Monday, December 11, 2006

Coming to America

The first time I saw Kultur Shock was back in March, opening for Gogol Bordello at Neumo’s. Honestly, I knew nothing about them at time, and I actually skipped the first half of their set to drink in the Bad Juju next door, until finally the insane sounds we were hearing drug my girlfriend and me into the theater. Onstage, a Japanese bassist with a mohawk was dancing around, next to a couple vaguely Eastern European-looking guitarists and a fiddler, and in front, there was tall, broadly built man, with most of his head shaved save for a long sprout of dreadlocks coming down from the crown of his skull. He’d jump around, the tail of hair whipping about while the band descended into a jam that mixed Southeast European trad with raging metal, and then stop to sing. His voice was incredible, a strong baritone that wandered into the sort of guttural, melisma-heavy vocals that make Southeast European singing sound vaguely Middle Eastern.

This was my first experience of Gino Srdjan Yevdjevic, Kultur Shock’s singer and impressario, the outsized (both literally and figuratively) front man of what is one of Seattle’s most exciting bands.

The second time I saw Gino was eight months later, and the conditions couldn’t have been more different. Here he was, sitting on a stool with a handheld drum, backed not by the powerful rock outfit but a trio of acoustic guitarists (one of them on bass) and a fiddler. It was the grand opening of Solo Bar & Gallery in Lower Queen Anne, run by Kultur Shock guitarist Val Kiossovski and his wife, and the crowd was strangely split. At Solo, the bar and the stage are at opposite ends of the space; near the bar a group of your typical Seattle hipsters, people in jeans with tattoos and piercings, was gathered. But the people near the stage were all Slavic, nicely dressed businessmen, women in skirts with knee-high leather boots, older gentlemen in blazers and dress shirts, all gathered around the stage, all chanting and singing and eventually dancing along to music sung in Serbo-Croatian. As my friend commented to me, it felt like we were crashing someone else’s party.

Outside smoking, I got my first education in the story of Gino. We were chatting with a middle-aged woman from the former-Yugoslavia. She was wearing black and had the dark sort of complexion you think of as gypsy, and she had the mixture of cynicism and fatalistic sarcasm you get with a lot of refugees. She, like Gino, was born in what was once Yugoslavia. Under Tito, a Communist dictator who broke with the Soviet Union early in the Cold War, the Balkans saw a long period of peace and prosperity in a part of the world noted for neither. Like Gino, she was a child of the era of the 1984 Winter Olympics, held in Gino’s hometown of Sarajevo. The Olympics were a milestone for Yugoslavia, and serve as the idealized “before” of the inevitable “before and after” shots of the war-torn city.

Asking us if we knew anything about Gino, she proceeded to explain that he was once one of the biggest pop stars in Yugoslavia. “When he was like eighteen, you know, he had all the bitches,” she said, making a suggestive gesture to her loins and laughing in a husky voice that bore witness to years of smoking. It was all somehow extremely fitting.

The story of how a Communist-era Yugoslavian pop star wound up a dreadlocked Seattle punk-metal singer for a flamboyantly theatrical band is a hard story to tell, as hard as the music itself is to describe. Ultimately, you fall back on hyphenated labels: It's trad-punk, as the Levellers used to be called (a UK sub-genre that eventually encapsulated Irish bands like the Pogues and Flogging Molly as well). And it's gypsy punk, as Gogol Bordello calls it, though the influences are slightly different in Kultur Shock's case. And it's theater, not really jams so much as calculated performance--again like Gogol Bordello--with the performance and the character Gino plays onstage ultimately becoming inseparable from the music. It is, in the band's own calculation, "Balkan punk rock gypsy metal wedding-meets-riot music from Bulgaria, the US, Japan, and Bosnia." In other words, it's a mouthful, a mishmash of American rock and Southeast European trad, but artfully combined by a pop musician who understands stage presence and character. It's both the real thing and an artful artifice, which is all really just a wordy way of saying Kultur Shock escapes the pigeon-holing most music writers like to trade in. The band rocks, and rocks hard. And they put on a great a show.

I met Gino a week or so later for coffee, the day before Kultur Shock left for a European tour through New Year’s. The first thing I asked him about was his early career as a musician.

“At sixteen, I was the drummer in a band that had a hit, a one-hit wonder,” he laughs. “I was big.” It was a rock band called Zov, though Gino sort of laughs off the word “rock,” explaining that it was really just pop. “Kids today think they’re punk rockers, but they’re really playing pop music. Like the punk kids, Green Day...It’s fine, it’s good, it’s great, but it’s still pop music...Just don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Although he never said as much, I got the impression that he was making a point based on experience. Although Zov was big, they broke up when he was 19 years old. “We pretty much made it, all [of us],” he said, speaking of Zov’s members. “The guitar player is a pretty famous artist, a visual artist, painter right now. The bassist is a politician, and the singer is the biggest pop star in all of those countries right now, the former-Yugoslavia...his name is ‘Harry.’”

But at 19, Gino went off to pursue more “serious” musical pursuits. “I was going more theatrical, more jazz...they stayed more pop,” he said, adding that what he did “was still pop.” It took three or four years to win over the record company, but ultimately Gino returned to even greater popularity under the rather hilarious name “Gino Bananas.”

“We had a huge hit at the time that was kind of saxophony, melancholic, Wham, George Michael kind of pop,” he explains. “Probably my biggest achievement last time we were there on tour was that Kultur Shock overshadowed [Gino Bananas]. The success of Kultur Shock in Europe came back to where I’m from and it was kind of like, ‘Shit, look what he’s doing!’ It’s kind of like, imagine if Justin Timberlake came back in 20 years with some insane band, and your son would tell you, ‘Dad, you know Justin Timberlake from your time?’ And you’d say, ‘Oh shut the fuck up.’ ‘He’s great!’ ‘No he’s not!’ And that’s pretty much what was going on there with me.”

By the early 1990s, Gino was a well-off man, a pop star, property owner and, I got the impression, fairly self-satisfied. But then came the war. Following the fall of Communism and Tito’s death, the Balkans descended into chaos as nationalist groups clamored for independent states. Civil wars broke out between the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and breakaway republics in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and finally Kosovo. “I changed in the war,” says Gino. “When you face death every five minutes, you realize, you don’t want to do shit for anybody do what you like to do.”

When I asked about his own ethnicity, Gino balked and said, “I don’t identify myself.” Historically he comes from Serbian Orthodox-Christian stock, though he was born and lived until the age of 33 in Sarajevo, the capital of Muslim Bosnia. The story of the disintegration of Yugoslavia is too complex to even start to tackle here, and whatever interpretation one uses inevitably stirs objections from one side or another. My experience has been that invariably people from the Balkans will say that Americans don’t really understand what happened there, nor even our own role in causing it. Gino went a step further and said, “We don’t even know what the fuck happened.”

“What you guys definitely don’t know is what we were before,” he adds. “Once you find out what we were before, during the Cold War, then it’s logical what happened to us. Because after the World War II, Tito, the President of Yugoslavia, separated himself from Russia and from the Eastern Bloc, but also didn’t come to the West and the Western Bloc, but made some kind of a hybrid Socialist system where there is private property and private things if you want to, but living, schools and medicine is for free. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.”

“Hate was a crime. National and religious hate was a crime. Because once that shit starts, we got fucked. It stopped being a crime when [Tito] died, and America came to our help, and this is what we did. We started hating ourselves.”

Gino was trapped in Sarajevo during the siege, when the city’s plight became an international cause célèbre. Eventually, he wound up with cultural exchange visa, as an artist, to come the United States.

“During the war I did the musical Hair, but I made it dark and insane and with a bunch of other people, my friends, recording artists...who were trapped in the city,” he explained. “Imagine if this city got trapped and everyone from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Nirvana, whoever, we all get together and we make one huge, shit musical, because you can’t really get out.”

The production was embraced by American celebrities. Joan Baez and the filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson (best known as the writer-director of Field of Dreams) tried to bring the production to the United States, and Robinson planned to make a film about the war with Gino, but ultimately the film plans fell through as time went by; the focus shifted from the Balkans to the Haitian conflict in 1995. But Gino really wasn’t too sorry about that. He told me that he really didn’t have any faith that an American filmmaker would do justice to the story of what happened. Americans tend to exoticize the Balkans, and their perspective is myopic.

“I remember when I came here,” he said chuckling, “there’s Sarajevo [on television], and there’s a woman on a horse. For 32 years in Sarajevo, I’ve never seen a horse, except during football games when the pigs are riding them and breaking the riots.” The film proposal, somewhat unsurprisingly, tried to tell the story through the perspective of an American journalist, a timeworn trope used in countless topical films coming out of Hollywood, currently on display in the Leonardo DiCaprio feature Blood Diamond.

Eventually Gino wound up in Seattle and started playing music, but of the genre we’d call “trad” or generally ethnic world music, at restaurants and weddings. The story of how Kultur Shock (as it was known even then) gave up on world music and became a punk-metal band is the stuff of Seattle legend. The most popular version revolves around Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic seeing the band and telling them to dump the acoustics and plug in, but according to Gino it was actually the result of being thrown out of Serafina, the swank, overpriced East Lake restaurant.

Gino, of course, was a huge pop star, and while he may not have such status with American audiences, he maintains it with the Serbian et al population here in the US, who flock to his shows. As Gino describes the scene in the normally staid Serafina's, “People were just drinking and breaking glasses and jumping on tables and taking off their bras, what’s so wrong about it? We just enjoyed the music." Then he added, with grinning sarcasm, "When Greeks do it, that’s cool.” The management didn’t agree, though. “They liked the band, the Serafina people, so they came to me and said, ‘Can you kind of tell them not to come?’ And I said, ‘For you, for Serafina, so you can have some other people in here? Do you hear yourself? Do you think you’re more important to me than my audience, the people who love me? Fuck you!’ You know.” The rest of the band was unhappy with the decision and the acoustic Kultur Shock disintegrated, but Gino had a sort of what-the-fuck attitude towards it and went his own way.

The first step was to find more musicians, and the first person he called was Mario Butkovic, a Croatian émigré, who now plays guitar and buzuki in the band. Once Gino got him on the phone and told him who was calling, Mario laughed at him and asked, “No, who is this really?” They added to the line-up Val Kiossovski, a Bulgarian who defected with his rock band Orion to the West in the waning days of Communism. And over time they filled out to become the current quintet, with Masa Kobayashi on bass, Matty Noble on violin, and Chris Stromquist on drums. They released a single album, Live in America, before signing to Kool Arrow, a San Francisco-based label founded by Faith No More bassist Billy Gould. In 2001, their first Kool Arrow record, FUCC the INS, was released. According to Gino, it was recorded on portable recording gear, pushing the technology to its max. For the 2004 follow up, Kultura Diktatura, the band enlisted legendary Seattle producer Jack Endino to co-produce. Production values soared to the point where Gino felt it was almost over-produced. So for their third effort, We Came to Take Your Jobs Away, released in October of this year, the band sought a happy median.

As the titles suggest, Kultur Shock is defined less by angst than by a fuck-all sense of humor, particularly about their status as immigrants. The cover of We Came to Take Your Jobs Away features a Slavic plumber over a toilet, and when I first saw it, I assumed it was a reference to the "Polish plumber," a rhetorical scare tactic used by French political groups opposing the EU constitution in 2005. But when I asked Gino about this, assuming I knew what I was talking about, he kind of laughed and said, "No! That's Mario! Our guitarist. He's actually a plumber."

Gino tends to speak in terms of what he and the band’s not: he’s not “cute enough” to be a rock star, not “cool enough” to be in The Stranger. But he takes a definite amount of pride in pissing people off, in pushing buttons and puncturing sacred cows. And his own immigrant status, the double-standard Americans show towards immigrants, the permissible prejudice ("After all, we're white," he comments, "so it's okay") becomes the lyrical correlative to the band's transgressive, border-hopping, miscegenated sound. Strangers in a strange land, their music fluidly slips between the sounds of their home and American pop-rock, but is wholly comfortable as neither. It plays with stereotypes and rejects them, adopts a tango beat only to descend into thrash metal, or an acoustic ballad form to sing such touching lyrics as: "I know how to say/ words like 'fuck' and 'okay'/ in my broken-English way."

“We are pretty much saying what people are thinking in their minds," says Gino. "And they’re pissed about that. ‘We came to take your jobs away,’ is pretty much what you think, mother fucker, so I’m going to say it, and they’re pissed about it. They would like to say it but we say and take it away and they’re pissed about it.”

Frankly, before looking into it, I didn’t understand that comment. I had all three of Kultur Shock’s main records, and I got the humor and I got the musical insanity, but I really didn't understand hwo it could offend people. So when I got home, I looked up an article from The Village Voice that Gino had mocked, and it was only then that I started to get the resistance, to understand how Kultur Shock was pissing off the squares and pushing the boundaries of what (apparently) constitutes good taste.

In the March 8, 2005 edition, Frank Kogan wrote (in an article dismissively titled: “Wild & Crazy Guys: World’s biggest egomaniac rolls around in goo, sneaks beauty in through back door”) that Gino used “deliberately hammy guttural singing as if from a Saturday Night Live routine,” “so overemotive as to put emotion off at a distance.” “I can't predict what I might think in five years,” he snarkily comments, “once I'm really used to it, whether the vocals will seem ridiculously mannered or warmly at ease.” And finally: “They create a distance and then try to cross it, so they can have their love and yuk it up too.”

Reading the piece, I got the distinct impression that somehow Kogan had managed to miss the point completely, being a rockist more comfortable with the pastiche referencing of critical-darlings Beirut (whose Gulag Orkestra, likely to make a number of best-of lists this year, mines the same geography for source material as Kultur Shock, with less surprising results) than with the real thing. Apparently, Kogan didn't remotely find it ironic that he--an American rock critic--was all but telling Balkan musicians what Balkan music was all about, their own ideas apparently inferior to his.

But his dismissive description doesn't much jive with what I saw happening at Solo: old men dancing and singing along as hot young women danced slinkily. (I distinctively recall one very lovely young woman, who was also at the Gogol Bordello show in March, where she jumped up onstage and, what with the suggestive gyrations of her hips, distracted Gogol Bordello's fiddler Sergey Ryabtsev--and me--for most of the show.) I think Kogan inadvertently hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “these people are absolutely fluent and effective in a bunch of musics (folk, flamenco, Gypsy, metal, reggae), but in hamming it all up they pretend not to be fluent, as if they're afraid of the emotional facility of all these sentimental stylings.” The “emotional facility” and “sentimental stylings” he refers to are so much smoke in the wind, the tepid stereotyping of an American critic who doubts that such genres can be expanded beyond film soundtrack value, to actually make a bigger statement than punctuating a love scene or giving immigrants an excuse to dance around in the hold of ship.

But Gino just laughs it all off. “How they would like to see us is like those two wild guys from Saturday Night Live, and if I come and say, ‘Yes, I’m that guy! Remember me?’ then he’s pissed, because he can’t say it.”

A shorter version of this story appears in the December, 2006 issue of The Seattle Sinner.

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