Eugene Hütz, Gogol Bordello's Gypsy-Punk Hero Gogol Bordello has been making supercharged music since first forming in 1999, six years after frontman Eugene Hütz landed in the U.S., having fled the Chernobyl disaster in his native Ukraine. The band's philosophy: to "make the contradictions of life sound harmonious" with a head-spinning mix of ska, punk, metal, rap, flamenco, roots reggae, dub and more.
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Eugene Hütz, Gogol Bordello's Gypsy-Punk Hero

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Eugene Hütz, Gogol Bordello's Gypsy-Punk Hero

Eugene Hütz, Gogol Bordello's Gypsy-Punk Hero

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross. Fans of our guest Eugene Hutz's group, Gogol Bordello, can be pretty passionate.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gogol Bordello Nonstop")

(Soundbite of rhythmic grunting, hands clapping)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) Gogol Bordello, my favorite band.

(Soundbite of roaring)

DAVIES: That's a couple of fans from the documentary "Gogol Bordello Nonstop," which is now being shown in cities around the country. The band's also featured in a 3D concert film with The Dave Matthews Band and Ben Harper and Relentless7, called "Larger Than Life...In 3D," which will be released next week.

Gogol Bordello is most often described as a gypsy punk band. Their concerts are wildly energized, mixing gypsy abandon with the driving force of rock. There's a band of musicians on stage with two masked go-go girls who dance around, singing and playing washboards and drums. Hutz, the group's front man, often performs shirtless and always gets sweaty.

You may also know Hutz from a memorable acting role as a Ukrainian translator in the movie "Everything is Illuminated." Hutz grew up in Ukraine and came to the U.S. with his family as a teenager. I spoke to him in 2007, when the group's most recent album, "Super Taranta" was released. Here's the opening song, called "Ultimate."

(Soundbite of song, "Ultimate")

GOGOL BORDELLO (Rock Band): (Singing) If we are here not to do what you and I wanna do and go forever crazy with it, why the hell we are even here? Da!

There was never any good old days. They are today, they are tomorrow. It's a stupid thing we say, cursing tomorrow with sorrow. Go!

When we stand here in a row, looking like a bunch of heroes, I know that deep inside nothing more but bunch of zeros. Yah!

DAVIES: Eugene Hutz, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, your band is described as gypsy punk. If I wanted to convince my friends to come to me with a Gogol Bordello concert, what should I tell them to expect? What are they going to see?

Mr. HUTZ: Complete orgasmo-hysteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: OK. You want to fill that in a little bit? What does the act look and sound like?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, I guess, I mean, you can tell them whatever the hell you want to tell them, really, but it's all going to end up in a peak experience of, I guess, emotional kind for them. And a show is a show, but this show would never work that well without the music and its foundation, which is gypsy music of, you know, of my origin.

And the power of that music is quite known to its fanatics, but for me, it was always obvious that gypsy music can become very much appreciated in subculture, you know, because it was always marginalized in this world music can of marketing and all these things that I can't stand, really.

You know, it just was basically locked up all these years, when in its spirit, it's basically rock and roll. It's probably the closest thing to rock and roll you can find in the history of music before rock and roll as we know it appears.

DAVIES: Traditional gypsy music, you're saying, is like rock and roll. Yeah.

Mr. HUTZ: Yes, absolutely, and it's probably the most passionate, the most flamboyant, the most merry and gay music that there was before rock and roll. It's a scientific fact, basically.

DAVIES: Somebody described a Gogol Bordello concert as something like standing next to a 747. And I can say, you sing every syllable of every song with your whole body. I mean, you just don't stop moving. Have you always performed that way?

Mr. HUTZ: Basically, I mean, basically that's why I'm not a real singer, because I never learned how to sing just with that one mechanism. And I never really was schooled in any way, really, either, and it all kind of came from just growing up around music that's basically acoustically made by my own family.

Well, my father was quite an - you know, and still is - quite an entertainer. Just give him a guitar and a party, and there he will have it, a prototype of Gogol Bordello, you know. He is still pretty much an entertainer of a refugee community, where he resides now with - you know, with my mom in Vermont.

DAVIES: As a kid, did you perform for your parents?

Mr. HUTZ: No, not really. I mean, my dad always stole the show. It was not until in school - I think it was about sixth or seventh grade. There it was some school competition, and where - you know, when they have these things where school competes against school in wit and skits and all these kinds of things. Anyhow, we had those things back in the Soviet Union.

I wasn't even participating, but our team was losing, and they just decided to throw me out on stage like a last reserve because I was into punk rock and I had green hair and they thought it might do some good. And along with that, I did some improv, and that's how we won, basically.

So that was my, like, a first taste of little stage victory, and that's kind of - basically, from then on, I decided that that's a pretty powerful place to be, and that's where it all kind of makes sense for me.

DAVIES: And where was that that all this happened? Was this in Kiev?

Mr. HUTZ: It was in Kiev. It was in my school, (Russian spoken).

DAVIES: What was it like to wear that - wear your hair green then and have all those - have that lifestyle? Did you get in trouble?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, it was perestroika time. So Gorbachev just came to power, and it was considered to be OK suddenly. So we got away with - I mean, in school, I didn't get in much trouble for it, but I would get beat up on the street up a couple times by other youth organizations, they're called Luberin(ph), all these pro-Soviet, idiotic, bodybuilder, neo-Nazi kids who would basically pull us in the alley and hit us once in the face, and we were done. It didn't take that much effort to put us away back then. We were, like, 15 years old, just one hit on the head.

DAVIES: So when you formed a band, I know you emigrated to Burlington, Vermont, which is a college town, and there is a music scene there.

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah.

DAVIES: And you formed a band, and then you came to New York and started playing this - for lack of a better word - fusion of punk and more traditional gypsy music and all the other influences that you have. Were your audiences just American kids who were turned onto this, or were you finding gypsies everywhere?

Mr. HUTZ: No. Actually, when I first came to Vermont, to the States, I played in a - you know, basically, in hard-core metal bands before I formed my own band, and in bands that were much more straightforward punk rock. And the process of getting back into my own, you know, DNA music, it took us some years, I tell you, and I also didn't want to do it in a stupid way, as some bands do it.

You know, I didn't want it to be exploitation of stereotype, on any rate. So that had - you know, it was quite a process to find an angle of what it's going to be like, and actually the turning point was, for me, the music of Bela Bartok, of Hungarian composer, who worked with a lot of ethnical music, turning it into his own symphonic, avant-garde music.

So after getting kind of load of how does he process that information, I was able to step up to it without quoting and without just reusing the tunes, you know what I mean?

DAVIES: Mm-hmm. Do you want to pick another song from "Super Taranta" to listen to and tell us about?

Mr. HUTZ: I don't know, "American Wedding," I think.

DAVIES: I was thinking "American Wedding." Tell me a little bit about the song. Then we can hear it.

Mr. HUTZ: Well, you know, I've been here for a couple years already, to be exact, 12, and I've gone to some of them, American weddings, and it just was a pretty amazing experience. I mean, I just could not believe that people actually would celebrate - would even call it celebration. And the funny thing is that I wasn't even going to put this song on the album. I just - I literally wrote it to entertain somebody in five minutes, in 10 minutes in an after-party. I just polished up some rhymes later on.

But the funny thing about it is that it's the Americans who get the biggest kick out of it because once it was done, they're like, you have to put it on the album. It's - everybody can relate to it. It's just - it's just - it is what it is. I can't believe nobody wrote it before.

DAVIES: And the thing about...

Mr. HUTZ: Like, how can we do it like that? You know, it just was such a contrast to me because the wedding in Eastern Europe is three-days-long experience, you know. And just going to conference room rented out until one in the morning, you know, it's like - in a hotel. It's like, argh.

DAVIES: It's lame by contrast. All right, so let's hear the song. This is "American Wedding" by Gogol Bordello.

(Soundbite of song, "American Wedding")

GOGOL BORDELLO: (Singing) Have you ever been to American wedding? Where is the vodka? Where's marinated herring? Where is the musicians that got the taste? Where is the supplies that's gonna last three days? Where is the band that like fanfare, gonna keep it goin' 24 hours?

Instead, it's one in the mornin', and a DJ is patchin' up the cords. Everybody's full of cake, staring at the floor. Proper couples start to mumble that it's time to go. People gotta get up early. Yep, they gotta go.

DAVIES: That's "American Wedding" by Gogol Bordello and our guest, Eugene Hutz. He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Eugene Hutz, leader of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. He grew up in Ukraine, and his family emigrated to Vermont when he was a teenager.

Your life was affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, right? I mean, how close were you to the accident? How did it affect your family?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, Kiev was 60, what, 65 kilometers away from Chernobyl. So as thousands and thousands of other people, it's like, of course, we're affected by it in every way, in mental way and in geographical dislocation way. And, you know, I feel always hesitant to talk about it because there are people who suffered from it much, much, much, much more.

I mean, it was close, but, you know, we still had our things together enough to listen to BBC radio promptly and receive a message that we need to get out. Other people stayed there for weeks and weeks later on. And, you know, that's how Soviet government was working, you know.

DAVIES: You mean it wasn't the government that informed you, you picked up a BBC broadcast and knew to hightail it out of there, right?

Mr. HUTZ: Oh, absolutely. There was no official news for six days after the thing. There was nothing. I mean, kids kept going to school, and my dad and I, being rock and rollers that we are, you know, always tuning in to BBC, listening to music programs in the Russian language, you know, that was basically a forbidden thing to do. And eventually, my dad was busted for that, and it's actually one of the things that helped us to get out, but...

DAVIES: Your dad was busted for what?

Mr. HUTZ: For listening to that, to BBC. He was busted for it several times during his youth. They actually caught him listening to that in the army, and, I mean, it's - there is nothing - it's just a cultural programs, just in the Russian language, and they're broadcast from London by this DJ, Sergenov Garostov(ph). And my dad, as other young kids, you know, at that time, was tuning into that and just listening to, you know, Rolling Stones.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. HUTZ: And eventually, somebody ratted on him that he tunes into this stuff, and...

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. HUTZ: ...the file started, and the file continued for a couple decades till so much stuff accumulated that, you know, that he was interrogated a couple times. And we threw a bunch of other stuff together and said listen, we can't stay here anymore. It's like, what's next? They going to lock him up? Or - we've got to get out of here.

DAVIES: And that's what led to your family moving to Vermont, as political refugees. You weren't - it wasn't simply fleeing the Chernobyl accident, right?

Mr. HUTZ: All of it was like accumulation because once we were - left Kiev because of Chernobyl, it was already like - even when we came back to Kiev, it wasn't like - we were kind of unsettled there. It was like the move was done. We came back, stayed a couple years and basically, those years were spent on making sure we're getting out for good.

But the thing about, you know, when we were evacuated, as bizarre as it sounds, that actually led me to a major discovery, you know, for my own, for my life because I was a little kid, and as I said before, I didn't think anything about the fact that, you know, my grandmother is gypsy and, you know, that my uncle is complete fanatic of gypsy music. And when we left and stayed with our relatives, that's where I was actually submerged in the full-on Romani environment for the first time in my life.

So after a year of living with them, it had a lot - I mean, maybe because I was so young and impressionable, but I think, you know, your DNA is going to play a part in it, too. My identification, like, psychologically changed, actually, and it's an important age for anybody, 13, 14, 15 years old, you know. And suddenly, I was hanging out with totally different kind of kids who had other things on their mind. And when I lived with them, I experienced different things that - just the feelings that I never had because the general intelligence and emotional life of gypsies is very different.

I mean, everybody talks about, like, gypsy spirit, and it's kind of become this cliche, but more important thing is gypsy psychology, and it's something that nobody, really, who is not - nobody can really describe it because gypsies wouldn't care to describe it to you, and other people just can't understand it.

DAVIES: Well, I guess I have to ask you to describe it. What do you mean by gypsy psychology?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, I don't even know if I could fully describe it, but it's - something has to do with immediacy of their perception. You know, it's an interesting thing that in gypsy, for example, something I found out, they had no - the word for - there is word for today, akana(ph), and then there is word for - the word for tomorrow and for yesterday is the same, it's atacera(ph).

You know, and it's like - because that's just not today. In a way, what you see in Gogol Bordello is it's me recreating what I saw when I lived with them. It's our spirit. It's how we survive. It's our rising above the pressures and contradictions of life.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to play a song from your new record, "Super Taranta."

Mr. HUTZ: Sure.

DAVIES: And the one I was going to play was the third track, "Zina-Marina." This song really rocks, and I liked it a lot, but then...

Mr. HUTZ: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: When I got clued into what it's about, it had a whole different feel to me. Tell us about the lyrics and what this song is about.

Mr. HUTZ: You know, I mean, it's about sex trafficking, and Ukraine is the center of all of that. You can actually - it's as obvious as walking through the streets because even five, six, seven, eight years ago, I would still go back, and there would be still tons of hot girls on the streets everywhere you look. That's Ukraine.

You know, now you go there, and it's like, where did they all go? Where did they all go is that they're all busy working in Dubai and Istanbul and other places, where they are all tricked in. And most of these girls, they're actually from rural areas, and they're not educated about anything. They just answer ad about do you want to be a model, which is any girl in Ukraine will do in a second.

DAVIES: Well, Eugene Hutz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Eugene Hutz is the front man for the group Gogol Bordello. The group's in Europe now, but you can see them in some American cities, in the documentary "Gogol Bordello Nonstop," and they'll be featured in a 3D concert film called "Larger Than Life...In 3D," which will be released next week.

We'll close with the track Hutz was just talking about, the Gogol Bordello song about sex trafficking called "Zina-Marina." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Zina-Marina")

GOGOL BORDELLO: (Singing) Zina-Marina, Tasha, Valentina, Sasha, Anastacia, Anna Sophia.

It is easier to see evil as entity, not as condition inside you and me. I did not invent it, just in charge of it, simple businessman with simple, practical plan.

So do you wanna be a model, yeah? All you got to do is show up, wow. We'll be leaving soon for a breaking room. For there will forever be poverty and there forever be cruelty.

Zina-Marina, Svenya(ph), Balina(ph), Katya, Maria...

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