“I really love the fact that when we tour somewhere we’ve never been to before, we start sound-checking and people have this look like, ‘What the fuck are these guys gonna do with a violin and accordion?’ ” says Eugene Hütz. “And 15 minutes later, we’re gonna show them what the fuck we’re gonna do with a violin and accordion.”
A wiry, handsome Ukrainian expat with a handlebar mustache and a thick accent, the 29-year-old Hütz fronts Gogol Bordello, an NYC eight-piece whose self-described “Gypsy punk cabaret” will be on display this Wednesday and Thursday during their final appearance as part of the Whitney Museum’s biennial celebration (at Thiasos in Chelsea). Part of the reason the band have been tapped for the Whitney gigs is they’re a living, breathing testament to multiculturalism—four other members are immigrants (two Russian, two Israeli), and the Eastern European sounds that pour out of their saxes, accordions, violins, guitars, and drums are augmented by influences ranging from Béla Bartók to Sonic Youth.
But the band have also begun to catch on big-time with rock fans, thanks in large part to their frantic, theatrical live sets, which Hütz more or less sums up when he cites his two biggest exemplars: Iggy Pop and Charlie Chaplin. Like Iggy, he’s a reckless performer, not concerned so much with coherent ideology as conjuring dark and chaotic noise through his manic approach to counter- (and multi-) culturalism. He burns himself with cigarettes and spills beer and climbs on mic stands and up railings, but the wild-man antics are also countered by his (and his band’s) Chaplinesque sense of showmanship, which tends toward wacky miming and magic tricks and skits involving Ukrainian vampires and “Gogol dancers” dressed as border cops tying Hütz up with his own mic cord. Besides anarcho-noise and mischievous stagecraft, the other key ingredient of a Gogol show is alcohol—for the band and its often heedless audience. “We’re not allowed to play in CBGB, Brownies, Mercury Lounge,” Hütz says. “They don’t want to deal with that level of excitement. That’s why we play in Russian, Greek, Bulgarian clubs. Culturally, they’re prepared for debauchery. They appreciate it.”
For Hütz the commingling of a punk ethos and Eastern European folk musics always felt like a no-brainer, though his vision wasn’t realized until he moved to New York. “I’m largely driven—and the musicians in our band are driven—by our heritages. Which is Slavic, Gypsy. Driven, actually, on a very obsessive level. . . . I’ve also been always a big fan of New York bands, like Suicide, James Chance and the Contortions. They had this inimitable energy that comes only from this city. We formed in New York, we’re also big fans of New York—of super-integrated environments. This is where we feel great about expressing our ideas.”
Growing up in Kiev, Hütz collected rock records on the black market and picked up instrumental chops from his parents. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the Hützes fled to western Ukraine, where Eugene’s mother had roots. There Eugene fostered his obsession with Gypsy music. “I was put face to face for quite a long time as a child with a real, raw, rural environment, where everything is made from scratch, including music. They make violins only out of trees that were hit by lightning. It’s a very fertile area for mythology and supernatural delirium.”
Hütz, who emigrated to Vermont with his parents in the mid ’90s, conceived of Gogol Bordello before he left Europe, while playing in punk bands and kicking around in refugee camps. The band—whose current incarnation includes fiddler Sergey Rjabtzev, accordionist Yuri Lemeshev, guitarist Oren Kaplan, saxophonist Ori Kaplan, and drummer Eliot Ferguson—came together in 1999, when Hütz sought out compatriots among musicians working the “wedding scenes” in Vermont and New York. The band’s sound is grounded in folk instrumentation, vodka-soused shout-alongs, and an up-tempo oompah beat. Rarely does the groove mutate into a strict rockist 4/4, but even so the music seethes, throbs, and swirls with dueling saxophone, accordion, and guitar lines. The chunky riffs and minor-key melodies stick with you even when they’re delivered in one of Hütz’s made-up tongues. The intelligible lyrical fragments (“We’ll be starting, starting fire in an old-fashioned way,” “Little does she know while she is yawning/She is orally pleasing the un-visible man”) are likewise both freakish and peculiarly colloquial, in the tradition of the band’s namesake, author Nikolai Gogol.
Hanging out at an East Village dive one Friday night for nigh on three hours, Hütz held my rapt attention even when I found myself sharing an ashtray with Parker Posey. His takes on globalism (“It’s simply a marketing term”) and Russian social science (“Rebelling against politics in Ukraine is like brushing your teeth”) occasionally dip into rote generalization, but like many great punk rockers, he’s impassioned about everything he dedicates any energy to. Like his singing, his speech is an abrasive torrent of vitriol and half-coherent anecdotes about, say, playing bass in a metal band or being harassed by border police. Give him a Smirnoff with cranberry and he’ll discourse at length on the “underdog energy” of both punk rock and Gypsy music or launch into screeds against irony and postmodernism. Particularly irksome for Hütz is “the idea that everything has been done. I mean, fuck you! I don’t think so at all, and as a matter of fact I can think of endless possibilities. Sometimes, we just sit around and think, ‘We are this kind of band, but wouldn’t it be great if there would be this and this and this kind of band?’ ”
On record, Gogol are more disciplined than they are live. Hütz describes his band’s second album, due out in September on Rubric Records, as a “hammer,” whereas the first one (1999’s Voi-La Intruder) was a “sickle.” “Aside from all the grotesque humor and debauchery, it also has pretty clear ideological statements. Even with the name of it—Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony—I feel like we’re going against ironic treatment of the world and culture and life. Unless you see more people speaking from the heart, we’re gonna continue to rage about that—drunk, sober, or lobotomized.”
The centerpiece of the new album is “Baro Foro,” which translates alternately as “undying power” and “strong city” and happens to be the best track on the Voice‘s recent Love Songs for New York compilation. At the Whitney last month, a 15-minute version had the mostly young, mostly white audience jumping and writhing and pulling off their best imitation of whatever Eastern European dance seemed appropriate. Hütz hacked at his acoustic guitar and crowd-surfed while the band repeated the song’s sad, strong, heartfelt eight-bar refrain until the tiny downstairs performance space threatened to froth over with bodies. The song had the same effect when “DJ Gogol Hütz” spun it at his weekly gypsy/punk/rai/Spanish hip-hop/turbofolk/no wave/dub dance party at Mehanata two Saturdays ago, just as it sent audiences into a frenzy during a recent European tour. Hütz credits these transnational rave-ups to the universal appeal of “extreme music.” “What I love is social and cultural chaos. What I love is to see people from Brazil and Mexico and Yugoslavia and Switzerland and Russia and Germany going fucking insane at our shows. We love becoming a larger family through these people.”