Gypsy King: Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hütz

The Ukrainian-born front man on rock-and-roll revolution and his long-distance run to America.

Danny North

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Eugene Hütz was just a scrawny 13-year-old punk rocker when his family fled Kiev in 1986 to escape fallout from the Chernobyl meltdown. Thus began a five-year odyssey that took him to live with his grandmother’s Gypsy clan; to American-run camps for asylum seekers in Poland, Austria, and Italy; and finally, to Burlington, Vermont, where the family resettled and Hütz promptly formed a punk band called The Fags. But his new destiny really took shape after he relocated to New York City and merged punk and Gypsy sounds into a raucous act he named Gogol Bordello. Six albums later, the nine-member act packs venues worldwide and thrills fans with its boundless energy. Kicking back on a leather sofa in the basement of Oakland, California’s Fox Theater—a dog-tired Hütz reflected on his journey, including his band’s appearance on The Tonight Show the previous evening.

Mother Jones: You’ve really made the rounds—Leno, Letterman, Conan, Jimmy Fallon. Not bad for a kid who came to America with nothing.

EH: Yeah, it just makes you realize how not mainstream, essentially, is what we do, and how far into mainstream we brought it in.

MJ: Eugene seems like an unlikely name for a Ukrainian punk with Gypsy blood.

EH: It’s not a super popular name, but it’s one of the common names we have. We have a lot of Gypsy friends named Eugeni.

MJ: It also means “well-born” in the Greek, I think?

EH: It means “gentle,” which I always rebelled against when I was younger.

MJ: You grew up in this stark, Soviet-era high-rise. What kind of kid were you?

EH: I was pretty normal. I hate to bum you out; I didn’t do anything really crazy. I just kind of had certain passions and really went for it, even when I was a little kid. My first passion was running: I excelled at that starting like second grade until the end of the high school. I ran on a very serious city team, with prospects of going into Olympic training and stuff like that. I was champion of Kiev twice.

MJ: Which event?

EH: I’m a long-distance runner.

MJ: Do you still run?

EH: I pretty much cover about 20 miles a night on stage, if you put a meter on my leg! [Laughs.] I basically rechanneled all the athleticism and adrenaline, and everything that’s exciting about sports, actually, into music. That was always my secret weapon, because in Ukrainian punk rock scene—where everything was very gloomy and kinda Joy Division spirit, and The Fall and Nick Cave—being athletic was not cool. I didn’t publicize anything about my sport past, but I basically rolled in onstage with a background nobody had, and I became instantly recognized as the wildest performer in the punk-rock scene.

MJ: Your dad played guitar?

EH: In the ’70s. My dad’s rock and roll and my rock and roll did not cross paths.

MJ: What bands were you into then?

EH: I was really into The Clash, and that somehow made me feel that the world was a lot bigger than I’d thought. Another band that had that kind of effect was Mano Negra, Manu Chao’s band. Underneath all of this rebellious punk-rock experimentation, most of me was actually gravitating towards pretty canonized songwriting: People like Nick Cave spoke to me because he was basically listening to Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker and transcending that into the punk-rock scene. And Iggy Pop, of course, because that was the only thing that made me feel that it was cool to be athletic. When I moved to America, that really changed me one more time, with bands like Fugazi, Henry Rollins, the whole skate-punk scene—all this really positive attitude towards being.

MJ: Your maternal grandmother was your link to the Gypsies. Did she maintain ties with her clan?

EH: Yeah, for sure. That’s how we were able to go back there to the village. But basically, in 1956 or 1957, Khrushchev made the traveling lifestyle a crime. So the Gypsies had to either settle down or join collective farms. My grandparents just decided to become like everybody else—move to the city, dye their hair red or blonde, and try to blend in and get a normal job. It didn’t really work out, so my grandmother, after trying several jobs and trying to work for the state, became a tailor. Which was illegal; everybody was supposed to work for the state. Basically she was the local fashion designer for all the girls who wanted to have something different, because the Soviet economy was pretty limited in designs. That’s how I saw a lot of naked women when I was young. [Laughs.]

MJ: But it was the evacuation—living with her kin in western Ukraine—that exposed you to Gypsy culture?

EH: It changed my identification! When I came there, I didn’t think anything about it. I couldn’t care less who was gypsy and who was not. But they start right away making fun of me and what a gringo I have become in Kiev.

MJ: What’s their word for it?

EH: Gadjo—what gadjes we are because my grandparents are dying their hair and telling everyone they are from Moldavia, and that’s why they don’t look like everybody else; and how I don’t know how to do anything to keep myself alive; I wear uniform to school—all these things. Living with them for one year, I became like them. It was an amazing opportunity! I was in the seventh grade and I didn’t go to school for one year. I was just biking around that area, up and down the mountains, and having a great time mostly collecting scrap metal and selling it to locals in another village.

MJ: How’d you end up in America?

EH: We came back to Kiev after the Chernobyl evacuation, and it was not the same. It was like we’d already kind of cut the cord. And as a family, we could not be in Ukraine anymore, mostly because the file and reputation that my father acquired with the local police and the KGB was not very soothing.

MJ: And how’d he get in trouble?

EH: It sounds funny, but it was actually just because of rock-and-roll music. It’s like a common myth, but actually very true: The Beatles alone, their popularity, really made the Soviet government lose control. Once Beatles started leaking in through different sources—self-made records made on X-ray plates—once they started getting passed around, the government had no tools to control it. People would just gather around in someone’s kitchen and quietly listen to the Beatles, and with every minute the idea of another world in their head kept growing, and nobody wanted to be a guy with a red handkerchief on their neck, embodying Leninism and Marxism. We definitely didn’t want to do it, because we also had The Clash, you know, and we had Russian underground punk and rock that was really vital. After a couple of interrogations, we were just kind of scared. My dad had people pressuring him to sign papers, and threatening him that he’s never gonna come out of this room. Eventually, he had enough material to file for asylum. We left Kiev in 1989. I’d just finished high school and I had a band that was getting popular.

MJ: What was it called?

EH: Uksusnik. It’s really stupid. It means, like, “vinegar bottle” or—how would you say?—a “sour face.” It sounded kind of like Brian Eno, Devo, Sonic Youth—whatever we were listening to at the time, it sounded like all those things together. And really spasmatic.

MJ: What instrument did you play?

EH: I’d picked up drums because it was the most athletic, bravado thing to do. No one wanted to play with me: I was so loud and eccentric, and I had absolutely no timing!

MJ: So you came to America by way of various refugee camps. What were they like?

EH: Imagine a motel with a really bad location so it’s absolutely out of business. The refugee program rents that motel, and in every room that is supposedly for two people they put 10 people or as many as can fit. It was just me and my mom and dad, but we were together with a religious family from Siberia who were living by the standard of the 18th century—ultra old-school people. We were also together with some Jewish families and some Armenian families. Some we get along with, some we don’t. But we were relocated about every month to another motel, and it was another batch of people that you had to get to know. And basically sleep in the room with people who you don’t know who the fuck they are. [Laughs.]

MJ: Were you expected to fend for yourself?

EH: No, they feed you, but it’s really bare essentials—like three times a day, there’s some pasta. And they give you $40 a week or something for a family. If you want to get an ice cream, you had to go and bust your ass for it because you didn’t have money for anything else.

MJ: In your video for “Immigraniada (We Comin’ Rougher),” we see members of your band working these shit jobs in America…

EH: The jobs in the video are not really shitty jobs. Those are like normal jobs. To get really nasty and where it’s really at, we didn’t really have the time.

MJ: What kind of jobs did you actually do?

EH: I did everything. In Italy, I did mostly washing cars in the intersection.

MJ: You were a squeegie guy?

EH: Yeah, that was the main income.

MJ: What do you mean by “we comin’ rougher”? I mean, I get the general sentiment…

EH: That’s all it needs to be. I was always highly disinterested in any political art that is crude and preachy. It’s not a flier, you know? “We’re coming stronger” is what it really means; you can’t really stop this process of world citizenship; there’s nothing you can do about it.

MJ: Your latest album, Trans-Continental Hustle, has kind of made you kind of a spokesman for the immigrant experience.

EH: I have no agenda. I know what I love to do and that’s my religion, you know? That’s what I recommend to everybody. I did not invent that very ancient idea: “Do what you love and you will never work in your life.” It’s the pure truth. I think it’s also the goal of human existence to accumulate as much of that feeling as possible. You can find that concept in anywhere from yoga to Bible.

MJ: So that’s what you mean when you sing about revolution?

EH: Yeah, I actually had to clarify it for the fan club. Revolution in our Gogol Bordello language does not mean an act of violence, of overthrowing the state. The first line in “Raise the Knowledge” is “Revolution is internal.” I think that political revolution discredited itself absolutely, once and for all time, in this century. However, I am really interested in things like human capabilities and human advancement and the communal feel of the human race. It’s the antidote to the reactionary politics that are created by nothing but, you know, greedy people who still can’t fucking understand that you can’t take it with you once you’re done.

MJ: You’ve gone back and visited the Gypsy camps in Eastern Europe. Did you play Gogol Bordello for them?

EH: Yeah, I passed around CDs and everything. They didn’t know what the fuck to make out of it. [Laughs.]

MJ: Rick Rubin produced your latest album. What does he bring to the project?

EH: What does Einstein bring to the physics?

MJ: Give me a taste.

EH: When you are working on something yourself, it’s very easy to get lost because you are convinced that people think in the same way—that they will get these unspoken things that are just floating in your head. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but there is this masterful way of conveying it. And Rick, being a big admirer of songwriting as this kind of sacred art form, focused me on what I want to be focused on.

MJ: The songwriting.

EH: It’s just like, the “spectacle” of Gogol Bordello is my second nature. I think nothing about it. The whole idea of people expecting a spectacle is getting on my nerves, because for me it’s an authentic experience. It’s not vaudeville, it’s not cabaret—I hate those fucking things. Getting focused on the timeless qualities of the music was like fresh water straight out of the well. Because that’s how I started. And then I kind of rolled with this whole bonanzatronic madness of Gogol Bordello till the point where it was just getting fucking out of control. I was also in my hedonistic prime, and that was a big part of what was going on. I never saw daylight, you know?

MJ: I take it you’re getting too old for that?

EH: Whoever’s stuck in that state I can only pity. It was great when it was fucking burning, you know, but now it’s burning in another way.

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