Published May 06, 2010A lot has changed for gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello since releasing their critically acclaimed album Super Taranta! back in 2007. They've moved from music label SideOneDummy to American Recordings, which is headed by legendary producer Rick Rubin. Front-man Eugene Hutz left his beloved New York City to live in Brazil where their newest release Transcontinental Hustle was written. The album was also produced by Rubin (who's worked with artists such as Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and Slayer to name a few) adding a new layer of musical depth but keeping the band's famed party style. Now gearing up for a North American/European tour to promote the new release, Exclaim! reached Hutz in New York City before he hit the road.
Transcontinental Hustle is your fifth studio album ― how is it different from your previous releases?
Rick's impact is tremendous and that's what it's all about. I think we as a band matured to a level working with Rick and Rick put his expertise behind it. Sonically it's just a lot more authentic, the energy is a lot more clear and flowing. It's just a really strong collection of songs that will stand on their own. The main difference is that it was done with Rick Ruben who was tremendously involved and helped us shine in a way we didn't expect.
How long did it take to write this record?
About a year. I would go on tour, travel around but I would come back to Brazil, that was my focus point and I did most of the writing there. Then I just bounced back to Rick's place in Malibu and sort which song goes in which bin, you know? Which is really for the record and which is for further development and which is for the after party? And that was the process: focus in Brazil, write, go to Rick and get it sorted. And that was like every three months I would do that ― that was kind of the creative method of it.
How was it working with Rick Rubin for the first time?
It's a tremendous experience for anybody who wants to be a life-long musician. Our band have been a band for a decade. We're all life musicians, lifers. We even have a new song called "We are the Lifers," it's not on this album but on our next one. Anyway, the understanding of your path as a musician ― work with Rick is priceless in terms of that. It just focuses you on your real strengths.
On the album Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, New York City played any important character in the music but now with your move to Brazil what influences has it made on the new album?
Gogol Bordello will always sound like Gogol Bordello. Going to Brazil doesn't mean the album is going to sound like samba ― nothing like that. That's superficial, that is not what we do. I didn't even start writing in Brazil until I felt like I was becoming part of the landscape, that I knew the local way, that I knew about kind of hidden parts of Brazil then it becomes interesting for yourself. Just writing a touristic record, you know, who needs that? I don't need it. It's about my experience in Brazil and incorporating stories of people in Brazil who became my dear, close friends. And it's about exploring cultural phenomena that were never on the surface and still aren't on the surface. Everybody knows about samba but nobody's heard of frevo, which is an incredible kind of music from Brazil, or maracatu, which is another Afro-Brazilian kind of music that is a big part of the culture. These elements, that's kind of what I find and you will see it's scattered through the songs. "In the Meantime in Pernambuco," which is the birthplace of frevo music, is precisely about that. Actually the first time I went there, I went with my friend Manu Chao, a fantastic musician who turned me onto it. And it's basically about us partying in Pernambuco in Northeastern Brazil and having very anti-touristic experience ― like going down with the locals all the way. Then there's a song "When Universes Collide," which is essentially a romantic song but the romance gets caught in a class struggle and it's very intense because the class struggle in Brazil is very intense ― it's one of the big shortcomings in the country.
Going back to your mention of frevo (the music and dance of Brazilian Carnival) in a 2008 interview, you were asked about it and at the time you didn't want to talk about frevo. You said that you want to make something interesting with it first and then introduce it to people. Is that what you've done with Transcontinental Hustle, introduce us to frevo?
Well, I hope so. At the time I thought that I found some secret that nobody knew so I wanted to keep it to myself. But then that only lasted as long as I started wailing about it, or wrote a song about it and we started performing it and the time has come. The song "In the Meantime in Pernambuco" is precisely a tribute to frevo; its subtitle is Russian frevo. It's just amazing how much frevo actually has in common with Eastern European music. There are some tremendous things in Brazil that impressed me. I would go there and in the middle of Brazil I would run into something like that, that is so deeply Eastern European. Or meet a Gypsy community and have people who speak the language of my grandparents. Meet Gypsies who immigrated to Brazil a while ago but keep the tradition strong ― this is on the other side of the world you know? I guess the tradition itself is that strong that it doesn't fade away.
Why was it important for you to become part of the Brazilian Gypsy community?
I wasn't really trying; nobody was really trying to do anything just once we meet and we get along, we get a family feeling. I took my interest in Gypsy culture to a research level and I know a lot about it and they really appreciate sincere knowledge about it. Me and my girlfriend ― who is an anthropologist who was studying Gypsies in Brazil ― we had a lot to talk about then it turned into family like bonding where night and days were spent together at their house, my house and vice versa, it's a beautiful thing. That's a big component of why I felt home in Brazil. In that song "Uma Menina Uma Cigana" is inspired by hanging out with Gypsies in Brazil.
One of my favourite songs on the album is "Sun Is On My Side" because of its love-ballad feel ― can you tell me a bit about the meaning behind the words?
I'm very excited to hear that's becoming one of people's favourites. Because that side of Gogol Bordello was kind of under-explored. Maybe because we were too busy having a shitload of fun and kind of neglecting some of the truly musical material. But this is one of the band's favourites too. It's really significant because it is very musical it is very rootsy, it's very melodic and it explores all the emotions ― deeper emotions. I don't want to take away by over explaining the song but it's kind of a philosophical perspective of romance and your life and destiny, you know?
Lyrically, the song "Break The Spell" sounds quite personal, touching on topics of school and mental illness. Can you tell me more about it?
That's not an autobiographical song. It's a song about what people do, government do in Eastern Europe. I personally never experienced anything like that. It's written on behalf of families were Romani women were sterilized, were their kids were put in schools for mentally disturbed children because they were Gypsies. As an artist I have a microphone and the power to share it and these are issues that need to be addressed.