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]