There are two descriptions of the seven-piece Calgary band Total Gadjos on its Facebook page.
One concisely defines the band’s sound along genre lines, dissecting its mash-up of influences as Eastern-European folk, Roma klezmer and Balkan post-punk. The other description is a bit more mythical.
“Total Gadjos are Gogol Bordello and Fanfare Ciocarlia jamming with Nick Cave in a refugee camp,” it reads.
It paints an intriguing picture but also references the colourful backstory of Total Gadjos singer-songwriter Pet’o Joch. Before he ever heard Gogol Bordello, Fanfare Ciocarlia or Nick Cave, he lived in a refugee camp with his family in Austria. Pet’o was 12 when the Jochs left the former Czechoslovakia in 1989, eventually landing in a crowded and squalid camp south of Vienna in a town called Traiskirchen. The family stayed for a month. For most of that time, they weren’t allowed to go outside as they waited to obtain refugee status. The conditions, and in particular the food, were not exactly of resort quality.
“They used to give us huge portions of food but I think the food was expired or something, I don’t know,” says Joch, in an interview from his Calgary home.” I puked from the third floor from the food.”
Joch graphically recounts this experience in the bluntly titled number Traiskirchen (Puke Song). The verbose tune, found on Total Gadjos’ third EP Arcadiate!, paints a revolting and perhaps slightly exaggerated picture of the cuisine that led to the incident.
“Cows, wigs, macadamia nuts were mixed in with some porcupine guts,” Joch reports with Nick Cave-like phrasing and delivery.
“It’s the only song about puking I’ve ever heard,” he says with a laugh.
This is not to say that Total Gadjos, who will open for the Plaid Tongue Devils at the Ironwood Stage and Grill on Jan. 12 at 9 p.m., is a shock-rock band specializing in grotesque lyrics. But the song’s direct reference to his time at the camp does bring up the question of whether these experiences affected Joch’s artistic sensibilities later in life.
“I think it influenced me, my personality, so probably,” he says. “The whole Austrian influence … There was so much racism in Austria at the time. I remember we got out of the camp and moved to a small town close to Salzburg. There were fights every day. The immigrant kids were fighting with the Austrians. So, finally, they kicked us out of school.”
Joch’s songs, including those found on Total Gadjos fourth and most recent EP, Our Diamond Tears Tore Open Boulevards and Streets, are certainly not political in nature. But the mix of thumping Eastern European folk and punk fury does convey a certain fighting spirit underneath the joy.
“I try to make them really positive, really energetic,” says Joch. “I think they are positive. A lot of people don’t think they are. I don’t think they are very political, as far as the news. But I try not to make them about love or themes like that. It’s mostly energy and positive energy — I don’t want to say ‘having a good time’ but perseverance is a big thing.”
The other influences on Total Gadjos are a little easier to map. In the former Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, Western music was hard to come by but Eastern European folk was ubiquitous. After a few years in Austria, Joch and his family arrived in Canada and, after a frigid winter in Moncton, quickly relocated to Vancouver. It was around that time that Joch discovered Nick Cave and punk music in general. Later on, he discovered the punk-charged Celtic tunes of the Pogues.
“When I heard the Pogues, I was like: ‘Hang on … I could do Eastern European music and punk mixed in with it,” Joch says. “I was looking for bands that were doing it and I couldn’t find anybody until the early 2000s with Gogol Bordello. I was looking for a way to do it. But I never had a blueprint or anything. So they provided the blueprint.”
Joch studied painting at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and eventually relocated to Montreal and then Toronto, which was where Total Gadjos was born. Joch moved to Calgary in 2016 and quickly began recruiting locals to play with. The band now consists of Craig Galambos on lead guitar, Laurie Anne Fuhr on bass, Colleen Buckley on trumpet, Joseph Fernando on accordion, Lonnie James on drums and Eugene Kirton on saxophone and clarinet.
Along with Joch’s energetic originals, the band also offers covers of Tom Waits and Nick Cave and even a rollicking run through Wham’s Careless Whisper. Total Gadjos has also slowly been making headway into Calgary’s community of expat Slovaks and Czechs. So, depending on the makeup of the audience, Joch may throw in some traditional Eastern European folk tunes as well.
“I’ve gotten two responses,” Joch says. “One was that they love the originals, they love the punk and post-punk influence and the Eastern-European folk. The second are the purists, the people who just want to hear their music the way they used to hear it. I think we can please both of them.”
Total Gadjos will play the Ironwood on Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. with the Plaid Tongue Devils. They will also play Last Best Brewing and Distillery on Jan. 25 at 6:30 p.m. as part of Big Winter Classic.
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