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Spotlite

HERE COMES THE SUN

A Spotlite on ELIZABETH SUN of GOGOL BORDELLO

Elizabeth Sun by Lori Zimmer

March 2011


A few years ago, before my illustrious art world career, I decided to pretend to be qualified for a few different jobs. This is coincidentally how I got into writing–first as a “travel writer,” where I basically recounted my vacations, then as an Arts Editor. I faked my way into the fashion industry–or so I thought–as a stylist for a scammish “Model Search” tour. We went to Detroit, we went to Columbus, and don’t forget all over Texas, sharing hotel rooms and telling wannabe models not to dress like complete hookers for their photoshoots. This oddest of all odd jobs didn’t last very long (grad school beckoned–and besides, the company went bankrupt). But through it I indirectly met several of my current good friends. A makeup artist named Annah introduced me to the music of Gogol Bordello, and subsequently, a handful of people (the friends I speak of) who are involved with the band in some way or another.

Elizabeth Sun and I met one absolutely freezing night in Brooklyn. I remember wearing my heaviest sweater over another sweater with a ridiculously warm jacket from Sweden on top, and yet I was still chilled to the bone. I’d become close with a mutual friend who actually replaced me at the model search tour, who had invited me out on this cold, cold night. We soon hit it off, and realized we lived a block from each other. Dinner parties, coffees in the hood, and visits on tour soon ensued.

Gogol Bordello is not like other bands. Their sound, “gypsy punk,” belongs more in a village in Eastern Europe rather than in Top 40 radio. Their 8 members hail from all over the world–Israel, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Scotland and beyond–and the multi-cultural influence is evident in their music. They’ve been the subject of several documentaries, and have been cast in films written by Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated) and directed by Madonna (Filth and Wisdom). Elizabeth is Gogol’s backup singer/dancer/percussionist and only female member. I asked her to talk with me about finding her way into the band, traveling the globe and how she finds sanity on the road.

Lori Zimmer: You’ve been in Gogol Bordello for years now. What were you doing before joining the band? Had you been trying to make it as a musician?

Elizabeth Sun: I had been bartending at Milk and Honey bar on the LES for years and had dabbled in commercial work as well as acting. I really didn’t have a specific focus on becoming a musician when I moved to America. It was more about experimenting with all different kinds of creativity and trying to figure what I could actually do and love. With Gogol, it’s a dream come true because I have so many different functions in the band.

LZ:  How did you get mixed up with Gogol anyway?

ES: I had been performing as a dancer with Heloise Williams  (and the Savoir Faire) in NYC, who is a mutual friend of Pamela Racine’s and myself. Pam had come to the show and seen me perform and then we engaged in great conversation. A few months later I got a call from her and she asked me to come to a show at Irving Plaza because they were looking for a new dancer. To be honest, I didn’t really take it too seriously but I was just psyched on seeing the band perform. That show was truly magnificent and I walked away thinking that even if I didn’t get into the band I had experienced something that really made sense to me. What I saw and heard was just perfection on so many levels. The music and vibe made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my vision as an artist and feelings as an immigrant.

LZ: Your family is from Hong Kong, you grew up in Scotland, then went back to Hong Kong, then to Philadelphia, why did you finally decide to create a homebase in New York?

ES: My brother lives here and at that time I hadn’t really seen him in a few years as I had been living in Asia, the UK and San Francisco. So I thought I’d come and hang with him and try out the city.

LZ: I say “homebase” because your job has such a demanding touring schedule so you are rarely IN New York. You are often away for months at a time. Is this hard on your life, or has it become regular life to you? Does it put a strain on friendships or relationships? Do you enjoy the travel?

ES: It’s become my regular life. Being at home is more foreign to me now. I think that in the beginning it is difficult to get a handle on what your reality is. But now I am fully immersed in it and touring is my life.  Sure, I’ve missed births and weddings and sometimes it can be tough. Especially when you can’t see your family too often (and now that my parents have moved back to Hong Kong it’s an even bigger challenge!). I’ve always been a traveler and I think that I have a harder time staying in one place for a long time. But it’s not a case of running away. I’ve always believed in trying to experience as much as possible in my life. This is our gift as a human being. If I didn’t think of it this way, I’d have a really hard time. You have to make that choice and believe me, it’s NOT for everyone.

LZ: Gogol Bordello differs from other bands in that a) there are so many of you and b) you all come from such varied and diverse backgrounds. Do you think this diversity influences your music? Does Eugene (Hutz) write most of the music or is it a collaborative effort?

ES: The diversity ABSOLUTELY influences the music directly! It’s a collaborative effort but Eugene usually starts the process with creating the melody on the guitar with his lyrics (he’s always writing) and then the rest of the band adds on top.

LZ: Speaking of having so many members, are you all on the same bus while on tour? Is there anything you do to keep your sanity/personal space?

ES: Now, we are all on the same bus. We’ve been touring for so long we are a true family. It’s great fun and constantly inspiring. I have little projects I like to do while I’m on the road, whether it’s trying to learn a new language or just researching on works.

LZ: How has the band changed over the years?

ES: Our sound is becoming more and more diverse. Everyone in the band is constantly finding new music, so fresh ideas are always flowing. I think it’s very important to think outside of the comfort zone, to challenge yourself each day to a different experience. Perhaps, the theatrical aspect of the show has changed a little. The show is more focused on the music. Which is the whole point of it all.

LZ: You’ve been almost everywhere on this planet, where are some of your favorite places and why?

ES: South America and the Mediterranean. I find the people in both of these areas to be more relaxed about life in general. Every meal seems to have such a celebratory aspect to it. Unfortunately, today in many places, meals are stuffed into the mouth whilst walking towards the subway. I guess I like to take my time with everything…

The response to music and art is also very celebratory too which is such a joy when we get to perform out there.

LZ: When you aren’t on tour, what are you doing besides resting?

ES: I usually take dance classes at Alvin Ailey and always try to take some kind of percussion class. It’s so important for me to take these classes so I can find new ideas and gain a fresher prospective on my work .

LZ: If you’d never met Eugene, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

ES: I’d be traveling on a horse bareback across the Mongolian desert with a back pack of percussive toys, vodka and listening to Amalia Rodriguez on my ipod.

Elizabeth Sun is the backup singer/dancer/percussionist and only female member of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello.

LINKS:

THE OFFICIAL GOGOL BORDELLO SITE

ADDITIONAL:

Lori Zimmer

Jonathan Grassi Photography

Special thanks to Lori Zimmer & Jonathan Grassi for their collaboration with PMc Magazine.  The original interview can be found on”the Who You Know Tumblr blog by Lori Zimmer & Jonathan Grassi.

Elizabeth Sun interviewed by Lori Zimmer

Written by Lori Zimmer

Edited by Lori Zimmer and Tyler Malone

Photography by Jonathan Grassi

Design by Marie Havens

Captions:

Page 1/Cover:

Elizabeth Sun, NYC, 2010, Photography by Jonathan Grassi

Page 2:

Elizabeth Sun, NYC, 2010, Photography by Jonathan Grassi

Page 3:

Elizabeth Sun, NYC, 2010, Photography by Jonathan Grassi

Page 4:

Elizabeth Sun, NYC, 2010, Photography by Jonathan Grassi


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