The band’s messages vary in their pertinence, political import and basic comprehensibility. The 14 tracks on Super Taranta, the band’s fifth album, cover everything from the banality of American marriage ceremonies to sex trafficking in Eastern Europe to an aptly named "Supertheory of Supereverything.” To get hung up on individual meanings is to miss the point, however, as Gogol Bordello’s mission statement is quite simple in essence: "We create an ultimate party,” the 34-year-old Hütz says incisively. "And in that party, we throw all these ideas out on the table, up for grabs. It’s like a fruit basket of progressive ideas.”
Like their namesake, Nikolai Gogol, who "smuggled” Ukrainian language patterns into his writing, the band are using punk rock to smuggle radical ideas and Romany culture into America. Gogol Bordello borrow from rebellious musical genres across the world, mashing together ideas just as recklessly as they do colours on album covers. The band’s eight members hail from just about everywhere (Israel, Russia, Ethiopia, and a token WASP), and with Hütz (a Ukrainian with Romany roots) at the helm, the band are able to launch a tangible protest against cultural homogenisation and boredom. Though dub sneaks into their tracks just as easily as political cabaret, their signature sound is American punk rock played in a Romany style.
Gogol Bordello have emerged at the forefront of an Eastern European craze here in the West. From bands like DeVotchKa, venues like New York’s Mehanata (aka the Bulgarian Bar, where Hütz’s weekly DJ night packs them in) to the "crazy Russian guy” on campus that everybody wants to befriend, people seem to be clamouring for all things Slavic. "It’s pretty much a scientific fact that we’re totally responsible for starting the whole trend,” Hütz says. "I am pretty much credited for that by every jury that there ever was… I cannot be challenged about it. It’s like challenging Charlie Chaplin with silent movies. Of course there were silent movies before Charlie Chaplin, but he’s the one who made it work.”
He may be indelicate, but it’s hard to question Hütz’s claim. His band just returned from a European tour, where they sparked "German hoe-downs” and headlined a show in Turkey to an audience of 7,000. They beat out Ben Harper, Fonseca and Lila Downs to win the Americas category of the 2007 BBC World Music Awards. And one needs only to sit at the sidelines of one of their shows to get a sense of how rabid their fan base is.
While Gogol Bordello is undoubtedly Hütz’s most successful project, it was not his first. "I was already a rock, punk musician since 14 years old — by the time I left, I was already on the hit parade in the Ukraine. My actual music career goes much far back than anybody’s really aware — the total amount of records I have out is actually nine.” At that time punk rock was flourishing in the region, putting cushy North American notions of do-it-yourself culture to shame. "At this point, what’s called counter-culture is basically MTV — there is very little handmade counter-culture. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, [in] the musical movement that I was in, people were literally building stages with their own hands to have a show, and having it in the most unexpected environments. It was just an enthusiasm-driven thing, a real community — people would die for music.”
The same dire circumstances that kept the punk scene thriving eventually contributed to Hütz’s departure from his native country. "The way the times were going… the mandatory draft in the army was approaching, and the way the situation in the country was pretty much forced me to take the opportunity to become a political refugee. And I did the right thing, for sure.” Life in the Soviet-era Ukraine was difficult to begin with, and after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 his family left for good. They travelled throughout Eastern Europe, landing in a number of refugee camps and Hütz, who had hitherto identified as Ukrainian, was introduced to his Romany roots during a trip to his parents’ home village. His mercurial lifestyle formed a worldview that reconnected him with that side of his heritage. Eventually the Hütz family ended up in Vermont, where the expatriate community put Eugene’s talents to good use. "I was invited to play Russian and Ukrainian weddings back in Vermont, where my refugee resettlement program brought me originally. The community was so huge that everybody needed that guy at their wedding who knows how to fucking rock. I was that guy who knew how to do it.”
While the Russian immigrant community provided an outlet for Hütz in whitewashed Vermont, it was New York — with its cultural mishmash and lack of creative constraints — that proved to be the most appropriate venue for his work. "I think that somehow I felt that what I really want to do, the audience for it is in New York. I always felt a lot of affinity with music that came from New York, with Suicide, James Chance & the Contortions, with no-wave bands, with Sonic Youth — this kind of very uncompromising and radical sound that comes only from there. I was pretty jazzed up to bring my own version of that.”
Hütz finally arrived in 1998 and was once again a refugee. "We stayed at Brighton Beach under the boardwalk for the first week, then we moved into a refugee house on McDonald Avenue — even the landowner was an illegal immigrant,” he recalls. "It wasn’t as much fun as it is in retrospect. We lived with religious fanatics and one paranoid schizophrenic — it’s only so much fun when you’re actually experiencing it.” Subsistence took a backseat to getting things done, music-wise. Hütz, who clearly has never suffered from shyness, was able to wrangle up a team of players through hands-on investigation and sheer tenacity. "I started looking for characters, basically. It wasn’t about putting up ads and watching ten people play accordion to see who’s better. I went to Russian and Ukrainian weddings and asked for people, went to Gypsy circles asking for musicians. Somebody would start saying, ‘oh man, there is one guy — he is totally fucking crazy!’ That would be my guy, I would go after him and check him out, and that’s how I found Sergey [Ryabtsev, violin] and Yuri [Lemeshev, accordion].” By 1999 he had found three compatriots (Vlad Solovar, Sasha Kazatchkoff and Eliot Ferguson) and released Gogol Bordello’s debut full-length, Voi-la Intruder.
Gogol Bordello are constantly restating their identity — the title of their last record, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike is an abbreviated version of their manifesto. Still, pinning the band down is as difficult as it is for an Anglophone to name its full roster, which now includes Oren Kaplan on guitar, Tommy Gobena on bass, Eliot Ferguson on drums and Pamela Jintana Racine and Elizabeth Sun as dancers/percussionists. Some audiences aren’t used to hearing the "Eastern European two-step” used in a serious context, but concert staples like "Not a Crime” and "Start Wearing Purple” (a glossed-up version of a song from their first album) quickly dissolve preconceptions and get under one’s skin.
The band released their second and third albums — 2002’s Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony and the 2005 East Infection EP — to little fanfare. The band had yet to refine their sound, audiences expected a better recreation of their live show, and many believed that the band’s shtick was purely ironic. Things were developing, however — the band moved from self-production to enlisting the services of engineer Steve Albini, for instance, and Hütz’s DJ night at Mehanata was well publicised. Hütz, as accomplished, it seems, at mythmaking as he is at rock’n’roll, has a selective memory when it comes to the band’s beginnings. "We always had an incredible, exhilarating enthusiasm behind us — if not of industry than of the art scene, which originally supported us.” The band toured art galleries, hitting spots like the Tate Modern in London, before headlining major rock venues. It wasn’t until 2005’s Gypsy Punks that industry began to take an interest — stories of their gaudy live shows abounded, great reviews followed, and their music began to be taken seriously. Whether or not their audiences believed the "Gypsy punk” claims to begin with, all of a sudden it didn’t seem to matter.
Surprisingly, Hütz has also become Hollywood’s go-to guy for Slavic roles. He "stole the show” in Liev Schrieber’s Everything Is Illuminated, inspired a role in an indie film (Wristcutters: A Love Story), and recently wrapped up filming the directorial debut by a fellow musician — Madonna, a Gogol Bordello fan. "I play a character that is, in a lot of ways, basically me. There are some additional, fictional sides — let’s leave that to you to figure out. It was quite a philosophical character that played in a band called Gogol Bordello and likes to dress up like a woman once in awhile. One of the first things she said asked me is how do I feel dressing up as a woman? And I said, ‘As long as it’s a woman with moustache, I have no problem.’”
Hütz’s cult of personality is still growing, helped by the apparent lack of separation between his onstage persona and his genuine thoughts and behaviour. His on-screen appearances have expanded his reputation, but he’d much rather be worshipped onstage. "Since I was a little baby, everyone was completely convinced that I must be an actor. I’m so tired of this idea. I am always psyched to do it when I feel the time for it has come again… but that’s not my kind of hustle. My kind of hustle is on a tour bus with a rock’n’roll band. A life that’s much more instant in its effect and gratification.” Gratification is abundant, thanks to Hütz’s animal magnetism. One woman, filmmaker Pavla Fleischer, even went as far as to shoot a documentary about him (The Pied Piper of Hutzovina) in an attempt to win his heart. Unfortunately for Fleischer, Eugene brought in a woman he liked better during the second day of filming.
Despite a marked increase in attention and a somewhat rotating line-up, Gogol Bordello hasn’t changed a bit at its core. Hütz, however, has vastly improved on the style that he began. His band’s latest, Super Taranta, switches between fast-paced punk rock and string-led stomps, using traditional rhythms and melodies to as much effect as lightning-fast guitar. Political statements are always intended, but sometimes making sure everyone has a good time is just as important as making sure they get it. "It’s a multi-dimensional experience… throughout the concert, people are shouting along to the lyrics that are the most fucked up — the rowdier ones, and the ones with the punch lines. But lord knows, all my songs are very carefully crafted and written, and if somebody wants to sit down and listen to it for what it is as a message, they can very much do so, and they do. That’s why we have followings in Australia and Japan and Brazil, countries where we’ve never even played once and people don’t even know what we look like.”
Of course, being engaged in an artistic activity can be political in itself; Hütz uses Romany musical forms to generate interest in Romany culture. Hütz explains that Gypsy music is not a genre, per se, but a certain style that Gypsies work into the music of the region they happen to dwell in. "The definition of Gypsy music, for the experts, is a very different definition [than] for people who are just discovering it. The good news is that Gypsy music is so bewitching that eventually everyone who gets into it, they travel down the whole educational path, and eventually find that Gypsies are an actual nationality of people that have an actual language and an actual place where they come from. Just because somebody’s crashing on everybody’s couch doesn’t make him a Gypsy.” Generating interest and dispelling stereotypes is high on Hütz’s priority list — the band play benefits for Roma peoples and curated the New York Gypsy Festival. Hütz has also done work within Gypsy communities, writing and teaching educational songs to Romany children. "Gogol Bordello, it’s just activism all the way,” he says. "It’s definitely not pacifism.”
Succeeding in this regard is bittersweet at times. On one hand, Hütz has made major progress in his goal of enlivening interest in Eastern European and Romany culture; on the other, he’s had to witness that culture blow Westward as its home disintegrates. "I think people look into it from Western Europe and America to reignite that actual emotional and primitive side, and to feel authentic as a human being,” he says. "The problem with Eastern Europe is that, as much of their own cultural heritage as they have, they don’t think of it much — they’re kind of into the cheapest and fastest way to imitate the West.” Many of his former colleagues are now stranded in this environment. "Most of my friends, who are incredibly talented musicians and artists, still have not released themselves, unfortunately. And every time I go back and play, it’s like I can’t really have that much of a great time… I always feel like, in a way, I’m just showing off in front of them. I’m [in] an actual band who have actual records on an actual label, with actual equipment and actual management, and people there don’t have a fuck.”
Hütz is a self-proclaimed experience-junkie; he writes about what he knows, and given the land he grew up in, there’s plenty to discuss. He’s also developing a few causes of his own — he’s currently busy propagating a self-made theory of "New Rebel Intelligence,” which summarises the band’s agenda. "It’s not so different from Old Rebel Intelligence — the ability of an individual to make his own intelligent decisions under the pressure of authoritarian and political hysteria — you know, that we’re all living in,” Hütz explains. What New Rebel Intelligence is, exactly, remains to be seen, but Hütz narrows it down: "It has a lot to do with surviving globalisation, which is basically a facification of the planet — which is so brilliantly served to everybody these days in this celebrated spirit, as if it’s all about celebrating global diversity. But it’s not… it’s about breeding the same kind of idiotic tourists who fly to Vietnam to fucking drink the same drink and smoke the same smoke. It’s about total uniformity. It’s about destruction of the character.” New Rebel Intelligence, apparently, is tied in with the Integrated Theory of Intelligence, which postulates (in a nutshell) that intelligence-consciousness is a basic universal property like space-time or matter-energy. So much for an ultimate party.
After everything that’s tumbled out of his mouth, however, Hütz would like to stress that there’s no substitute for seeing his band for yourself. "I think I need more rock ‘n’ roll conversations around my music — it’s all too much cultural tendencies vs. irony, and post-existentialism and neo-authenticity and all of that,” he says. "The essence of Gogol Bordello is Gypsy rock’n’’roll. It’s a borderline case that voids any uniformity. It can never be defined by anything except for what it is.” Whether or not that’s a rock’n’roll conversation is open for debate.