From Dali's absurd visions and the vast sculpture of Anish Kapoor, to the real-life microcosm of Tracey Emin's skanky bed, the Tate Modern's seen it all. But crowd-surfing? Screaming rag-doll dancers? The sheer visceral might of music? Never before in its three-year life has this institution of modern art experienced anything quite like Gogol Bordello. When this eight-strong New York motley crew of immigrants - led by their Ukrainian ringleader, Eugene Hutz - storm the breathtaking Turbine Hall for their recent free gig, the whole notion of art as a spectator sport is instantly ripped apart.
Dressed in knee-length trousers and a skirt of jangling coins, Hutz is like Hamelin's Pied Piper, drawing the visiting hordes from the balconies into the mammoth space. As soon as his band's wailing violin, feral sax and squalling accordion click into their groove, no one can resist the exotic, manic energy of the punk-fuelled Gypsy music belting out from the gallery's core. The swirling jumble of noise is infectious. It's primal, spontaneous and sexy. Soon, women writhe around and men jump about trying to keep up with the heady rhythms. People are stage-diving, and OAPs are pushing through the crowd to catch a better view of Hutz flailing about like Iggy Pop high on jellybeans, while his two dancers perform surreal skits in outrageous costumes. By the end, even Hutz is consumed by the euphoria; he climbs on his drummer's bass drum and rides it into the crowd, which carries him triumphantly.
"I never know what's going to take place when we play; my favourite thing is that although we rehearse certain things, they never happen!" explains Hutz the day before the Tate gig. "But the band always gives off a full-on positive energy that you just can't ignore. It doesn't have any social status or awareness. It's a much more savage thing." Of course, he's spot on.
Hutz is very self-aware. Sitting across an affectedly scruffy table in a trendy Soho bar, the naturalised American and ex-refugee is trying to refill his glass withwine he has snuck in. From his dishevelled bohemian air, replete with wayward mullet and well-tended handlebar moustache, Hutz looks part-philosopher, part-piss-artist. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully in the thick accent of a Sean Connery-era Bond baddie.
Born in Communist Kiev in 1972, Hutz was raised on the forbidden fruits of western culture, thanks to his artist dad who had access to a lot of material - from books on Dada and Nietzsche to rock'n'roll - not circulating in the Ukraine. Because information couldn't flow properly, Hutz was hungry for it, gathering all he could from black-market magazines and snippets of state-controlled TV about "rotten western culture", even if that meant sometimes getting the wrong end of the stick. "This lack of news from the rest of the world created a situation for invention," he says. "For example, we knew there was this thing called breakdance, and we also knew about heavy metal, but we didn't know what linked the two together. So basically, we breakdanced to metal."
Hutz became obsessed with fired-up punk - from Devo and The Birthday Party to The Sex Pistols and avant-funkists The Contortions - trading their tapes on the black market, but it wasn't until the nuclear meltdown of Chernobyl that the first seeds of Gogol Bordello were sown. Just 13 years old, Hutz was evacuated from Kiev and sent to live with his extended family in western Ukraine. That's when he discovered he was half-Roma, a secret kept very quiet back home ("We would never have got an apartment otherwise").
This year-long country sojourn had a massive impact on Hutz. "Before then, I was living in a children's colouring book that needed to be coloured in," he says. "My only inspiration had come from the brutally bare and flat-looking districts I lived in. Gypsy-camp culture was my first sense of colour. It's about making excitement and merry out of nothing. I don't think there's anything more exciting in this world than that. And that, mixed with the urban counter-culture of punk, is what started me colouring this book."
Still, it was another 12 years before Hutz combined the two insurgent strands - Gypsy and punk - that infected his childhood. The catalyst was Bela Bartok - the Hungarian composer who collected Baltic and Slavic music, then created something new. In between that time, Hutz spent three years playing in punk bands as a refugee in Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland, before making it to New York.
"Once I got to America, an educated musician pushed me towards listening to Bartok," recalls Hutz, stroking his comedy moustache. "That was like the best suggestion I ever got. I've always had an instinctive rage against the notion that everything has already been done before," says Hutz suddenly. "I first read this statement in an art-criticism book, and the anger is still boiling in me now. Bartok inspired me to pull together the music I love and make a whole new entity." Gogol Bordello - the realisation of the young Eugene's early dream - was finally conceived at a Russian wedding in New England, where Hutz and a group of ad-hoc though like-minded musicians had been pooled together to play Gypsy folk tunes.
The result of this marriage is Gogol Bordello's first album proper, Multi Kontra Culti vs Irony. It's a gloriously cohesive sonic clash of culture, language and time, fuelled in equal parts with the rampant, coiled energy of punk, and the mystical, seductive power of Gypsy instrumental swirls. Lilting accordions dance like moths around ribbons of violins, while a nihilistic urge thunders through the hot-wired guitars and bulldozes through Hutz's surreal and satirical lyrics. This is a sound so raw, original and base that its revved-up fever is contagious within seconds of the first note being played; a fact that was so clearly evident at the Tate gig.
It is impossible not to be intoxicated by Gogol Bordello. "Our music is authentic because we live it," he says passionately. "It's a continual musical life-experience that generates its own life-force. I don't know how to explain this," he says struggling to put his emotions into words, "it is just a condition I want to freeze, a place I never want to leave. It's my idea of life, and I only wish everybody had that feeling." He smiles. "There's simply nothing else better than that."
'Multi Kontra Culti vs Irony' is out on RubricReuse content