GigJunkie had a lovely chat with the coolest guy on Earth, bassist Thomas ‘Tommy T’ Gobena of Gogol Bordello, over some mince pies and chocolate brownies before their London show in December (review here). Here is what happened.
Gigjunkie: The members of Gogol Bordello come from diverse backgrounds, how did you all get together?
Thomas: Yeah, well...they found me in the African Child Program [laughs at GigJunkie’s double take] No! It’s the music that brings people together, so mutual friends and music you know. It happened very naturally, it’s amazing how it happened actually.
I’m Ethiopian, there’s an Israeli guitar player, two Russians, Ukranian, Ecuadorian, Scottish, US. This even goes through the crew, even the crew are from different countries, each one of them. It’s awesome.
GigJunkie: Nice, so you all have incredibly diverse influences...
Thomas: That’s part of the magic of this band. Not only that we come from different cultures, we’re also influenced by different things. So when it comes to writing, performing, contributing and all that comes in then that’s when we can really put your finger on it, the kind of music we do. In the early days ‘Gypsy Punk’ was coined, that’s what stuck and we use it but it’s really way more than just gypsy and punk all together.
GigJunkie: How did that first happen? When you first started playing with Gogol Bordello did it differ with any other bands before?
Thomas: Yeah, I did a lot of stuff. More than one band, I had my own little band and I still do. I have my own little side projects and stuff. I’ve played with a lot of different kinds of music before but I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard anything like Gogol Bordello. When I first got the call I was like [pulls sceptical face] “who the fuck are these people?” Then I heard their shit and I’m like “ok I’m down, what do I do? How do we handle this shit!” [laughs].
It was awesome, they called me for an audition and they said come for an hour and we’ll just play around, see what’s up. I asked “do we learn any songs or what?” and they say “No! Just come over and we’ll play”. So that day we play for 8 hours straight. That was it!
GigJunkie: How do you last for that long?!
Thomas: Well check out my fingers, they’re like baby skin. Seriously, I have the most weird skin because I’ll get calluses on two fingers and the next week it’ll be brand new and I’ve been playing for at least 27 years. My fingers are magical; quote me on this anytime you want to! [hysterical laughter]
GigJunkie: You guys clearly party a lot, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you on this tour?
Thomas: It’s really hard to go back and go through everything but for example last night there was a great party, Jimmy Page was here. Yeah, so we’re hanging out with the legend and he full on loves the band! He came and saw us when we played with Rage Against the Machine at Finsbury Park and that’s where we met him. Yesterday he came ‘cause he said he’s got to see the whole show because that was just a little taste. He was upstairs and partying, jumping up and down. We’re lucky enough that all the remaining Led Zeppelin members love us in different ways, that’s a great thing.
GigJunkie: How did you feel when you were told you were going to be supporting Rage Against the Machine in Finsbury Park?
Thomas: You know it’s also because they’re friends of ours. We’d actually played the same festivals so it was bound to happen. It was one of those things that you know is going to happen whenever it happens and that was a blessing. It was an awesome show, it was humbling.
GigJunkie: You converted the entire crowd!
Thomas: Good! Those guys [Rage Against the Machine] have such a respect for us it’s humbling for us to hear from them. You see what they do on stage, it’s unbelievable. We were offstage like kids, looking at them. And the funny thing is when we’re playing they’re looking at us like little kids too! And it’s an amazing honour to be in that position.
GigJunkie: If you had to choose, what would you say are the highlights of your musical career?
Thomas: There are many things, for example this last record we worked with Rick Rubin, you can’t get any bigger namewise and this guy is a true genius. His instincts are deadly, he feels music and that’s the way he works with it. You wanna be with those kinds of people and in something that happens every day. Whether I’m tired, whatever happens I get on stage and I see people in the crowd, that moment never gets tiring and that’s why we do what we do.
GigJunkie: Is that what keeps you going, the crowds?
Thomas: Yeah, I say this often: I’m a people’s person and I love music not just because it’s music but because it brings me the right people, I’m kinda selfish like that [laughs]. You know touring is not an easy life, you work hard every day. Sometimes you’re sick, sometimes you’re tired and you get on stage: everything’s gone. It’s like a brand new day and that is because of the people and the music.
GigJunkie: How did you discover that, what made you start playing?
Thomas: There is a moment that made me focus slightly but I was still young at that point and I wasn’t really like “ok I want to be a musician”. I have an older brother who is a killer bass player and we all lived in Ethiopia, he was the first one to go to the US and he sent an album that he made. Before then we all had an acoustic guitar at home, it was like a toy we’d play and put down, not something to be like a musician. So once my brother had gone to the US he’d gotten in bands and stuff and they made this record and sent it to us. That’s the first time I remember picking up the guitar to learn bass lines and play the bass. After that I was into the bass rather than just playing, that was a defining moment. From then I never really thought it was professional because it was always around me. You know when something is around you all the time you don’t think of it as a separate thing?
GigJunkie: Yeah you get used to it.
Thomas: Yeah, and then I moved to the states. Right after high school gigs started happening , the funny thing is I could always play but I never thought that I was professional! [laughs] I’d be like yeah I can play this! And that’s how shit happened. Once you get into it and you’re rolling in the vibes you realise that this is my air, you can’t take this away from me!
GigJunkie: Are there any bands that influenced you when you started playing?
Thomas: I don’t have a lot of idols; things that I see influence me all the time. I get inspired by moments, by people, by everything around me. My brother is a huge influence because that’s how things started and even when I started playing I sort of picked up his style but more than that, what he was listening to. Because I was just coming to the US and all that, he was listening to a lot of motown, you know like James Jefferson; he was listening to a lot of jazz, a lot of fusion jazz and all those great bass players. We started looking at the instrument slightly differently because they all have different styles and they all bring completely different things to the table. We started picking up things but I never really hold someone up into being an idol or a hero or something. Except Bob Marley. [laughter] He’s a human being who has done a great job and his music completely fits every moment.
Photo by Alison Clark