I am meeting musical visionary and gypsy punk legend Eugene Hutts in a partitioned-off section of the bar at Sydney’s Metro theatre on George St. The man lounges nonchalantly in his chair as he faces me. I get the impression that music journalists aren’t his favourite people, which is fair enough because after salesmen and cockroaches we are the scum of the earth. There are no empty beer bottles in sight, nor the whiff of a cigarette in the air. For a self proclaimed “wonderlust king”, this comes as somewhat a surprise. His wild, Zappaish countenance and crudely rolled cargo pants belie the reserved, considered nature of his responses.
“I feel,” he begins, in an accent not quite as thick as the slurred, rollicking, vagrancy his recorded voice might suggest, “That a song must stand firmly on its own two feet before I bring it to the band. It started off as just me and a guitar. Then another person joined, then another until we got where we are today.”
Hours later, the floor is electrified with excitement. The crowd is eclectic, as might be expected of the fans of a band of gypsy punks. Goth lesbians mingle happily with old rockabilly cats; magic is in the air. I chat to one pretty bohemian who tells me she’s attempting to start an art collective somewhere in Sydney. “I really want a proper collaboration of artists in the same place, not just a bunch of junkies masquerading under a pretence.” “Yeah,” I agree dazedly, “Nobody likes junkies.”
The singular uniting vibration is that of Dionysian anticipation; that everybody is now or soon will be really drunk and ready to party. The two hour wait for the band does surprisingly little to dull this feeling.
Back in the interview I ask Eugene what he thinks of music piracy. Predictably, he is strongly supportive of illegal music downloading. “I say let them fucking take it,” he scoffs, “When I was growing up in the Ukraine, the only way – the only way – we could listen to music was through bootlegs.”
So what did he listen to growing up?
“We were really into people like Sonic Youth, the Birthday Party, Joe Strummer from the Clash; not just in a musical sense but his whole outlook… These days I really like Manu Chao. And Gogol Bordello, of course,” he laughs.
It seems that plenty of people can get on board with the latter as well.
After about twenty false whoops and cheers at drum roadies moseying across the stage, the band finally comes ascends the stage. Then BANG, it’s on! Eugene shuffles giddily from one side of the stage to the other: Cinzano in hand, his bare-chested torso swaying rhythmically with the music. Electric violinist Sergey, an older, white bearded man with a beret, gallops the stage with the zeal of a man half his age. The little MC/percussionist runs around rapping and hitting things in a dizzying display of enthusiasm. Clearly this is a band that excels in the sense of its own spectacle. A live band. A party band.
\’Wonderlust King\’ on Letterman
Perhaps that infectious energy explains the flourishing expansion of ‘gypsy music’ all over the world. Just wiki ‘gypsy punk’ and you’ll see a myriad of like bands, all dutifully citing Gogol Bordello. Its almost like people have looked up and said, “What fun! We should do that!”
But flattered though he clearly is with the emulation ,Eugene remains aloof: “I wouldn’t really say we have any musical peers. We just sort of do our own thing. There are plenty of bands that have accordions and violins but that doesn’t make it ‘gypsy music’. When I moved to Brazil recently I naturally found all these other musicians and we started jamming; samba music, bossa nova. When I ask him if he thinks that sort of music can have the same “timeless” quality that he attributes to gypsy music he responds, quite reasonable, “It depends on who’s playing it.”
All that Latin influence is palpable too, if not musically then in the band’s ethos. Gogol Bordello are musical uniters, comprised of cultural refugees and wanderers from around the world: Scottish, Maori, Ukranian; no matter.
I know Eugene is a New Yorker from the age of about fifteen, one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet, but I have to wonder, where on earth would you play music like this, one part punk, one part Eastern European folk? Was CBGB’s even still open at that point?
“When we started in New York,” Eugene speaks slowly and deliberately, “We didn’t have anywhere to play. So we made our own parties.” Those gypsy parties would become a thriving part of New York’s underground punk scene and would ultimately propel the band to become and act of international recognition, beloved by fanatically devoted fans.
‘Start Wearing Purple’ @ Coachella
You can see it here. The crowd response is incredible, nearly equalling the not unimpressive energy of the performers onstage. I’ve been to plenty of hard rock gigs, even metal gigs where the audiencial output is limited to a bit of swaying and maybe some light headbanging. Not so in a Gogol pit: the punters truly go for it. Instead of a single moshpit in the center of the room, dancing unfurls in waves: hardcore gypsy thrashers up the front, slowly decreasing in intensity until by the by the time it gets back to the bleachers people are still dancing. There’s something in this communal tarantism that you don’t see at many other shows, people really getting into the gypsy spirit. Of course, it could be the implied alcoholism in the thing, but then again, people will drink at any opportunity they get.
The encore is impressive. After a soulful acoustic number, Alcohol ,the band rips into another set of rave-ups, culminating with the percussionist/MC feeding his marching drum out to the audience and proceeding to stand upon it, literally surfing the crowd. There is an extended crescendo ending (the last of many) as the band members thank the audience and make their way off stage.
As we finish up our interview we hear the supporting band, the Rum Jacks, deliver an explosive rendering of the Clash’s Bankrobber through the open doors to the venue. This seems like a good sign. “Great song, eh?” I venture. He nods wistfully. “It is a great song.”
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