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Bruce LaBruce met Eugene at one of his favorite hangouts Cafe Mogador on St. Marks in the East Village.
BRUCE:When did you start doing your gig at Bulgarian Bar on Canal Street?
EUGENE: I've been DJing there every Thursday night since the place opened in 1998. I spin the greatest records from all over the world. It keeps getting crazier every fuckin' week.
BRUCE: How did you get involved?
EUGENE: Right around the time I moved to New York, I threw a party for my birthday there. Massive chaos and destruction took place that night half the tables were broken by the end of the evening. I thought it was the first and last time I would ever be allowed in the place, but at the end of the night the owner came over to me and said, "Do you want to do this here every week?"
BRUCE: You wear your Ukrainian roots on your sleeve in your band Gogol Bordello. Not many groups describe their music as Gypsy punk rock.
EUGENE: Americans have some very clichéd ideas about Eastern Europe. The region's not about vodka shots, accordions, and red pants. It's a much darker place than that. The first three things that come to my mind when I hear the word Ukraine are radiation, corruption, and sex trafficking. I don't think Americans are ready for that reality.
BRUCE: And we generally know very little about the persecution the Romany Gypsies population has faced in Europe over hundreds of years.
EUGENE: In many ways, Gypsies and Jews have always been shoved into the same corner. The Nazis' Final Solution was first intended for the Gypsies and then applied to the Jews. Nowadays, the attitude towards Gypsies in Europe has become one of friendly curiosity rather than brutal discrimination. But it's still hell for the Gypsy people in places like Romania, Hungary, and western Ukraine.
BRUCE: What kind of stuff goes on?
EUGENE: In the western part of Ukraine where most of the Gypsies live the government has set up traps that are impossible to escape. They are forced to go to segregated elementary elementary schools where they are taught in Hungarian. But all the high schools in Ukraine are taught in Ukrainian and Russian, the two official languages. It's their way subtle of saying to the Gypsy minority, "Stay in the fucking ghetto."
BRUCE:Or not so subtle. Did you encounter difficulties like that as a child?
EUGENE: I was lucky. In the chaos after the Second World War, the Gypsy side of our family my father's ancestors dispersed from western Ukraine to the capital, Kiev, as well as to Tallinn in Estonia, and to Riga in Latvia. They moved to new towns and intermarried with non-Gypsies.
BRUCE: They felt it necessary to reinvent themselves.
EUGENE: My family tried to bury its past and did a very good job of hiding their ethnic identity. I was the first one in my immediate family to investigate our history. I only met my Gypsy relatives when I was thirteen. I couldn't understand why my parents had hidden the coolest part of our family history!
BRUCE: That must have changed your life around.
EUGENE:Sure. I went to live with them in western Ukraine for a year when Kiev was evacuated after Chernobyl blew up. I must have been about fourteen.
BRUCE: You left Kiev because of Chernobyl ...
EUGENE: Yeah, to take a break from the radiation while it was really wailing. People in Kiev were drinking like crazy that year. Everyone was piss-drunk all the time.
BRUCE: They must've thought they had been handed a death sentence.
EUGENE: No, no, it's a scientific fact that red wine helps chase the strontium out of your body. Some radioactive elements disintegrate quickly, within seconds or minutes. But strontium has a half-life of thirty years, so it stays in your bones for, like, seventy years.
BRUCE: What did you do during that year?
EUGENE: I hung out with the Gypsy kids there and started to identify with them more and more. When I went back to Kiev, my head was in a different place. On top of that, I got into punk rock.
BRUCE: Was that how you first got turned on to music?
EUGENE: No. My dad was a rock musician in the '70s. He was never famous, but he was in one of the only two bands in town. He didn't even need a name for his rock band he could have just called it 'Rock Band' and all the girls would still have been his. [laughs] The first time I heard about punk was by chance. I was really into death metal when I moved back to Kiev. One night I went to see a death metal band from Moscow.
BRUCE: What was it called?
EUGENE: Korosia Metalla Corrosion of Metal. But the opening band was a couple of guys who could barely hold a fucking beat. The music was the most monotonous shit I had ever heard. It was as if they had decided to just piss off the whole crowd.
BRUCE:So it was the epitome of punk.
EUGENE: Yeah. The music made the crowd totally proactive and confrontational. On the way home, I thought to myself, "That was the shit, man." This guy on the train who had also been at the show told me, "That was punk. I hear there's gonna be another concert next week." The second concert, if you can call it that, was fifty people crammed into some kid's apartment while his parents were away for the weekend. Two guys played a so-called punk star from Siberia and another from St. Petersburg. They took turns standing on the kitchen table, playing acoustic guitar and singing songs about stuff like ass-fucking Lenin's corpse in his mausoleum.
BRUCE: Actually, the word punk comes from jailhouse slang for someone who is fucked up the ass.
EUGENE: There we go the cycle is complete! I started hanging out with some kids I met at that show. We would trade mix tapes that had bands like Devo on one side and Dead Kennedys on the other. I got into Birthday Party and Nick Cave, and began buying records on the black market. I even started making my own porn photos to make money to buy more records.
BRUCE: Get out!
EUGENE: I'd buy a copy of Hustler on the black market for forty dollars it'd take me a month to save up that much money. Then I would spread out the magazine on the kitchen table and take a picture of each page with a shitty camera. The quality of the photos was horrible. You couldn't see any of the details in the photos but you could see the tablecloth! Nonetheless, I'd sell the pictures for five bucks a pop at school.
BRUCE: It was like the black market of the black market.
EUGENE: Yeah. My record collection skyrocketed.
BRUCE: What were you buying?
EUGENE: At that time, you could only buy Soviet music on vinyl. But the bootleggers had figured out a way to make contraband records by getting old x-ray plates, which were then made of vinyl, through connections at various hospitals. Then they'd get hold of the equipment to cut the record grooves into the x-rays. It was called "music on the bones."
BRUCE: So you could actually see the x-ray image on the record?
EUGENE: Yeah. I still have one with somebody's damaged rib cage on it. It's a historical artifact.
BRUCE: It should be in the Smithsonian! Your band's namesake, the writer, Gogol was also kind of punk.
BRUCE: He went mad and died when he was forty-three. Do you aspire to that?
EUGENE: [laughs] No. And I also don't aspire to the fact that the poor motherfucker never got laid. That's probably why he died at forty-three.
BRUCE: I read his books obsessively when I was a teenager Diary of a Madman, Dead Souls, "The Nose", and "The Overcoat". Recently I looked him up on the Internet. One website said, "His books are a cavalcade of bureaucrats, lunatics, swindlers, and humiliated losers." I thought that was nice.
EUGENE: Gogol was born in the Ukraine, but spent his adult life in St. Petersburg. He smuggled Ukrainian culture into European literary consciousness at a time when our language and mythology were forbidden by the Russian Czarist regime. Ours was a minority culture that they wanted to eradicate for all the usual political reasons.
BRUCE: So the current political tensions between Russia and Ukraine go back forever?
EUGENE: Yeah. It's always been like that. Gogol's genius came from his transnational mentality. He wrote in Russian but used Ukrainian syntax. People couldn't wrap their fuckin' heads around it. The leading writers of the time, like Pushkin, were floored. That's what we want to do with Gogol Bordello introduce a foreign sound and drop it like a raging, decadent renaissance bomb.
BRUCE: World attention was focused on Ukrainian politics last year because of the Orange Revolution.
EUGENE: It was as much an emotional event as a political one. In the end, there weren't any real reforms. A revolutionary event can easily inspire me, but I'm not na´ve. I must say, though, it did infuse people with positive spirit. We named our newest album during the Orange Revolution, so we ended up calling it Underdog World Strike.
BRUCE: The word revolution means something different to people in eastern Europe.
EUGENE: To me, revolution is a state of mind. It's about being perpetually proactive, and moving from one goal to the next. Nothing great ever came out of being comfortable. Comfort bores the shit out of me.
BRUCE: How did you get your acting role in Everything Is Illuminated?
EUGENE: The production company approached Gogol Bordello to record the film's soundtrack, so we met with the director Liev Schreiber. Liev and I talked about music for ten minutes. Then he leaned over to me and said, "Have you ever done any acting, my friend?"
BRUCE: Had you?
EUGENE: Nothing big-time. I'd done a bit of experimental theatre at LaMaMa in the East Village. And I'd been offered parts in indie films before as well as roles in some other movies that were just bad.
BRUCE: Like what?
EUGENE: Zoolander, shit like that.
BRUCE: I can understand why Zoolander wasn't quite your style. How did you prepare for the Illuminated shoot?
EUGENE: I didn't have any time to prepare! I got the script six weeks before filming began. I had to cancel the band's summer tour.
BRUCE: Most of the film was shot in Prague. Did Jonathan Safran Foer visit the set much?
EUGENE: Yeah, several times. He was really happy with what we were doing. I mean, how could he not be? We were all pretty much on fire about the project. You must remember, it was Jonathan's first novel, Liev's first film as a director, and my first acting role.
BRUCE: You were three virgins!
EUGENE: Yeah! That created an innovative spirit. The process was a positive rumble-tumble, figuring stuff out as we went along. It wasn't always easy, but all the struggles on set were for the sake of the film.
BRUCE: Did Liev ever try to rein you in?
EUGENE: No, straight off the bat, he let me do my own thing. I've never been more polite in front of a camera, actually. But a good director can influence you in such a way that you don't even realize he has.
BRUCE: Neither you nor Boris Leskin, who plays your grandfather, is a trained actor.
EUGENE: Liev's a big fan of the Balkan director Emir Kusturica, who uses a lot of non-professional actors in his films. It was really important that the audience believed in the authenticity of the film. Liev thought that casting non-actors who are from the region would increase the film's cultural credibility.
BRUCE: Did you offer Liev any advice on cultural nuances?
EUGENE: I pointed out some inaccuracies. For example, much of the film is set in Odessa, which is a Jewish-Russian town on Ukrainian territory. The script was originally written in Ukrainian and English, but everybody there actually speaks Russian. So Liev had the script rewritten in English and Russian.
BRUCE: Going into the movie I was skeptical, but it totally worked for me. I was crying by the end, even though the scene in which your character's grandfather dies wasn't over-sentimentalized.
EUGENE: That was a fragile point. Critics just love to detect sentimentality...
BRUCE: ...And skewer it. The film is very gentle. It washed over me, even though it confronts the history of the Holocaust.
EUGENE: Oh, listen to how we're talking here. Virginal? Gentle? What the hell am I doing in this movie?