Robert Soko: We are about to compose a book in the next year or two. Something similar to “Please Kill Me”.
Robert Rigney: The Balkan version.
Robert Soko: Yes, the Balkan version. Let’s say thirty years of Balkan mayhem.
Billy Gould: Cool.
Robert Soko: And we are trying to get in touch with everyone who has something to say, on a bigger scale and on a smaller scale somehow linked to music. And of course, you are one of the very important figures, in my opinion.
Billy Gould: Well, cool.
Robert Soko: Here in the scene everyone mentions the name Billy Gould, as someone they have worked with. You are quite the phantom, really.
Robert Soko: Shantel, Dr. Nele Krajelic…
Robert Rigney: So, let’s hit it.
Robert Soko: So, Billy, how did you get mixed up with the Balkans.
Billy Gould: We played in Berlin in 1989 at the Loft.
Robert Soko: And by “we” you mean…
Billy Gould: Faith No More. In 1989. It was a normal gig, but everyone was saying the Wall had just fallen. We didn’t believe it, and then we went outside, and there was traffic everywhere. It was like this invasion. It was insane. And I had grown up in America, where we had a real Cold War paranoia, at least in my generation. And even driving through the corridor to get to Berlin was a thrilling experience because we wanted to know what it was like on the other side. Well, as soon as the Wall came down, I started to wonder: What is over there? What were all of these places that had been denied to us for so long? So about a year and half later we were playing with Guns and Roses in Budapest, and they were just starting to do gigs. Eastern Europe was opening up. We played in Ljubljana about six months after that. When we played Ljubljana we had three days off in Piran. And I just rented a motorcycle and drove into Croatia. I just wanted to go and see as much as I could see in the amount of time that I had. It’s just something that I got deeper and deeper into and I kept discovering new things, and it never stopped actually. It still hasn’t stopped.
Robert Rigney: At the time, and I can speak from experience because I ended up there as well – but Prague was a place that exerted a great attraction to Americans. Would you say that for you the Balkans were more interesting then than the Central Europe of Prague and Budapest?
Billy Gould: Well, the Balkans was less accessible because there was a war going on. Prague was actually the first place I ended up. I started a company there to promote concerts, to put on Primal Scream. It was called Epic Promotions. But it was a little tough being so far away. But I was just learning stuff…But what got me into the Balkans…there weren’t that many gigs there at all. I think KISS played in Belgrade right around 1994-1995. And what got me to finally get there was that we played in Berlin again. I had always wanted a Trabant. I did a radio interview, and I mentioned that I wanted to buy one, because they were cheap, and someone showed up at the radio station with a keys to a Trabant and a registration form and gave me the car. So, I got a second Trabant – that one my brother took somewhere and I never saw it again. But, I got another one, and I decided I was going to drive this one from Berlin to Tirana. That was my goal. So, we drove through Hungary to Belgrade. This was right around the time that there was an embargo happening. We drove from there into Kosovo and then into Macedonia and then into Albania. And we ended the trip in Sarajevo. It was the night after the lifting of the curfew restrictions from the war. Basically we arrived when the war had officially ended. That was the day we got to Sarajevo. 1995-1996. February or March. It might have been 1996. And, you can imagine just on that trip alone, how many different places we went to, how many different cultures and languages and everything. So from ‘96 till now, I’ve just been coming back and trying to see more and do more an interact more.
Robert Rigney: And we talked to Vedran of Dubioza and he said he met you in a bar in Sarajevo, just showing up there randomly.
Billy Gould: Yeah, that night that I got there I headed into a bar and he was there, or he saw me there. I didn’t see him. But I met a bunch of other people, though. I met some of his friends.
Robert Rigney: And did you keep in touch with Vedran, or how did that relationship develop?
Billy Gould: I didn’t. About ten years later I was together with a band called Harmful. I produced their record. I wasn’t doing anything at the time, and I said, “I’ll join the band if we can tour the Balkans.” And they said they were up for it. And then we went back to Sarajevo and did a show, and Vedran was at the show. And I reconnected with him. And I think I might even have met him the first time, but anyway we had a big long conversation then. And I knew about Dubioza already. And they were just basically playing Bosnia, and he was really frustrated, trying to get out of the country and start touring, I remember. And we had a long conversation that night. And we stayed in touch ever since then.
Robert Rigney: How did you find out about Dubioza?
Billy Gould: Just driving around everywhere you started to hear their music.
Robert Rigney: And then you went on to release them on your record label Kool Arrow. How did that come about?
Billy Gould: I would think as Faith No More we were a band that was not very conventional. It was not very typical for the era that we were playing in. So I learned a lot of skills having to do with how to get around this wall that we were up against. And that is kind of what we do. I like challenges, and Dubioza, they were having a lot of challenges just coming from Bosnia and trying to get out there into the greater perception, into the world. So we kind of schemed together about how to do that. And me releasing that was part of the scheme.
Robert Rigney: Which album was that? Happy Machine?
Billy Gould: Wild Wild East. I did Happy Machine, too, but that is a pre-album. We just put our stamp on it.
Robert Rigney: What was it about Dubioza that made you decide that you wanted to have something to do with the band?
Billy Gould: You know, its context, right. The sound when I first heard Dubioza, was very dub influenced, and when I heard more about them and learned more about them I discovered that they didn’t come from that area. Rather, they came from a very noisy backgound, very aggressive – which was probably a lot closer to what my background is. By the time we did Wild Wild East, the music is pretty pop, very different from the stuff I get involved in. But I understood the context. I understood the intent they had and where they were coming from. And I realized how music was just a part in the overall presentation of the picture. So for me I found it interesting because I felt that they were coming from a unique place. They have a really unique perspective. And I think they are smart enough to present it in a way that people can understand it. I thought it was important.
Robert Rigney: Did you try to push them in a certain direction to get them to emphasize a particular aspect of their sound?
Billy Gould: I never got into their sound and questioning what they did aesthetically. It had more to do with battle tactics.
Robert Soko:I would love to ask some questions about Steve Maas and the Mudd Club back in the day.
Billy Gould: Oh, boy, yeah.
Robert Soko: I remember there was some sort of a collision, some sort of a collision. What was it?
Billy Gould: Well, you know, I was in Berlin on a holiday, I think with my wife. And this was a culture shock, it was maybe 2001. Kultur Shock really wanted to get to Europe. These guys, playing this Balkan music in Seattle. Nobody knows what this shit is. People didn’t want to hear this kind of folk music with loud guitars. Like, what the fuck is this? So I was trying to help them get a leg in Europe. Spain would have been an interesting place to start. And I knew – I had heard – that there was a Mudd Club in Berlin. And there was a DJ playing Balkan music. So, I brought a CD with me and I went to this dark little alley after dinner one night. I was, like, okay, and I dropped it off to the guys. And the guy, Steve, was there. And it was just this New York guy, and he was basically a dick. But it’s fine. I’m used to giving demos to clubs. And that’s kind of how we met Robert. But, yeah, I just remember him being a very difficult guy.
Robert Soko: Yeah, somehow not easy to deal with. This is what I remember.
Billy Gould: He liked to tell me about the Mudd Club in New York.
Robert Soko: Yeah, that was his big story.
Billy Gould: He might have lectured me for half an hour on it.
Robert Soko: Well, this is a great introduction to Kultur Shock. You and Kultur Shock. When did it start? I think you launched their first album – I don’t know I if it was the first – the legendary one – Live in the USA.
Billy Gould: No, I didn’t do that one. I did, Fuck the INS…I think people in San Francisco knew I was obsessed with Eastern Europe. That was basically the extent of my involvement with it. Jello Biafra called me one night, and he said, “Hey, there’s this guy in Seattle. He’s a Bosnian guy and he’s doing some music, and I think you’d really be interested in it.” And I was, like, “OK,” you know. I called up Gino and we talked over the phone. It was pretty interesting, and he said, come up to Seattle and just check us out and see us play. I came up there and I liked the guys immediately. I hung out with Gino for the day and we clicked very quickly. And then I came to rehearsal that night. Basically it was in a garden shed in back of the house. But, it was cool. It was good energy. And I thought, I’d be interested in putting this out on my label. They didn’t really know exactly – they put up a Live in the USA, but they weren’t sure of what they wanted to do, but maybe we could work together. So they recorded that record, basically in that garden shed. And Val and Gino came down to San Francisco to stay at my house. I had a studio in my basement. It wasn’t even a studio. It was just a computer and some speakers. And we basically spent a week locked in that studio. And the sounds were…like you recorded it in a garden shed. And we got some grey hairs trying to make it sound good. And I think we did. And that was my involvement in how I got together with them.
And that came out right around the time of September 11. So September 11 happened, and I think I released that record a month or two later. People did not want to hear that music in the United States at all! They just figured it was Arabic music. That’s basically what the thought it was. We were getting mails, and we were getting CDs that we had sent to radio stations – sometimes they were broken in half. It was a disaster. But the people that heard it – it just kind of lasted because we just reissued it last year, and it is kind of seen as a classic record now.
Robert Soko: If you juxtapose Kultur Shock with Gogol Bordello, what crosses your mind?
Billy Gould: There is a difference. There is a difference. Gogol Bordello to me is a package. It’s a very well organized package. It’s a very defined idea. And it sticks to those definitions very well. And it’s very effective. Kultur Shock is a band of misfits. They are very talented people, but they are almost too creative to define themselves. They sort of let their music and their personalities kind of collectively define them. So, to me it’s a more interesting band. But it’s a very hard thing to manage, if that makes any sense. I think they are very, very different from each other.
Robert Soko: And you don’t think that they hit the nerve among people in the States like Gogol Bordello does.
Billy Gould: Well, I think if they play live, they do. I think actually, it’s a much more powerful show. They’ve played together, and Kultur Shock – I’ve seen them back to back and Kultur Shock is just a fully committed band with intense energy. Everybody in Kultur Shock is in Kultur Shock. Whereas Gogol Bordello seems like a showcase for Eugene. Not to diss them at all. I’m not saying that in a bad way. I’m just saying that there is something about a band when they are all part of it. There’s an energy that comes out of that. So, I think that the problem is that Kultur Shock are all over the map. If you look at their videos or listen to their music, they go where the wind takes them. And that’s the beauty of it. But it’s difficult to sell, if that makes sense.
Robert Soko: And the 00 years, around 2005, when we sat in New York, it looked like America was going to embrace the Balkan Wave, but it didn’t happen; it missed out somehow. In Europe, it still has its own corner somewhere in the landscape of culture. Whereas America tried it, thought about it, turned it down. What is this?
Billy Gould: I think America is such a huge country. I think to make movements like that happen, you have to have a lot of money behind it. That’s my take. I think that if there was a couple million dollars into this movement it would have worked. I think there was a time when the mind, the mentality was open to it. But you need a lot of marketing to reinforce that new idea, and make it digestible to people, and make it familiar.
Robert Soko: Does it mean then that bands like Nirvana, Faith No More, etc. is also linked to a big budget?
Billy Gould: Absolutely. One hundred percent. One hundred percent. Faith No More, I mean, we had a lot of people who were on our side. We had Guns and Roses saying that we were their favorite band. Metallica opened our shows, but we weren’t selling records. And no one cared about us until MTV played our video. That’s just a fact. Nirvana was on a major label when they broke. There’s a reason that was the case. I mean, there are independent bands that have broken through, so, fair enough. But, generally speaking, this is a very big country, and to connect on that level, you need muscle.
Robert Soko: It is an interesting aspect. I think there is something else to it, to all these cultural differences. I don’t know how to explain it. But in Europe we – and when I say “we”, I mean all of us who are somehow dealing with East European music – managed to establish it, and it is still, to the present day, whereas in America it has completely disappeared.
Robert Rigney: But doesn’t it exist in the States as a kind of subculture in places like New York and San Francisco?
Billy Gould: It is. I mean, it comes and goes in waves over the years. But there was a time when it was a good subculture. Gogol Bordello was playing big shows. And the had this Gypsy Punk thing, which was bringing all sorts of people to the shows. I saw them at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. That’s about 3,500 people. That’s what Faith No More would do. So, I would say that it did work. But when you look at the size of the population of the United States, you can’t say it was mainstream. But it did respectively well.
Robert Rigney: The whole thing has waned here. But in the States do you still get acts billing themselves as Balkan or East European?
Billy Gould: You might. I might be a little out of the loop on the domestic Balkan scene right now. Right now, it seems, because I am doing rakija – I’m actually importing rakija here, right? What I am seeing is – I’m not seeing a large awareness of a Balkan culture here, right now. But every new generation is a blank slate here, you know.
Robert Rigney: Rakija.
Robert Soko: But before we talk about rakija, are there any crazy anecdotes linked to consumption of rakija whilst touring with Kultur Shock or whomever? Is there anything worth talking about?
Billy Gould: There are. Let me just think about some that I can talk about.
Robert Soko: It looks like we will have to get you drunk to go fishing for ideas.
Billy Gould: That is a really good idea.
Robert Soko: Do you drink rakija?
Billy Gould: I do. I do.
Robert Soko: A lot? Not much?
Billy Gould: I was in New York this past week. I’m in a hotel in Virginia at the moment; I got Covid. So I haven’t left the hotel for four days. I was doing rakija all week last week, turning people on to it, who didn’t know what it was. It’s amazing that people don’t know what this is. The’ve got everything here, right? Everything comes to America. But rakija never made it here. Even people who are in the industry, who are alcohol experts, they didn’t know rakija. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to think about.
Rakija stuff? So, when we played those early shows in Ljubljana with Faith No More and Guns and Roses and Sound Garden, a lot of kids came from all over that region. We had busses coming from Bulgaria, from wherever, from Turkey, from Serbia, and a lot of kids – back in those days in 1992 security wasn’t what it is now in rock concerts. Kids could get back stage back then. Even though those were big concerts, kids were everywhere. The government didn’t even know what it was supposed to be doing at that time. You could walk down Budapest smoking a joint. Police didn’t know what it was. So it was this kind of, like, freedom time, and kids just brought bottles of homemade rakija with them to the show to give to the bands. And that’s when I tried it for the first time. Some of it was really bad. But I had a couple good ones, too. And it was basically, nobody had any money, and this was something they could give to the bands to connect with them. And it was actually really touching. You could tell it was home-made.
Robert Soko: Did it have a bad impact on the band’s performance?
Billy Gould: Not till later. We played at the Exit festival. Everybody in Serbia knew I liked rakija, Mike Patton liked rakija. You know, up to three hours before we were scheduled to play, people were getting sloshed on rakija. We were so drunk by the time we got on stage, it was almost a disaster, but we pulled it off.
Robert Rigney: The stuff you are selling, where is it brewed?
Billy Gould: It’s made on a mountain called Goč, right near Kraljevo, right in central Serbia on a farm. It’s just a handmade version. My deal was – what I really wanted to do with it was – you can get slivovitz. It’s here, but it’s commercial stuff, and that’s all you can get. And to me it tastes like nothing that I know when I go to the Balkans. Like a really good family version. I want to try to bring one that you would have in your house, a real one that you don’t buy. This is a handmade version. It’s made by a family actually. And it’s like we are going to try to do something. We are going to try to bring this crazy homemade shit to America, that doesn’t exist here.
Robert Rigney: And how do Serbs and people from the Balkans in general react to the name of the rakija, Jebi Ga (“fuck it” in Serbian), which might sound a bit rude, depending on your view.
Billy Gould: They laugh. They think it’s good and bad. Most of the time it’s great. I mean, they love the label. They love the name. But, like, I’ve been to some churches, and the priest have said to me, like, “This rakija is really good, but I can’t tell anybody I’m drinking it, because I can’t endorse this. But you are losing out on a lot of money, because we have weddings here and we have funerals. We could be serving your rakija, but I can’t serve anything called, Jebi Ga. Sorry.”
Robert Soko: Why Jebi Ga? How did you come up with this?
Billy Gould: It’s just a funny word that we always say. I saw a picture of a Baba. And I knew that if I was going to do a rakija one day, the Baba would be on it. I wanted it to be an obituary notice (the type that are posted on walls and telephone poles all over ex-Yugoslavia) because that’s so punk rock. To an American. You grow up in the Balkans and you see them everywhere. It’s no big deal. But when I saw these obituaries I thought a band was playing. So I wanted it to be, like, an obituary and I wanted Baba on it.
Robert Soko: Ah, this obituary thing you took as a design for the label. When someone dies in my region, they use this to announce the death.
Billy Gould: Exactly. That has to be on the bottle. Because that to me is the Balkans. To me it’s hanging out in a village drinking rakija, I look out on the street, and that’s what I see. And then that came together with Jebi Ga, and the message was “Fuck it. Life is short.” And me, this American bringing rakija to America, like, why am I doing this? Fuck it, I’m just going to do it. And the other message is: “It’s part of life and life is hard, and here is this dead woman on there, and it’s like enjoy and live your life.” Rakija is about experiencing life. So, fuck it!
Robert Soko: Are you experiencing some difficulties bringing it over there? You mentioned that the profit margin is not so big, because you have to go through the hell of administrational red tape.
Billy Gould: I mean, it’s hard. America is a big country. All business revolves around volume, and especially with products, especially alcohol products. And what makes it more difficult here is we have fifty states, and each state has its own laws with alcohol, and its own taxes and its own reporting. And every state is like a whole new country and you have to keep up on it. It’s an insane amount of work. And different costs. Just a lot of different things. It takes such an apparatus to get through. Because you have a three-tiered system, where there is an importer who brings it in, then there is a distributor – you have to sell it to the distributor, and then there is a retailer, which is the store or the bar. We had prohibition here in the 1920s when alcohol was illegal. And one of the things they did to appease the anti-alcohol people is they said, “OK, we are going to make alcohol legal, but we are going to make it really a pain in the ass for anyone who wants to be in the business.” That was the compromise they made with the anti-alcohol people. So, that system works to this day. Everyone is taking money from when it arrives at the port to when it gets to the store. You have to move a lot of it because you are just getting a piece of the whole puzzle. And the only way it makes financial sense is to move quantities.
Robert Rigney: Are there any notable places that carry the rakija?
Billy Gould: A lot of different places. So, when it first came I went to the Balkan people first. Because I knew they couldn’t get this stuff. I was a drug dealer in the beginning. “I got the stuff,” right? I started in San Francisco. There are a couple of Balkan markets in every town. I would just give it to them, and they would try it and, like, this is good stuff. The word got out and we started selling steady amounts, because people knew. I wasn’t doing any advertising. I just knew that there were people who would appreciate this.
And that only got so far. In each town that community is limited. But it was good. I felt like I was doing something, connecting people to this. Because this rakija, it really is like being home. I was getting text messages in the middle of the night: “My friend’s wife is having a baby, I need rakija right now!” I was like, I can’t sell it to you directly…I loved getting into the culture and interacting that way. But what we are trying to do now is turn Americans on to this. That’s the second step. And that to me is just as gratifying. It’s like, it’s so weird. I’m going to New York and I’m with guys that are really far up in their field (spirits). They know so much about spirits, and they would taste it, and be, “I’ve never tasted anything like this before. How is that even possible!” If they had known about this I wouldn’t be doing this. In fact, the only reason I’m doing this is because no one else is doing it. I’d be fine just drinking it at a barbeque at my house. But, you know, it wasn’t being done. And to me, actually, it’s fascinating. You know, with a spirit there are smells, the taste is all these associations that come with this drink. Robert, I mean, you grew up with it. You know, when you have it, what it does for you.
Robert Soko: We Yugos often associate it with trouble. The smell of rakija means to me, “Oh-oh, trouble. Dangerous. Drunken father,” who would be somehow threatening us all.
Billy Gould: You know, I like the rebel aspect of it, as well. I come from a punk rock background so for me it’s a very punk rock thing. It’s not pretentious at all. It’s very, very real…And trouble, as you say.
Robert Soko: After thirty years of being in the scene, I want to ask you, aren’t we Balkan Beats, also some kind of punk rock?
Billy Gould: I think so. That for me is what I connected it with. Obviously the Balkans have their issues. But in other ways, if you look at Americans and Western Europeans, in contrast to them, Balkan people live like free people. Like, free people that we don’t live like. We have a lot more internal repressions that we don’t even know we have, that maybe never even arrived there. The independent spirit. I can definitely say that in a place like Serbia that has resisted 500 years of Turkish occupation. There’s just something in that mentality where you resist conformity and you become very independent. There’s something about that that I gravitate towards.
Robert Rigney: Do you have a particular favorite place in the Balkans?
Billy Gould: Oh, I love many places. They’re all very different. But there are a lot of places I love. Belgrade’s great, but, it’s just different.
Robert Soko: Billy, we are trying to portray the last thirty years through the music, etc. What would you say happened? What did we do?
Billy Gould: With Balkan Beats?
Robert Soko: With Balkan music as such.
Billy Gould: I think thirty years ago it was traditional. And then guys like you brought it from being traditional and hybridized it, modernized it a little bit, keeping the tradition. I think you started something, but it still has a long way to go. I think there is a lot you can do with this. Just rhythms that are not 4/4 rhythms – there’s a lot of territory. I’m speaking as an American, I just think there is a lot to Balkan music that Americans have not experienced in general. I think you can do all sorts of things with it.
Robert Soko: Did you have any negative experiences, encounters in former Yugoslavian republics. Because there are a lot of people who might be out to abuse Americans or take advantage of them, to take the piss out of them.
Billy Gould: Yes, I did.
Robert Soko: Anything that we can share with our readers?
Billy Gould: There’s a thing that happens. Usually I can see the signs. Someone comes up to me and is very nice, we have a nice conversation, have a drink. Then, they buy me a drink. And then I talk a little bit more and buy them a drink. And then the person starts getting a little happy and begins to start asking me questions, like, “How come you don’t have a girlfriend here?” Now I can see where this is going. Because where that goes, if we continue this conversation it ends up they start asking me questions with a smile, but they are slightly aggressive. Then they get really aggressive and start asking questions about Bill Clinton, and shit like that. So I get the fuck out of there. I mean I have hung out in rougher places. Some punk rock bar or country and western places where you could have similar experiences.
Robert Soko: I remember once you guys – Faith No More – played “Ajde Jano” at Exit festival in Serbian. Why? How did it happen? It was fascinatingly good.
Billy Gould: I wanted to do it. I just wanted to do it. You know, let’s do something special for the show. I think it might have been the first time we ever played in Serbia. I mean, I’ve been everywhere else. We have played Croatia, Slovenia a few times, Hungary. But we never played Macedonia, we never played Bosnia and we never played Albania and we had never played Serbia. So that was the first time in Serbia and I wanted to do something special.
Robert Soko: Because Mike Patton sung in Serbian. It was quite something.
Billy Gould: Yes, Mike had to learn the lyrics. I tell you, I’ve been playing with our drummer for more than thirty years, since we were eighteen. And I know how he plays. We can do a lot together. We have a language we speak. But doing the rhythm for “Ajde Jano” was not a natural thing for him. It was different. And getting us to make it so that it somehow worked was not an easy thing to do. Because it is really outside of our language. And that part is really cool. It’s amazing that something that simple can be that difficult.
Robert Soko: What did you feel on stage? Did you feel some massive feedback? Because I envy you for this.
Billy Gould: It was just fun. We were just doing what we did. The good thing is if you do something like that, even if you fuck it up, and we fucked it up a little bit, the fact that we were trying made the audience really appreciate it. And once they appreciate it, we go further with it. And it was great. It was really great.
Robert Soko: Well, I think we have asked all our questions. Are there any other people in the business who are secret Balkan afficionados?
Billy Gould: KISS played in Belgrade in the nineties. I think they would be happy to talk to you.
Robert Rigney: Well, thank you for the interview.
Billy Gould: Thank you.