Published Jun 25, 2007If someone tells you that everything you've been taught since age five is bullshit, the normal response is to yawn "oh yeah? and find the quickest route out of the conversation. If a bug-eyed, moustachioed Ukranian in neon sweatpants tells you the same, whether you like it or not, you're likely to hear him out. Gogol Bordellos Eugene Hütz has a lot more to say, but his band who are known as much for their devil-may-care attitude, chaotic stage shows, flamboyant garb and hot female back-up dancers as they are for their self-styled "Gypsy punk use utter garishness to smuggle their messages into the minds of their fans.
The bands messages vary in their pertinence, political import and basic comprehensibility. The 14 tracks on Super Taranta, the bands 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 Bordellos 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. Its 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 bands 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 Yorks Mehanata (aka the Bulgarian Bar, where Hützs 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. "Its pretty much a scientific fact that were 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. Its like challenging Charlie Chaplin with silent movies. Of course there were silent movies before Charlie Chaplin, but hes the one who made it work.
He may be indelicate, but its hard to question Hützs 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 Hützs 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 anybodys 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, whats 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 Hützs 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 Eugenes 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 wasnt as much fun as it is in retrospect. We lived with religious fanatics and one paranoid schizophrenic its only so much fun when youre 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 wasnt about putting up ads and watching ten people play accordion to see whos 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 thats 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 Bordellos 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 arent 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 ones skin.
The band released their second and third albums 2002s 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 bands 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 Hützs DJ night at Mehanata was well publicised. Hütz, as accomplished, it seems, at mythmaking as he is at rocknroll, has a selective memory when it comes to the bands 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 wasnt until 2005s 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 didnt seem to matter.
Surprisingly, Hütz has also become Hollywoods go-to guy for Slavic roles. He "stole the show in Liev Schriebers 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 lets 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 its a woman with moustache, I have no problem.
Hützs 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 hed much rather be worshipped onstage. "Since I was a little baby, everyone was completely convinced that I must be an actor. Im so tired of this idea. I am always psyched to do it when I feel the time for it has come again but thats not my kind of hustle. My kind of hustle is on a tour bus with a rocknroll band. A life thats much more instant in its effect and gratification. Gratification is abundant, thanks to Hützs 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 hasnt changed a bit at its core. Hütz, however, has vastly improved on the style that he began. His bands 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. "Its 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. Thats why we have followings in Australia and Japan and Brazil, countries where weve never even played once and people dont 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 somebodys crashing on everybodys couch doesnt make him a Gypsy. Generating interest and dispelling stereotypes is high on Hützs 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, its just activism all the way, he says. "Its 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, hes 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 dont think of it much theyre 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, its like I cant really have that much of a great time I always feel like, in a way, Im just showing off in front of them. Im [in] an actual band who have actual records on an actual label, with actual equipment and actual management, and people there dont have a fuck.
Hütz is a self-proclaimed experience-junkie; he writes about what he knows, and given the land he grew up in, theres plenty to discuss. Hes also developing a few causes of his own hes currently busy propagating a self-made theory of "New Rebel Intelligence, which summarises the bands agenda. "Its 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 were 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 its all about celebrating global diversity. But its not its about breeding the same kind of idiotic tourists who fly to Vietnam to fucking drink the same drink and smoke the same smoke. Its about total uniformity. Its 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 thats tumbled out of his mouth, however, Hütz would like to stress that theres no substitute for seeing his band for yourself. "I think I need more rock n roll conversations around my music its 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 rocknroll. Its a borderline case that voids any uniformity. It can never be defined by anything except for what it is. Whether or not thats a rocknroll conversation is open for debate.