Eugene Hutz is a difficult man to pin down. He is rarely in the same country, let alone the same city, for more than a few weeks at a time, touring with his band Gogol Bordello across time-zones and cultures on four different continents for most of the year.
If there’s a reason for the itinerancy of this vigorously mustachioed Ukrainian-born frontman, perhaps it is because his musical vision is inspired by the kind of music that exists in its own permanent artistic exile. He and his band travel far and wide, much like the Gypsy and Jewish communities whose striking melodies and rhythms serve as Hutz’s guiding light, adopting local ideas and sounds, changing them, and — through heavy and not necessarily kosher use — making them their own.
Hutz calls it a “folkloric way of making music”; the result is a kind of visceral, aural embodiment of human diversity, poetry and desire. And it is turning heads.
“I have always taken things from everywhere, whatever I like, and made it my own,” Hutz says on the phone on tour in London. “I think that is the key to really making anything artistically. For me, enjoying just one kind of music is like drinking one kind of drink. We’re all yearning for variety, for spiritual, emotional, intellectual variety. And that is what this music is all about. It’s about processing giant amounts of information from all over the world, making it our own.”
Nonetheless, the group’s four records to date (a fifth is due out this summer) and notoriously hyperactive live sets leave little doubt that the sources of inspiration closest to the group’s heart are the genres of Gypsy folk, punk and dub — what Hutz has called “the three legs that Gogol walks on.” The result is a kinetic, fiercely up-tempo, rhythm-heavy sound with Gypsy and klezmer melodies picked out by an aggressively bowed fiddle above the frenetic um-pa-pas of the brass, drums and accordion. Saying much more would be like trying to articulate a system of spacial relations between splatters in a Jackson Pollock drip painting.
“I don’t make music for logical reasons,” Hutz says. “It is all quite instinctual. But I guess you also fill up the gap of stuff that you lack, that you don’t see anywhere else. And that is what I was feeling when I arrived in the United States and first started connecting with people who I could maybe work with. If there had been people doing it, I wouldn’t be doing it. I had been waiting for people to do something like this for 10 years, and finally I just said, ‘What the hell, I’m going to do it.’ “
Born in Ukraine in 1972, Hutz boasts varying degrees of Ukrainian, Romanian, and Gypsy ancestry. In 1986, Hutz was forced to flee with his family from his home in northern Ukraine in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He spent much of the late ’80s trolling through Kiev’s burgeoning underground rock scene where he first began to play in different bands, playing an unclassifiable melange of rock, punk, reggae, dub, roots, klezmer and the free-wielding Gypsy folk music that he first heard as a child visiting family in the Roma communities of the Carpathian mountains.
After seeing the New York noise-punk band Sonic Youth bring down the house in Kiev in 1988, Hutz made a promise to himself that he was going to “whatever universe they came from.” Following a circuitous path that took him through Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy and Vermont, he got to New York — a city Hutz describes as multicultural “psychosis” — by the mid-’90s. There, he banged around the punk scene, making waves with the earliest versions of what would become Gogol Bordello, and playing music he creatively billed “Eastern European Ethno-punk Metal.”
Along the way, Hutz gained a reputation for sparking the most ecstatic, and drunkest, parties during his DJ sessions on Thursday nights at Manhattan’s Bulgarian Bar (also known as Mehanata). Almost a decade later, Gogol Bordello still seems unable to miss a beat.
Some of the more recent buzz surrounding the band might have something to do with Hutz’s appearance opposite Elijah Wood in Liev Schreiber’s critically acclaimed 2005 film “Everything is Illuminated,” which also featured on its soundtrack music by Gogol Bordello, among others.
None of this success seems to surprise Hutz all that much. “The music is the backbone of everything, and if people didn’t respond to it, nobody would care,” he says. “Of course, the band has a certain career and trajectory, but it is an energy, a way of life, a thing in itself. Really this isn’t about charts. There are always going to be people who want to see us. They have been there for years. And in that way we are a consistent band, like all my heroes, like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Manu Chao. For me it is kind of funny to hear people say, ‘Oh you’re really hot right now.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? We have been hot for years, and it is going to stay like that.’ ”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.