Eugene Hutz’s life story is the stuff of books and movies
Born in the Ukraine, he formed bands there before coming to America, where he created a distinctive global music sound with his band Gogol Bordello. He has acted in movies and lived in Brazil.
Not surprisingly, Hutz has been encouraged to retell his story in a memoir — and has tried and failed several times. That’s because Hutz would much rather write songs.
“I really love art of writing a song, short story and poem,” he said in a recent phone interview. “That’s my favorite work of art. That’s where my main knack is. The song is a short story. I want to tell a story as good as Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen and tell it with the stage dynamics of Iggy Pop.”
Hutz came to America from the Ukraine in 1992, immediately putting together bands, in Vermont then New York City, while absorbing the sounds around him and coming from the rest of world.
Seven years later, Gogol Bordello, unleashed the music Hutz created. Tagged “gypsy punk,” it combined sonic strains from Eastern Europe, his Romani (gypsy) heritage, Fugazi-style punk and Jamaican dub.
“Indeed, there was actually quite a long evolution,” Hutz said of the development of gypsy punk. “I’d been the leader for several bands before Gogol Bordello, starting back in the Ukraine where I was raised. Living here, being musically adventurous and worldly interested, a bit of nostalgia creeped in for Eastern Europe spirit and melodies. So I started writing a synthesis that was all of that.
“Essentially writing was more to make myself find things,” he said. “You write what you lack. You monumentalize in your work these things that are nowhere else to be found. We were facing the world becoming one big parking lot, basically. The response to that is music that is unpredictable and imaginative.”
"Unpredictable" and "imaginative" could also be used to describe the wildly theatrical live shows from the eight-piece outfit with members from Russia, Ecuador, Ethiopia and the United States. The group has released seven studio albums, with 2017’s “Seekers and Finders” being the latest Gogol Bordello release.
Asked to describe the show, Hutz demurred:
“In a way, you’re kind of asking Bruce Lee to tell you what is karate when you’ve never seen karate,” Hutz said. “Where do I begin? Is it a sit-down lounge situation? No.”
Sitting wouldn’t be possible while Gogol Bordello delivers its catchy musical amalgam with violin and accordion flying over reggae-rooted rhythms driven by punk intensity that Hutz says came in large part from the rigorously independent punk band Fugazi.
“Fugazi was a tremendously great influence on me and other people in the band,” Hutz said. “I think they were influential on anybody who was attuned to anything progressive in the '90s, which is when I arrived here. They became my favorite band. I’ve now found out they’ve also turned out to have quite excitement for our music.”
That Fugazi influence extends to “Seekers & Finders,” in a different fashion. The “Finders” side of the album was recorded at the Inner Ear Studio in the Washington, D.C., suburbs where Fugazi made its records. The “Seekers” side was recorded at the Beastie Boys’ Oscilloscope Studio in New York City.
Unlike previous albums that were produced and recorded by the likes of Rick Rubin and Steve Albini, “Seekers & Finders” was produced by Hutz.
“I’m always very hands on and at least co-produced everything we ever put out,” Hutz said. “In the convergence of the whole thing, the producers and everybody involved added their sparkle. But somewhere in there, I feel responsibility for how it all gets tied together. I felt like if I was fully doing it, I would have to make a record in the right time. I’m a night owl. Consequently, that ruled everybody out to work on the record.”
In addition to leading Gogol Bordello, Hutz has done some film work, appearing opposite Elijah Wood in 2005’s “Everything is Illuminated” and starring as an aspiring Ukrainian rock star who moonlights as a cross-dressing dominatrix in the Madonna-directed “Filth and Wisdom.” He and Gogol Bordello have also been the subject of a pair of documentaries.
“It’s something that wonderfully shows up, then vapors away, then comes back again, which is how I like it,” Hutz said of his film work. “When my first involvement with that started, the idea of getting an agent and moving to LA and doing the whole thing properly, I had to have a moment with myself.
“Actually, it was half a moment. I’m an East Coast kind of guy,” he said. “I’m attuned to a sharp New York mentality. Diving into that lifestyle wasn’t for me. I’m an East Coast guy. Even when I was in Brazil, I’m was an East Coast guy.”
So what sent Hutz from the Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Brazil?
“Women,” he said. “To be more specific, it was a particular woman I was in love with. That’s a good engine for me moving around the world. For 99% of men, it’s the same to be propelled by that.”
Hutz was planning to write a memoir during his Brazilian sojourn. But he didn’t get much done, eventually rejecting the publisher’s overtures as he had done several times previously.
“I blew all those times,” he said. “Maybe a soccer player is ready to write an autobiography at 35. I feel like there are quite a few turns ahead. I understand my path has been unorthodox in a lot of ways and that’s something to show. But I don’t want to write it for the sake of making another product.”