Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz got a lesson in overcoming adversity when the Ukrainian native and his family were evacuated in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986.
He’s applied that lesson well with the band’s growing success despite critics’ barbs that the act would never "fit in."
The group’s current headline tour showcasing its July release of Super Taranta on Side One Dummy Records is another step in the evolution of Gogol Bordello, which is earning fans from all walks of life.
Since forming the group in 1999, vocalist/guitarist Hutz, violinist Sergey Rjabtzev, guitarist Oren Kaplan, drummer Eliot Ferguson, bassist Tommy Gobena, Yuri Lemeshev on accordion, and Pam Racine and Elizabeth Sun on percussion have been delivering their Eastern European-based gypsy punk and high-voltage live shows where anything can happen.
Gogol Bordello itself began in conjunction with DJ gigs the frontman had landed around New York’s lower East Side. But Hutz said it was a fluke because he isn’t a real DJ.
"I’m just that obnoxious guy who brings my own music to the party and starts playing it, instead of what’s playing there, and everybody ended up digging it," he told Pollstar. "My method is simple. I come into a room and say ‘Let’s turn all this fucking bullshit off and put this shit on. I guarantee you, it will turn into a fucking party in 30 minutes.’
"I started DJing in a lot of bars and clubs but because I had very little respect for what people want to hear, I played what I thought they might want to hear, need to hear. I actually got thrown out of most of them."
Hutz got a break when he walked into a new Balkan bar on the area’s Canal Street and pitched the owner on hosting a party.
"I talked to the Eastern European owner with the shaggy hair. He said ‘Yeah, OK, come here and have your party,’" Hutz explained. "I showed up with a gypsy band and some friends of mine. I think we broke two or three tables."
The club owner offered Hutz a regular gig instead of showing him the door.
Gogol Bordello’s early gigs ended up a lot like Hutz’s DJ jobs previously had. The group was banned from most clubs – even CBGB – by the end of 1999, Hutz said. But being labeled a "problem" led to the band’s discovery by the arts community, which opened up new avenues such as NYC’s Whitney Museum Biennial and the Tate Modern gallery in London, to hone its act.
Then the group hit the road hard.
"Our band is made from a world full of music, which is an indestructible passion to start with. So what we did, we got in a van and toured the world," Hutz said. "I’m talking about going all the way around the States in circles and going out to Bosnia and Slovenia and everything in between on a very low budget.
"We had people interested in us but it was a big effort. The word on our band was spreading non-stop but still, the conditions were hard."
The Agency Group’s Val Wolfe said he signed Gogol Bordello after his European counterpart, Tobbe Lorentz, alerted him to the group. He then took on the challenge of marketing an act others labeled "unmarketable."
"Of all the things we use to get a feel for an artist or how to promote them, Gogol Bordello was kind of slipping through the cracks. They didn’t fit into any preconceived notion of what a band should be," Wolfe told Pollstar. "[I saw the] unique quality of the music, the kinetic energy that they exhibit on stage.
"They’re pushing the envelope in terms of an exciting live stage show and keeping the audience fixated on what they’re doing."
Nettwerk Management’s Frank Gironda, who’s worked with artists including Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Fishbone, said his first impression of the band was that it was a cross between The Clash and the "Rocky Horror Picture Show."
"I first met the band and saw them perform at the Reading Festival in the U.K. last year. I was really blown away by the performance," Gironda told Pollstar. "It was just so incredible to see the crowd reaction, the live energy and just how physical the show is.
"As we’ve all complained about the sameness of music, this is absolutely in a category of its own."
Gogol Bordello is creating problems for Gironda and Wolfe, though. The two are having trouble deciding which of many offers will fit into an already busy schedule.
"It’s a good problem to have at this stage," Gironda said. "We have a lot of different options we’re sorting through."
That schedule includes headlining select dates in July and August, including festival dates in the States and overseas. Plans for a national tour in the fall are currently in the works.