FORCES OF VICTORY
A Spotlite on THOMAS GOBENA from the Band GOGOL BORDELLO
By Lori Zimmer
Gogol Bordello’s bassist, Thomas Gobena, doesn’t realize it, but he is a part of my morning routine. As I settle into writing mode to tackle my many assignments, I have a ritual. While I boil water for coffee, I sit at my counter in my kitchen and write three paragraphs. After my coffee is brewed, I must finish the article, then breakfast is allowed. All of this happens daily, and all set to Tommy T’s solo album, The Prester John Sessions.
The Prester John Sessions fuses Tommy’s Gogol Bordello influence with his Ethiopian roots, borrowing beats from reggae, jazz and funk. The album feels like an education into the world of Ethio-Dub, featuring collaborations with Ethiopian singer Gigi, but also the familiar voice of Gogol’s singer Eugene Hutz on the track “The Lifers.” Knowing Tommy, the album is an extension of himself, he offers a window into his musical past and present (at a much slower pace than Gogol Bordello’s music).
I’ve been hanging around the Gogol crew for a few years now (my friend Elizabeth Sun is a member), and have watched them grow, as well as watched their fanbase explode. Every show they book sells out. Each night they bring the same 110% energy to the stage, and each night the crowd leaves all riled up, smiling, and dripping in sweat from dancing like maniacs. Yet, somehow, amidst all of this success, they remain modest, well-grounded and thankful. I can always count on Tommy, who towers over me, to lift me in the air every time he hugs me. His personality is the same blend of mellow and energetic that his music is.
Despite being a huge Gogol Bordello fan, I can’t help but feel proud of Tommy for continuing his solo work. Gogol is an amazing collaboration, but The Prester John Sessions is totally Tommy’s individual voice as an artist, listening to it makes me understand his music, but also appreciate Gogol more as a collaborative band.
Lori Zimmer: Gogol Bordello has quickly become a huge force, selling out virtually every show you play, and yet it seems there are very few imitators, or even any other bands to compare your sound to. Do you sometimes feel you have almost a sound monopoly going on?
Thomas Gobena: Well I can understand how our sound will be hard to duplicate. I think it is because of who we are as a band. Everything you hear from this band is very organic and reflects our experiences. We draw from all the travels we’ve done, but more importantly from who we are, where we come from and our individual musical influences. The diversity in GB is our secret weapon.
LZ: Over the past year or so Gogol has had a change in line up, new album, and worked with Rick Rubin. Do you see these as steps to make the band better and stronger?
TG: Regardless of personnel changes and what producer we choose to work with, this band will always get better and stronger. It is in our nature. We strive for this in our everyday life. To be better and stronger. Music is our life. But to answer your question more directly, yes all those things you mentioned will help us grow and move forward.
LZ: What music were you playing before Gogol?
TG: I played many different styles from Reggae to Hip Hop, Soul to Ethiopian music.
LZ: Gogol has introduced Balkan sounds to new audiences, do you hope to familiarize your fans with the Ethiopian flavor with your solo record?
TG: Yes. That I take as a major responsibility.
LZ: Your solo album is much more relaxed than the high energy of Gogol, what was it like to switch gears into mellow mode?
TG: My solo record was intended to expose people to Ethiopian music, but you can also hear in it other influences that sort of shaped my musical taste over the years such as Reggae, Dub, Funk and Jazz. So I never intended to make a “mellow mood” kinda album. It just happened that way, which was cool. It is “baby making music.”
LZ: Do you have plans to put out a second release? Do you ever plan to tour alone?
TG: I actually did a few shows with my own band, but it’s really hard to do at this time. The logistics of being on tour for 150+ dates with GB and then finding time to rehearse a band and tour again are just difficult to figure out.
I am releasing a single in Spring 2012. I think for the time being, I am gonna continue to release singles every 4-6 months.
I also finished producing a great band from Boston called DEBO BAND. They are signed to Sub Pop and actually opened for us (GB) in NY for this past New Years Eve run at Terminal 5. That album will be released in May 2012 as well.
LZ: Speaking of touring, you and Gogol Bordello have been on tour pretty consistently for the last 6 or so years. Have you gotten to the point where you feel like the road is home? Or do you long for your own bed, and feet firmly planted?
TG: Both. I love being on the road, but that also helps you appreciate your own bed.
LZ: You guys have played pretty much every city in the world at some point–which have been your favorites?
TG: My absolute favorite country is Portugal. I love Lisbon. Porto is great too. But all places have their own beauty.
LZ: Playing your own music everyday, what music do you listen to on your time off?
TG: I haven’t listened to music that much on this break, because I was working on multiple projects. But I recently got hip to Shabazz Palaces’ Black Out Album. Great Record! And I am buying The Roots’ new album today.
LZ: What do you hope 2012 will bring?
TG: More money more money more money.
Thomas Gobena is an Ethiopian-born musician and producer. When he’s not touring endlessly playing bass for Gogol Bordello, he resides in the DC area.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Thomas Gobena, NYC, Photography by Coco Alexander