Music & clubs

Interview: Eugene Hütz

In the 1990s, he spearheaded the Russendisko sound; now, Madonna's a fan. The frontman of Gogol Bordello talks about love and “Balkan Wave”. GB returns to Berlin on December 9 for a wild show at Huxley's Neue Welt.

Image for Interview: Eugene Hütz
Photo courtesy of Eugene Hütz

At the age of 14, post-Chernobyl, Eugene Hütz (born “Yevhen Hudz”) and his parents fled from Ukraine to America: first to Vermont, then to New York City where, in the late-1990s, he spearheaded the Russendisko sound, mixing a mélange including gypsy, punk and Russian opera as a DJ at Manhattan’s famed Bulgarian locale Mehanata.

With the band Gogol Bordello, he garnered unlikely stardom by blending an anti-establishment spirit with an eastern European sound. Hütz has also appeared in several films, including the dialect-destroying Everything Is Illuminated and Madonna’s directorial effort Filth and Wisdom. (She is, it might be added, a considerable fan.) Now a resident of Brazil, he is appearing with Gogol Bordello at Huxley’s Neue Welt on December 9.

What do you think of the “Balkan Wave” that’s been making its way across Europe and the States for the past few years? Did you pick up on it?

Well, pick up on it? We originated it. For us, that wave was like 12 years ago. It’s about fucking time everyone else is hearing about it. I see it in exactly the same way as what happened with reggae music in the 1970s. There was a regional, small style of music on a small island and through the efforts of several people it became a worldwide phenomenon. Now, you go to Japan and there are reggae bands. With dreadlocks and the whole fucking thing. In a similar way, it’s happening with Balkan music. When we go play in Argentina and Chile, I meet bands that consider themselves to be Balkan. And they thank us for original inspiration. And you know, that’s fucking great. I think that also Emir Kusturica had a lot to do with it – you know, the filmmaker. I think for a lot of people, our music and his movies were the two main legs that got them aboard. And so be it. It’s a very life-ward, positive kind of music, and I’m glad that we could transcend the feeling.

How intense is the Brazilian Balkan scene?

Well, that was also a very exciting thing for me. Because what I did as a DJ in New York City, I could successfully move – I could successfully do in Brazil where interest for that music is very high now. And through living in Brazil, it is very understandable why because there is so much emotional bonding between Latin America and eastern Europe, really.

Why did you move from New York to Brazil?

Well, I fell in love with a girl that lived in Brazil and then I fell in love with the whole country. And when you’re in love, you hardly ever know what the fuck is really going on and why. So I can’t logically answer that question. It’s just a really amazing place and a whole other world of its own. And I’m an adventurous person. And in my life, I found that Brazil was just the most fulfilling and exotic and inspiring adventure through all kinds of extremes. I mean, it is the country of the best conditions and the worst conditions. It is the country of the best music and the worst music. It is the country of the best food and the worst food. It is the country of tranquillity and of violence. It is a very messy, non-institutionalized place, yet human spirit is there alive on the streets. And that human spirit is sometimes very hard to find in the western civilization, which is so boxed up.

New York wasn’t getting you down?

No, I love New York. And I still spend a lot of time there. And I have an incredible family of friends in New York. And, frankly, New York gave me everything. I will always love New York. I mean that was the town where I was first understood as an artist, and that’s the town that gave me a career and that’s the town that gave me this band. This is where we all met. We met on the premise of all of us immigrants who came to New York to pursue music. And all of us were obsessed with Gypsy music one way or another, either by heritage, either by acquired taste. But it was our meeting point. And it’s a history we cherish and respect. So in my dream plan, I’m building my triangle of Ukraine, New York, Rio. Those are all places where I have a really strong connection and lots of friends and where I have a lot of cultural interests to explore. And that triangle allows me to kind of follow the sun all year round.

W e’re doing this interview on the day of the Gypsies: Djurdjevdan, St. George’s Day.

Well, I’ll tell you, in our circle of Romany connections we have rounds of congratulations of each other. And if time and space permits, we get together. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be all together at a festival, like we were last year at the Kosovo Roma festival. This year it looks like I will be on my own with my band, just working on my new album. It’s not the only day of the year that we celebrate!