Imagine Eastern European fashion casualties sipping apple-infused vodka alongside art-world hipsters dining on Montreal-style poutine, all of them engaged in frequent outbreaks of casual nudity. (Getting naked earns you a shot on the house.) A wildly mustachioed man — halfway to a free drink — spins a mix of Algerian rai, Spanish flamenco, punk rock, Eurotechno and Eastern European folk songs, melded together by aggressive downbeats, libidinal energy and a chintzy disco ball. Since 1999, Eugene Hutz, leader of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, has been an NYC celebrity — renowned for inspiring debauchery as a resident DJ at lower Manhattan’s Mehanata Bulgarian Bar. Recently, though, he’s gone international, appearing alongside Madonna during last month’s Live Earth concert — a rare highlight in that self-righteous marathon event.
Hutz was born in Kiev, Ukraine, while it was still part of the old Soviet Union, placing him and his family near ground zero for 1986’s Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, and the subsequent meltdown of the republic. When he was 14, the U.S. granted the family refugee status. They made stops in Poland, Austria and Italy before ending up in a most unlikely haven — Burlington, Vermont. Hutz, though, continued on to New York to help fuel the nocturnal adventures of the city that never sleeps.
Early on, his DJ sets espoused his exquisite musical theories while his band made failed attempts at putting them into practice, but 2005’s Steve Albini–produced Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike changed that. It was a proper manifesto for the band’s hard-driving, globe-trotting vision. The just-released Super Taranta! is even better. Even Robert Christgau, a normally sober critic, has proclaimed it “the best rock album of the decade, period.” I spoke with Hutz via phone on two occasions — on a recent Friday when he was in Hungary, two days later in Portugal. Naturally, his mobile phone was registered in Liechtenstein, all of which is emblematic of his increasingly global profile. In conversation with the man, comprehension is hampered by his heavy accent, imaginative syntax and broad vocabulary. One moment he is a punk rock icon like his hero Joe Strummer; the next he is channeling Tolstoy on a spiritual bender; and the next he sounds like Borat if he’d managed to earn a Ph.D. It’s a half-genius, half-bullshit routine, and on those rare occasions when the two halves align, things get really interesting.
L.A. WEEKLY: Is there a concept to the Dionysian energy behind everything you touch?
EUGENE HUTZ: In me, the tribal sense is very strong. Person to person. Heart to heart. Any hierarchy is naturally led by the wisest people in a community and the elders. In America, old people are locked up in nursing homes. There is no respect.
“Respect” is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Gogol Bordello.
There’s a lot of bravado, but that doesn’t contradict respect. We are transgenerational in a world of stupid pop stars where most are brainwashed that a group has to be four 23-year-old guys with the same haircut. Our accordion and violin player are basically fucking 50. Show me another band who are exploding with that lineup?
Point taken, but I think of you in trans-global terms, alongside peers such as Manu Chao, the Pogues and M.I.A. Gypsy punk seems like a pigeonhole.
That was a good album title. It’s my autobiography and a slogan to explain what we’re doing. Luckily, Gypsy culture gives you a special philosophy. If you look into Romany history, you realize it’s the first global culture.
I was wondering if you consider yourself a global citizen or an American? You were a New York City celebrity long before you were on the international stage.
Spiritual wise, I feel like a citizen of the world, but I try to go out on a limb and say good things about America. I am constantly in conversations about how much it sucks. Everyone bitches about it in rock & roll circles, but let’s not forget the good stuff. Everything musically progressive in the last century was from America, and I’m proud I’ve been embraced by the culture that gave us jazz, hip-hop, punk, techno and a hundred other stuff.
Did you have specific inspirations?
I don’t know if you have the word “etalon” in English. We have it in Russian — though it sounds like it came from the French. “Etalon” is a guiding example, and I’m interested in the Joe Strummer school of thought, a type of rock star who didn’t focus on stupid shit like throwing TVs out of windows. It’s about passion and real concerns, hardcore idealism and authentic frustration at not being heard. That’s what influenced Fugazi and the attitude of the bands we’ve become friends with, like Manu Chao. We share what Joe established, and turned it into a more democratic experience.
That’s a good lead-in to a quote from your Web site :
But it is perhaps worth to mention mechanics of modern fame have changed from its original oral tradition drive, which produced legends, anecdotes, good word, etc. Mechanics of modern fame are fueled by media and media alone and nobody in their fucking right mind, of course, would start passing legends about, for example, The Strokes or their twin sister Britney Spears.
How do you reconcile this philosophy with your own popularity?
Very easily. I am more opposing the sleazy, schmoozing, bitch-ass glamour, celebrity-wannabe crap. We are what we were since day one. Recognition doesn’t alter our trajectory. It’s been an act of conversion to draw in other people. We are the kind of entertainers that create things that bewilder spectators’ minds. What you are observing with Gogol Bordello is a result of accumulation, consistency, longevity.
Doesn’t working in other mediums distract from this mission? You were a scene stealer in 2005’s film adaptation of the novel Everything Is Illuminated?; last year there was a documentary about you called The Pied Piper of Hützovina?; and you just finished acting in a new movie Madonna directed called Filth & Wisdom?.
Acting is perfect for me, because all of my projects are driven by my philosophy, that I don’t want to have the break between life and stage, person and persona. When I was younger, I read about Sufism and it was all about eradicating the dichotomy of the things you do. Sufism was all about unity of self. I didn’t construct a character that is opposite of what I was in life. People always said to me, music is so competitive, didn’t you have any backup plan? And I didn’t, because it’s against this philosophy. Backup plan is what capitalism teaches, it’s what pragmatism teaches. It means diffusion of your passion, diffusion of your power into several channels, which inevitably leads to a much weaker person. I don’t believe in any backup plan, and that’s kind of medieval but I like it. When people see me onstage, they think I’m insane, but it comes from Sufi philosophy. Music is just my personality getting louder.
That’s a good way of putting it. Music will get louder, and I’ll get louder. It’s a super-exciting time. National Geographic wants me to host their music program! That’s a serious organization that can get behind some badass interesting projects, like send me to Siberia, or send me to Africa, or send me into the Voyager to look for underground music in another galaxy.
Do you really feel there’s lots of new music to discover?
Look at baile funk [a new down-and-dirty Brazilian dance-music style—ed.]. There was no baile funk 10 years ago! Well, there was. It’s basically Miami bass, 2 Live Crew taken to the Brazilian ghetto. But things like that mutate and become their own entity. Most people latch on to stupid formulas floating on the surface and expect it to be successful. Cultural innovators just go completely apeshit to make something interesting. You can tell when it’s done right, because there is this Little Richard note. Let’s take white music and black music and make rock out of it. It’s always Little Richard madness, this complete aloofness to if people dig it or not, this complete bonkersness, this abundance of joy.
Gogol Bordello appear at the Henry Fonda Theater on Tues., Aug. 28. They perform on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show on Tues., Sept. 4.