On the phone from a park bench in London, England, Gogol Bordello founder and frontman Eugene Hütz is relaxing before an appearance on the popular British television program Later… with Jools Holland. The actor and musician’s strong eastern European accent comes over the line loud and clear with a confidence and command of the English language that is unmistakable.
“I moved to New York in 1998,” explains the Ukrainian-born and raised musician, and while he currently divides his time between residences in both NYC and Rio de Janeiro, Hütz admits, “I feel definitely more than anything of a New Yorker.
“It gave me everything and it brought me into focus. It continues to inspire me,” he says of the Big Apple. “I did not come from Ukraine ready-made.”
It was in New York City that Gogol Bordello was formed. Initially an outlet for Hütz’s Dadaist tendencies, he banded together an eclectic group of musicians that shared an interest in exploring their own varied ethnomusical influences in a new and sometimes jarring way.
“It’s transcontinental rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “What else can it be when you have United Nations in a band?”
Early on, Gogol Bordello was a bit too much, even for NYC. With a raucous klezmer sound reminiscent of Tetris on acid, the band was initially banned from all the major clubs in town, too over-the-top for CBGB, The Mercury Lounge and The Bowery Ballroom. The heavily syncopated Balkan-esque punk band with a larger-than-life frontman was relegated to art-rock status, and was forced to seek out more experimental venues, a situation that shocked the bandleader.
“Back then it was just too radical for people of New York…they just thought that we were too much to deal with,” says Hütz. “I was actually very surprised about that. That’s why I went there in the first place, so I could…have an audience that was immediately on the same page.
“At that point we were basically forced to play in art galleries for the next couple of years all over the world. That’s what we did, we played Tate Modern Gallery in London and Whitney Museum (NYC), and in Venice and Italy and Spain, but soon enough I had to bring it where it belongs. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. The art band years were completed and I wanted to do what I dreamt about doing, which was essentially play rock ‘n’ roll music.”
Set to release their seventh album, the wonderfully crafted Trans-Continental Hustle, Gogol Bordello now divides the bulk of their time between major television appearances and playing many of the world’s biggest music festivals. With recent performances on Conan and Letterman and gigs from Bonnaroo to The Kremlin, the genre-melding band is gaining exposure to the whole planet.
“One of the coolest things I’ve ever heard from fans to say to us, several times, is that, somebody comeup and say, ‘Listen, I am from Italy but I live in Canada, listen, I am from Argentina but I live in UK, orlisten, I am from Turkey but I live in New York, but your music makes me feel home.’
“I guess it’s similar to the process that reggae music had gone into in the ’70s, when reggae, from small island music, from original genre, basically was able to become worldwide phenomenon.”
Like reggae, Gogol Bordello’s music is instantly ethnic, strikingly accessible and imminently danceable, though most importantly, like Bob Marley, before too long Gogol Bordello just starts to feel natural. The relentlessly driving offbeat underlies an honest and authentic vocal style that blurs musical definition and succeeds in breaking down the cultural gap that is often inherent in world music styles.
Amazingly, Eugene Hütz juggles his very busy Gogol Bordello schedule with a burgeoning acting career, starring in director Liev Schrieber’s 2005 critically acclaimed Everything Is Illuminated and Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, among others. Still, music remains his focus.
“When I was growing up everybody was convinced that I would be an actor,” says Hütz. “Even when I came to the States I was mostly encouraged to do acting which I did in theatre for a little bit. But in my heart I have to go with the love of my life, which is music.”
And his music will take him around the world several more times this year. With a history of gigs from Russia to Rio, appearances on BBC and NBC, a tour that traverses more than a dozen countries in the next two months, and a summer on the road hitting just about every major festival on the planet, Eugene Hütz’s international Dada-esque musical experiment will continue to be exposed to a myriad of different cultures.
“I guess the nature of our band prepares us to be ready for all these things at once,” he explains. “I mean, we did play everything from metal festivals to punk festivals to world music festivals to jazz festivals to anything, but it goes back to…what is this music really like? It’s Gogol Bordello, and if you’re into it, you’re there.”