Street Smarts: Gogol Bordello Front Man Dissects the Band's Gypsy Punk Rock Approach

Margarita Jimeno's 2008 documentary about gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello isn't a great film. But it has one thing going for it: It truly captures the manic energy that frontman Eugene Hutz and his band of merry pranksters bring to the stage. We see Hutz in several different contexts: DJing a basement party, performing on the street, opening for Manu Chao at large outdoor festivals. And each time, the guy doesn't disappoint, stage-diving and running around like he's possessed. Jimeno unearths rare footage from the early days, when the band was still formulating its theatrical stage show in small New York bars in the late '90s. And she interviews several musicians who have played in the band. While the film only occasionally touches on Hutz's background as a Ukrainian refugee, it successfully presents him as the street-wise musician that he is.

"Gogol Bordello was an acoustic band," Hutz explains in a phone interview when asked about the band's formation in 1999. "In fact, it was a singer-songwriter kind of a project to start with. It was me and then a duet with an accordion player. Then, it became a trio and then it became four people and then over the course of four or five years it became a six-piece and so on. Doing a show by myself or with an 8-piece band, I don't know how but somehow, it seems to leave people in a height of feeling. They have a misunderstanding of what the fuck just happened. As the band transformed, it's wildness or craziness was there and always will be there simply because it's just the kind of energy I produce."

But Hutz says that his unhinged style of singing isn't the only thing that makes Gogol Bordello such a great live band.

"The other aspect is actual craft," he says. "That craft is what keeps the attention and feeds people in other ways. No energy can sustain attention if it's not guided. There's a parallel with martial arts. I always kind of hinted to journalists and people that it's very close to martial arts in spirit. I have a certain method of stirring up the energy. It's a gift but it's also cultivated. That's the core of it. It's both passion and a discipline to whip this passion in shape in a certain way. For me, both of things were equally there in the beginning, now and to the future. It's just who I am. It's going to keep expanding. Will it keep changing? I don't know. Expanding seems to be the right word."

The band formed in 1999 in New York City where Hutz and co. put on wild concerts at some of the city's smaller, DIY clubs. So what were Hutz's goals?

"I never had any goals," he says. "I only had inspiration. Goals they have in factories and places like that where you produce products. I never had any kind of plan or goal. I had a vision, an inspiration, if that's what you meant. My vision was what you see. As my vision keeps expanding, it keeps transforming and expanding. You're looking at that as well."

That "vision" includes mixing gypsy rhythms with international grooves. The band's most recent album, last year's Pura Vida Conspiracy, is a good example of just what a unique hybrid the band truly is.

"I've been a student of international and world-wide folklore for years and decades," says Hutz. "In a way, I have an advantage because I dissected and analyzed and get inspired by and soaked into many different pools of songwriting besides Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen and the usual grand subjects. There are things of equal magnificence going on in Eastern Europe with the whole Russian literature school being so influential on the lyric writers that it has produced a generation of Russian speaking artists — and not known throughout the world — who are just as powerful. The gypsy culture ties it together."

Like some kind of ethnomusicologist, Hutz relates the way in which gypsies absorbed the music that would come to their towns via sailors. It's a tradition to which Hutz feels firmly connected.

"They brought that melodic and cultural information from town to town through the oceans," he says. "That was the first internet. That was the original form of downloading things for free. The new boat is arriving, filled with people who are bringing music. Nothing was copyrighted so it thrived. Storytelling was thriving because people were hungry for stories from abroad. I experienced first hand that environment and that's an advantage I have over people who live on the same block or try to write on the same block, getting inspired by some book they read or some film they saw or something they saw in the newspaper. It's a very filtered-out vision of life right there."

Over the years, the band has been through numerous incarnations and featured a variety of musicians and dancers. To Hutz, the changes aren't symbolic of any kind of instability. Rather, they're part of the normal ebb and flow that comes with the territory.

"Some people want to go and start a family, for example," he says. "Now, they see us play and bring their babies. Some people just moved back to where they came from, very far away from New York City. It's normal to have changes in a band that keeps going. The core of the band stays the same. We select very good people and they all contribute to the growth of the band."

Gogol Bordello

with Man Man

8 p.m. Monday, July 28. House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $27.50 ADV, $30 DOS,