Eugene Hütz, guitar strapped over a shirtless shoulder, sweat shining atop his narrow frame, grabs the microphone and raises one arm over his famously mustachioed face, closing the night with a final coda: "We are your fucking friends Gogol Bordello!" Behind, his band of gypsies-including a Russian violinist, Israeli guitarist, Ethiopian bassist, Latin American percussionist, Brazilian rapper and Russian accordionist-take their bows, while down in the mosh pit below the stage's edge an equally sweaty, multilingual and cross-generational horde raise their arms and howl in solidarity.
For the past two hours, Hütz has led his band through a turbocharged set of international dance music, mashing up punk, klezmer, ska, polka, samba, salsa and reggae into the distinct sound that has made Gogol Bordello the hottest global touring act to come out of New York in the last decade. And Hütz, a one-time Soviet refugee from the Ukraine who arrived in the United States in 1988 with $400, a beat-up guitar and a handful of black-market vinyl, now carries Madonna's number in his mobile phone and is well on his way to rock-star status.
For his next metamorphosis, Hütz aims to turn what could be dismissed as a "world party" cliché into a fully developed musical vision. In the past two years, he's enlisted Red Light Management-home of touring titans like the Dave Matthews Band and Phish-to help steer his career, signed a long-term global record deal with Sony-affiliated American Recordings and written some 70 new songs, more than 20 of which the band recorded for its major-label debut. And he did it all while maintaining a 200-plus-show-per-year touring schedule and relocating from New York to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he moved to live with his girlfriend, Diana, a Romanian samba dancer who inspired some of his most emotional lyrics.
But it's Hütz's other new relationship, a partnership with Columbia Records chairman, Metallica producer and noted yoga enthusiast Rick Rubin, that may have the most dramatic affect on his future.
Rubin first discovered the group when Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello texted him from a show to exclaim that Gogol Bordello was the greatest band in the world. After seeing a typically raucous gig at Hollywood's Palladium and meeting Hütz backstage, Rubin was so taken by the group that he not only signed it to his American imprint but also gave Hütz the full Rubin treatment: long, deep discussions about art and spirituality; months of prodding and coaxing that eventually led to a geyser of new songs; and his daily presence during three months of round-the-clock recording sessions. It's a mysterious process that's the stuff of music business legend, one that has turned many a jaded musician into a glassy-eyed disciple.
"So many things are known about Rick as being so guru-matic-it's all true," Hütz says one night in a Lower East Side hotel lobby, where he's now just a tourist in the city that served at Gogol Bordello's incubator. "In my case I was just able to experience it and see how strong his gift is. He's always able to see the light in a very messy creative process."
Rubin views the relationship as the beginning of an entirely new approach to recording for Gogol Bordello. "Previous albums were self-made experiments," he wrote in an e-mail interview with Billboard. "A great deal of time went into, first, the songwriting, then the band learning the songs, then the band learning how to play sounds decipherable in the studio, then learning how to be a band in the studio, and finally, Eugene getting in touch with his true self as a singer."
"It's very impressive," Hütz says in his signature Eastern European syntax. "It's mystical but practical. It's powerful, man."