“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?”
“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.
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.