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Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hutz talks about collaborating with Madonna on her directorial debut, ‘Filth and Wisdom.’ By Jenni Miller
Photo by Jon Wasserman
Eugene Hutz, the global gypsy punk and star of Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, began rocking out back in his native Ukraine before fleeing the Chernobyl disaster with his family. They landed in Vermont, but he eventually found his way to New York City’s East Village where he gained notoriety for his onstage antics in the band Gogol Bordello, his mad DJ skills at the legendary Bulgarian bar Menahata, and that amazing moustache. He’s even been a model — both the high fashion and the naked kind (in the now-defunct Sweet Action).
We managed to get the rocker to sit still long enough for an interview and portraits during a pit stop in NYC for Filth and Wisdom’s downtown premiere. The purple-clad punk discussed his global-tribal mentality, the best morning of his life, and dressing up like Margaret Thatcher with a moustache.
JM: Last time I interviewed you [for BUST magazine in 2007], you said, “The key people in my life are women. Women are always an inspiration to me, whether the shit they do is cool or fucking weird.” [laughs]
EH: So you want me to elaborate on that or what? … It didn’t really change since then. Maybe it’s expanded. [laughs]
JM: So what was it like the first time you met Madonna?
EH: Thing is that we met very casually because there was no managers and agents involved, and that pretty much set up the vibe for the rest of the things we collaborated on. That’s probably the best way to approach anybody, really. I dunno. I mean, we had some friends in common before that, so I wasn’t necessarily, you know, taken by so much surprise. Every time we [Gogol Bordello] played in London, there was a rumor she would be coming to our show, something like that, and eventually it happened.
JM: Did you ever butt heads on the movie? You guys are both pretty opinionated.
EH: You know, anybody who gets anything across is rumored to be butt-headed and opinionated, but it’s not necessarily so unsubtle in real life. It’s not like two people get together and just start battling each other’s wits out. It’s not like that at all. Plus, all people of the tribe have a kinship and understanding and respect for each other too, so they know exactly where you’re coming from. [laughs]… I think what creates a lot of that myth about the difficulties of hard-driven people is, you know, [laughs] their unending work ethic and ability to do twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen hour days if it needs to be done. Or more. So that’s nothing new for me, and that’s where the flow comes in again.
JM: She said that when she was done with the film, she realized that all the characters were aspects of herself. Do you relate to that?
EH: Every director goes through that, actually… It’s quite normal to channel your feelings and thoughts through characters, you know, even if they are from the opposite side of the cosmos. Same thing in songwriting, you know? Same thing in anything.
JM: You and Madonna have something in common as far as your drive. You know, like the East Village era of her career when she was trying to get really big and the hustle of that. Touring relentlessly and saying to the media, “I’m here. I’m gonna be huge. Watch it.” I feel like you guys have that in common.
EH: I don’t know, actually … I don’t think I ever had that, in neon letters, on my brain. I really didn’t. I never needed to be huge, no matter what. I was pretty much at peace through all the stages of our recognition as a band, and if you ask me, the first show we played on the Lower East Side in some ungodly place that existed for 20 minutes…
JM: It’s now a Starbucks.
EH: No, actually, it’s about to reopen as [another] ungodly place. So that’s good news…. [laughs] Old school is still kicking. You know, after that show, I pretty much already thought that I made it. [laughs] I just always enjoyed the process itself, and I was never really trying to get ahead of myself or anybody… It’s just a different philosophy of art in general… [Gogol Bordello comes] from [the] underground art school of thought, so our heroes were always Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, and it was always about radical self-expression rather than trying to hit a certain audience. If you really think about it, if you look at the Gogol Bordello audience… this is a kind of audience that nobody out there gathered before. It’s completely transgenerational and completely interracial, and it’s known that it’s unique in its components. So obviously we weren’t going to hit a certain crowd; it was about inventing your own crowd… So, you know, of course that took place in East Village because, thanks God, there is this place where the biggest advantage of it is there is a conscious audience here who knows the chronology of subculture, where my ideas found recognition and were understood and resonated with people. And so for that, East Village is, of course, the playground number one, and it allows all kind of talents to flourish.
JM: In the movie, everyone forms their own sort of family, their own sort of tribe, which seems to be pretty important to you and your music and your outlook — this self-made family.
EH: That’s like a central theme of my life, actually, [the] invention of or gathering of this extended family that kind of grows into a tribe. Because, I don’t know, maybe it’s in my genes, maybe it’s something else, but I’m kind of in conflict with social organization the way it is, and… even though I was born and raised in Kiev and in a big city and obviously I continue to at least frequent [big] cities — there is an underlying void of something very important which is that communal feeling. I always had that feeling of that void, so the farther I have gone, the more steps I’ve taken to filling it through organizing the band and — our band is quite large, I mean, it’s nine people, without the crew, and everybody on the crew is also family, and there is friends, and that, to me, that fulfills that gap — not gap, but void — and I clearly remember, like, my best memories of my life, they always have to do with waking up on a floor covered with, like, 30 people [laughs] that all just eventually fainted the night before. And it’s always something like that, and as a matter of fact, I do have a song exactly like that, it’s called “The Best Morning I Ever Had.”
And I think [that is] the reason why the band as an entity, as a social entity, is so popular. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of fucking bands compared to say, 80 years ago, and I think anthropologically that speaks for the same longing — people who leave their family and start their new family, maybe not according to the traditional way, but it is a reinvention of that family. I can’t really think of fulfilling life without it. That’s why for me the whole idea of success as something that leads to obtaining a motherfucking huge castle or some ranch where nobody knows where the fuck it is — to me, that’s pretty boring shit.
JM: I wanna ask you about some of the scenes where you’re a male dominant. The first time I saw the movie, it was sort of funny, and the second time I saw it, it was scary …
EH: [laughs and claps hands]
JM: It was scary because of where your character was coming from, with your character’s father and all that, but it was also erotic — maybe because of the way Madonna portrays her sexuality. She’s behind the camera and she’s looking at you. You’re actually the sex object of the movie, more so than the strippers. The other movies about male hustlers like American Gigolo are from a male point of view, from the director and the writer.
EH: I think your first reaction was kind of more on the money. I don’t think it’s meant to be analyzed so much, because there is what needs to be taken lighthearted… There’s no need to overanalyze things that are done purely for entertainment, actually, and there is quite a bit of that, just, funky abracadabra. And so of course I’m down to be decked out like Margaret Thatcher… You gotta get down sometimes along the fucking way! [laughs]
Wednesday, October 15, 2008 | 9:31 AM
King of the gypsy punks, Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz has fast become known as one of indie rock’s highest-energy performers, his multi-ethnic rebel band’s rollicking accordion-and-fiddle swagger raising the room’s temperature while Hütz swings from the rafters. (There aren’t enough superlatives to do their staggering live shows justice.) Yet some might better recognize the Ukrainian emigrant-turned-downtown New York icon from the cinema, not least because he had to shave his renowned curly mustache for Liev Schreiber’s 2005 directorial debut “Everything Is Illuminated.” As Alex, the blinged-out Michael Jackson fanatic and Ukrainian tour guide to Elijah Wood’s visiting Jewish-American nerd, Hütz hilariously steals the show faster than you can say Jonathan Safran Foer.
AH: You don’t share a writing credit, but A.K. is clearly based on some of your real world experiences. Specifically, where’s the line drawn between this film and your life?
EH: Honestly, who fuckin’ knows? [laughs] I think the line between that gets mystical right away, what comes from where, because we didn’t have a lot of time to make this film. I was there for three weeks. As you can tell, there is stuff that is purely autobiographical, and then lots of funky abracadabra in the mix. Not just the relocation to London — that’s almost insignificant. We were having fun and taking liberties as we were going along. It was just gonzo beatnik style, you know?
AH: In her director’s statement, Madonna compared the experience to being put through film school. Having been on a film shoot with a bigger budget and crew, what would you say the pros and cons were to working on this smaller, more D.I.Y. project?
EH: Well, the advantage was I didn’t have to change my look. Also, nobody set me aside and applied disciplinary measures. [laughs] Or, try to put me back on a schedule with the rest of the world. Sometimes I don’t go to bed for two or three days, and that’s the way my life is. I still can pull through. So I was completely free with that, with my flow.
But they were both classes of film school, you know? The major difference is that “Everything is Illuminated” was a lot more intricate work, where I had to absolutely invent the character, as much as all the writers were convinced that they were going to actually meet Alex when they interviewed me. That never happens — I hate to bum you out, guys. That was an absolute creation. It has nothing to do with my biography. Here, I didn’t really have time to piece anything together. I stayed in the mode of rock ‘n’ roll musician, and there were things that I wished were presented more explicitly.
AH: Such as?
EH: Just the desperation, you know? This film focuses on the stage of life when you’re in a mode of soul searching, and existentialist rage is just on the surface. But maybe there could be more rage expressed, because that’s how I remember it. [laughs]
AH: You’ve described Gogol Bordello as a collective, both musically and politically. How so?
EH: It pretty much speaks through everything we do. It’s nine people who are all from absolutely different parts of the world: Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, very far Russia — I’m talking about Siberia — Scotland, the States, Israel. We live in a political world, and those areas are the most politicized, and on opposite sides of the political spectrum. We were all raised in a Cold War, actually. It robbed our childhood. Back when every single hockey game on TV was extremely political because like, okay, Russians are playing Canadians. Now it’s like, who cares? But back then: “Wait, Canada is next to the States, so fuck them because those guys are about bombs.” Everything was so intense and edgy and hateful, you know?
So for us to come together and amalgamate into this family, where that’s all left outside, I’m amazed about that every fuckin’ day. That shows that politics don’t exist, actually. It’s just a cheap business. Economics is what makes politics. Oil has a price, everybody’s fighting over that. Soon it’s gonna be water, and the same thing is going to happen over that. But for us, people who realized that, there is no conflict. Obviously, we live together on the road, of course we argue; of course we get into rowdy situations. But it never seems to be over politics. That’s the last thing on our mind. It’s more like we’re a collective both musically and anti-politically, to make it more correct. It just proves a point how overblown this place of politics is in life, and how force-fed it is.
EH: No, because any day a meteorite can hit the motherfuckin’ earth and liberate everybody from this doom. [laughs] Many things can reshape things. People are obsessed with their supposed powers and what they can really do. That’s something that I’ve been realizing more and more on a daily basis: Yeah, it’s getting harder to believe in an actual embodiment of some new profound social organization through one massive change because, already, a lot of revolutionary thought discredited itself through history. But millions of small changes can be done, and through that, there can be a bigger impact because anybody can talk to another person. Anybody can educate somebody if they feel like their neighbor is stupid. It’s more like “Educate thy neighbor, my friend.” I think that enthusiasm, and not giving into lazy-minded cynicism, is where the potential and hope is.
AH: When collaborating with Madonna, whether it’s this film or onstage, what do you both bring to the table to best take advantage of your creative strengths and weaknesses?
EH: What weaknesses? What the hell are you talking about? [laughs] You know, this whole swirl of doing things together was so spontaneous. Five days before the Live Earth concert happened, I didn’t know anything about it. It was an on-the-spot decision, so I think we just wanted to blow people out of the water in a way that nobody expected. What we did was obviously done by people who had a lot of fun, as unconnected as [the collaboration] seemed at first. Like Joe Strummer was saying: “Of course, rock ‘n’ roll is our weapon, but don’t kid yourself.” It is also just rock ‘n’ roll, a huge part of which is intellectual and physical entertainment. It is done by people who are essentially performers, somehow linked into theater.
For me, the criteria was: How enlightening can you make your entertainment? How subversive and how brutal can it be? Even the musicians who scored the greatest radical reputations — like Bob Marley and Jello Biafra, for example — were very aware of theatrics and its actual presentation. Actually, I just met Jello Biafra for the first time. He was at our show in San Francisco. That’s my childhood hero, and we talked about this because all stage tactics are employed to channel a school of thought. Delivering a dry message in a pretty way, who the fuck needs that? That always gets on my fucking nerves when people get like that. Some of the best rappers get like that. I think our philosophy is more of throwing all these things on the table, like a playground of multiple options that is hopefully inspiring and entertaining.
EH: The desensitization itself is the perversion. For example, [’80s Cinema of Transgression filmmaker] Nick Zedd, coming out with his stuff in that time was extremely subversive. It challenged the remains of the plastic façade, the “Totem of the Depraved” that had the power. Now, the fucking mainstream television is the Totem of the Depraved. The good news is that it’s just a passing point in evolution. I don’t know if we’ll get to see the better stage in our lifetime; evolution is so fuckin’ slow. That’s why I’m constantly coming back to ideas of internal, personal revolution. Even if you can’t speed up the world, I want to see it in my lifetime, you know? I know other people who do, too. I mean, I don’t want to get into post-humanism, transhumanism, and all those things that might be too far out. We’re certainly not going to see that, but sometimes I think we’re still living in some fuckin’ invalid times, you know? I think we can do a lot better and enjoy a lot better.
AH: Lastly, what’s the trick to maintaining such an amazing mustache?
EH: Not doing shit, man. That’s the trick.
[Photos: Eugene Hütz in Madonna’s “Filth and Wisdom,” IFC Films, 2008]
“Filth and Wisdom” opens in New York on October 17th; opens in Los Angeles on October 31st.
ILLUMINATED: Hutz, here in a Brixton pub, says he has “come to be content in my restlessness”
DEIRDRE O’CALLAGHAN FOR TIME
Eugene Hutz is drawing glances. he’s in London’s Brixton Market, amid the sensory barrage of exotic aromas, vibrant garb and competing bass lines, dressed in a purple jacket and trying on ladies’ wigs. When he finds one he likes, he lets out a strange yowl, twirling the fake blonde locks around his head in celebration. But it’s not Hutz’s clothes or wig that have people staring. Locals in this bustling, ethnic stew of a neighborhood have seen it all before. No, people are looking at this lanky man with the lavish handlebar mustache because they recognize him. As Hutz is happy to admit, he has at last become famous.
The Ukrainian-born musician, actor and sometime philosopher has been performing almost all of his life, but the past year has taken his street-recognition factor to a new level. Hutz’s renown stems mostly from his front-man role in the New York City-based multiethnic band Gogol Bordello. They have toured continuously since their acclaimed fourth studio album Super Taranta was released in July last year. Rolling Stone hailed it as “an explosive album by a band whose shows wow orgiasts from Seattle to Kiev.” That raucous live show — something akin to a traveling circus, with Hutz as the ringmaster — is packing in bigger and bigger venues and brings its alfresco mayhem to festivals around Europe, Asia and North America this summer. Meanwhile, Hutz the hipster style icon, is the inspiration for this Fall’s Gucci menswear collection. And in October, he’ll follow his dazzling 2005 turn in the film Everything is Illuminated, with a lead part in the Madonna-directed movie Filth and Wisdom. “I’m just restless,” says Hutz, 35, “and I’m not sure what force of nature is behind it.”
Hutz’s father was in a rock band and his uncle was a circus acrobat, but that only partially explains his constant creative ferment. Growing up in the confines of a Soviet-era apartment block in Kiev, Hutz channeled his energy into music and long-distance running. He made the Olympic preparation team, he says: “My parents and teachers had to keep me tired somehow — otherwise I’d turn into some kind of sociopath.” At 18, he and his family left Kiev after the nuclear disaster in nearby Chernobyl. By then, he was in a band and was already a fledgling rock star. “My friends were like, ‘what the f___ are you doing? Your song is in the charts,’ ” says Hutz. “But if I didn’t go then I would have never got out.”
The family passed through refugee camps in Poland, Austria and Italy before settling in Burlington, Vermont. Years of stasis followed, until Hutz formed Gogol Bordello in 1999. Their live performances quickly drew fans, inspiring even the most inhibited crowd to abandonment. “It’s a special band,” says Hutz. “What you see on stage is pretty much an amplified version of these people’s personalities and lives.” Gogol Bordello — an American, a Chinese-Scot, an Ecuadorian, an Ethiopian, an Israeli, two Russians, a Thai-American and Ukrainian Hutz — call their music “gypsy punk,” a label Hutz invented, he says, to stop music journalists coming up with a worse one.
Hutz became aware of his own extended gypsy family in rural Ukraine as a teenager, and it’s an identity he embraces. In the 2006 documentary Pied Piper of Hutzovina he embarks on a musical pilgrimage through Roma camps in the Carpathians toSiberia to meet his hero, seven-string guitarist Sasha Kolpakov. For Hutz, his Roma heritage is more than just hobby geneaology. “When you talk to gypsyologists they will always try to downplay the romantic side of the stereotype,” he says, preparing backstage for a show at the Brixton Academy. “But even if you downplay it, it will still be a hundred times more romantic than being a regular motherf_____.”
A fascination with family history was also at the heart of Hutz’s film debut Everything is Illuminated, in which a young American Jew travels through Ukraine in search of clues about his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Hutz plays Alex, a local driver and translator. In a charmingly subtle performance, he restrains his energy levels and, in mangled English, delivers the film’s best lines. One highlight: “Many girls want to be carnal with me because I’m such a premium dancer.”
Gogol Bordello’s lyrics are likewise peppered with exuberantly oddball Eastern European humor. In one song on Super TarantaHutz sings: “Have you ever been to an American wedding? /Where’s the vodka, where’s the marinated herring?” He does deep too. The song Supertheory of Supereverything, Hutz explains, is a “humorous attempt to explain the universe.” He then offers a lengthy elucidation exploring the intersection of philosophy and theology before concluding: “Basically, if you’re asking am I with Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud, I’m with Carl Jung all the way.”
Conversation with Hutz flits from Charlie Chaplin (a hero) to comparing the melancholy of Eastern Europeans with the concept of duende in the Spanish arts. Then he’ll slip back into casual mode, calling Madonna, with whom he performed at Live 8 in front of two billion people, “a great chick to hang with.”
Hutz plans to direct himself next, in a movie titled either The History of American Silence or, he jokes, When the Spirits Get Pissed. He’s been working on the script in Brazil where he now lives (as much as he lives anywhere). The film will feature Gogol Bordello. “I think that we’re going to be a band that not only puts out an album every year and a half but also a film every year and a half,” he says.
For now, though, the focus is on touring relentlessly. A few hours after Hutz’s shopping expedition, a 5,000 person sell-out crowd roars its approval as the band strikes up Zina Marina and Hutz struts across the stage in stilettos and his blonde wig. Two hours of frenzied gypsy folk, punk, dub, flamenco, whatever, later, and the audience is ecstatic. But Hutz wants more. People are always asking, he says, why he jumps from project to project, why his life is “such a nonstop thing. But then I’ll read something about Leonardo da Vinci or Charlie Chaplin or Michelangelo and I think to my self, f___ I better start rocking. Those guys were really tearing it up. I better get on it!” In the coming months, he’ll keep touring nonstop, appearing everywhere from New Orleans to the Netherlands. Hutz is officially tearing it up.
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