Teenage boy flees the Soviet Union, his gypsy family fearing fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Spends formative years in European refugee camps. Winds up in Vermont, U.S.A. Eventually gravitates to New York and forms a band that will become known as one of rock’s hottest live acts, playing to increasingly adoring audiences around the world.
It’s all so colorful and exotic it sounds like a fanciful short-story plot. But it’s the real-life tale of Eugene Hutz, fountainhead of the band Gogol Bordello and an artist who’s emerging as one of modern music’s true renaissance men.
The charismatic Hutz and his compatriots call their music “gypsy-punk” - a flamboyant, mosh-ready style draped in the whirling sounds of Eastern European folk. As the Pogues did with Celtic styles two decades ago, so Gogol Bordello has done with Roma music, the band’s accordions and fiddles leading the fiery sonic charge.
The group’s records have started to garner attention - last year’s “Super Taranta” landed on many critics’ best-of lists - but it’s the Gogol Bordello live show that seals the deal. The band’s high-energy concerts have been hailed by both punk purists and world-music buffs for offering that most fundamental of musical pleasures: primal release.
History is filled with artists who have broken new ground by viewing a musical form from the outside, processing it through their unique filter and emphasizing traits the natives may have missed or taken for granted. The Beatles did it with American rock `n’ roll, the British did it with the electric blues, and now Hutz just might be doing it with punk - spotting the cathartic energy it shares with the age-old folk music of his nomadic ancestors.
“There are not so many things that can provide that,” says Hutz, speaking in the clipped but melodic accent that exposes his native Ukraine. “I have artists who were that release for me, so of course I want to reinvent that outlet in my own way, and to maximize it, actually. So there’s a lot of merging of different cultures - cultures that rely strongly on that music as almost a drug to keep them high.”
In July, the group will be a featured attraction at the massive Rothbury rock festival in western Michigan.
“Touring spreads the word about the band like a wildfire,” says Hutz. “It’s like that in any country we go: It seems to double every time we go back. We wanted to make something fantastic and grand with this band, and it’s in full gear with no compromise.”
But word of mouth isn’t the only force behind the band’s rising profile. Hutz, who turned in a memorable acting performance alongside Elijah Wood in the 2005 indie film “Everything Is Illuminated,” is enjoying an increasingly illustrious presence in high-end cultural circles. He has been directed by Madonna in her film-directing debut, “Filth and Wisdom,” for instance, and was cited last month by Gucci designers as inspiration for their new men’s fashion line.
Like many who came of age in the Eastern Europe of the late 20th century, Hutz grew up intrigued by American music, falling under the spell of those mystique-laden sounds and artists from across the world. Having now been stateside for 17 years, Hutz says, his appreciation has deepened as he’s dug further into the musical roots, finding kinship with country artists such as Hank Williams Sr. and Merle Haggard.
Hutz takes the simple richness of their work to heart.
“That’s the criteria for me: that a song has to work as a completed piece on a guitar,” he says. “From childhood, the troubadouring ideal was always kind of there. I guess it came from traveling with a guitar so much. ... I was almost forced to defend myself and my music with a guitar. So, yeah, It’s a lot more easy when things are amplified and a band is behind you. But the question is always: Will it work with just you and a guitar?”
The gypsy-punk style was the brainchild of Hutz, who dove into New York’s music scene in the mid-1990s. But he says that over time, the band has grown into more of “a communal effort, a family creative process.” Now a 10-piece unit representing eight nationalities, Gogol Bordello includes an Ethiopian-born bass player, an Israeli guitarist and a South American percussionist.
“My role in the band, originally, was an absolute command of it because the idea of the sound was coming from my head. I had to explain it to everybody and ease them into it. So that required some drilling, for sure,” he says. “But at this point, the style has developed, and all the musicians in the band have broadened it and stretched it. We have an idea of what Gogol Bordello is.”
Hutz conveys an infectious enthusiasm, a lively go-get-`em attitude shaped by his early years.
“It’s all about keeping up the fire, and anybody can do it, man,” he says. “Just don’t ever believe for a second when somebody tells you to be realistic. It means they’re working for the government.”