The Gypsy Punk
He performed at Live Earth, stars in Madonna’s directorial debut, is a darling of the fashion crowd and then there’s the small matter of leading cult band Gogol Bordello. Charismatic Eugene Hutz is making some noise.
The left boot is off. The shirt went two hours ago. Having signalled the end of the previous song by ricocheting his microphone off the drummer’s bass, the man whose haircut is half-quiff, half-mullet, but whose moustache is all pantomime genie, hoists himself from stage to balcony. Now several feet above the 500-strong New York audience, he conspires to crank the frenzied atmosphere even higher, brandishing his acoustic guitar like a semi-automatic weapon and yelping a mangled mix of Ukrainian, Russian and English. Around his sticky torso hangs the flag of the Romany people. On stage, fire buckets are being used as percussion. A Russian man of pensionable age plays the fiddle while another bashes an accordion. It’s a fantastic racket; one that combines elements of folk, flamenco, ska and Balkan gypsy music, played with the gusto of punk, performed with the flamboyance of cabaret.
The band are Gogol Bordello. The frontman is Eugene Hütz, a 34-year-old Kiev refugee. Gogol Bordello call themselves a “global collective” and they number an Israeli guitarist, an Ethiopian bassist, an American drummer, the aforementioned Russian accordionist and violinist, plus Thai-American and Chinese-Scottish percussionist-dancers. Their nearest precedent may be the Pogues – the up-for-it gang of ne’er-do-wells whose genius was to unite traditional Irish folk with breakneck punk rock. But Gogol Bordello’s act is more singular still, so much so that Hütz has been compelled to christen a new musical genre – “gypsy punk” – provocatively suggesting his band’s combustive effect on audiences as “like a porn magazine being thrown into a kindergarten”.
“Last night was extra-crazy, man,” Hütz says over dinner following the first of two long-since sold-out nights in New York, somewhere as much as anywhere he now calls home, having formed the band here in 1999 following a journey out of the Soviet Union, across Europe and into America. “It was retarded. I guess we have shaken up quite a bit of apple carts all over the place and that we have made people confused and started many arguments. When people see us the first time they see two or three songs and they go, ‘No f****** way.'”
Their effect on Gogol Bordello virgins might be as bafflingly endearing as Hütz’s own seesawing accent, liberal use of expletives and cavalier approach to grammar, but for a band four albums into their career who’ve relished their underdog status, they’ve reached a kind of tipping point.
Back in July, Gogol Bordello found themselves with exposure of the biggest kind imaginable: being introduced to an audience of two billion, when Hütz and violinist Sergey Rjabtzev performed with Madonna at Live Earth (“I’d like to introduce my Romany gypsy friends…”). Little matter that a noisy Romany reworking of La Isla Bonita presented those watching with something of a challenge, it was another milestone on his charismatic road to stardom. “I had all these gypsies calling me from Russia and Ukraine going, ‘I can’t believe you got Madonna singing the Romanesse.‘ It was like a new chapter for everybody. The whole thing came in an idea just a few days before Live Earth itself, you know? It turned into this major publicity stunt.”
Hütz is no stranger to the bright lights. In 2005’s film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated – the tale of an American who travels to Ukraine in search of his Russo-Jewish roots – Hütz upstaged Elijah Wood in his role as Aleksandr ‘Alex’ Perchov, earning praise all round. Hütz and Wood remain friends, with music-nut Wood dating Pamela Racine, one of Gogol Bordello’s dancer-percussionists.
And Hütz was recently the subject of a documentary, The Pied Piper of Hutzovina – just out on DVD – which follows him on a pilgrimage back to Eastern Europe, where he fails to convince the head of the Kiev Gypsy Theatre that his latest musical innovation, ‘gypsy hip-hop’, has legs.
After touring the UK in December, we’ll see him in his second acting role, as the lead in Filth and Wisdom, a low-budget comedy that also happens to be Madonna’s directorial debut. “Eugene’s charismatic madness is hard to resist,” Madonna explains. “I like him because he has suffered, because he reads books, because he is authentic.”
Filth and Wisdom should be just as intriguing. Co-starring Richard E. Grant, it features a ballet school, a dominatrix and Hütz in drag. “Sure. Every actor dreams of a role like that,” he says of the film that debuts at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “Let’s not forget who direct it.” Was Madonna a good first-time director? “I was impressed. She’s a very hard worker but so is me.” Maybe she had some pointers from her director husband? “I’m not really supposed to talk about it a lot,” he says. And anyway, it’s not like he’s planning to act full-time. “Acting is tedious as f***. Why would I change my career even? Music is love of my life.
“I think I’m in a place where I want to be and that’s pretty great, you know? But I don’t analyse it all that much,” he continues. “For the most time I’m driven by complete instinct.”
Article by Johnny Davis.
Source: The Times Online.
Thanks to our team member Vincy.
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