Looking backwards to move forwards, BackRoad Gee is taking UK rap into uncharted territory
Who am I? I am David. But, well, this is Chilly Gonzales. He’s Europe through-and-through, and he wants you to know it on his latest album Ivory Towers, a soundtrack to the film of the same name which he co-wrote and stars as the main protagonist. It’s a “treatise on competition” vis-à-vis the chessboard which also stars Tiga as co-competitor bro and Peaches as the girl stuck between these two chess-playing Titans. Though if Gonzales were an economy – and he readily admits to loving his North American Capitalist vernacular – he wouldn’t be the hypothetical “perfect competition.” No, he’d be the realist (and perfective) monopoly. Because there is no other Entertainer (with a capitalist ‘E’) who matches his flair, his ambition, and the sheer grandiosity of it all, even mentalist Andrew WK was usurped last year on the ivories by Chilly G in a pianist tête-à-tête battled in New York pub called, um, “Joe’s Pub.” (And lest we forget – although knowing Gonzales we inevitably won’t – his Guinness World Record for longest Piano Solo. All 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds of it.)
It’s this “WTFness” that he’s drawn on and hyperbolised over the past 12 years of living in Europe, oscillating between Berlin, Paris and London, that have made him what he is. THE CONSUMATE ENTERTAINER. Along this continuing and deviating narrative he’s taken with him a close harem: from the Canadian exiles of Peaches, Feist and Mocky to French legends such as Charles Aznavour and Jane Birkin, and they all form the backbone to what he does. To naïvely write him off because of his absurdity would be wilful because the man known to his parents as Jason Beck is an expert producer as well as the archetypal Entertainer. Feist’s one million plus-selling and Grammy-nominated The Reminder is absolute testament to this – the product of their continued and collaborative production. This man has stature and (in his own words) mythology.
So interviewing someone as charismatic and, dare I say it, mythical as Gonzales on the day I was moving house could have been daunting, but I immediately knew that I would like him with an intro like this:
Hi, I’m David from DUMMY…
Gonzales: What’s your accent?
Scottish – Glaswegian to be precise.
I love Scots.
Best country in the UK
You think so?
I think so. We were having a really, really reductionist discussion about European countries. So, ok, let’s just not be politically-correct for a second…if someone put a gun to your head and five countries in Europe were going to get nuked. And you know what? Scotland survived for many, many people!
Me: Wow! [laughs]
G: You guys have a lot of goodwill. Honestly! And, you know, musicians that go there always come back with a good impression. I’ve never met a musician who said “well, I wasn’t really into Glasgow, I wasn’t so into the Scots”. Pretty much everyone comes back and goes, “that’s a dope place…” And, of course, no one would nuke Canada in a million years…
When I think back to my hurried interview with him in the hustle-and-bustle of the Skybar at the Southbank, I am reminded of the late Glaswegian poet and humorist, Ivor Cutler; and realised that to try to dissect or comprehend the logic of geniuses like Cutler and Gonzales is always a futile if not inevitable pursuit. It was Cutler after all who said about his baldness, “sur le volcan ne pousse pas l’herbe”. Yup, grass does not grow on a volcano…
I’m moving house today – and moving in London is nightmarish – so apologies in advance, I might be a little bit disorganised…maybe that segues well into you moving to London? Is that true? What inspired the move?
Taking a taxi in London is hell! So moving must be…anyway, well I don’t really know if I’ve moved to London. I had a flat for a few months in the summer and I am just here a lot, basically. I am trying to just see London as a suburb of Paris at this point, for me. Somewhere I can go really regularly and hustle as much as I can. It’s nice to come to a country where if you want to go fast and you want to hustle, if you can convince people to come with you, they’ll do it. France is much slower…
Yeah, I’ve experienced it!
The speed I want to go is considered vulgar there, actually. It’s nice to have a place I can come and indulge my verbal side – and speak English and speak Capitalism. It’s the two languages that I miss speaking the most in France. So that’s why I like coming here.
Actually what made you move to Paris from Berlin in the first place?
That was sort of to become a producer, I suppose…that was when I was starting the Feist album, then did the Jane Birkin album, and I realised that I would really be able to have a window into the world – a world – one of the world’s of real music that I had never been in before. You know, this higher level – sort of aristocratic – elite that exists in France and it was it very interesting to be a part of that because I aspire to a lot of those values.
It’s interesting the thing I’ve always thought about French music – even modern French pop music – is its real indebtedness, stickiness almost, to tradition?
Well France in general has a very strong relationship with its past – and Paris is like a museum.
Exactly! But I do love Paris!
That’s the whole vibe of France, it’s preservation, in a way. They take it very seriously and I think that’s a really wonderful value. Ok, afterwards, you’re from the outside looking in, the actual content of that can seem ridiculous. Especially if you’re coming from an “everything-should-be-new-culture” like England. And that’s why the two countries could not be more different. England likes to have people stick around but they want them to rise and fall.
Of course, it’s almost institutional – maybe it is something do with the way people historically have strongly defined themselves through class in Britain – we build them up to knock’em down!
You want the narrative – you want transgression and redemption – and in France they don’t want that. They’d want consistency…your “tenure” in France.
I know, look at Mylène Farmer, she’s absolutely huge and her popularity never seems to fade or even Johnny Hallyday…it’s odd but refreshing…and metaphorical!
You know, the two cultures compliment themselves – as do Paris and Berlin as well. So, I think, those three cities are great.
London seems like a bit of Berlin and a bit of Paris meddled together.
I agree with that!
Do you think that appreciation of tradition in Paris inspired you to do something as yesteryear as ‘Soft Power’?
I think so, yeah. I think that album was a product of my very professional couple of years I spent there. Where we went PRO. The album was an expression of that; so absolutely, yeah. That’s why the museum quality of Paris did somehow influence me – the time I lived there – and I consider that I don’t really live in Paris anymore because my mind is really elsewhere.
You live in your mind!
Physically, of course, it [Paris] is the homebase but I am travelling really a lot and really spend a lot of time here [London] So, yeah, there is that museum-like quality, which I think is a nice quality – but the preservation also fits into the Gonzales narrative because there is a certain respect that I command in France that is really befitting a maestro of my stature. I can’t really get that anywhere else.
…because of the types of artists you have produced in France (Charles Aznavour)?
Because my older values are appreciated beyond superficiality. Here [in the UK] it’s like “he’s a musical genius, we’ll kind of take him at his word for that” whereas in France it’s more “he’s a musical genius and we feel it…we feel it in our bones…it doesn’t matter if you say it as a joke or not, we know it is actually true.” That’s how the French take it because those values of harmony and melody – and my actual musical skills – are still things held in high-esteem there. Why? Because it is a museum. Its older values take longer to fade away than anywhere else. So I also have the advantage of those old school values being much more a product of France; whereas, here, it’s much more about my provocation and the modernity of it. There are those two elements of me: in England they go for the modernity, the satire and “is it real?” element; and in France, frankly, it’s really about the music, to their credit. Although, unfortunately the French really would rather I just shut-up and play the piano, and just shut-up and be like a “well-behaved” artist. That’s extremely frustrating for me, and I, of course, go against that. And who knows? Is that sabotage…? But I can’t do it any other way because I can’t be a well-behaved pianist!
Ha…amazing! So before you even decided to move to Berlin and adopt the Gonzales moniker, how do you relate the time with Son in Canada? Was it the boredom and monotony of the mainstream that influenced all this, shaped you even?
It’s like the origin of the supervillian…you know? And at the beginning of the comic book you had a few pages of the guy’s life before – his boring life, so-to-speak – and then he goes into his laboratory and then lightening hits him and he staggers slowly out with superpowers. Absolutely, that is the moment I went from Canada over to Berlin, and that was my transformation to be “me” but more me than I could ever be. Exaggerated. Like they say in France, “un peu a presque du pape” which means people who coverted to Catholicism and became extremely fundamentalist very fast, and they became more papist than the Pope. The expression has to do also with how rappers are more papist than the Pope in terms of their approach to capitalism.
The hyperbole of it all?
Yeah they’re going a bit too far with it. My father when he moved over and decided to get away from all that messy hunting down the Jews stuff in Europe, he suppressed his religious side and decided to become a success story: rags to riches immigrant complex. That also is becoming more papist than the Pope. And that’s what I decided to do when I came over to Europe, I thought ok well I’ve learned that music is a popularity contest, it’s not a musical contest. That was maybe some sort of loss of innocence, perhaps…well in that moment I said if that’s the case then I am going to play in that game and I am going to be a colourful player, and I am going to do it my way but I am not going to ignore it or to try to pretend that it doesn’t exist. I am going to make that the point.
Even though it does exist don’t you think that it’s quite tragic in a way?
Yeah, maybe in a perfect world. Erm, maybe in the 1920s I would have been a really normal musician…
But even in the Nineties the idea of popularity was not like today, the internet almost supercedes it…
No, no, no because the popularity contest was what it was when Mozart was writing music. It’s always been there.
OK, I understand that but it’s the intensity of it now…and how short it is…
Let me tell you this, Art is a popularity contest. Ok, maybe a mild one. That’s the European one, Europeans were making Art. Americans invented Entertainment, and Entertainment is just Art-on-steroids. And so, the popularity contest is also on steroids. So you’re right, it is more intense as time goes on because Entertainment has dominated Art more or less and America has dominated Europe.
But do you think if you only aspire to popularity do you think you have true longevity? In your catalogue of music?
You aspire to be as popular as you can be for as long as you can be given the basic premise. You take a hard look in the mirror – that’s what I do – I say I am going to be as popular as I can be given that I am a rapping piano player who can’t keep his mouth shut. There are givens. So when I say I am aspiring to be popular I want to be as popular as I can be, which just means I do as many concerts and take as many opportunities to expose myself as possible. But I am not unrealistic, I know the overall potential for that popularity. I think I can be fairly sober about what that is, and I think that the popularity I have is the popularity I deserve right now.
And that’s what I mean, I have it because I f**cking work at it. First of all, every person has the popularity they deserve, there’s no excuse. If your expectations and your reality aren’t meeting then one of them has to change. You either step-up and make reality move to meet your expectations, or you lower your expectations – I’ve done both. I’ve had moments of doing both.
You’d be quite good at being some sort of self-help counsellor! When you did the piano “challenge”, I read your blog that you wrote for the Guardian and you mentioned that it was about competing with yourself. That’s got to be the North American aspect of your character as I am not so sure that’s a European trait…the tendency towards individualism in the US in particular?
Absolutely. Have you seen the movie?
Not yet…(but I will!)
OK, well go see it! The movie is like a heavy, heavy treatise on competition…the whole thing is about that.
So it’s not about chess? You’re just using that as the context…
It’s about competition which, of course, chess is a very competitive game. Cerebral and competitive.
It’s a different sort of competitiveness, though? It’s not so macho as other sports, it’s about the mind.
That’s right but it is cerebrally macho. But that [competitiveness] is a North American aspect of my character and because I equate North America with Entertainment and with Capitalism. I think Art was aristocratic to start with…
Well I think Americans democraticised Art in some way, because in Europe Art was seen as something intellectualised, it wasn’t something for the proles!
In the sense that America really placed the emphasis on the audience? That’s the thing they went from European aristocracy equals Art to American capitalism equals Entertainment. And who’s winning? Well, I think we all know.
I’ve always felt that you inhabit that same space as Fifties American entertainers like Frank Sinatra, because musicians nowadays are not so multi-dimensional in that aspect. Back then Frank Sinatra and co. were entertainers before and after musicians, do you find them inspiring? Actually even in the way you project your voice I can hear Sinatra!
Absolutely, I do the same kinds of preparations, which are essentially military style preparations in the sense that you know what you prepare to do isn’t going to work, you know things come up. It’s not really about rehearsing it’s preparation and it’s experience. It’s also about the people you have surrounding you, teamwork – all that stuff. That’s really what sort of keeps you on your toes to be honest.
Mind you, the people you’ve had around you, you’ve had around you for a long time – Feist, Peaches, etc. Or it at least seems that way from reading all your press?
It’s a family and the bonds go deep. I was just in the studio starting to work with Feist on the new album and we still always go to each other for that advice and that encouragement – and sometimes that hard criticism from trying new things. I am extremely lucky to have those people around me.
I love ‘Mushaboom’ from the first Feist album, the noise of walking on snow, but much of her success has come from the iPod advert featuring 1-2-3-4, if we’re talking about popularity! I distinctly remember playing ‘The Reminder’ to my mum in the spring of 2007 and she couldn’t really understand it, then later in the year 1-2-3-4 was featured on that ad and she was asking me to get her a copy of it. And now you’re featured in the new iPad advert – is that ultimate popularity for you, you’ve been chosen, it’s broadcasting worldwide to millions?
It’s another ‘Where’s Waldo’ moment, that’s all I can say. It’s another moment of like how did I get nominated for a Grammy, how do I end up with a Guinness World Record, how do I end up with an iPad ad? I try to build my bubble so it’s solid so that when it bumps up against things like that everyone knows, institutions like Apple, The Grammys, Guinness, the bubble doesn’t pop. Then it keeps on bouncing somewhere else. And for me it is great for my personal mythology…
You’ve definitely built up that mythology – you’re mythical!
I don’t think there is that many people who’ve followed it closely but it’s still there if you want to go for it, I have taken some care that it is slightly coherent. I do that because that’s just fun for me – because I am an artist.
Yeah, I think it’s all like a continuing narrative for you…
Exactly, you can imagine yourself in a movie.
I was reading Charlotte’s interview and I was quite surprised when you said you weren’t good at the ‘superficial stylistic info’. I read into that you found it hard producing yourself? Did I get the gist of what you meant?
Oh yeah, on this album…after Soft Power I was a bit like hmmmm…something didn’t work exactly between the two. I also started to think about the movie, and I knew if I was going to make an album where I could lift a lot of the burdens that was going to give me the energy to do something as big as the movie as well. I wanted to do something more modern because people fundamentally find it hard to take in something that’s called ‘retro’ – it’s not fun to be called that. That’s never what I intended but the customer is always right so I think I was doing something wrong, I wasn’t taking into account the fact that you have to speak to them in a language which they like. I maybe was just a little caught up in the French museum backwardness…that comforting maybe invaded the album [Soft Power] So I purposively wanted to find the ultimate modern partner, the guy who I felt in 2000 if he had existed would’ve been me. And that was Boys Noize.
Haha…! And how did it work with producing the album?
Just sending back-and-forth from the beginning…
Really as simple as that?
Like the parts that you hear that you think must be Gonzo – the pianos, the flutes, the little melodies, and the girls’ voices – yeah, that’s what I sent. And the stuff you think is Boys Noize: those nice claps, those semi-bonkers compressed noises, that’s him. It was just peanut buttercups; you take chocolate and peanut butter, it just tastes good together, nothing more than that. Actually then we met and worked together about 10 days before the end to wrap it all up and go a bit further. It took about an afternoon on each of our parts to make for each song. It was easy to make and that’s the beautiful thing when it’s easy to make, that’s what freed me up to make the movie.
Yeah, ‘Don’t Stop’ is quintessentially you and then ‘I am Europe’ feels like the product of both of you. It has a piano house feel to it…
Well, it’s slowed down but yeah…‘Balearic’ as Erol Alkan would say.
‘Balearic,’ I’d just say it’s more Eurodance…?
He said that, I didn’t even know what Balearic was…to me it’s Steve Reich hip hop. That’s all it is…
All those surrealist lyrics in ‘I am Europe’ where do they come from? I mean are they observational, or contrived; conscious or unconscious?
I’ve lived in Europe for 12 years and I don’t want to be this guy who says there’s dog poo on the streets and the waiters aren’t nice, that’s not what the song is about. I am Europe – I am part of the European fabric now. That’s why I can criticise it. It’s like my family, you can criticise your family.
But the imagery, the absurdity…
That’s my job, man! My job is to go deep into your brain…what can I say, that’s my job description. “[A]n imperial armpit sweating Chianti…” But have you been to Italy, that’s how it is! Have you been to Austria it’s gay pastry and racist cappuccino. I don’t think those things are necessarily negative exactly, I see them myself as well…
It’s funny you’ve certainly piqued people’s imaginations with those lyrics…they’re all over the web.
Especially gay pastry and racist cappuccino, it really seems to have struck accord.
To get back to production, I read in an old interview where you mention that you work in a Bee Gees’ style of music, what does that mean?
For me Bee Gees’ style of music is very masterful on all musical fronts, it’s got incredible rhythm but also has a lot of melody, a lot of arrangement, a lot of emotion. It’s just all the things you could say that should be good in music are there. Except if you love lyrics then it’s like asking someone to love R Kelly. You’ll have a problem. If you think lyrics should all be poetic…
R Kelly’s certainly an entertainer!
He’s a genius but I am saying if you are a person who likes cool lyrics, like if you are into Nick Cave – lyric guys – Nick Drake. I don’t even know who those people are. But anyway, guys named Nick. Then if you’re like that then you won’t like R Kelly, probably won’t like the Bee Gees or Stevie Wonder or Prince or Lenny Kravitz. These aren’t lyrical geniuses, they’re musical geniuses. And that’s why I like the Bee Gees. They also had a bit of the ridiculous, of course. The image was ridiculous, they sang in these kind of strange voices and you’re like “really…really guys…?”
Oh yes, that range compared with the really low range they spoke in!
They were very hirsute for that time, they were very anachronistic, they looked very Seventies and it’s got that R Kelly quality of daring you to underestimate them by their ridiculous image. Maybe there’s a little bit of that in Chilly Gonzales as well. I dare you to think I am just a clown because when you actually listen to me on the piano you can hear that it’s serious. The Bee Gees have that and that’s why I aspire to them, R Kelly has that. It’s always got be a bit ridiculous as it almost confirms that it is more serious because if you act serious there is nothing worse. It’s about being playful, that’s what entertainment is about. You know so many artists are like an old husband who doesn’t know how to flirt with his wife anymore. He just doesn’t know how to get the glint in her eyes back after a few years. That to me is like an authentic singer-songwriter four albums in, he doesn’t make an effort anymore. I have a long-term relationship with some of my fans – some of them are newer – but I want to keep the spark alive!
You have many cult fans, including some of my friends, so that’s almost equals more than popularity, that equals infamy which is probably a little bit better than popularity in many respects. Maybe the next thing could be to challenge R Kelly to a “rap-off”?
It’s like I say on my as-yet-unreleased rap album coming in the Spring, I say “Here’s a riddle, in the race to the middle, who’s mediocre? I’m cult. If I wanted culture I would eat a yoghurt”.
Pro-biotic, as well! Since I’m getting to the end of my time can you sum up this whole project somewhat succinctly?
Ivory Tower is Gonzales and his musical family up on the big screen. It’s a very exciting year: 2010, it’s the 10 year anniversary of Peaches, Tiga and Gonzales all getting in the game and at that time it seemed like we were part of some flash-in-the-pan trend which was electroclash. Last night being at [the UK premiere of Ivory Tower] at Screen on the Green and seeing the risks being taken and seeing people connecting with it really makes you forget about that feeling.
So it’s almost like “we’re still here and we’re still doing it”?
That’s kind of what it’s about.
Where do you see yourself in 2020, then?
I’m more reactive than that, I don’t plan as far ahead as people might think.
I hate planning, planning your life out, it seems like a very North American thing to me…
That’s the military operation. You can plan, you can prepare but don’t be so vain to try to force it because so many unexpected things happen and you have to be able to adapt. So I could say that in 10 years I would like to be doing this, you know? But probably my last real remaining fantasy is to be embedded in real hip hop culture because I really have so much love for it. I idolise it.
Who do you particularly idolise because it’s a big genre?
All of them – anyone who hustles. But right now I am very inspired by Rick Ross who really everybody thought he was down for the count and he surprised everybody by becoming the biggest rapper of the year this year. Moments like that where you really get inspired.
[His press people come over and tell us we need to finish]
Oh well I better finish up as you’re filming later, it’s been very nice speaking with you.
Yeah but this is more fun because you actually know a bit about what I do and it’s very exciting. So c’mon one last question! Throw me a crazy one, something that no one else would ask me.
I need to think!
Pressure! You’re moving today. Access brain. Shit!
You don’t still have an extra testicle, do you?
The third testicle is like the name Gonzo, I got it when I was young and it’s just a nice metaphor. I liked to think it’s the reason I have more balls than any other people!