For those who complain about the lame state of New York nightlife, I have a solution: Eugene Hütz. For those who bemoan boring bands with no charisma or energy, Eugene Hütz—and his hardworking group Gogol Bordello—can help. Those who lament that their life is unexciting and worthless: again, Eugene Hütz. In fact, I would prescribe Eugene Hütz for just about any malady you may be experiencing.
This might be why this is the Third Annual Eugene Hütz Fly Life interview. I’m making it an institution. Because there is no one else in the downtown scene remotely as interesting, entertaining, multi-talented, politically motivated, and captivating. Though a New York resident, he’s only here sporadically, and whenever I see him my life is infused with super Hützness. Eugene Hütz gives me a reason to live. Especially when he plays my favorite long-forgotten genre, jungle, during one of his insane DJ sets—as he did for the opening of the new Menahata (a/k/a the Bulgarian Bar) on Ludlow last Thursday, spinning the classic mid-’90s track “Original Nuttah.”
Here’s how normal people go on vacation: Book a flight somewhere, lie around on the beach for a few days, maybe see some sights, get drunk once or twice, get a sunburn, come back, resume dull life. Here’s how Hütz takes a vacation: Flies to Russia, hits 20 countries in a 32-day period in a fully absorbing “transcontinental DJ hustle.” Along the way, visits Gypsy camps in Eastern Europe, discovering Gypsy musicians for September’s New York Gypsy Festival—the “real wild ones,” as he calls them. Squeezes in a performance on Barcelona television with backing from authentic flamenco musicians. DJs in Germany and everywhere else. Collaborates with DJ Shantel and Rootman, a U.K. dub producer. Winds up in Morocco, leaving with plans to record with Arabic musicians. Invents a new mash-up genre, Raï ‘n’ Ragatta.
“People always told me I’m fucking crazy, but this month I actually started believing them,” says Hütz over tea at Mogador on St. Marks. (“To keep the Moroccan vibe going,” he explains.)
He was back in New York for a week before Gogol Bordello’s summer-long European tour, which will also include the Reading Festival in August. The night before the show at Irving Plaza, he spun one of his famous mash-up sets for the opening of the Bulgarian Bar, which moved over from its Canal Street location. Hütz sets are sweaty, messy, drunken affairs. Chin-scratching techno dorks and laid-back deep house lovers, please step aside. Technique flies out the window; so do staid musical sensibilities. When’s the last time you heard dancehall, bhangra, traditional Gypsy songs, and Joy Division in the same set?
Here’s how normal people DJ: Pick song, push play, look bored, pick another song, push play, maybe nod head, look bored. Repeat. Here’s how Hütz DJs: Picks song, raises fist in the air, bangs head, smashes something. Picks song, rips off shirt, sweats profusely, waves hands in the air and conducts sing-along. Forgets to push play for next song. Whoops. Picks song, pushes play, everyone cheers. Grabs mic, stands on DJ booth, conducts more sing-alongs.
Is it any wonder that the place was dripping with sweat? Can you believe him when he says, “I’m not a real DJ”? I can’t.
When I first met Hütz a few years ago, he was a charismatic guy in a popular local band, playing a form of music—Gypsy- infused punk rock—that hadn’t yet picked up steam. Now, it’s a different story. The New York Gypsy Festival is just one of many signs that Hütz was onto something—people like Basement Jaxx are including Gogol’s song “Start Wearing Purple” on their compilations.
“When I first moved to New York, people threw me out of the bars for playing it,” says Hütz, who credits the change of heart to marketing. “It’s huge—I see compilations coming out left and right. I know this track—I’ve been spinning them for 10 years. I look at the label—it’s some bullshit label that just got with the program, just heard about it two weeks ago. It’s all right. Let ’em do it.”
While others are rediscovering what he played 10 years ago, Hütz is busy unearthing the next shit in Gypsy camps. “There is no routine of any kind,” he says. “I get in a car with my Ukrainian guide and basically drive to certain locations just to meet these people because they live in such isolation. A lot of the wild kids, they don’t even know they are gypsies. They don’t know what the fuck happened to them and why they are there. But what they do artistically is uncomparable to anything.”
When he’s not tearing up stages or inventing new music genres, Hütz is doing just about everything else. He was approached by a famous editor of a recently deceased notorious writer about doing his own book. He’s in talks with a TV producer to host a video show “with all the fucking cool bands—the music that I’m spinning, Asian Dub Foundation, Gypsy music, no fucking MTV crap,” he says. And after his acting debut in last year’s Everything Is Illuminated—directed by Liev Schreiber and co-starring
Elijah Wood—he’s been showered with film scripts. “What I thought was gonna happen, happened,” he says. “I got scripts to play bad Eastern European guys. Now I get offered to play Satan, so straight to the top.” He did not twirl his famous handlebar mustache as he said this, but he should have.
And the band, always the band. Gogol Bordello put on a benefit with Dub Trio, Kultur Shock, and Outernational (whose CD he produced) Friday at Irving Plaza for Romani Jag (romanijag.uz.ua). “They monitor police brutality and take cops to court. They defend people’s rights. Racism is still high. In Andalusia in Spain, where the flamenco was coming from originally, at the only flamenco bar there is, Gypsies are not allowed in,” he says. “They created the flamenco and they are not allowed in there. There’s still racism and discrimination everywhere you go.”
Here’s my dirty little secret: For all the DJ sets I’ve seen Hütz spin, I’d never seen his band. I’d heard Gogol Bordello’s music, but I always knew that the key to getting the band was seeing them onstage. I was right.
Here’s how a normal band plays a show: Usually it’s a four- or five-piece: guitars, drums, bass, singer. They stand in place, look forlornly at their shoes, sing earnest songs about their woes to an audience that looks bored, sad, or both. They play an encore, and if they’re lucky, a girl throws a bra onstage. Usually, they are not lucky.
Here’s a Gogol Bordello show: The place is packed to the rafters with kids of all ages—girls with mohawks, goth chicks with platinum-blond hair and black eyeliner, guys drunk with anticipation and beer. They are already pushing and shoving and crushed against the barricade separating the crowd from the band. This tells you its gonna be that kind of show. The band starts, and there are so many people onstage dressed in colorful Gypsy-esque outfits, you can’t keep track. There’s an older dude, Sergey Rjabtzev, wearing a Slayer shirt and playing the violin so hard that he breaks a string, and almost pokes your eye out with his stick (not that stick—his bow). There is a moshpit that you are scared to even be near, with brave girls and boys floating on top. During the encore, Pamela Jintana Racine, one of the singer-drummers, passes her drum into the crowd, which dutifully holds it aloft while she climbs on top of it and bangs it. Then Hütz joins her and she jumps back onstage.
There’s a woman hovering on top of the crowd, being passed along limb by limb. She’s on her back, her legs splayed wide. She lands on the drum. She fights to join Hütz, and wiggles her way underneath him. She wraps her legs around him, arches her neck, and thrusts her fists out, victorious. She’s been cured.