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.