Music Preview: Gogol Bordello
At first glance, Eugene Hutz seems an unlikely candidate for celebrity. With his gangly physique, old-fashioned moustache and penchant for threadbare suits, he certainly doesn't look like your average pop star. Yet the ex-Burlingtonian's unusual looks, confrontational attitude and tenuous grasp of the English language have propelled him to the forefront of the Big Apple music scene. As frontman for "rural Transylvanian avant-hard" band Gogol Bordello, the 32-year-old Hutz comes across like a mutant hybrid of Charlie Chaplin and Iggy Pop. The French term enfant terrible could be used to describe him. But Hutz, ne Nikolaev, is not French. He's a Ukrainian-American who identifies himself as a Gypsy. He's also a DJ, fashion model and, most recently, movie actor.
In 1986, the Nikolaev family fled Kiev to escape fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which they heard about on a BBC program. They floated around Europe for a while, then resettled in Burlington in 1992. The young Eugene Nikolaev (he later changed his surname to Hutz) set his sights on the local music scene. Armed with a guitar and a handful of punkish tunes in broken English, he formed The Fags, which soon became one of the most popular -- or at least notorious -- groups around.
Almost everybody who knew Nikolaev back then has a story or two about him. Many of those anecdotes have assumed folk-tale proportions -- his manic energy and Slavic accent aren't easily forgotten. "Screeeming out to de sound bort for moor wocals," I recall him shouting from the stage at Club Toast on more than one occasion.
Occasionally Nikolaev would write a song that you knew was truly great, one that deserved to be heard beyond the confines of the Green Mountains. Perhaps he realized this himself, because in 1998 the Ukrainian misfit packed up and moved to New York City.
A couple of years after his departure, I was leafing through a copy of The New York Times Magazine. To my great shock, there was Nikolaev, now called Hutz, prominently featured in a large fashion spread. And soon, I learned, fashion writers were all abuzz about that retro handlebar moustache.
Not long after, while working in a Burlington record store where Hutz was once employed, I discovered an obscure, eight-piece "Gypsy punk cabaret" act from New York City. The band was Gogol Bordello, and the music fused global street culture with go-for-the-throat rock 'n' roll. It had Eugene written all over it.
After four more releases, profiles in major print publications and gigs around the world, the band has become a finely tuned machine, seemingly fueled by alcohol and Hutz's sheer charisma. That self-confident presence apparently won him a starring role in the upcoming film Everything Is Illuminated, an adaptation of "it" author Jonathan Safran Foer's best-selling novel. In his first acting role, Hutz gets billing just under Elijah Wood of Lord of the Rings fame. The film will open in September. Meanwhile, Gogol Bordello's latest cultural assault, entitled Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike and produced by the legendary Steve Albini, will be released August 9 on the SideOneDummy label.
Hutz brings his group to the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge next Wednesday, August 3, for a hot-blooded, transcontinental rave-up. Seven Days recently chatted with the punk-rock trickster, who was on the road with the Vans Warped Tour.
SEVEN DAYS: What made you decide to move to New York? It seemed like you had it so good here.
EUGENE HUTZ: I always wanted to go to New York. I just got stuck in Vermont with some girl, that's all. And one girlfriend leads to another!
SD: We both know that Burlington is small, geographically isolated and musically incestuous. Was there anything you liked about living here?
EH: Not so much, I guess. I liked the girls. I was playing in The Fags and chasing some skirt. When you're 23, that's pretty appropriate.
SD: Did you ever have any doubts about continuing to play music?
EH: I didn't have any doubts at all. I'm not the kind of person that thinks about what would hold me back from something. I play, so naturally I'm going to perform, and what needs to happen is going to happen.
SD: How did you put together Gogol Bordello? Did it exist as a concept before you found the players?
EH: Yeah, for sure. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to do, because I'd already experimented in different bands over the years, starting back in Ukraine. I had a crystallized idea. It had to have the Eastern European instruments, but I didn't want it to be flavored -- I wanted it to be real. I hate the fucking "flavored" music.
SD: Some media outlets are talking about the "rise of Gypsy punk." Do you see yourself as a pioneer of the style?
EH: I invented it, man. I coined that phrase, I did everything for it.
SD: But you have to admit, there are other groups doing the Eastern European fusion thing.
EU: That's their failure. They're doing flavored music. To do it right, you have to be very aggressive.
SD: How so? How do you maintain an authentic Gypsy culture in America?
EH: You can't! You have to ethnically be that to maintain. I'm ethnically Roma [another name for Gypsy], and some people in my band are, too. That's what makes us what we are. I just went back to my roots -- that's all. You can't make Gypsy punk unless you are Gypsy punk.
SD: Does it have anything to do with lifestyle? Would you be "Gypsy punk" if you weren't in a tour bus right now?
EH: Well, that's the whole confusion that Americans have about what Gypsy is. People in the West think Gypsy is just someone who travels. In reality, it's a whole ethnic group with different language and culture. Me, I was born in Ukraine, but I am half Roma. The more I explored the connections, the more I found my extended family. It's something that I took pride in. I realized why I felt like a total misfit not just in America, but back in Ukraine, too.
SD: A lot of us feel that way, but we don't have a specific ethnic identity to go along with it.
EH: Well, it's not just ethnic. In the case of Gypsy, it's a different story, because the culture is so different. Ultimately it's an alternative lifestyle that has been destroyed by the governments for centuries. So being an artist, you're already linked to that. You know how many artists found inspiration from the Gypsy culture? I mean, the hippies in the '60s got their whole fucking fashion from Gypsies. But that's on the superficial level. On a deeper level, it's a pretty advanced culture, and probably more prepared for a globalized world than any other. You have highly skilled, multilingual people who are a threat to governments that want to settle everything down and keep control over the population.
SD: But you're still in a pretty specific profession. What would happen if your lifestyle was radically altered, say, due to some catastrophic upheaval like a global pandemic or economic collapse? How would you survive?
EH: I always know that I have enough skill in me to survive at the end of the night, anywhere in the world. I've already done it. I probably wouldn't change anything. It doesn't really bother me. I've done it for a long, long time.
I moved to New York without any connections or a fucking dime, you know? Nothing just "went my way" -- I made it happen. Six years ago I started talking about cultural revolution and Gypsy music, and three years later people were like, "Well, where is it?" And I was like, You gotta give me some fucking time! And now New York Times and London Times and fucking Moscow Times is writing about fucking same thing: Gypsy punk, Gypsy punk. They all know that I came and said it like this, 'cause the culture here is fucking exhausted. It's burned out, and all the authentic things it had to offer are overused and overmarketed. This is my alternative offer.
SD: What happens when the alternative becomes the norm, as it so often does?
EH: There's always a way to subvert it.
SD: Some of the new-generation musicians are all about business plans and networking. You're primed to enjoy the recognition that may forever elude them. What's your definition of success?
EH: My definition of success is doing what you love to do. There's too much of an American, conditioned way of thinking, "This guy made it, this guy hasn't. OK -- he's done band, now he's going to do movie." Creating is about expressing your soul. If your soul can express itself, then you've made it. Nothing else matters.
SD: Can the spirit of rebellion exist in the modern marketplace?
EH: It depends what you're marketing. This band was not created to be marketed. All these years, we were going it alone, against the grain. People were saying, "This is completely unmarketable!" So all I do is get in the van and tour, go around and raise the following all over the fucking place.
SD: Your band has quite a few members. Do they all share your ideology?
EH: They wouldn't be here if they didn't.
SD: Is Gypsy Punks the definitive Gogol Bordello record?
EH: It's pretty quintessential, yeah. First of all, it's our first record with a bass player. For years we played without one, but I missed the sound of that drunk, galloping horse, which I'm in love with! So I thought, we'd better get a monster on the bass, someone that fucking drills the holes in the walls. And we did. Plus the songs are carefully selected to show every side of the band, from the acoustic, to the experimental, to the dub and, of course, the Gypsy punk.
SD: Everything Is Illuminated is your first film. Were you familiar with the novel beforehand?
EH: I actually was reading it when they called me.
EH: Yeah, a friend of mine told me to check it out, because the way I write, with a sort of freewheeling treatment of English, is like one of the characters in the book. And there was some similarity. It just happened that I never learned English properly. So when I write, sometimes there are syntax mistakes. But, you know, that's just how it went.
SD: How did you score the role of Alex?
EH: I got a call from the movie production to use our music for the movie. So I went to negotiate, and talked about music for about 10 minutes. And then the director leans over and says, "You ever done any acting, by any chance?" And I was like, "Heh, heh, heh. I think I know what you have in mind. Just let me do it, man."
SD: Was it similar to fronting a band?
EH: Fronting a band is not that easy. It's different muscles. When they told me that three months on the set would be tough and eventually be a real motherfucker, too, I was laughing. I've been on tour playing two-hour shows every night, after partying the night before and only getting an hour of sleep. Delivering it over and over. Nothing can be more brutal than that. But you know, by the end of the movie, I came back totally exhausted. They worked us into the ground, from 6 a.m. to midnight. But I always knew I had it in me.
SD: What was it like working with Elijah Wood?
EH: The first time we met on shoot in Prague, he asked me about the band, 'cause he's a huge music lover.
SD: I've heard that.
EH: I told him about the band and he was like, "So you probably like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion." And I was like, "Well, you probably like The Cramps!" He was great.
SD: Did you ever call him Frodo?
EH: I've never seen that fucking movie.
SD: Do you have to be crazy to be an artist?
EH: How can you not? I mean, that's what an artist is -- the archetypal crazy man. There's only so much you can do about that!