Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Eugene Hütz

“Now really isn’t a good time,” says Pavla Fleischer. In the background I can hear a man’s voice, shouting questions for her to relay to me. “Where is he from? Who publishes his paper?” I answer his questions for her, and she tells me to call back in another couple of hours. This is not the most typical nor the most auspicious start to an interview and I am already beginning to sense bad vibrations lurking in the ether. I have a horrible suspicion that the man’s voice was Eugene Hütz’s.

Unfortunately, Pavla has made me promise that the interview will focus on the new documentary that she has made about Hütz, and the fact that he will be performing in London with the traditional gypsy band The Kolpakov Trio. I’m not allowed to mention his day job, which means that I can’t tell you that he is the lead singer of notorious New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, famed for their riotous live shows, or that he is a talented actor, as seen when he portrayed Alex alongside Elijah Wood in the adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Everything is Illuminated’.
What I can tell you is that after meeting the documentary maker Pavla Fleischer in 2004 he agreed to let her make a film, The Pied Piper of Hützovina, about his trip across the Ukraine in search of the traditional gypsy music that he loves. Adding intrigue to the tale is the fact that she proposed the film in part as a way to spend more time with him, having found herself falling into what she called “a strange sort of obsessive love” following their initial brief encounter.

I ring back and Pavla answers. She sounds much more positive this time around, and passes me over to Eugene quickly. With a certain amount of trepidation, I begin the interview by asking him how he is finding London. “Well, what can I say? I’m back again. I like it.” So far, so brief - Mr Hütz is obviously not one for small talk. I hurry on to my first proper question: would he have made the trip to the Ukraine if the film had not been being made? “Absolutely! It’s not the first time I’ve done the trip, in fact I do a similar trip every year. There’s going to be another one in May. The film is just of one of them.” But would you ever have thought to make a film out of your experiences if you hadn’t met Pavla? “Maybe not” I pause, hoping for elaboration, but he refuses to fill the silence and I press on regardless.

The film shows a number of older gypsies who react badly when Eugene plays them his music, because they believe that the traditional folk music should not be bastardised into the punk version that Gogol Bordello play. I ask whether he was surprised by this negative reaction? “No, I’ve always seen a clash. With my music, some people love it and some people hate it. It’s a big community, so it can be like hot and cold. But I will continue on that path because it’s the only path I feel. Hopefully through my own search I can help other people to find their paths. For example, I met a lot of people who were Romany kids who were taken away from their families in the 70s and relocated to places like Switzerland and Austria, and those are the people who are my fans. I also work with a lot of young gypsy kids, well, young and old. But 80% of the reaction I meet is very positive. Conflict is very rare. But there will always be some conflict, you know? I mean, there are so many different kinds of gypsies, it’s like night and day, I feel like I’m part of a swirl of finding out what a gypsy really is. But there is one man who everyone agrees about, and that is the man sat next to me now.”

That man would be Sasha Kolpakov, a legendary Romany musician who has long been the star attraction at the Theater “Romen” in Moscow, the only Roma theatre in the world, and has toured North America with his Kolpakov Trio. “Sasha is one of the artists who can settle down the controversy. It’s such an honour for a musician to become a band mate of your hero. But also I think he saw elements of what I can bring in, in a refreshing and organic way. But even within The Kolpakov Trio there has always been an organic mix. One of Sasha’s old band mates, who unfortunately is now dead, was actually a Carpathian gypsy, so he was much more Hungarian, but they all share a love of the raw folklore, so all types of gypsy music can be married in an organic way. It’s all Eastern European.”

Eugene moved from the Ukraine to Burlington, Vermont after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. He was a refugee aged 14. I ask him whether he thinks his music would be more traditional if he had remained in the Ukraine, and to what extent being exposed to punk music in America affected him. “Actually, I think I would be more of a punk if I had stayed. I was already exposed to punk music in the Ukraine, but being in America made me crave what I was missing. I think as an artist you are always trying to fill the void with what you lack. I’ve always been attracted to the super-raw, exciting forms of music. When I moved to New York I was in a number of different bands – punk, industrial, metal – and I was always trying to bring it into a more traditional setting, sometimes literally. But the influence of what I was lacking grew over time, it’s been how I feel for decades now though, you know?”

On the film’s website, Pavla writes that Eugene did not like the original edit of the film, and that even after re-editing he told her that there was “no fucking way” that the film could ever come out. I ask whether he feels that now, attending a major screening of the film, he feels that he has grown to accept or even enjoy it? “I think so. I have a very directorial mind, so it can be difficult for me, but I’ve been an actor before and experienced being directed, so I have some experience of having to allow other perspectives. And while it was painful at first I am learning to let go. Also, you know, while it is nice to be told that you are doing well, I don’t get bent out of shape by crazy critics. Some people just get paid to write bullshit.”

Bad vibes all around. Hütz’s voice is getting accusatory, and I have little doubt that he suspects that I am a crazy critic getting paid to write bullshit. Fortunately, the moment passes, and he continues. “But yes, I have grown from the experience and grown to love the film. I actually think that some of most mind-blowing stuff is stuff that I wasn’t involved in. For example, the performances of the musicians that we managed to capture when we were stumbling about were incredible.” The film is described in it’s official press release as chronicling Eugene’s search for gypsy music, do you think you found what you were looking for? “I don’t think that I was searching. I have been there before and I knew exactly what I wanted. I crave it. I can’t let go of it. I don’t know what the fuck it is, but it always draws me back to the Ukraine.”

Eugene seems to be warming to his subject, but I make a mistake when I ask him whether he would ever move back to the Ukraine permanently? “Absolutely not. I never belonged there in the first place. What the fuck?”

He pauses.

“Listen, I am never moving back to the Ukraine.”

The line goes dead. Did I touch a nerve? Should you never ask a gypsy musician whether he’d consider settling down? Or did I just catch him on an off day, stressed out by press commitments the day before the premiere of a documentary which lays bare his incredibly personal trip across his estranged homeland and the intimate nature of his relationship with the film’s director? I attempt to ring back, if only to apologise to Pavla for offending Eugene, but the phone goes straight to answer phone. So that’s that.

Interview over.

What have we learnt from this debacle? Well, we’ve learnt that punk musicians are not the most amiable conversationalists and that going into an interview with a long list of offlimits topics makes for unsatisfying questions, but perhaps what has also been demonstrated is that it is often the most passionate and angry of individuals that make the most challenging and provocative art. Eugene Hütz, the Pied Piper of Hützovina, is certainly doing that.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Stewart Lee

No matter what medium he has chosen to work in, Stewart Lee has been dogged by controversy. In 1998 he and Richard Herring found a cult audience with ‘This Morning With Richard Not Judy’, but the show was cancelled after falling out of favour with the BBC hierarchy. Seven years later, the BBC had forgiven him enough to televise the musical that he had written with the composer Richard Thomas, ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’. They received 55,000 complaints prior to the show even being broadcast, due to claims of blasphemy and ridiculing Jesus, not to mention profanity due to its reported 8,000 obscenities. Stand-up comedy is perhaps his most natural habitat, and his latest work combines this with his new-found love of theatre. “It’s called ‘What Would Judas Do?’ and it’s sort of me being Judas for an hour talking about the last week of his life and why he did what he did.”

Before the show, he plays down the comedy aspect “I wanted to do it in character and I wanted the jokes to be incidental to it, rather than being the bits where you ‘tick’ whether it’s worked or not.” In fact, the show is as funny as you’d expect from a winner of the prestigious ‘Tap Water’ Award, the anti-Nestle version of the Perrier. Despite the furore that surrounded ‘Jerry Springer’, it might seem that Lee has no qualms about making a joke out of Christianity, but he denies that he has explicitly set out to mock the faithful. “It’s not really about religion. It’s about hero worship, about being let down by someone you’ve idolised. This is a really good way of telling that story. I don’t set out to prove or disprove the existence of the characters involved. I thought that about ‘Jerry Springer’, which wasn’t in any way a criticism of religion, it was just the use of a story that’s very familiar in the Christian West to look at some different ideas. They don’t own the story. It’s in the public domain, so I think you should be allowed to do what you want with it.”

It is not, however, merely a story amongst others. Surely he must have expected to cause some controversy? “Well ‘Jerry Springer’ played for four years in theatre without a problem, it was only when it was on the telly and it was seized upon by a succession of right-wing gay-hate groups as a platform to get their own stuff into the marketplace that anyone gave it any thought. Before that it had got good reviews in the Church Times. The difference between its content and its supposed content was vast, really.” It is perhaps worth noting that despite the 55,000 complaints it received before going on air, it received only 8,000 afterwards.

Clearly well versed in Scripture, and a talented wordsmith, the role of preacher would seem to come naturally to Stewart Lee. Has he considered going into the Church? “I don’t even like going into the actual buildings anymore. I think the Church of England would probably be able to accommodate an atheist priest though - they seem very broad-minded. The good thing about doing a show here [The Bush Theatre] is that it’s an eighty-seater room, I’m on equity minimum every week, it’ll sell out before the loonies even find out about it. It’s on a safe level – I wouldn’t want to do anything particularly high profile again, all that happened is that I was kind of randomly picked on by mad people. You don’t make any money off it. What is the point? There is actually no point. I suppose when you start writing and you have a little idea you think, “It would be great to communicate with the masses”, they can fuck off. They can have all the shit that they want. It’s not my problem. The masses are idiots if they allow themselves to be dictated to by the Christian right, so they’re welcome to it.” Spleen vented, he smiles, “Much better to be here, in this ‘elite’ theatre, limited so that only eighty people a night can come.”

Like Lou Reed releasing ‘Metal Machine Music’, Stewart Lee has actively engaged in culling his audience. “Daniel Kitson said after the Perrier awards that he felt he had to shake off a lot of his new audience, they had sort of expectations of what he would do. I’ve largely managed to drive those sort of people away I think. You think “This’ll shake a few people off.” Also, where you perform, how you promote it, which magazines you go in. My DVD got reviewed in Nuts and Zoo magazine, but I refused to do any interviews with them, because you don’t really want those sorts of people coming to see you. I might have done ten years ago, before I was bitter, but now I just think it’ll make for a miserable night. A room of thick people, you couldn’t use irony, I’m too old to struggle.”

In his younger days, however, Lee and Herring were lauded as the comedic kings of the emerging ‘Lad’ culture. “Well we didn’t pull in much of a crowd. I think that was probably because a lot of the two million people who watched the TV show were about twelve years old and couldn’t really go out. Ironically now fifteen years later they’re journalists and promoters and things like that so there’s been a sort of weird second wave. ‘Loaded’ was different in ‘95 anyway. It used to have decent articles.”

Youth culture has certainly shifted, and student life is very different to the mid-90s. “It’s harder for students nowadays, I got a grant. I don’t think I’d become a student now. I think people were more politically active, or more visibly politically active I suppose, 20 years ago. Every day you were faced with a new challenge about what was the correct way to address a woman. Those things have just sort of settled down now. I enjoyed being a student though, I wrote for the Oxford Revue, and directed. That was amazing. There was money for student arts then. You could go to Edinburgh Festival. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but one of the best things was the opportunity to have educated, clever adults who were obliged to speak to you about things that you were supposed to be interested in. To treat that as a chore was really disgusting. Looking back, I really wish I’d done more work! The last few years, a lot of things that I’ve written have used things that I studied. ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, the framework of it was very Blakeian, with a sort of Miltonic quality, so it was nice to find an outlet for all that, fifteen years later.”

Lee’s current work is eclectic to say the least. “I’m writing a sitcom about the Norse myths, about Odin and Thor, and I’m working on a sort of folk-music musical about William Blake at the National. And I’m doing a site-specific theatre piece about DIY – someone walking you around their house, explaining why they want to sell it because they’ve done it all wrong. And then I’ll do another stand-up show in August.”

With all his work, however, he is defiantly steering away from the mainstream. “Critically, ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, was a big hit, but because of all the problems we didn’t really make anything out of it. So that’s kind of put me off commercial theatre. But ‘What Would Judas Do?’ is great – it’s cost effective and I might get a little radio drama out of it. I can’t keep doing things for nothing. Supporting the things that you want to do even if they aren’t viable. Working away at stuff that you think will make a difference.”

Music is one of Lee’s great passions. Offering him the opportunity to drive a tank, he says “I’d drive over all those Foxtons Estate Agents Minis that are made out in a kind of punk-rock livery, as if Foxtons Estate Agents had anything to do with the spirit of ‘76.” But in his new-found spirit of pragmatism, Lee finds himself accepting Murdoch’s greasy buck. “I write record reviews for The Sunday Times every week, and I do about one feature a month, and you know what? Between 2001 and 2004 that was the only money I earned, I earned about £12,000 a year, and it was exclusively from writing about music in the papers. Jerry Springer was being written, I was kind of doing that full time, and that’s really what this show is about. About being an idealist and about where you draw the line in the sand. I’m really glad to have that job. They let me write about whatever I want, and yeah…I hate Fox News, I hate Murdoch as a person, but it buys me the time to do other things. I’d have been in a lot of trouble without it.”

“I have a much more straight-forward relationship with my editor at the Sunday Times culture section than I’ve ever had with anyone at the BBC, who are the most duplicitous, lying, dishonest people. I feel much happier, much more ethically comfortable writing for a Murdoch newspaper than I would doing anything for BBC2, which to me is just so mad and chaotic and dishonest and panicky. I’ve wasted so much of my time there. There are things I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t write for the BNP paper, but no-ones ever censored anything I’ve done for The Sunday Times on the grounds of politics or taste. Whereas you run into that sort of thing all the time in the BBC. You never know where you are, or what they want. It’s not even political correctness; it’s more nonsensical than that. When people say that there’s too much political correctness I think they forget that there was a black bloke beaten to death in Liverpool last year by racists, and that the next week there were MPs standing up in Parliament trying to deny gay people the same rights to goods and services that straight people enjoy. There are still people trying to prevent the exercising of basic human rights, and using the media and the courts to do it. It’s a bit of a red herring to blame political correctness.”

Speaking of Herrings, how does Lee view his long time partnership with Richard, forged in the writing of ‘On The Hour’ and growing to fruition with ‘Fist of Fun’ and ‘Lee and Herring’, “We were diet coke visionaries, we were like the romantic poets with laudanum, except we were on diet coke. We wrote about a hundred hours of radio on diet cokes and crisps between 1994 and 1997. We were caffeine visionaries.”

“Armando Iannucci got us in to write ‘On the Hour’. It was a satire of what radio sounded like. Satire had traditionally been about personalities, but he made it about the delivery mechanism, rather than the information itself. It was something new, compared to the very retrograde world of Dead Ringers. We wrote two series of that, and loads of things that went on to become comedy staples of the nineties, but we dropped out when it went to TV as ‘The Day Today’. Patrick Marber managed to get a share of the credits for the creation of Alan Partridge, even though he hadn’t been on original creating team, and we had. We felt me should have some sort of recognition for that, which seemed fair at the time. It could probably have been handled better. Sometimes I think dropping out of that was a major career mistake, but then on the other hand, it did mean that at least we were still, throughout our twenties when you’ve got a lot of energy, we were still coming up with our own ideas, rather than becoming writers for hire. Both individually and together me and Rich sort of developed our own voice. I can’t really write for other people, and I’m quite proud of that – it means that what you do is more distinctive. Although, if I had a percentage share of Partridge like Marber does, I wouldn’t be sitting here now with this on. Swings and roundabouts.”

“I learnt that I’m in this for the long haul. Doing a show at Edinburgh, touring it. That’s the only thing that I’ve got which is a certainty. There’s no interface between me and an audience. It doesn’t have to go through the filter of people commissioning it or funding it or whatever, and it also doesn’t have to go through the filter of someone deciding whether it worked or not. It’s pretty obvious if it worked. It went well. More people come next time. So that’s really really simple. I’m not managed by anyone at the moment, because I was very reluctant to go with anyone who wanted a cut of my work, because at the end of the day, it’s kind of all I’ve got. That and writing reviews of leftfield free jazz for a neo-Nazi newspaper, is all I’ve got.”

“I’d love to do a radio show, but the breadth of things I’d want to play wouldn’t really fit in anywhere. Which, again, is their problem. It’s a problem of broadcasters and formats and producers – it’s what you call narrowcasting. I got sent a letter asking if I wanted to write for a new comedy, and it explained how it had to be a little bit risqué and blue, but be targeted at 25-35 year old women with a sense of independence but also a degree of responsibility. I just screwed it up and threw it in the bin. Only an idiot, or a person with no heart whatsoever, would write to that brief. I mean, my Odin sitcom is going to be targeted at people who believe literally in the existence of Norse Gods.”

The internet is changing the way that comics work, and, thankfully for us, the audience, reducing the importance of agents, PR and management. “I’ve just put out a DVD through a website [www.gofasterstripe.com] because no-one wanted to put out my new DVD after the controversy that surrounded ‘Standup Comedian’. They’ve covered their costs so now they’re doing loads of stuff with people who can’t get deals. Its sort of an indie label for comedy DVDs.”

“I’m not at the stage where I’m thinking about developing content specifically for the web, but to sell DVDs just through a website, with no advertising, is entirely cost effective. About 2,000 people come to my website, and there’s another 1,000 or so on a MySpace page I have, so if I alert all those people to new shows and stuff I can sell out venues with no advertising costs. I was invited to go on ‘Derren Brown’, and I like ‘Derren Brown’ but they don’t pay you anything. Three million people watch it. It’s not worth being recognised by three million people in the street, for no money. It’s not really worth being recognised by eight million people for the amount of money you get for going on ‘Have I Got News For You’. It’s quite disconcerting.”

On the other hand, there’s still people who recognise him from ‘This Morning With Richard Not Judy’ “It’s tailing off, but it’s astonishing and very gratifying the amount of very nice people who do come up and say Hi.”

At least some of the sacrifices of celebrity are worthwhile then. Stewart Lee may not be the messiah, but he’s a very funny man.