Gino Srđan Jevđević is the lead singer and founder of Kultur Shock, a multicultural Balkan-style rock band that blends certain Bosnian oriental melodies and folk elements with a hard-rock and punk sensibility. Kultur Shock, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and has 11 albums under its belt, is commonly described as a Seattle based “Gypsy punk band”. The label essentially allies the band with a US-wide Balkan scene, whose other main US proponent is Gogol Bordello, and which was titled “scene of the year” by Spin Magazine at the height of the Balkan craze in 2007. The term is, however, largely a misnomer – rather than Gypsy music (actually rather rare in Jevđević’s native Sarajevo) , Kultur Shock draws heavily from a specifically Bosnian musical genre called sevdah – old, melancholic, Orientalized love songs often accompanied on the saz, but which Kultur Shock puts through the blender, hacking up mercilessly. At times it seems as though Jevđević – who somewhat incongruously, flirted briefly with commercial pop in pre-war Bosnia, before the war set his priorities straight – is merely taking the piss. This seems particularly true in his over-the-top,tongue-in-cheek renderings of the old-fashioned songs of unrequited love. But it is also clear that Jevđević regards sevdah as an important part of his heritage and identity, and as such holds the tradition in great esteem while knocking it down at the same time. And so “Every man must kill the thing he loves,” in the words of the immortal Oscar.
Robert Rigney: So, we begin the saga in Bosnia, in pre-war Sarajevo. What was Sarajevo like before the war?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: There is a common misconception that has to be cleared up: it’s a common misconception that we lived in the world of the Warsaw Pact. Some people even think that we were part of the Soviet Union, and I can’t really tell you how many people stop me in the streets these days and ask me if my family is safe in the Ukraine. But back to Yugoslavia, we picked what was good for us from the West. Levis jeans, Converse Allstars, rock and roll, you know, jazz, punk, everything that we liked. And we chose what we didn’t like, as well: insurance companies, pricy real estate, paying for your own doctors.
Robert Rigney: Was there much of a bar and a club scene in Sarajevo prior to the war?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: The scene was huge. There was no time since I was born that there was no scene in Sarajevo. When I was growing up there were bands. Not just in Sarajevo, but in the whole of ex-Yugoslavia. The difference between Sarajevo and the whole of the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia was – I don’t know how to explain that – but starting in the seventies our bands were more popular and famous than other bands.
Robert Soko: If I could interrupt. Why do we Bosnians think, and this is something I think we have inherited from the previous generations, why do we think that we fuck better than everyone else? You know that we were, as Bosnians, good fuckers? Isn’t it, wasn’t it? Am I right?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Yes, and I think personally that this has a lot to do with two things – our own ego and our desire to be better in fucking than everyone else. In former Yugoslavia, there were jokes: Montenegrin people are lazy, Croatian people are sneaky, Serbs are violent – and Bosnians are stupid. And I think there is a connection between being stupid and fucking well.
Robert Soko: It makes me proud, okay, we Bosnians were stupid, but we sang and played better and fucked better.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: That we played better – music-wise is really interesting. And I also thought a lot about that stuff. And then just recently, at the end of my life – and I am writing my own thing – and I am trying to make a theory. Basically, We were not ashamed – let’s put a point on it – we were not ashamed of who we were. And the rest of Yugoslavia was. In Belgrade and Zagreb they always wanted to be after the British manner. We, maybe it’s stupidity, maybe we fucked better. Maybe because we don’t think that much. You know, how in the English language intellectual has a negative connotation. That’s what we don’t have over there. We don’t over think. I mean, I made a hit myself, by the standards of a hit (in pre-war Sarajevo). But it just came out – like, you are just not afraid of who you are, while the others from outside of Bosnia, just wanted to sound better than from former Yugoslavia. So the biggest compliment for them, would be, “Oh, you sound like a British band.”
We Bosnians are outsiders. That is why we are so successful. Because when people say Bosnia, they make a sour face. Bosnia is something for them – and I am not talking about my friends – but I am saying for the majority of the population, it is something that is of lesser value than they are. That is the reason why we had more success in music, more success in art, even visual art – way more success in film, also in theater right now. We are not very good civil engineers. I don’t know how good doctors we are. But I can tell you we have probably the best academy, not just in the Balkans, but all around. Why do Irish have better culture and better music than English do? Because they were hungry.
Robert Rigney: Were drugs widely available in Sarajevo before the war?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Yeah, of course. Any drug. But when I was growing up in the eighties we did a lot of weed. But for me there was a problem there: the police were always looking for it. Just recently a friend of mine in Belgrade got three years for a joint. So, it’s a political thing. They are chasing anarchists and leftists. And that’s how it is right now. And it always was like that. The laws were horrible, yes.
Robert Rigney: I talked to Marko J Konj, a folk producer from Belgrade, who produced the likes of Džej and Mile Kitić, and he said that with regards to substance abuse, it wasn’t like in the West, with Club 27. People in the Balkans were “late bloomers”.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: That scene – the folk scene – they were late bloomers. They didn’t do it earlier. Now they are doing it. Džej, by the way, was my friend. Džej was my dear, dear friend. He never knew how good he was. We were talking about that. He said,
Šaban Bajramović was the greatest. And I said, “For me it’s you, man.” For me that sound of that voice. He could do flamenco. He was so good. Every word he sang you trusted. “Život Kratke Traje” was my favorite song.
Robert Rigney: The other thing that Konj said was that the folkers were the real rock & rollers. Or rather, they lived the real rock & roll lifestyle.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Yes, I agree. I would never have agreed before in my life, but now I agree with that. I say this as a rock person who was sheltered by my mom. They (the folkies) are mainly coming from very misfortunate households, and they were the real rock stars. And the rock people who don’t see this, are still living with their parents in their fifties and sixties. And they are from rich families, but the folkers – their life was rock.
Robert Rigney: So if folk is the real rock & roll, why is it that narodna (another word for “folk”) is so bad, seen from the perspective of intellectuals?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Let me tell you why they have such a bad rap. A couple of things. You know, this new folk, turbo-folk, that started somewhere at the end of the seventies, eighties with lyrics that were insane. But it’s more about the liberal control of the media and the control of the media by people who like to be intellectual, who like to be called “intellectuals” and who don’t want to associate themselves with peasants, nor do they want to be associated with folk, which has a rural stigma. Nobody wanted to be from the rural parts; they all wanted to be from urban parts. So they were generalizing. And there was also one more thing: a lot of nationalism from the rural parts. The war came from the rural parts. Maybe it was instigated from the centers, but pretty much the rural parts were where it was the worst. And that is their music. And probably it was about taking sides against that. It’s more about the culture than about the music itself.
Robert Rigney: Let’s change tack. What was the reason for going to Seattle? Was it the music business in Seattle? Why not New York, LA, San Francisco?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: It’s amazing that you said “music business”. There is no music business in Seattle. Even the United States doesn’t know that there isn’t a music business in Seattle. Rock doesn’t count here as a music business. Nothing ever came from LA. Only one band came from LA and that is Red Hot Chili Peppers. That is the only band from LA that ever succeeded. I mean really succeeded. And then there were fabrications of this or that band.
But, yes, why Seattle? We were in New York, Washington DC. We came here to the United States to bring a musical which we had rewritten in Sarajevo – Hair. And when that didn’t happen and we were supposed to shoot a movie, which also wasn’t realized because the war stopped, and Harrison Ford said no to it. Because he was not supposed to be a good character, but rather a bad character. He was supposed to be a journalist and journalists were doing pretty nasty things over there (in Sarajevo). Because when you are in a war you are doing a bit of black marketing here and there. And this is what Harrison Ford’s character was doing. And anyway, the movie never happened. And Lazy (Amir Bešo) and I were left to decide where to go. We were in New York and had to make a decision where to go. We had our visas extended for a year to write a theater play about a theater play. We had to pick a theater, and we got funding for that. Now it was a question between LA, New York and Washington DC. Washington DC fell by the wayside as not a viable option for obvious reasons; nice city, but there is nothing that we can do there. And so it was New York or LA. Lazy liked LA. Probably because of his future wife, who he just got together with. And I kind of liked New York, but I really didn’t like New York.
I like New York in the way in what it represents. But when I went to New York I saw that all that “melting-pot” shit is kind of bullshit. Because it is melting very broadly because there is a black neighborhood, there is an Asian neighborhood, there is this neighborhood and that neighborhood. But there is no mutual neighborhood. That’s not melting-pot. That’s not Sarajevo. That’s not where I am coming from.
Robert Rigney: So Sarajevo is more of a melting-pot than New York?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Yeah. And as for LA, LA is a caricature of the world. You know how everybody is trying to do something else. They are waiters, but they are waiting for a chance in the movies. Ninety-nine percent of people in LA are doing something that they don’t want to be doing. Anyway, a friend of mine turned me on to Seattle, and it turned out to be the right move.
Here I met Krist Novoselic (bassist from Nirvana) who introduced me to today’s bass player, and we became friends and we formed a band and everyone started coming to that band and Krist brought his friend Jello Biafra, who I didn’t really recognize at first. And Jello Biafra told me that his friend Billy Gould, who I later on found out plays for Faith No More, wanted to listen to what we did and produce a new album. And I don’t think that would happen in New York. And I definitely don’t think that would happen in LA. It was just lucky circumstances.
Robert Rigney: Was there a sense of a common Yugoslavian bond between you and Novoselic?
You know, I haven’t seen Krist for a while. I tried to call him a couple of days ago…But at that time, I guess, we wrote that theater play (set in Sarajevo) and he came to the play, and that was how we got to know each other. And then we started hanging out. Then we got divorced at the same time he arrived. I was heartbroken, and this could bring friends close. I think it was a sense of humor, it was also someone to hang out with. We talked about this former Yugoslavian community, complaining about it. We were all Yugoslavs and then suddenly we were not anymore. And all of a sudden the instructions are coming, who to like, who not to like. So Krist felt pretty confused over there.
I relate with Bono when he says about Irish communities in New York, like rooting for instability and bombs for the glory of Ireland. What is the glory of being woken up in the middle of the night and being brought to the police? The war and our people and our criminals disgust me. This is like watching TV and rooting for your team. They are sitting in the comfort of their own homes and taking sides and sending money for the weapons and stuff. I didn’t really like this.
Robert Rigney: Was there much of an ex-Yugo community in Seattle and is there still?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Yeah, there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims were coming from the war. And with Kultur Shock, we just said “Fuck you guys. I’m not going to your parties.”
Robert Rigney: That’s very similar to Soko’s story.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: But one thing that Robert (Soko) did that I did as well, is that we brought them together. We managed it so that their (the old Yugos) kids started coming to our shows. We did it! There is one thing that Kultur Shock did that is bad, is that in the beginning – and Robert did the same thing. Their (ex Yugo people) kids started dating each other at their shows. They started having kids at his shows. That is the amazing value that Robert had. And we sort of did the same thing over here. Now there is a community. There are Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, nobody knows, nobody cares where they are from. Jamaicans, Koreans, we are all in one style. LGBT – which was unheard of at the time – LGBT communities from Bosnia, and stuff like that. I want to believe that we helped.
We are a reality show. We are the real reality show. And they don’t want to hear that. And especially the Americans – I call them “folk lite” that have Birkenstocks and ponytails, long beards – like me.
Robert Rigney: You probably get more of that in Seattle, than any other place.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Oh, Seattle is full of that. They really respect what we do. But they are deeply disturbed. They don’t want to say it. And also the other side: I was hanging out with Krist and very soon we were much loved by the radio stations and little magazines here. And it was amazing, till we started touring Europe, and their friends didn’t. And then they shut us down.
Robert Rigney: The jealousy thing.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: We have the jealousy factor here as well. And we had some very famous and prominent people coming to our shows.
Robert Rigney: Maybe it was too foreign.
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Yeaaaaah, it was too foreign. But you know, I think racism and nationalism is not only a conservative thing. It exists in the liberal people. They just never say it. They just don’t want to say it. Okay there is still KEXP – they are still playing us, but only one show, a world music show, where the moderator is saying “Dude, why aren’t there more bands like you guys?” And “I like you. You are the only aggressive thing that I am playing.”
Robert Rigney: How did Billy Gould articulate what he saw in you guys?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: I remember, I got divorced, and a couple days later, Billy Gould calls up. And after about half an hour I finally figure out who he is. He had just listened to our first live album, saying, “I like it. But can you fuck it up even more?” And he almost said what I wanted to say. I wanted to fuck it up really bad.
Robert Rigney: Fuck it up, meaning subverting the sevdah stuff?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: No, fuck it up by using more distortion. Or by being a more extreme form of music. …In the United States there are white stations and black stations and Latino stations and there is nothing else. We are played on those student stations like KEXB and stuff. Soko’s music is played there too. My music is played there, too. But only in certain types of shows. And I know those DJs and they are my friends. And another problem that Kultur Shock has, is we have to offer the most unoffensive song without that much distortion. But most of our music is too aggressive for the World Music following. And Robert tried to move those borders, to infuse more energy. Because they see us as immigrants dressed in white singing about our hard life with candles, holding hands. And they love us. But we are not that nice. I am not that nice. Robert is not that nice.
Robert Soko: No, I am an asshole, man.
Robert Rigney: Are you inspiring any new acts out there? Are there musicians in their twenties who look to you as people to emulate?
Gino Srđan Jevđević:: I want to believe that this is the case. I talk to Edo a lot and I talk to Dubioza. I remember when they showed up. It’s not just younger. Listen to System of a Down after we released our Kultura Diktatura. Serj Tankian basically said, we influenced them. He’s a smart man, he’s a secure man…and there’s a lot of influence on the band that maybe you have never heard of, Puya, from Columbia, kind of Nu metal fused with Columbian folk.
Robert Soko: From what I remember, Gogol Bordello referred to you as being the inspiration and pioneers of this sound.
Robert Rigney: And why is Kultur Shock better than Gogol Bordello?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: I would say we are two different things. You can even say that Puya is better than Kultur Shock in what they do. Because I was looking up to them. Nobody heard of them, but I was looking up to them. You know, I think it’s different music. I think that Eugene has many different talents which I don’t have. And probably I have some that he doesn’t. And our musicians that have played with Kultur Shock are way, way – you know, they are different. Also, his music is much more commercial. And much more straight forward. They think more about consistency than us. And I have heard a looooot of shit from my own band about my choices of stopping and going. I can’t really help it. I personally do not know how System of a Down got that huge because I love them, and usually what I like is not that famous. And it brings me hope that they’ve got so hugely famous on music that is that good. Wow! Boom! And not everyone can do that.
Robert Rigney: There are people in the Balkan scene, who were in the scene and still play Balkan music, who wanted to see the Balkans become the new big thing, the new rock and roll. But somehow it never happened. It remained a niche phenomenon. Maybe Robert wants to add something here.
Robert Soko: I think that most of us who dealing with music and culture thought that we might make it bigger, change the world more than we have. In the time being the world is as rightwingish as it was in the thirties. This is my opinion. So it somehow begs the question: what did we do? Are we around just for fun, like just another drunken wedding, or did we really set new standards, culturally, politically? Did we change mindsets a little bit, at least in Europe and the USA?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: Is it Robert or is it me or is it everybody? We all want to be a voice of the majority. The problem is that we are not all majority. There are people who are in the majority. And there are people who are not. And I realized that I am not. And whatever I can do, I can fake it. But I will not be happy – so my demon – the one who wants to fake it – lost in the war. So I am a war profiteer from me, and ever since then, I never do anything that I don’t like. And I took the loss with it and I accepted that the entertainment quality will never happen because I am just not there. And it doesn’t mean that people who have it are more or less valuable, but rather they are just different.
But I agree with everything you guys said. We were really thinking of making it big. And I remember when we started, when you and I met, we said, “This is just the beginning. Let’s do it.” And Eugene and I met and said, “Dude, let’s just make it global!”
Yeah? Sure. But we forgot one thing – a very simple thing: there are not that many Balkan people in the world, and we’re nobodies. We are not West and we are not East and we are definitely not black. If we were black, dude, that would be a new sound! That would be the new reggae. That would be the new thing. If we were Russians – oh my fucking God – we would own half the world. If we were Korean…If we were Chinese, dude, I am waiting for the Chinese band, because you would already have billions of people following you. That’s why Gagnam Style – the most ridiculous shit ever – became big because they were already huge in China. That’s how it is. It’s the numbers. I remember when Lazy and I met Ahmet Ertegun, who was he CEO of Atlantic Records, the guy who brought Rolling Stones over here, he stole my idea. Point blank: we played to him “Killing Me Softly”, the hard-core version that we made in 1993 in Sarajevo (that makes sense, right?). He said, “Oh, nice. Boys this is great, amazing. Too bad you guys aren’t black.” He says, “There’s a lot of Turkish bands coming over here, I can’t help them. There’s not that many Turks, and even less Balkan people. Too bad. It’d be bomb”. Two months later The Fugees” – read refugees – from who the fuck knows what refugee, made “Killing Me Softly” and struck it big. You know. At least we made four people millionaires.
Robert Rigney: So you guys are the unsung heroes of the music world.
Gino Srđan Jevđević:: He just heard it from us. Yeah, I gave him an idea. But there was a reason for “Killing Me Softly” with us. There was no reason for “Killing Me Softly” with them. Nothing. Maybe it has some entertainment value. But sociologically we are right. Robert, there are just not enough of us. We are nobodies. That’s just how it is, we are nobodies.
Robert Rigney: However, there are some who feel that Balkan Music, Balkan Beats and what you are doing made Oriental music palatable; you built a bridge to Middle East.
Gino Srđan Jevđević:: That is true, but I believe that is not enough. Music is not enough. You need a sociological hook to introduce new songs – that’s entertainment. But new music – for instance, Grunge, which tapped into a sociological desperation and hope of the youth at that moment. Punk rock: the dissatisfaction with the hippy movement. New music is triggered by sociological changes. I hoped, I actually tried – and I talked to Robert about that. That our party mentality during the worst times is going to – from the bad spots of the world is going to be infectious to the people. But it was infectious in the wrong way. I wanted to infect them with the sense that even when it is hardest you party, and that’s how you get through your troubles. That would be one thought. But what they took out of it was different. What they took out of it is ”I’m gonna to be drunk and I’m gonna be bad.” Like Americans going to Mexico and Germans to Majorca and instantly get drunk on their airplane and instantly start behaving badly because they can up there, which they cannot inside of their country.
Robert Rigney: who knows maybe it will take a book to set the record straight.
Gino Srđan Jevđević:: Yes, and that is one of the things I am working on. But I am writing about so many things. So this book, I’m calling it “bitching” right now.
Robert Soko: Let me just round it off with the question: Is there anything you could have done better. You are sixty now. You’ve been in the music business for forty years plus as a Balkan hard-core whatever for thirty years. Is there anything you would have done differently?
Gino Srđan Jevđević:: I don’t think that is a fair question. Of course, there are little, small instances. I am also writing texts trying to make my amends for the bad things I have done. One of the things was, I kicked from the stage at one of your shows Robert, the woman who was dancing on the stage. I am never going to forgive myself.
Robert Soko: Really?
Gino Srđan Jevđević: At the Kato. A Turkish girl jumped on the stage, and I was in my own head, I wanted to finish the song, and I told her to get off the fucking stage. But those are little, trivial things: I raised my voice at my mom. I raise my voice at my son sometimes. All of these things are coming. Is there something that I could do better?
Robert Soko: Yeah, but we all do these mistakes, Gino. It’s not so bad. Shit happens.
Gino: Career wise I followed my heart more at the beginning. To be old and wise you have to be young and stupid. And who knows, if I followed my heart, would anyone hear about me back home…I think that everything that happened – not happened for a reason – but it has a value in life. And if it happened differently it wouldn’t be this. I don’t think we could have a bigger prominence in the world due to the music that we do. But if we did a different music then it would’nt be you.
Robert Rigney: Did you ever come across a guy named Kaan Tangöze in Seattle in the 90s? He is the Turkish lead singer of an amazing Istanbul rock band called Duman. While he was in Seattle he started writing songs in Turkish. Today the band is huge in Turkey.
Gino: I never met him. But I can understand staying in the middle of Seattle, suddenly you feel like singing in your own language. That happened to me. All of a sudden: I want to sing in my own language. And I don’t care if it is going to be sold or not. And it is amazing how things open when you follow your heart. If somebody told me that I am going to tour the world and have 1,500 shows all around the world, from 2002 till now with this kind of music – and when I was doing the commercial kinds of music and making hits, it wasn’t even remotely successful, and not only not worldwide, but not there; and all the people that were hating it then, are putting the glory on it now -I would say, life is very unpredictable. The other day I was walking Sarajevo and they were filming me surrounded by all the Sarajevo landmarks, talking about Sarajevo. And I was thinking: I was never a Sarajevo artist. I was very much not a local artist. You know, life changes in unpredictable ways. Now it’s up to us to make those changes and to be positive and be happy at the end of your life where you end it.
You know, I am absolutely grateful for everybody that works with me in my life. Nothing you do in your life by yourself. Not even remotely. Not even thirty percent. Everything you did in life, you owe other people. From sitting in a car that someone else made, to making music that someone helped you make. And I am so grateful for Robert, for my friends in my band. I am so grateful for influences, for Eugene, for System of a Down, for Billy, for Krist, for Jello Biafra, for everybody that actually influenced me. We, as the pioneers of this movement, we ought to be there for each other. One person doesn’t do anything. It’s all of us.