The gypsy king
Earlier this year, Ukrainian-born Eugene Hütz and his band Gogol Bordello appeared onstage with Madonna at Live Earth. Their show-stopping collaboration on La Isla Bonita was the latest remarkable step in one of the most heartwarming, barrier-breaking success stories of the century. And now, Eugene and his band have just completed work on a Madonna-directed movie entitled Filth And Wisdom, partly based on their life and times.
Back in the early 1990s, Hütz – real name Evgeny Aleksandrovitch Nikolaev – emigrated to Burlington, Vermont from the former Soviet state after Ukraine had experienced the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the collapse of communism. Eugene scraped a living any way he could, at one time even cleaning car windows on the streets of Rome. But Hütz held tight to his musical dreams and, having moved to New York, formed Gogol Bordello – named after legendary Ukrainian novelist Nikolai Gogol – in 1999.
Since then, they have asserted their position as the world’s premier mayhem-inducing gypsy punks. But how did the tie-up with Madge come about?
“I had heard that she was interested,” says Eugene, 34, “and had been an admirer of the band for some time. Then one day my phone rang and I picked up and she was there! Well, who wouldn’t be surprised? But fans we have in common had been telling me it was probably going to happen sooner or later.
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“It was two weeks from then that we started to work with her on the movie. The show we did with her at Wembley was only arranged five days before it took place, but there is no one who is more last minute in this world than me.
“The whole thing was feeding off ideas in our heads. When you see the film, the band is called Gogol Bordello and they will play Gogol Bordello music. It’s a kind of fantasy – some fiction, some autobiography, but it’s pretty unmistakable.”
Were you suspicious that a star of that magnitude wanted to use you?
“Maybe if I was 20 I would have had a different reaction,” Eugene admits. “But I have done several films in the past so I wasn’t so unprepared for it. I could sense right away it was a good thing. She comes with her creative energies flowing and is also very spontaneous. She’s probably one of the most powerfully spontaneous people I have ever met.
“Madonna also has everything it takes to pull those immediate ideas off, so we quickly put the script for the movie together and went to work. The attitude was we have very little time before the touring starts, let’s roll up our sleeves and get down to it. Basically that’s how I like to work.”
Their globally-beamed performance at Live Earth allowed Gogol to face their biggest ever audience.
“The only thing I remember is walking onstage and walking off the stage,” Eugene smiles. “The adrenalin destroyed the memory of it, but I knew we were fit for entertaining any amount of people. I have never in any circumstances had stage fright.
“We were actually on tour at that time and to make Live Earth happen we had to play three shows in 24 hours. It was in a swirl of events, but the impact was pretty much what I thought it would be. For two weeks, I had all the Roma gypsies on from Ukraine and Russia who saw or heard it, saying, ‘I can’t believe you got Madonna to sing in Romanesque, our native language’. To be seen by every third person in the world was crazy – a whole new chapter.”
It is a long way from Hütz’s early days scraping a living on the streets. “Everybody from the Ukraine who lived in Italy was a squeegee worker at that time,” he shrugs. “Either that or picking grapes. It was depressing, but I always had my music with me to romanticise the situation. I was really into Nick Cave and The Birthday Party. I always felt that as long as those guys kept progressing and putting out albums I was somehow there with them.”
Back home, Eugene is understandably regarded with pride by his old friends and family, but his native land was not always so welcoming. “I left Ukraine for a bundle of reasons,” he reveals.
“Interrogations by the authorities of my dad, for instance. But it was actually the most exciting time. The underground movement was exploding and when I was leaving I was in the charts. But I knew for the sake of the future I had to get out.”
With their biggest sold-out tour of Britain starting next month, the Bordello bandwagon is gathering speed.
“People ask if we are underground or mainstream,” says Eugene.
“Playing Live Earth kind of answered that. We aren’t either – we are a phenomenon. Gogol Bordello is a force of its own. I hope we can be as inspirational for others as Sonic Youth and Nick Cave were to me.”
UK tour begins December 8.
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