When Gogol Bordello's Eugene Hütz was 14 and living in Ukraine, he caught wind of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown from BBC Radio. Moments later, he and his family prepared to flee.
"I'm trying to think very hard which records I should take with me out of the thousand that I own," Hütz recalls. "I had a record of the Stooges. I had a reggae record, a compilation of dub. I had a record of Einstürzende Neubauten. I had also TAF -- a German punk band -- and, of course, some other records with Gypsy music and more Eastern European-type of folk. Back then, I didn't really worry about anything. Nothing like that ever happened. There's no ready-made reaction to go with it."
As imperceptible as the deadly radiation was the uncertainty that Hütz's family faced during the next three years. Descendants of artistic Gypsies called the Sirva Roma, they wandered through Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy, bouncing from one refugee camp to another.
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"The biggest hardship of immigration is that you deal with incredibly monotonous periods of nothing happening, just basically sitting on a suitcase, waiting for your documents -- which rapidly changed into people coming into your room in the night, saying that you have to split, the train is here. And the next thing you know, you have to move to another camp. This monotonous irregularity fucking kills after a while," he says. "The only great thing about it was it turned me into a street performer. In Italy you could play freely in the street . . . to play in the streets in America, it's this whole fuckin' pain in the dick."
Hütz moved to Vermont in 1993 with his mother, a Gypsy tap dancer/singer, and his father, a butcher by trade and guitarist for one of Ukraine's first rock bands. "It's the last place where I wanted to go," Hütz says of the Green Mountain State. "Once I saw Sonic Youth in 1988 in Kiev, all I wanted to do is be in New York." So that's where he went.
Hütz eventually met guitarist Vlad Solofar and squeezebox player Sasha Kazatchkoff at a wedding gig in 1996, forming Flying Fuck, a prototype for what is now Gogol Bordello, a Gypsy-driven collective of multinational punk music and cabaret. Californian drummer Eliot Ferguson soon joined, and after Vlad and Sasha left, violinist Sergey Rjabtzev and accordionist Yuri Lemeshev entered the ranks. A pair of Israelis -- guitarist Oren Kaplan and saxophonist Ori Kaplan (no relation) -- fill out the current six-piece lineup.
Celebrating Slavic street culture, Gogol Bordello exudes vulgarity with an amusingly hostile edge. The band combines foot-stomping rhythms, chunky grooves and minor-key melodies. Think of revved-up polka with screeching guitars and weepy fiddle-playing. Think of vampire lore, Tuvan throat singers, live birds and taxidermy in the name of spectacle. On stage, Go-Gogol girls Susan Donaldson and Pam Racine gallop in colorful costumes, playing tragic Russian beggars, dancing ghost-dolls and sexy border police who confiscate Hütz's passport, tear out pages and tie him up shirtless with his microphone cable.
"Our music is radical and risky, but I also think that that's exactly what needs to be done now," Hütz says. The group's act has attracted a fair amount of attention, including an invitation to perform at the 2002 Whitney Museum Biennial last month that led to national exposure on NPR and The Charlie Rose Show. Credit a large part of that to the fearless Hütz, who possesses an innate gift for trashing venues. After six shots of Stoli chased with a Molotov cocktail, he might inspire good-natured groping or dinner-plate demolition. The band's pranking spirit led even a hallowed dump like New York's CBGB to demonize the Gogol gang.
"Listen, CBGB is a tourist store," Hütz says. "They should be selling Ramones dolls there at this point. The energy of nihilism and innovation doesn't necessarily live in CBGB. We got banned from tons of clubs in New York. We were forced into exploring Bulgarian, Russian and Greek clubs -- which was actually great, because these people, their owners, were enjoying all this chaos and debauchery. Culturally, they're very prepared for it."
Hütz has also been known to walk handsprings down the length of a bar, extinguish cigarettes on his bare chest and drink hot candle wax. His behavior is as much inspired by the golden era of silent films as it is by the punks of the 1970s. "Charlie Chaplin was the only American artist to be shown on Soviet television, because he was a commie sympathizer," Hütz says. "As a kid, I could not help but fall in love with the whole psychotic action that he was puttin' on. His movies were quite violent, actually. They had a lot of brutal acrobatics . . . the next great thing [compared] to that that I ever saw was actually a bootleg video recording of an Iggy Pop show."
That eruption of socially unacceptable emotions also permeates Multi Kontra Culti VS. Irony, Gogol Bordello's new album. Despite its cumbersome title, the album -- a follow-up to Voi-La Intruder, the band's 1999 debut -- finds Hütz and company passionately longing for the joining of counterculture energies. Sing-alongs like "Let's Get Radical" take it a step further by boiling down human interaction this way: "Let's get radical/And not sporadical/Not ironic/Sardonic/Catatonic/Ceremonic/But radical."
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"Old kinds of Gypsy music, just because of the way these people live, is really the underdog music," Hütz says. "It's rooted in poverty and traveling. And this is people who are not really desired to be part of society anywhere. People don't really know what the fuck Gypsies are. There are so many kinds. You think America is the only melting pot? The Eastern bloc is even more of a melting pot. You got 15 republics in Russia alone. Then you got Yugoslavia, which is 10 different ethnicities.
"Right now there are, especially, many creative immigrant forces," Hütz continues. "I think it's very promising, because America is very known for being kind of conceited and monolithic and really unexposed to music in any other language up until this day. The East took a lot from the West. But at the same time, America is already exhausted at this point. So for it to really grow culturally, it needs influences from abroad."
Weaned as he was on serendipity, it's no shock this tipsy Gypsy from the East Village regards today's global conglomerate in the same vein as the feudal misery of the Dark Ages.
"I'm alarmed about the fact that there's this big kind of movement of sameness that's in the world now, not only in America," says Hütz. "It's like you land in any airport, and it's kind of full of same crap. It's not even the same crap of different brand. It's like same brand of the same crap. I think our part is presenting people with something that's so drastically different, that it's gonna play against the program of fucking sameness."