Homo Sapiens Are What They Call Us

    Eugene Hütz talks to Rootsman

    Eugene Hütz is the leader of the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello and a staple of New York’s underground music scene. He has held court as DJ at the Bulgarian Bar for six years running where he has amassed a cult following. One of his longtime obsessions has been Rootsman, a UK dub producer. Over his twenty year career, Rootsman has drifted from roots rock reggae to a more experimental dub style incorporating music from the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and Asia. Despite owning dozens of Rootsman’s records, the man behind the International Dub Revolution largely remained a mystery that Hütz was determined to unravel. The two sat down for an interview and discovered that they had more than a few things in common, while discussing international dub, Muslimgauze, touring Eastern Europe, and Hütz’s recent starring role in the film Everything is Illuminated.

    Eugene Hütz: So, I was just doing my DJ scouting, probably about five years ago and I went to a store, a reggae store in New York, Jammyland, and they had a big section of yours. So I picked up an album called Rootsman Bloody Rootsman.

    Rootsman: Oh right, cool.

    EH: So that’s how I started. I listened to it for a while and I think ‘La Trevida’ [sic] was on it.

    R: ‘Ta Travudia?’ Yeah, that’s correct. The Balkan tune.

    EH: Yeah. I started with that and listened to it for about a week and then I went back to Jammyland and bought your whole fucking section.

    R: Alright, wicked. (laughs)

    EH: So I brought it home and started dissecting it, you know, cause I’m also a DJ, and I was just like, for me ‘La Trevida’ was, like, almost a custom-made track. Your music speak so much to me, and I think also to progressive-thinking youth in general. I started getting more and more curious about your work, and so I’m excited to do this interview.

    R: Yeah. It’s always good to meet people who like the stuff.

    EH: So let’s just start. Here are some of my questions. And now your actual name is …John Bradford right?

    R: No, Bolleton. I live in Bradford.

    EH: Okay, because somebody told me it was John Bradford.

    R: No, it’s Bolleton, my name.

    EH: Most of your sounds, correct me if I’m wrong, they are, to my ear, like the digital dub school of direction. Where are you with analog and digital sound?

    R: Well, somewhere in between really.

    EH: You’re mixing it up, huh?

    R: Well, I mean obviously I can play, to a degree, instrumentally — otherwise I wouldn’t be making music. But I don’t, like, play a drum kit, for example. But I’m kind of against people who just make music, whether it’s dub or whatever, and everything’s inside of a PC, because everything then sounds the same. When I started really producing seriously in the early 90s, my setup was the typical setup of a UK dub producer — an Atari ST 1040 computer, running a very primitive version of Cubase, and a number of sound modules, drum machines and outboard effects. I still record and produce in the same way using a mixture of some live samples, especially vocals, that I’ve collected and sounds from sound modules and drum machines and so on. It’s pretty primitive by today’s standards. I’m still producing on an Atari ST 1040.

    EH: Well it sounds ahead of time to me man.

    R: (laughs) It’s still rough. I came out of the UK dub scene as a producer/artist, but I was never just interested in digital dub. I mean reggae’s my number one music, and I follow mainstream reggae. I don’t really listen to UK dub or anything like that. I came out of that scene, but I was interested in a lot of music from around the world, music from the Middle East in particular. I was interested in making something that was where I was in terms of a scene, but going outside of that, taking other stuff to try and make a new kind of sound that was original in terms of my own identity rather than just having samples going “Jah” or something in it. You know, not the typical, obvious stuff.

    EH: I really like the Dub Revolution direction. I’m really into dub myself, from the original stuff to the very modern stuff. But your stuff strikes me a very progressive futuristic kind of dub. Particularly titles like International Language of Dub and the whole aura of your body of work is very future-ward.

    R: Yeah. I mean, to me, I’m an internationalist, you know? I’m a grandson of a refugee myself.

    EH: Refugee from where?

    R: From Ukraine.

    EH: No way! Are you kidding me? I am from Ukraine.

    R: Ah, fantastic! My grandfather was from Ukraine. He was Jewish, so he left the Ukraine because of the pogroms in Ukraine against Jews, and he came to the UK in 1897. I went to Ukraine one year ago for the first time.

    EH: Yeah, I grew up there, and I know the whole scene. All my friends went on becoming musicians and DJs too.

    R: Okay, wicked. I was staying in Obolon.

    EH: That’s the district where I’m from!

    R: Do you know Obolon Prospect? I was staying on that road.

    EH: You’ve got to be kidding me. I mean this is — if I was a hippie, I would say it’s cosmic. But I think it is cosmic. I cannot believe this. You know Obolon is like the Bronx of Kiev. It’s like the outskirt of working class, where if rap would come from Kiev, if hip hop would’ve originated, then it would come from there. There is actually a CD that my friend has just sent me called Obolon Dub, and I think you’re perfectly qualified to hear it.

    R: That’s amazing.

    EH: Man, for me your whole world of sounds, and visual imagery that you include, is in perfect harmony. That’s what’s very attractive — an artistic sense to stumble into a perfectly created world. You want to discover a different world and here is one. Here is one where everything is cross-referenced. That’s very much advanced level.

    R: But not always so seriously. Sometimes it is deliberate to make people react or feel in a certain way, maybe if there was some kind of political aspect, and sometimes not. But maybe in some other ways it is almost to confuse. Some people say I do Arab dub. I just did a lot of tunes with an Arab influence or Middle Eastern influence. It was never Arab dub, I never would’ve called it that. And I just did a lot of stuff like that because the Middle East is a place that’s very close to my heart. Especially when it comes to the Palestinian conflict.

    EH: Well that’s interesting though, that for you the interest in Middle Eastern music was purely adventurous …it wasn’t really a quest for roots or identity. It was really just an adventurous, free spirit kind of approach: “Ok, this is what I like. This is what speaks to me. This is the passion, and so I work with it.”

    R: Sure. I mean, wherever you are, we’re never just like a people who are one dimensional like, “I’m from a certain place and that’s me and that’s my whole story.” We’re people who live on the planet, aren’t we? So sometimes who you are is where you are now. I’m a quarter Ukrainian, but I don’t feel Ukrainian. I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian and nothing of my culture is Ukrainian. But it’s somewhere that I wanted to go just to have some idea of that part of me or my family line that was from there, just to see what it was like.

    EH: Homo sapiens are what they call us.

    R: (laughs) I’m not on any mission to make my identity any more valid.

    EH: One time when I was in Jammyland talking about your work to one DJ and he told me that you converted to Islam.

    R: That’s right, yeah.

    EH: And I thought, well, knowing your music, that makes sense. So I thought perhaps there is a further significance in that whole aspect.

    R: I was heavily influenced by what was happening in the Middle East. I believe that all religions are just a different road to the same place, which is to God, you know. As a Muslim, I’m very unorthodox. I have my beliefs, but I don’t see a Muslim being any better than a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu or anything, cause at the end of the day we’re all people. All that matters is people being good people.

    EH: What made you convert?

    R: From my teens I started to be interested in the situation in Palestine. That’s something I always followed closely up until now. I don’t know how I can answer your question. I mean, yeah, I’m a Muslim, I’m very influenced by the Middle East, but at the same time I don’t see myself as part of that or blindly following any one thing.

    EH: Do you think that maybe partly it’s, say, a romantic gesture of supporting the underdog?

    R: If it were the Jews in the same place, I would fight for them, I would believe in them. But I don’t believe in creating a romantic picture of the struggle. One reason being because I worked a lot with a guy called Muslimgauze.

    EH: Yes. I was going to get to that.

    R: Well, here is the best example. Muslimgauze was an artist who was really pro-Palestinian. So he was putting out album after album with pictures of women with their heads covered holding AK-47s, and that was his right to do so. He used to say he hated the Israelis. And I used to say to him, “The position of a Muslim is that we can never hate the children of anybody.” A child grows up, it has no choice where it’s born. Only when the person becomes an adult can they make the choice between right and wrong or oppressing a person or not. I would say, “If you continually put pictures of people with guns on your records, you’re making a stereotype of Arabs.” At the end of the day he and I believed in the same thing. I’ve made records that have been pro-Palestinian, we did one together called Al Aqsa Intifada. It’s not about demonizing one side. Nothing in the world is black and white. EH: It was a quite amazing collaboration.

    R: Muslimgauze — I’ll say this and I’ve said it many times — was an absolute genius. He did things in music that nobody had ever done before.

    EH: Such as…

    R: He did crazy shit like he would take a loop and rather than looping it at 4/4, he would loop it in some other time structure. Or he would just suddenly pull out the music for no reason and then put it back again, like, a split second later. So you could never sit and listen to what he was doing comfortably, it was always uncomfortable. He made tunes full of distortion. He was doing this kind of Middle Eastern stuff with Middle Eastern drums and samples through distortion pedals, and it was very original. Other people have come since then, and to me they sound like a poor copy of Muslimgauze, but he was the first. He was the real originator.

    EH: He’s definitely of the pioneering mind, there’s no doubt. When I found him, it was one of those times when, and it happens rarely, when you think, “This has got to be the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” And then, like, two days later you’re like, “Man, that was the fucking shit. I think that was the best thing I’ve ever heard.” And you go back to it. But one thing — you keep referring to him in the past tense?

    R: Yeah, because he is dead.

    EH: Oh! My plan was to interview him for the next issue.

    R: Well unfortunately now it’s not possible. I remember the last time I saw him alive we did a long session in my studio, so this was in 1998, and I said, “What have you got coming out? What’s next?” And I remember him saying to me he’s releasing a nine CD box set.

    EH: (laughs)

    R: And I said, “That’s completely insane! That’s what the Beatles would do, bands who’ve sold millions of albums.” He was sometimes selling like five hundred copies of a record and now he’s putting out a nine CD box set. In his short life he released over one hundred CDs. It’s incredible.

    EH: One hundred CDs? That is completely insane.

    R: I know. The first one was released when he was twenty or something. Just seventeen years later, he’d released around one hundred and twenty five albums. And some of them might have been double albums.

    EH: I love people like that, when their creativity is so uncorrupted they’re not even thinking about format. Just like, “What fucking format? This is it man!”

    R: Yeah. We did a whole album together but it’s not released yet. EH: Aha, well that is something to look forward to. Where was he from?

    R: He was an English guy.

    EH: Really?

    R: Yeah he wasn’t a Muslim or anything. I think his parents were from Wales or something. But you know his name, Muslimgauze, is like muslin gauze. It’s a pun. And he was into all these kind of punning titles creating this ambiguity. So there was a real humor underneath it all, which is quite similar to me because if you look at a lot of my titles, there’s puns or double meaning or ambiguity as well. I think we had a similar kind of style.

    EH: You also have titles like “Balkan Blues” and things like that. When you get the chance to check out our work you will see that it’s very much in a similar aesthetic realm. It’s just exactly what we do. We do this kind of a Ecuadorian hopak — hopak is like the Ukrainian national dance you know. But do you listen at all to Balkan gypsy music?

    R: I love Balkan music. I don’t know if you know this band “Mostar Sevdah Reunion” at all. They’re from Bosnia. Sevdah is the type of traditional music, sometimes called sevdahlinka. They’re one of my favorite bands in the whole world.

    EH: No, this one I don’t know. I want to get my hands on that band right away — I like to think that I’m pretty much an expert on that territory.

    R: The music, the strange timings and stuff like that. I love it. The funny thing about “Balkan Blues,” is that the vocal samples were from Bulgaria and the music was originally sampled around John Lee Hooker. So it was just Balkan blues. I just took the two things that don’t f it, like your Ecuadorian Ukrainian, and forced them together to make some strange funny kind of hybrid.

    EH: Sometimes it really works.

    R: Yeah. One of my favorite memories of touring as a DJ was when I played in Belgrade in 2002. I played in the old castle there, outdoors in the summer. I mostly played DJ dubplates, exclusive tunes from Jamaican artists, from my sound system. I have an artist from Jamaica who I was working with a lot so I took a piece of Serbian music, something with trombone, and I voiced the Jamaican artist on the rhythm and I took it to Belgrade. So I was playing the show, and it was a nice show and everything was cool. There were like four hundred people there outside. I said, “Ok, I’ve got a nice surprise for you, a special treat.” I put this on and the place just erupted. Suddenly all these guys jumped up onto the stage and were leaping around — the place went crazy. Because I had brought out their original style but with a different flavor: with a reggae artist on the top. I did the same thing in Croatia and in Slovenia and people just went crazy for it.

    EH: Yeah, the crowds there are just amazing.

    R: Yeah, fantastic. I love the East. It’s changing a lot because as the East becomes more West they’re becoming more blasé. They’re not so hungry anymore. But if you go there before people get tired, then it’s amazing. It’s so fresh and it’s just a completely natural reaction.

    EH: I know. My favorite memories of touring actually come from Zagreb.

    R: Yeah I have such great memories of Zagreb and Ljubljana and Belgrade.

    EH: It’s always interesting to, like you’re saying how you throw in a Balkan tune in the mix, it always provokes this interesting reaction because it’s like a gesture of sharing, the gesture of the fact that you are sharing their culture.

    R: I think it’s also a gesture of solidarity. You know, we have this culture in the West that we’re better than everybody else. We see the cultures that used to be part of the Soviet Union as backward and primitive. It’s a very skewed vision, mainly because of people’s own views of the Soviet Union. Generally you find the people are very warm. They’re hospitable, they’re open. They like it if you take an interest in them and their country and their culture, like everybody does.

    EH: Instead of bashing them with fucking MTV.

    R: Yeah sure.

    EH: Have you ever heard this band Mano Negra?

    R: Yeah I’ve heard of them. I don’t know if I know their stuff though. EH: Well, you’ve probably heard Mano Chao.

    R: Yeah, yeah.

    EH: Mano Negra was his previous band, late 80s, early 90s. They were from France, basically, and they did this whole salsapunk-Arabic-dub crossover. They were doing really good, talking about being a famous rock ‘n’ roll band, and then they took it totally somewhere else. They took it to South America, playing in Ecuador and Peru, Bolivia, all these incredibly poor countries where they were playing for poor students and tribal people and a bunch of sheep, you know? And they didn’t just do it for two weeks or three weeks, they did it for an entire year. And so I was always really fascinated. There was really no band like that. The culture influence of that is so enormous. They didn’t make anything out of it except experience. But the new generation that comes out of this. There is a new guy in our band, he’s an Inca Indian from Ecuador, but the guy grew up with the spirit of Mano Negra, the band that came out of France.

    R: And they put the seed there.

    EH: Yes, made an effort to share their music. Because they came there not with French music, they came there with Spanish-Arabic crossover. They hit people with sharing that solidarity. There was solidarity with their Spanish music and something new at the same time. I wanted to ask you about this other amazing collaboration you did, which, I must say, I don’t know if I ever listened to an album more than to that.

    R: Is it Union of Souls?

    EH: No, it’s Old School New School.

    R: Oh really? (laughs) Okay.

    EH: We tune up our sound system to that album. We went on tour for four years, and we played it every sound check, maybe with some rare exception when the album was so beat to death and scratched that we had to go get a new one.

    R: That was my least successful project.

    EH: No way. How can that be? That is an unbelievable album.

    R: Because basically it’s not reggae enough for the reggae people and it’s too reggae for everybody else. Probably.

    EH: But you know literally everybody I played it for, who would be from the reggae scene, or people who liked dub or jungle or drum ‘n’ bass, I would say, “Listen this is the best dancehall dub crossover” and they would say, “Yo, this is the best dancehall dub crossover ever!”

    R: When I made the album and I played it for certain people everybody said it was brilliant and I really liked it. But commercially it was a flop. It was a big flop. It didn’t sell. It was a really great album. The whole album was voiced in a day.

    EH: You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s an Olympic shape mobilization performance. It’s like the ultimate alertness.

    R: A one day album. (laughs)

    EH: How did Old School New School come together?

    R: I mean the title explains it all really, because Daddy Freddy’s from the old school, from the mid to late 80s DJ school. He’s the old school and I’m the new school, because I’m a relatively modern, recent addition to the music scene. But in reality I am also the old school.because I was around in his days, in his era. I know about that era but I’m also from the old school in my head, you know. What I was trying to do was take him and his style in a kind of modern yet different direction.

    EH: What other artists would you like to collaborate with? What do you have cookin’?

    R: There are a lot of artists I could collaborate with but at the moment I’m not actually doing any musical production, as I speak. I moved so I had to take my studio down. My studio’s in pieces in my new house at the moment. But I imagine I will rebuild it sometime this year. So what I’ve been working on is a continuation of my last album that I released, which is called New Testament. I don’t know if you know that one?

    EH: I have it.

    R: Okay, so that was a kind of change of production style where the music was more influenced by mystical hiphop, in particular people like RZA from Wu Tang Clan. There’s a new album that’s going to come out, I think in March, which is called Tales from the Hood. It had a very limited release in Germany last year. It’s the same kind of style, kind of slower, moodier beats but with a variety of Jamaican artists, no Daddy Freddy on it, but different artists.

    EH: We will send you our new album, which has it like the way it should be.

    R: I really want to hear your stuff, now that we’ve been talking and everything. I mean, you know what it’s like, sometimes you’re doing your thing out there and you kind of know that there’s similar people, and suddenly you stumble across somebody and you realize that there’s a whole world that you never knew existed. Now that we’ve been talking and I know something about you and everything and your background and your band, I really want to hear some of the stuff you’ve been doing, definitely.

    EH: Yeah, similar here. I like to think that I’m an expert and know-it-all on Balkan music, I mean, I really am, and you’re just naming me bands straight off the bat that I’ve never heard about.

    R: Maybe we’ll meet in Obolon.

    EH: Ha! That would be … I don’t even know if hippies have a word for that. (both laugh) That would be, like, off the map, man. That really would kind of flip my friends out because for so many years I promoted your work and put it on everybody’s mixes. So thanks for your time man.

    R: What’s your name again?

    EH: Eugene.

    R: Eugene, yeah of course.

    EH: Yeah, Eugene Hütz.

    R: You’re not the guy from the film?! Everything is Illuminated.

    EH: Yes I am.

    R: That is amazing! I can’t believe it. I went to see that film one week ago.

    EH: No way. So what did you think?

    R: You know when we started the conversation, and I was listening to your voice, I thought you talk just like the guy in the film.

    EH: (laughs)

    R: You are brilliant in that film, honestly …you and the guy who pretends he’s blind…

    EH: Yeah the grandfather.

    R: But you in particular, absolutely brilliant.

    EH: Thanks man, thanks a lot. It’s funny how we’re connected in so many different ways.

    R: So now you can call me Johnson.

    EH: (laughs) Well I’ll do that man. Well, I’m glad you enjoyed the film. Maybe we can sample some lines and throw some dub in there.

    R: Well definitely if you’re coming over to this country again, I’ll definitely make a big point of taking some time to meet you.

    EH: Yeah man. I would love to hang out.

    R: Yeah, you’re very welcome, if you want to come here or come to my house or something.

    EH: Thanks man, stay strong.