War In Ukraine

A Man, a Band, a War: Eugene Hütz Speaks His Mind

Talking to the Gogol Bordello frontman about his native Ukraine, Roma roots, and the transcendent power of music

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As the Ukrainian-born leader of the gypsy-folk-punk group Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hütz is a man for the moment. He knows what it’s like to live under the shadow of Soviet oppression, how hardship breeds resilience, and that music can be a force of resistance.

Hütz’s journey began in Boyarka, Ukraine, where he was born to a Ukrainian-Lithuanian father, a butcher by trade, and a mother who was half Servitka Roma, a subgroup of Romani. His father was also a musician and played guitar in Meridian, one of the first rock bands in Ukraine. He taught Eugene how to build a guitar out of plywood, a distortion pedal out of radio parts, and drums out of fish cans and tape. The family fled Ukraine when they learned of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, in 1986; they lived in refugee camps in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy. During this period, Eugene learned from his family about his Romani heritage, which they had hidden while living in Ukraine. They immigrated to Burlington, Vermont, in 1990, when he was 17, where he spent the next seven years. He found his “people” there in other punk rockers, then moved to Manhattan in 1997, where he built his band Gogol Bordello; DJ’d a multiculti set of wild dance music for six years at the Bulgarian Bar, on Ludlow Street; starred in the film Filth and Wisdom, directed by Madonna; acted opposite Elijah Wood, in Everything Is Illuminated; and appeared on the cover of the May 2013 issue of Ukrainian Vogue. He has since garnered thousands of fans worldwide.

Since Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, Hütz has been hyperproductive. Daily Facebook posts show Gogol Bordello frenetically using all of their talents to generate awareness and a creative response to the Russian incursion. In collaboration with Les Claypool, Sean Lennon, Stewart Copeland, Sergey Ryabtsev, and Billy Strings, Hütz dropped a new single, “Zelensky: The Man With the Iron Balls,” paying tribute to the Ukrainian president’s courage in the face of a savage, unprovoked attack on his country. With Jesse Malin, Hütz recently released a cover version of the Pogues’ “If I Should Fall With Grace From God,” whose anti-British-colonial sentiments echo his feelings toward Russia. On March 10, Gogol Bordello hosted a benefit concert for Ukraine at City Winery, with Patti Smith and other notable NYC-based performers. Hütz and his band are currently on tour in the U.S. and will be touring Europe this summer, donating a portion of the proceeds to various charities that support Ukraine.

I met Hütz in March for an interview at Veselka, the beloved Ukrainian restaurant on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 9th Street, in NYC. Through our initial email exchanges, we’d learned of our shared appreciation of punk and hardcore music. “Punk rock, that’s my whole life,” he wrote. In spite of being a well-known personality in the world of music, film, and fashion, Hütz is extremely down to earth—gritty life experiences have deflated any air of pretense. In fact, he seems genuinely repulsed by any whiff of stardom.

We introduced ourselves and were quickly ushered to a table. Hütz’s long brown hair spilled out from under a winter paramilitary cap, and he wore a white T-shirt printed with “KYIV” in the NYHC (New York Hardcore) manner: capital letters in an X-shaped grid. After ordering a bottle of wine, potato pancakes, and borscht (the profits from the traditional beet soup go to the nonprofit Razom for Ukraine), we spoke late into the night. Diners and kitchen staff frequently came up to greet Hütz and have pictures taken with him, always departing with “Slava Ukraini”—“Glory to Ukraine!”

Our conversation carried over to an East Village wine bar and, later, to the Sly Fox, a Ukrainian bar between Veselka and the Ukrainian National Home, on Second Avenue. As the drink flowed, so did the expletive-laden conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity).

Mike Cobb: I wish the circumstances were different in the world. I know you have people in Ukraine. How are they doing?

Eugene Hütz: They are fully armed, taking care of their children, getting them to safer places, and fighting the bitch that’s been trying to de-spirit the Ukrainian people for hundreds of years now. Ukrainians can argue about one thing or another, but they’re certainly united about one fuckin’ cause, and it’s scrape the bitch off the back once and for all time. And they’ve been resisting even in the times when there were just crumbs to eat. But now that we’ve got the whole world’s support, this shit is fucking donezo.

Do you feel optimistic?

Optimism is not really the word. It’s a certainty. Hope is not necessary when you have a distilled intention.

Where do you think these conflicts stem from?

The problem is the imperial entitlement attitude that’s been a problem for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and every other neighbor around. Somehow, Russia fooled themselves that all these neighbors feel subordinate. It’s a complete delusion.

What’s behind this mentality?

It’s a psychological tradition. All these figures like Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, and Putin are from the same fucking tree. For a Ukrainian person, it doesn’t make any sense why millions of people would glorify a criminally insane sociopath.

I know your music is popular in Russia, and you’ve collaborated with people like [Moscow-born] Regina Spektor.

Yeah, she grew up here in the USA.

Can you penetrate through this mess and make an impact with Gogol Bordello?

We have, but we’ve boycotted Russia, no matter how grand the offers were. I’ve absolutely deleted that option out of my life, as every other Ukrainian artist has done. I don’t feel any necessity to play there ever again.

You don’t need it?

As political refugees from the Soviet Union, my family and I have zero nostalgia. Our identification is that we’re Ukrainian. In Ukraine, they were trying hard to Sovietize us, but in every school from kindergarten to university there were teachers who spoke real Ukrainian and who translated to young kids what this country is really about, that it’s not a subordinate republic to Moscow. They passed on the message that this is very temporary.

When I got into punk rock in Ukraine, as a young teenager, there were kids in the punk scene who had trident tattoos on the inside of their leather jackets, which was illegal.

What does that symbolize?

It’s a symbol of resistance. Now, it’s an official symbol of Ukraine. In the time of the Soviet Union, it was still an underground thing. In the punk rock scene, which is a circle that draws more rebellious and progressive characters, we were already traveling around the country and to other republics to see bands play with these symbols. I remember what a respect it evoked. We always thought the supposed Moscow domination was a joke. They will never have it. It’s absolutely out of the question.

Is there a national characteristic typical of Ukraine?

Yes, absolutely. It’s psychological resilience. It’s inner core. It’s absolutely an anarchic seeking of freedom at all times. They’re humble people. They will never front with some bling or hype. They’re some of the toughest motherfuckers you will ever meet, but you will not know that until you fuck with them.

How do you think this is going to end?

With the entire world’s support, Ukraine is gonna own its freedom, independence, and continue to make stronger allies with Western Europe, because they essentially have a Western European mentality.

This recent invasion of Ukraine seems so 20th century, like something from the 1950s Cold War. Why is this happening now?

Because it’s a war of the past with the future. They are latching onto an outdated modality of world perception where some dictator is running everybody’s ass in some large chunk of land. It can’t function in this world. It’s collapsing and crumbling.

What inspired you growing up?

Around 13–14 years old, I started meeting other kids in a black market where we’d trade and buy records. They were listening to this new kind of metal called hardcore. There were such distinctly new things happening that, as a musical polyglot, I just jumped at it.

We went to see this Polish band, Deserter. These guys were on the top of that fucking game. They knew everything about essence, style, and the emotional message of hardcore, with an anger about their music. It was transformative. The energy and unpredictability of that music was my answer to everything for a while.

What struck you about hardcore in particular?

Punk became hard to maintain integrity, with major labels throwing so much money at it. Hardcore is a thicker filter, so most of it remained in a very distilled condition. It’s like an extreme urban folklore. It deals with issues that pop culture can’t afford dealing with. It’s cutting to the chase, and it doesn’t do any unnecessary, baroque crap to mask it. I really love that. I think it’s a really timeless form of industrial, city folklore.

How is life as a musician different in the United States versus Ukraine?

HR, lead singer of Bad Brains, recently asked me if there was a very big difference between the Ukrainian and the American punk scene. I was like, “Of course not!,” because I went from lugging equipment on my back up the stairs in Ukraine to doing the same shit here. So, no cultural shock at all. The whole DIY thing is not a myth—it’s really how it’s done.  In Europe, music is more in an intellectual realm. Somehow it lacks that “thing.” When I got to the USA, I was like, yo, this Henry Rollins motherfucker is bringing some shit! Once I saw Iggy, I was like, man, the physicality of this music is what I’ve been missing!

A lot of punk rock and hardcore is associated with anger, but I think what many people miss is that it’s a release, and there’s a positive side to that.

Everyone who was deeply into the hardcore scene will tell you, they checked out when it got violent. That’s not what the music is about at all. It’s actually just really great fucking music. Put on a Murphy’s Law record and tell me it’s not packed with good-time sing-alongs.

It’s about energy.

Yeah. I had my first band back in Ukraine, called Uksusnik, which roughly translates to “bittered faces,” like somebody who just chugged a pint of vinegar. Even back then, when I got onstage for the first time, people didn’t know what the fuck hit them. I didn’t tell them that I’d had 10 years of marathon running. People were clearly shocked. [Laughs]

What was the atmosphere you were going for?

In our language, there is an interesting word, curage, which means a particular kind of zesty, feisty flamboyance with a joyous, athletic anger. It’s a good-time feeling of equalization and everybody together in a super democratic atmosphere. I set a vision of making a kind of “joycore.” It’s the joy of being and the joy of catharsis. That’s why our band gathers all these various crowds: punk rockers, kids who like hardcore, people who like gypsy music, people who like Mano Negra. People who share the idea that life is playful, with a complete breakdown of social status and caste systems. It’s like a hoedown where everyone is human again for two hours.

Do you have a word like “hoedown” in Ukrainian?

Yeah, Hopak!

How do you connect with an audience and make the magic happen?

Well, some people you can connect with instantly and some you have to crack their skull first to get their focus. It’s an effort, because people are so wrapped up in their own shit, but if we’re here to levitate, then come on motherfucker, let’s levitate!

Where do you think you developed your ability to connect?

Having entertainers in my family. My uncle would sometimes do a somersault out of nowhere to blow people out of the water, to say, Life is kind of fuckin’ great and fun, right? It’s not just all this mundane stupid shit. My father was like that, too—he was deep into rock and roll. He always carried a guitar around with notes of songs that clicked well together. I saw him bring parties of people into elevating mode. Romani culture is all about that. So, with all those things, I kind of made my own mosaic.

How does Roma culture fit into what you do?

It’s a hardass survival mode, which Romanis push to achieve. Wherever Romanis went, music being one of their main tools of survival, they absorbed their folklore and put their own spin on it by making it harder, faster, and better.

There’s a similarity to punk that way, no?

Yes, absolutely. That’s why it fits naturally. The Pogues was always one of my favorite bands. When I started picking up English and thinking about who’s got the best lyrics, I was like, yo, I’m gonna have to go with Shane MacGowan and Nick Cave. I put it all into my own cookery. Now you can see all the elements of Gogol Bordello, the Romani gypsy vibe with storytelling and the atmosphere of hardcore shows.

Tell me about your trip through Eastern Europe visiting Roma people, something you explored deeply in the 2007 documentary The Pied Piper of Hützovina [a film about Hutz by director Pavla Fleischer].

I made many great Romani friends worldwide. As a punk musician, I’m not really in control of any kind of technique, but through creating a hybrid of gypsy punk, I was able to connect, play, and communicate with the greatest virtuosos of gypsy music in the world.

Tell me about your DJing.

That was part of the hustle in the early years of New York. I’m not really a DJ. Maybe people appreciated that I was able to juxtapose music in ways that were so fuckin’ baffling that they found it to be amusing in an alarming way. Being a musical polyglot, I had a lot on my mind, and could just see segues for people who didn’t know this kind of music. I felt like writing my own symphony with all this music lying around my apartment.

By 2000, when my DJ moment took off, I was pretty fuckin’ fed up with everything. I felt like punk rock was starting to expire, and I wanted to give it new life. I wanted to gather all these vitamins of the Stooges, MC-5, Dead Kennedys, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Flamenco, Taraf de Haïdouks, and all the gypsy records I accumulated over the years. I wanted to put it into one parcel and to bitch slap everybody out of oblivion, y’know? [Laughs]

Eclectic!

Yeah, there was a huge ironic vibe on the streets at that time. Nothing was taken for authentic quality. Maybe it’s the Ukrainian in me. I was like, what the fuck do you fuckin’ people think, this is all one big fuckin’ Starbucks? It’s fuckin’ not. This whole video game reality that was coming on is not part of my reality. I felt like I was still Huckleberry Finn, climbing fences, trees, and playing shows and connecting with people on a tangible, rootical level.

You’re determined to keep it real?

Everybody in the hardcore and punk scene who’s there for the right reasons is determined to keep it real. I don’t think it’s my fuckin’ job to become a hologramic being that lives on social media.

I know you’re an avid reader of dystopian literature by authors like Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell. Huxley was prophetic about the threat of us voluntarily giving up control of our lives to shiny screens we can hold in our hands.

Yeah. And Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent perfectly spells out where we are heading to. People’s minds are disconnected from their consciousness. The most amazing part is it’s not like human beings are complete robots. They have an option of going into independent consciousness mode every day.

From 2000 on, it felt like Ram Dass, Krishna consciousness, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now were becoming a thing in our collective hard drive. We thought we were gonna break out of this tyranny of propaganda. But around 2014, all that got wiped away by a tsunami of digital social media and a loss of emotional intelligence, a complete void of any inner core, cowardice, and fuckin’ social media anonymity. It’s been in shambles ever since.

I think so much of it comes from the marketing of convenience, like the cell phone, which is not just a telephone. Don’t you think?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t buy into luxury. I always had a problem with the idea of comfort. That’s why I was able to go on tours in the van with 10 people packed in like sardines, and I would never do it any other way. What’s there in comfort? This planet is not about that.

That’s such a big part of the message of society, that’s what’s sold and promoted. Convenience, the easy way.

Perhaps it is, but as Fugazi says, “Never mind what they’re selling. It’s what you’re buying.” That message has not alternated.

I think it’s all coming back to a make your own T-shirt kind of thing. I think the soul of society has missed that vibe. Nobody’s satisfied with their Instagram-Spotify fuckin’ life. There’s nothing in there. For the souls that come to planet Earth for experience, they will never be satisfied with this incubator lifestyle they’re presented with. They’re gonna go out and get real-life experience. That’s how we did it. It’s still that planet.

What are you planning next?

Well, after some benefit shows in the USA for Ukraine, we’re gonna head to Eastern Europe this summer to do some more benefit shows.

 

At this point, the Sly Fox shut down for the night, and we said our goodbyes outside in the cold late-winter night with the parting words: “Slava Ukraini!” “Long Live Ukraine!”  ❖

Michael Cobb is a writer, musician, and podcaster based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York City Jazz Rec-ord, Shindig!, Elmore, The Indypendent, Ruta 66, and Mondo Sonoro, among others, and on the website Please Kill Me.

[Correction: The print version of this story stated that Hützs father was Russian-born. In fact, he is of Ukrainian-Lithuanian origin.]

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