Anarchy in the Ukraine

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Ethnic-punk gypsy jazz band Gogol Bordello is the brainchild of Eugene Hütz, a Ukrainian-born former model who traipsed the world as a teenager after the Chernobyl disaster forced him and his family to leave Kiev. Inspired by everyone from James Chance and the Contortions to The Stooges and Johnny Cash, Hütz and his seven bandmates present a multicultural cabaret of performance art, klezmer, Charlie Chaplin and “Jackass.” Gogol shows have featured Hütz stubbing out a lighted cigarette on his body, for instance, and singing with sweat-drenched abandon while climbing a rope ladder as he did when the band first played Charlottesville in 2002. The complete lineup of Gogol Bordello, which now has three studio records to its credit, includes Hütz on guitar, along with Sergey Rjabtzev on violin, Yuri Lemeshev on accordian, Rea Mochiach on bass, Eliot Furgeson on drums, Oren Kaplan on guitar, and dancers Pamela Racine and Elizabeth Sun. The band returns for another gig here on Friday, February 18 at 10:30pm at Live Arts, 123 E. Water St. Tickets are available at Plan 9 on the Corner, Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and Live Arts (call 977-4177, ext. 108). Hütz suggests people bring tambourines and “bellydancing outfits” to the show. He will be seen later this year in his feature film debut, Everything is Illuminated, directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood. C-VILLE talked to Hütz last week. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

 

Cathy Harding: What did you enjoy about your gig in Charlottesville a couple of years ago?

Eugene Hütz: Well, it was a great show and I think that we did have a special warmth from the crowd because even before the show we already had an amazing pre-party with [Matteus Frankovich of the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar], which was incredible. I remember that before going out on stage Yuri, the accordion player, threw up all over backstage, he was already so wasted. We have nice pictures of that on our website, we were backstage on a pink carpet of vomit and walnuts.

 

That’s just disgusting.

It’s not really disgusting, it’s the simple reality for the punk rock lifestyle. It happens. It wasn’t the first time, it wasn’t the last.

   We felt like everybody understands our gypsy hedonism and—what do you call it?—debauchery, and I think people in Charlottesville were really up for some debauchery.

 

Otherwise, does the band have any regular pre-show rituals?

Well, I’m not going to go into describing the thing itself, but in reality people in the band drink very systematically. I would even say scientifically. I mean, when you drink a lot you have to be methodical about it and you don’t throw in scotch and a cup of whiskey, guzzle down some vodka on the top. So it’s a very methodical progression of drink. For example, I always drink a bottle of wine and a couple shots of cognac, because all those things are made of grapes and they mix very perfectly.

   There is also gypsy gymnastics.

 

Gypsy gymnastics?

Yes, that Sergey our violin player and me always do religiously, and the girls—they have their own routine.

   And then right before walking out on stage there is a quick gathering of everybody with an absurd worship to a theme from a Russian cartoon.

 

You have cited Iggy Pop and The Stooges as among early inspirations.

Always.

 

What do you think of the fact that “Lust for Life” is now being used to hawk vacation cruises on TV commercials?

Yeah, I know what you mean about that. I don’t like them when I see it in that context, for sure, but I also know that that song was not written for that cruise commercial. It had a life of its own for the longest time.

   Iggy Pop was actually quite funny about it himself in one interview. He said, “Yeah man, I enjoy living in Florida now because everybody is so dumb they don’t even know who I am, they wouldn’t bother me” and he went on saying, “Yeah, the other night I hooked up with some girl who only next morning realized, ‘Oh you’re that guy on the cruise commercial.’”

 

With Gogol Bordello combining a gypsy point of view and punk point of view, you take the ultimate outsider stance. Yet the band has rising popularity. How do you manage to maintain that refugee point of view, as you grow more successful?

The soul of Gogol Bordello is basically unalterable. Our point of view is not driven by the fact that we came from one place and now we’re here. It’s driven by the fact that we keep on moving all the time. Within the band it’s an extended family; the atmosphere has been the same since the band started. There was always a massive group of friends and fans who support us who basically make our scene. Gogol Bordello never set up to be a part of celebrity culture or tried to become something that we are not. Gogol Bordello is not really just a band, it’s a culture of characters that pursue a certain way of life.

 

Describe it.

I would describe it as anarchist humanitarian beyond the politics culture. I would describe it as its own country. I would describe it as a collective that is largely driven by an ocean of cultural revolution. Cultural revolution is a state of mind and it’s a contagious stage of mind and it’s about understanding that you can’t really blame everything on politics or your background or other things. It’s really about believing in yourself and doing what you want to do and not whatever garbage was put in your head when you were growing up.

   I think it’s instinctive rage against social and political corruption. It’s a largely universal punk message, which is also universal gypsy message, which is also universal rebel message.

 

How does the monotony of being a refugee— the whole waiting-with-your-suitcases thing you’ve described before—compare to the monotony of touring?

Well, it does not compare to it all. I mean there are some bands that complain about monotony of touring, but with Gogol I never experience any monotony of touring because of the collection of characters in the band. Touring can get rough and it does get rough but every night we get totally rejuvenated by playing music. And so I’m certainly much more excited that these days I’m on the road because of my music and not because of the visa or passport problem.

 

There seems to be a lot of sweating at your shows between you and the band and the audience. Does the smell ever get unbearable?

Well, adding the perfume and the smell was the whole plan.

 

I suppose you get a good long shower when the whole thing’s over.

Not necessarily. Actually, most of the time, no.

 

Good to know.

Yes, I’m surprised that any girls come around.

 

What was it like being on a movie set? Did you feel like you were an outsider?

It was exactly what I needed because in my own work I always control a great deal of it. Be it music or be it the playing with Gogol Bordello or DJing or playing in the theater, which I’ve done before, people basically always let me play myself. After a while you start craving a challenge and that’s where this movie came in for me as a further performance challenge that gave me some growth because suddenly I was at an intersection of three different acting schools. Liev Schreiber, the director, is one of the best—if not the best—Shakespeare actor in America with a major theater background. Then Boris Leskin, who is a famous Russian actor who I actually grew up watching when I was, like, 5 years old—very old school Russian theater acting. And Elijah Wood was doing the whole Hollywood bonanza. So from those three I could pick and choose and learn some things for myself.

 

Where do you get your clothes and what do you do to take care of your mustache?

I wax my mustache with my self-made earwax.

   Fashion people find my look to be so striking and they all suspect some kind of a fashion statement, but in reality I simply look like everybody else in my family.

   My grandmother, who is the gypsy part of my family, was a tailor and so I grew up in a house that was always full of naked chicks who were trying on clothes on and off, because to be a tailor in the Soviet Union and Ukraine meant you were working basically illegally at home, which is what she did her whole life long. She always designed little things for my parents, for me, she sewed some things together. So I grew up around the sewing machine. I never professionally learned how to sew things up really good, but if I would want to make something I want to wear with some safety pins and some patches, I could always do that. So that’s where a lot of that very rough-made fashion that you see on stage comes from.

   And then here later in America, my girlfriend is a fashion designer so she also did a lot of things for Gogol Bordello and we designed many things together. The things I wear, the ones that look more fucked up—those are the ones I made. The ones that look really good are the things that she made.

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