HOW EUGENE HUTZ TURNED A CHILDHOOD FASCINATION WITH SUBVERSIVE ART INTO THIS SEASON’S MOST ENTERTAINING ROCK ’N’ ROLL ROAD SHOW.
Eugene Hutz’s accent paints a picture. Speaking over the phone from New York City, the Ukrainian-born leader of gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello sounds casual yet exotic, as though he is reclining on a couch in a study, glancing at tomes of philosophy and art, his wild-man mustache harking back to the other wild men who wrote those books, his bare torso – and it is often bare – setting him off from the red leather and dark wood that surrounds him.
But he is not. He is in a hotel room, an unlikely rock ’n’ roll road warrior preparing to tour in support of his band’s first major-label release, Trans-Continental Hustle.
The recording of that album placed the thirty-eight-year-old in the studio with legendary producer Rick Rubin, an event that Hutz says brought the performer’s love of songwriting full circle. It was through recordings of Johnny Cash, an artist Rubin reintroduced to popular music ten years ago, that Hutz learned English.
Despite those very rock ’n’ roll trappings, Hutz is at heart a performance artist. His band’s shows are raucous celebrations of subversion that are meant, like good art, to get your attention, keep it and then challenge your expectations.
There is, perhaps, no band that better captures the spirit of Heineken City Arts Fest. Throughout its ten-year history, Gogol Bordello has drawn enthusiastic crowds to white-walled galleries and black-walled rock clubs alike. For the festival – itself a celebration of the collision of arts and music – the band will be filling the latter type of venue when it headlines the Showbox SoDo on the opening night of the festival.
What’s the biggest difference between a rock crowd and an art crowd? Well, we started our touring in art galleries. Before anybody saw Gogol Bordello in rock clubs, we were playing at the Tate gallery in London and the Whitman Museum and museums in Italy and Spain, and so that’s all in our blood for sure. Gogol Bordello was more of a happening than a rock concert. All of that is still preserved in our work. The street performance art element is still very much a part of Gogol Bordello, even though we did broaden our audience tremendously by playing in front of actual rock ’n’ roll people since the art crowd doesn’t buy any fuckin’ records, and that’s pretty much the biggest difference between the two. As much as they both love music, rock ’n’ roll fans are still actually the ones who go and buy it.
So, how is it that you appeal to both those crowds? The combination of rock ’n’ roll and art runs deep into my family, actually. I was raised a lot by my uncle, who is one of the best-known painters in Ukraine. And since rock ’n’ roll culture was pretty much the forbidden fruit – I mean, you could not find any decent information on it in the Soviet press – ironically enough you could find even more subversive information on art, psychology and philosophy in history and art books, and my uncle had a whole library of them. So, you know, this is how I discovered Surrealism and Dadaism, and the writings of Nietzsche and Carl Jung; it was through art books. I discovered it even before punk rock. I was left alone in my uncle’s library a lot of times, and in search of images of naked women in art books I stumbled through the rest of the history.
Do you remember the feeling you got from the ideas you were absorbing in those books? Was it the same feeling that punk eventually gave you? Absolutely, absolutely. The feeling it gave me was, “Man, this is fucking cool!” It really resonated with my whole gang of friends in Ukraine. We were all very young and interested in shaking things up. We were getting into music, we were young and creative, and that was a big inspiration, you know. We actually did happenings of our own, in our own city. Situationism in particular was very important for us.
What did you do? One time we bought a bundle of industrial rope, I mean like several kilometers of that, and we tied rope in between all the trees, telephone poles, light poles and buildings of our city, of our district, in the night, for no other reason except to watch the people in the morning go, “What the fuck? Who the fuck in the world would take the time to do that? And why?”
Guy Debord would be proud. It was very harmless, you know, but it was nonsensical – the people were really scratching their foreheads. We thought we pretty much ruled the world with that. We also projected slides on official buildings, slides of iconic countercultural imagery, you know? Like images of our underground heroes, projected onto the fortress of government officials. So we thought that was pretty happening, you know, at that moment.
What about the present moment? Do you still get that same thrill, or has it faded as the art form has become your profession? Gogol Bordello is a completely professional unit. And its nature is to be always moving forward but still preserving the mode of uncorrupted creativity that is very much a part of our method. But becoming real, professional artists does not in any way take away from the cathartic qualities of the art. It’s like asking Tolstoy, “Now that you write every day, isn’t it different from when you were writing when you were fifteen, in cathartic explosion?” Yeah, it’s different. It’s really different. It’s much better. Because writing on a sugar rush is one thing. Anybody can do that. Being methodical and being ninja, being a karate master, being a member of Gogol Bordello, is very much the next-next-next level of that initial sugar-rush writing. And, you know, the way we work is that our stage performance allows a lot of spontaneity to happen. It’s set up in such a way that there is a lot of room for Situationism. It’s always still a Dada happening, because that is the nature of the band.
Does that nature sometimes overshadow your talents as a songwriter? Do you care if it does? That’s something that I think people are only now starting to realize. Now Gogol Bordello is getting more balanced recognition, especially after working with Rick, who has basically done so much in our time to preserve the art of songwriting, which was something that had started becoming like an endangered species. And I think that now people start to realize what I do is incredibly crafted, actually, and that songwriting was there from day one and that’s what the whole thing is threaded on. The band always was admired and recognized for energy and originality and the very Dadaist aspect of it. But the truth is that it’s all held together by nothing else but songwriting. It is storytelling, but it’s very crafted storytelling that captures you and delivers in three to four minutes. It’s a very particular form of art, and not everybody has a gift for it.
Your latest record, Transcontinental Hustle, was recorded with super-producer Rick Rubin. That was very different from your previous experience. What did you learn from him? It’s a very good question, because that is a good reminder that every record we made was done in a very different circumstance. I can’t even imagine making two records in the same studio or even in the same town, you know? Life moves on, and in the world of Gogol Bordello it’s a very unique and tragic story, you know? So creatively and lifestyle too, it’s like, in the duration of the existence of Gogol Bordello, my lifestyle changed three times already, from being a New Yorker -- a 24/7, 365 days a year New Yorker -- to being a road warrior, to actually arriving to a point where we can spend our free time wherever we please. In a way, you know, moving to Brazil was kind of a victory lap for me, you know? Because I always wanted to live in Brazil, ever since I was a little baby. It’s like, the Brazilian sentiment was so strong for me that I thought it was a magical, mystical country, and um you know, it finally happened. Of course, as with anything there is a woman involved, and that really triggered me slowing down there. But relocating there I’m kind of becoming a part of local landscape, someone that everybody knows there. I really felt like taking things into another level in my life, you know. One more time cracking the code – not only winning over New York City, but going someplace that is much more exotic, much more unpredictable culture, and still cracking the code and still becoming a local there. Which kind of fulfills my dream every time, you know?
What does that tell you about yourself, that you can crack that code? It’s not only about myself, it tells a lot about everything. It largely questions ideas of identity, and I’m a major sucker for cultural anthropology. And basically what I do, the way I see it, is crafting the songs, working on a craft of songs based on cultural anthropology, on encounters essentially. I don’t write my songs from an article in some newspaper, inspired by some book. when I was 15. I like to write songs from my first hand information and what I encountered and what I saw. I’m still one of those people who believes in really what I see and what I hear. So it’s kind of a gold mine of new human experience for me, in every sense.
That must have really resonated with Rick; anyone show works with Johnny Cash must have a great appreciation for that approach. The reason why we connected with Rick so well is because I am just as dedicated to that very much same art form. Johnny Cash records is how I learned my English language. It is literally how I did it. I listened to them even back in Ukraine. The mystique and the voice and old soul of Johnny Cash was captivating enough to keep me listening and wanting to understand because it’s a very certain pace that is coherent. That encouraged me to learn his songs and start translating them and start learning English actually. That was my first encounter with embracing English as something I am going to conquer. It’s as simple as that. It was deep down in my bones already. With Rick I just had a tremendous amount of support and encouragement to emphasize on all these qualities that allowed me to create timeless music. And he is unbelievable in that sense. No matter how messy it gets in the creative process, he just brings you right back to it. And he always focuses you on your strength, you know? •
GOGOL BORDELLO OCT 20 | 9:45PM | SHOWBOX SODO