The Odyssey of Eugene Nikolaev
Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hütz (still) loves to play the punk rock for the peoples
Long before he was the leader of gypsy-punk revolutionaries Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hütz was Eugene Nikolaev, a young, brash Ukrainian immigrant living in Burlington. For a time in the mid- to late 1990s, he was the front man of one of the Queen City’s all-time great bands, the Fags.
In the decade or so since he left, Hütz has achieved international fame, primarily with Gogol Bordello — although, for a brief time while living in NYC, he moonlighted as a fashion model. He has flirted with celluloid stardom as well, having appeared in a number of feature films — including Everything Is Illuminated with Elijah Wood and Wristcutters: A Love Story — and occasionally cavorted with, among other celebrities, Madonna. In April, GB released their sixth full-length album and first for major label American Records, Trans-Continental Hustle, produced by the legendary Rick Rubin.
But it all started in Burlington with a ragged, provocatively named punk band. The Eastern-European roots of what would become Gogol Bordello are obvious on the Fags’ lone full-length, No Fleas, Lunch Money and Gold Teeth. (They also released a handful of splits and singles on various comps.) Hidden behind bracing, three-chord punk bombast are flecks of acoustic guitar, occasional flutters of accordion, and deceptively intricate melodies, arrangements and song structures — at least for punk. And, of course, there is Eugene Nikolaev — manic and oddly charming, every bit the show-stopping dynamo Hütz is, albeit with a slightly more pronounced Ukrainian accent.
In advance of Gogol Bordello’s upcoming performance at the Champlain Valley Expo Midway Lawn with Primus and Heloise & the Savoir Faire, Seven Days caught up with Hütz by phone from Italy, where he is currently on tour.
SEVEN DAYS: You came up in a “golden age” of Burlington music. What do you remember about that time?
EUGENE HÜTZ: Exactly that. The excitement of it all. The excitement and all the myths that were heavily on the streets, that Burlington was going to be the next Seattle and everybody is going to get signed and become a legendary ensemble.
SD: Yeah, I guess it didn’t quite work out that way.
EH: I don’t think it matters if it worked out that way or not, because the excitement was there, for the time being. I mean, it couldn’t have worked out that way for everybody. It was a myth, and I think everybody knew it. But we enjoyed it anyway.
SD: There is a clear line between the music the Fags played and what you’re doing with Gogol Bordello. Tell me about that evolution.
EH: The Fags were my laboratory. And I was trying out a lot of things that grew to be very successful with Gogol Bordello. Another factor was that the longer time went on since I left Ukraine, the more passion I was developing for the music of my long-gone home. And it happens to a lot of diasporic artists, actually. You revisit your roots from completely different perspectives, and you make completely different things out of it.
SD: I’ve found that GB fans who didn’t know about the Fags are usually really interested to hear that music. Have you ever considered rereleasing No Fleas?
EH: I have. And some people have expressed interest for it over the years. And I think it would be just a big fucking fun joy to get together with Jason [Cooley, bass] and Dana [Shepard, drums] and do a show, or a few, when the time comes.
SD: What about the “lost” album? The legend goes that Joe Egan has it at his studio and won’t let anyone near it.
EH: That is true. And there is actually one more Fags album that was never even mixed.
EH: Oh, yes. That was the story with the Fags. We were on creative overdrive at all times, but without any fucking management. There are two albums that nobody’s heard: the one Egan is sitting on, and the one we recorded with Pistol [Paul Jaffe] from the Pants, after Lunch Money. It was recorded, I think, at the guitarist or bass player from Wide Wail’s house … in some foggy part of Burlington.
SD: OK, last Burlington question. At GB’s upcoming Vermont show with Primus, Heloise & the Savoir Faire are the opening band. Did you ever play with Heloise Williams back in the day?
EH: Well, I think from our previous conversation, you can gather that I did pretty much everything that there was to do in Burlington, including playing with Heloise.
SD: Good point.
EH: Come on, man. I threw up on every corner in Burlington.
EH: And I would add that Heloise has a fucking fantastic voice. Fantastic.
SD: You’ll get no argument here. So, Rick Rubin produced the new album. Tell me a bit about that experience.
EH: It’s a fantastic experience, for anybody. Some people are really enchanted with Rick’s work in the hip-hop area; some are enchanted with his work in the rock. I appreciate all of those things. But for me, [the chief reason to] work with him, my main source of knowledge, was his work with ultimate songwriters — with Johnny Cash. With Neil Diamond. That was our main point of connection.
SD: Why was that?
EH: Because, sound-wise, we are a thing completely of our own. There is no other band that sounds like it. We don’t follow any fashion. Gogol Bordello sounds like it sounds.
SD: Then why bother with someone of Rubin’s caliber? How did he advance your music?
EH: The advancement came on a level of crystallizing the craft of songs. That’s what I was mostly excited about. Rick came out and loud and clearly said, “Yo, listen up, everybody. The strength of Gogol Bordello is not that they’re wild guys from Eastern Europe. Or that they are exotic. The strength of Gogol Bordello is not their live show. The strength of Gogol Bordello is the art and craft of songwriting, which is epic. And that’s what we’re going to put forward on this album.”
SD: High praise.
EH: That was my main interest. Overviewing our own work, and knowing all our strengths, I started to feel like there were several things that got lost in translation on the albums. And that was something I wanted to liberate, bring out the Ennio Morricone spirit.
I mean, older songs like “Ultimate,” and “Super Taranta!” and “Dub the Frequencies of Love,” they had such epic potential. And they still do. I mean, we open the show with them. But I always wanted to take them to another level that’s gonna give you just an epic rush. I know the feeling I was striving for. The feeling when I’m playing the song and the next part is coming and I feel like dropping everything and running through the time and space. You know? An out-of-body experience.
SD: And do you feel you were able to do that?
EH: I experienced a lot of those points on this album, for sure.
SD: I imagine it’s a quite a challenge, especially for such an intense live band, to corral that kind of energy into the studio. That’s gotta be tough to do.
EH: I wouldn’t say tough, because it was so much fun. And the whole of writing the record was incredibly fun. That was, like, two and a half years ago, right about the time when I moved to Brazil. I was full of all kinds of ideas. Brazil really reshuffled my musical sensibilities.
SD: What prompted the move to Brazil?
EH: [Pauses] A girl, man! A girl!
SD: [Laughing] I should have guessed.
EH: [Laughing] You should have guessed. And also, if you look at our history, you will find many interactions with Brazilian musicians. It goes back as far as 10 years ago to our art-gallery days, the first two or three years of our existence.
SD: I know it’s not your first love, but do you find similarities between the satisfactions of acting and writing music?
EH: Every form of art has something that the other one doesn’t. And that goes for acting and music as well. I think that recently I’ve actually missed some of acting, after all. I have more interest and enthusiasm for it again. Not that I ever was not into it. It’s just that experience of it … I wouldn’t use the word satisfaction.
EH: It’s pretty much the opposite. First of all, it is extremely hard work.
SD: And second?
EH: You have to wake up at six in the fucking morning.
SD: That seems like it might run counter to your lifestyle.
EH: That was exactly my going-to-bed time for all these years. But I can let all that go, roll up the sleeves and do it again. And that’s pretty much where it all hangs right now.
SD: Reconnecting with your cultural heritage seems so intrinsic to your art, both in music and film. What have you discovered about yourself by digging into the past?
EH: You know the Greek myth of Odysseus?
SD: Of course.
EH: I think that The Odyssey is a central myth to everything that people do. It is just a tragic story of human destiny. We go away. We lose ourselves. But it’s really just to discover ourselves, what we really were before we began.
The more time goes on, the more I really feel like I did when I was 16. And what’s so amazing is that I run into people on the street in Ukraine or Burlington or in New York, people who went and did all kinds of things in the past decade or two, including completely reversing their lives — moving to Africa, or becoming a chief of an Apache tribe. And the more we talk, the more we’re actually exactly the same. It’s like none of it ever happened. Like I never went on tour, and that friend never went to Africa. The sense of odyssey wears away the smoke and dust that surrounds you, that is acquired in earlier times.
And that probably answers your next question, which is, “How did all of that change your life?” And the answer is, I don’t know, man. I don’t know if it really did. It just brings you closer to yourself.