor-key accordion and violin that dominates dance halls from Mexico City to Moldova, burning them up at a punk-rock tempo.
What sets “Hustle” apart from Gogol Bordello’s previous work is the newfound spirituality in Hutz’s lyrics, in which he’s able to move past the traumas of immigration to take on subjects like broken hearts, long-distance romance, nomadic souls and death. Underneath it all is a newly sharpened rhythmic base, liberally incorporating the Brazilian beats Hutz picked up in Rio, played with Carnival precision by Gogol Bordello’s newest musician, Oliver Charles, a third-generation Trinidadian drummer who was a longtime member of Ben Harper’s Innocent Criminals.
Rubin likens Gogo Bordello to the groundbreaking British two-tone group the Specials: “It’s music from another place we haven’t seen before, wildly exciting and danceable with a political punk aesthetic.” But he gets most animated when comparing Hutz to Clash co-founder Joe Strummer, calling the “aesthetic kinship” between Hutz and the late singer-songwriter “so close, it’s shocking.”
That kinship is no accident — Hutz has long seen Gogol Bordello as the carriers of the flame that the Clash first sparked in 1977.
“It’s like a school of thought and influence, and that school of thought was later on continued by Mano Negro and Manu Chao,” he says. “I was lucky to meet Joe Strummer and to know Manu and to see that the carriers of that school of thought were not fakers by any means. Artistically, party as a vehicle for positive change is definitely something that Gogol Bordello carries on. But a huge part of it is how humble — truly humble — those guys are. How democratic and approachable and humble.”
American Recordings senior vice president and general manager Dino Paradis draws a parallel between the reactions to Gogol Bordello with those he recalls from when the label signed Armenian hard-rock band System of a Down. “There was a similar vibe, that this is definitely left of center, but it’s special and it isn’t so left of center that it can’t connect to a really broad cross-section of people.”
“The goal is to make great music,” Rubin says. “If you loved a band live and they made a great album, would you want it? If it’s great, everything else works itself out.”