Chilly Gonzales breaks down the essence of music

Chilly Gonzales breaks down the essence of music

A life less ordinary — The most interesting mind in music talks breaking rules, chasing fame and soundtracking the World Cup Final.

Chilly Gonzales has, by his own admission, curated an expansive musical universe “with some care”.

He’s a rapper, classical pianist, producer, composer and educator who started out playing for customers in a lingerie shop.

He’s worked with Drake and Daft Punk, Peaches and Feist.

He has made over a dozen albums, all of which have at least flirted with almost every genre imaginable.

In 2009, he set a Guinness World Record for the longest solo performance – clocking up 27 hours, three minutes and 44 seconds – by playing instrumental renditions of everything from Leonard Cohen and Frank Sinatra to George Michael and Rick James, with a little ‘Eye of the Tiger’ mixed in for good measure.

A year later, he co-wrote and starred in a film called Ivory Tower, a surreal story about the rivalry between two chess-playing brothers. (His real brother, Christophe Beck, is a film composer best known for scoring Disney’s Frozen.)

Earlier this year he launched The Gonzervatory, a residential (and all-expenses paid) academy that teaches aspiring musicians how to become performers.

He has also hosted a string of masterclasses – in the form of web series, radio shows and podcasts – which artfully explore the ways that one song is connected to every song that came before it.

All of this might leave you with one question. Who does this?

An answer begins to present itself when, in the basement of an East London hotel, Chilly Gonzales answers the door to his room with a faint air of surprise. “Oh!” he says. “Come on in.”

Wearing a pale blue short-sleeved shirt, dark pants and white trainers, he immediately introduces himself as Jason.

It feels like a subtle way of drawing a line between the persona of Chilly Gonzales – a wild-eyed ‘musical genius’ who wears a robe and slippers on stage, like a Bond villain enjoying some downtime – and Jason Beck, a mild-mannered music nerd born in Montreal back in 1972.

That’s not to suggest that one character is somehow less fun to talk to than the other. If you love music – like, really love music – you’re unlikely to find a better conversationalist anywhere.

How do you think the way people approach music today has impacted artists?
I could not have a career without all the superficial changes in the medium, that’s for sure.

Imagine me, in 1992, trying to show people my work – which is already a little bit hard to sum up in half a sentence. First of all, I would have to convince a gatekeeper at a label to give me the budget to go into a studio – because studios were super expensive then and you couldn’t really make stuff on your own.

Chilly Gonzales
Then it would actually have to be released; you have to get enough people believing in it – all while surviving the whole process of these gatekeepers trying to figure out how to make it work. They would have to invest in a video that I would try to make myself, just to make sure it smells like my own universe, and that would probably involve fighting with the label and making a lot of compromises.

Then they would have to get that video shown somewhere – probably on a music video channel late at night – in the hope that someone who could get interested in me would just happen to be awake at 2am when that video gets played once. I mean, it’s a horror show to think how hard it would’ve been to understand what I do without seeing a concert.

Now all of that stuff can be easily transmitted to anyone who comes across it, which is a beautiful thing that I’m really grateful for. Someone can say, “Hey, check out that Chilly Gonzales” and the next thing they’re spending three hours down a wormhole on YouTube getting the full picture: rapping, piano playing, music explaining.

Otherwise I’d probably be a film composer or doing some other job because I doubt I would’ve had the patience or the skills to get myself out there the way I can now.

What about the way listeners absorb and think about music – how has that evolved?
Well, the fundamentals haven’t changed because I think people still want the basics: that feeling of hearing a melody and just going, “Yes! I’ve also felt that way. Someone said what I was never able to put it into music or words myself.”

I was speaking with a professional songwriter who said that Spotify analytics have begun to dictate how writers and producers create songs. It’s fed back to labels that a particular track isn’t making it onto any playlists because listeners are skipping after a few seconds, so songwriters are putting the chorus at the beginning just to make it entertaining from the get-go. What do you think about those kind of changes?

Maybe trying to get on these playlists has replaced the old idea that radio was the only way to break an artist, I don’t know. But there’s another element to it which is that new technology always brings opportunity.

Even though he’s not my favourite musician, you have to give credit to Kanye West for that – like tweaking his Life of Pablo album for weeks after putting it out. That, to me, is an extremely bold, almost counterintuitive artistic move that feels really exciting.

Then there’s Tierra Whack, who put out an album of one-minute songs; they all fit onto Instagram and each song has its own video. It’s a brilliant but obvious use of technology while still being a really good album. So yeah, maybe changing attention spans are leading to new ways of listening but there are always going to be interesting artists who are able to see opportunities within that.

It seems like every generation disapproves of the next generation’s musical values. It’s almost like there’s a perceived step down in fidelity – from early rock’n’roll to punk to hip hop. When Wu-Tang first came out, for instance, that would’ve sounded very cheap and gritty to the generation who grew up on soul music. Then when autotune came along, another generation thinks, ‘Oh my God, that sounds terrible’ – yet it becomes this unstoppable aesthetic. Does that tell us something about the evolution of sound? Or is just a sign of getting old?

As a musician, I make an effort to be around young musicians and so when I don’t understand something, I tend to assume that it’s my problem and that I should try harder. I do feel there is a certain meritocracy to music. What’s that famous Elvis album – 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong?

I sort of feel like, ‘Well, 10 million autotune fans can’t be wrong. Let me see if I can understand what’s happening here, what the aesthetics are.’ And if I spend enough time on it, I generally find some musical value.

The fundamentals of musical storytelling are always going to be there: tension and release, fantasy and reality, sparseness versus denseness. These are the things that music has always been about, whichever culture or era you’re in. They’re still there. Everything gets flattened or compressed more, but that was already happening from the romantic era to the impressionist era.

There was already a lot of rule breaking. People thought Debussy couldn’t play the piano because he was just hanging out on a chord for two minutes and that wasn’t what people were used to. There were those who believed Thelonious Monk literally couldn’t play the piano.

So if you just look at the history, there’s this cycle where generations always think that the music their kids listen is the final step down, more or less, and now music has officially become bad. That’s a very egotistical assumption to make.

Chilly Gonzales
With the Gonzervatory, what is your personal vision for musical education?
My personal vision for musical education stems from the fact that for thousands of years, music was performance. It was just people playing in rooms for each other and creating connections. Then recording happened and the focus shifted to making these sort of definitive versions that exist forever, which performance will always be compared to.

I think that gave people an illusion that music could be something different than performance. And of course there was also an infrastructure, a business built around it, which attracts people who want to make a living from it – reinforcing this illusion of what music is: “We make permanent records.” It’s why a record is called a record!

But with classical music, folk music, the music people made in town squares or even caves – none of those ever had a permanent version. Sheet music was understood to be an imperfect document that could at least generate a new performance, but it was just notes on a page. And in a similar way, records are just sound waves on a piece of vinyl or plastic or whatever.

Now that the infrastructure around the recording business has kind of imploded, it’s becoming clear that the pragmatic way forward is performance. That’s how you can make a living as a musician in 2018. There’s no replacement for playing in front of people and converting them into life-long fans. Other things can work, but nothing is as powerful or as reliable.

So we’re slowly coming back to what music was for 10,000 years before this strange, hundred-year aberration of obsessing over recordings. Performance is a skill I can offer young musicians that will be most useful to them in a purely day-to-day pragmatic sense, but it also puts them in touch with what music was all along.

You’ve spoken about the importance of musical theory and how it can weaponise you to deploy tricks that you might not have known otherwise. But is it possible that formal learning can get in the way of coming up with something simple through dumb luck or even just enjoying music intuitively?
Well, I think it’s possible to do both at the same time. I don’t listen analytically until I love something. I need to feel the goosebumps first. Why would I care how a piece of crap was made?

Many times people have say to me, “Can you come on our radio show and analyse ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams?” And I would say, “I’m really sorry, I can’t get past the wall of not liking this.” I don’t know how I would begin to analyse it because, for me, to analyse something is an act of love.

But I know what you’re saying. I went to music school and I saw how people can easily get seduced by the idea of getting a how-to guide to being a musician. “This will save me all kinds of doubts and insecurities. Let me just internalise this process as the way to do it.”

For me, I was already sort of resisting certain rules and deciding, “Okay, fuck this rule.” Or, “I don’t like where that rules comes from, so this will be one I don’t follow.” I feel like everybody has a choice to be somewhat conservative or interested in the history that led to something, while in other ways being like, “Well, screw everything. Let me try to start from zero.”

I always have projects, separate to my albums, which are generally done in an intuitive way, whether it’s making the Ivory Tower movie or Re-Introduction Etudes, which was a book of easy pieces [for people who learned to play the piano as children and have since given up] or the Gonzervatory. All of these things put me in a beginner’s mindset.

Chilly Gonzales
What about when you’re sitting at the piano?
When I’m at the piano, I can’t really get back to that naive zone because it has been my musical partner for over 40 years now. There’s no way to fool myself back into that childlike state.

But when I’m on stage, I think that’s where I’m more subversive or – for lack of a better term – taking a punk-rock approach to what it means to be a performer. That’s where I’m really willing to question some basic, basic rules.

In one way I’d say I am quite conservative about music itself and very conscious of where musical history can lead. But most of my career has been from a very unschooled and somewhat counterintuitive, maybe even anti– approach.

I just think it’s a matter of: in what part of your creativity are you a good, respectful student? And in what part of it are you willing to be disrespectful?

When it’s only disrespectful, I miss mastery. When it’s only mastery, I miss the disrespect and the fun and the child-like stuff. When I picked my seven Gonzervatory students, I realised I needed them to show me both of those sides.

Speaking of disrespect, I wanted to ask you about the act of recycling that naturally happens as people make music. Where do you think the line is between subtly appropriating something – consciously or otherwise – and outright theft?
Can’t we all hear it? I mean it’s like, “Oh my god, that’s that Marvin Gaye song. What the hell is this guy doing? Did he really not think we’d notice?” The humiliation of that should probably be enough [punishment], I don’t see any reason for a lawsuit.

If you can steal without getting caught, then you’ve pulled off the perfect crime – which is what an artist is supposed to do. You’re not meant to come up with new things as an artist; no artist would say that’s what they do. It’s all about taking your influences and hopefully filtering them through a personal viewpoint.

If you don’t have that personal viewpoint then you will suffer the ramifications. If it’s evident enough that everyone can see it, then you didn’t do it right. You got caught trying to pull off a perfect crime, which makes it not a perfect crime anymore.

There’s a piece I did with Jarvis [Cocker] on Room 29. When we started to perform it a little bit, people were like, “Oh my God, you used that Sakamoto melody as a basis for your piece.” [I was like] “What?” Then I found it and realised [the similarity].

I don’t consciously remember ever hearing that tune but it’s really, really blatant. We were just lucky that we caught it in time and then reached out to the publishers of Sakamoto’s music to give him his writing credit.

If we hadn’t tested out that song in a performance, it’s possible that we could’ve released it without realising. So if I’m caught, I’m really happy to say, “Guilty as charged,” because I think people make far too big a deal of this. You know, there was a brief moment where I analysed a Hozier song…

Right, with Feist…
I sort of playfully accused him of ripping off Feist, but if you watch the whole video what I was actually doing is saying that nobody’s original here. By comparing it to Brahms’ German requiem I was effectively saying, “Well, Feist also copied Brahms.”

I obviously was not clear enough. What I wanted to say is, “Let’s all get over this. Let’s all realise that we share these tools and sequences; let’s acknowledge how beautiful it is that the human ear will gravitate towards these kinds of patterns and storytelling techniques in music.”

But of course we had to take the video down; there was some legal stuff and I had to apologise. It was my only moment of realising I really have a thin skin and I don’t like the idea of suddenly being in the middle of a firestorm.

What saddened me the most was that if I could’ve just explained myself a bit better I would’ve been able to say, “Look, I did this with Sakamoto. This literally happened to me, so there’s no judgment. It’s just that you’ll be humiliated if you don’t do it right, so you have to watch out.” But it looked like I was being a cop, like I was suddenly the plagiarism police, when I’m the opposite of that.

I’m all about letting the listener decide who fucked up and who was able to steal with finesse, you know? I mean maybe it’s different if you’re a struggling musician working your crappy day-job and you feel like some giant artist is profiting off something you did; I can imagine there’s a lot of emotional frustration there.

But in more abstract terms, I think people are pretty trigger-happy with those lawsuits… especially between billionaire musicians. It’s like, come on, just enjoy the fact that everyone knows that you’ve been ripped off. It makes you look really good…

Chilly Gonzales
I want to ask you about drive and ambition. Having interviewed lots of artists I admire, I’ve come to realise how successful or famous people are just as insecure as everyone else.
If not more…

So why are they running after that?

I read something you said about artists being fuelled by negative feelings, that it actually helps to drive them. What are your thoughts on balancing a drive for ‘success’ and actually making room for your own well-being?

I think it’s timing. I mean, I went through a process of understanding that I should at least open myself up to other ways of living that aren’t exclusively about accomplishment and the feeling of always moving forward creatively or publicly. So I did things like move to Cologne in Germany, where I knew that life would lend itself to other avenues.

I took a sabbatical in 2016 where there was no “public” part of my brain. There was no audience. I didn’t play any gigs; I didn’t do any interviews; I didn’t do any social media. I was never in front of a microphone or a camera.

The idea was to see what would happen when I still got to be an artist but not an entertainer. I’ve always made this distinction that art is what you do alone, entertainment is what you do when there’s people in front of you.

So living in Cologne, combined with other kinds of growth in my personal life that I don’t want to get into here… Let’s just say that things happened which often happen to humans in their thirties and forties – things that give you a different perspective. It sort of just takes its proper place, in a way.

But the greatest luxury is to have enough success that you feel like you’ve eaten enough. When you’re chasing success, you’re kind of hungry. But there comes a point when you can say, “Okay, now I can understand that to just chase this – or try to maintain it and grow it – is a fool’s errand.”

Many people have physical or mental health issues that start to manifest around the age of 30, 40. If they’re smart, they’ll listen to it and try to belatedly strike that balance. It’s what happened to me. I finally had enough to eat and I started to question the basics. Then some things happened where I felt forced to investigate other ways of living.

I know people who were hungry and never got enough to eat, never realised the success they thought they wanted. It was too much for them to keep chasing. Then they ended up starting families and having a whole other kind of lifestyle that they much preferred. They realised, “Wow, that was an aberration. Why was I spending all those years chasing something? This is so much better.”

Of course, I also know people 10 years older than me who are still eating constantly but who are also still hungry and not in any rush to find that balance. And that does look difficult. I see those people and I see that they suffer in some ways.

What makes you happy?
I’m more interested in just accepting reality as a general goal rather than something called happiness, I suppose. Joy happens in certain moments; you realise you’ve when clicked into it.

But to me, people who can successfully accept reality as it is without telling themselves stories… I’m envious of that. It’s an admirable state to be in.

There’s a great Alain de Botton quote… I’m paraphrasing but it basically says, “You know you’ve raised your kids well when they don’t want to become famous.” I wholeheartedly agree with that. I look at the fact that I wanted to be famous for so long as fundamentally a bit sad.

I think wanting to be good at something and being recognised for it is different to wanting to be famous. And I’ve been making that shift.

Chilly Gonzales
In what way?
I had this great moment with my song ‘Smothered Mate’, which was produced by Boys Noize and written for the climactic chess battle at the end of the Ivory Tower movie. It was supposed to be our version of Rocky, basically: the triumphant-sounding stuff that I call “sports music”.

Then at the World Cup Final [this year], there came a moment when the game ended and it was time to present the trophy. [French president] Emmanuel Macron gets onto the platform. It’s pouring rain, he’s embracing all the players, Vladimir Putin is shaking their hands. And what had FIFA chosen to play in the fucking stadium? ‘Smothered Mate.’ My song.

My phone blew up with people going, “Oh my god, your song is playing in the stadium!’ It’s quite surreal to think that Vladimir Putin has heard your music, to realise that maybe a billion fucking people heard it simultaneously.

If something like that happened 15 years ago, I would have been happy but also frustrated because no-one would know it was me. But here I just thought, “This is where I want to be.” I had finally made that shift.

I want my music to be recognised, to be well-known; I want people to have an emotional relationship with it; I want it to mean something to them. But I care less and less if they project onto the person who made it.

Beforehand I always thought, “Music isn’t enough; the persona has to be there or else it doesn’t work.” I’m less and less convinced of that as I do more instrumental music, which has less persona in it by nature because there are no words. A rapper, for example, can never really have their music be more famous than them – the persona is built into the music. That’s why I was attracted to it for so long.

The only new rap song I’ve made since 2011 was called ‘Not A Musical Genius’ – a bonus track on [2015 album] Chambers – and it was literally popping the bubble of my persona. It was explaining to people, “No, I don’t actually think I’m a musical genius. It’s just a fantasy I play out on stage and sometimes people even play along.”

Now I’d rather they don’t even know it’s me. I like the idea of people hearing ‘Smothered Mate’ in the stadium, their hearts filling up with emotion because of how the music fits what they’re seeing: this moment of triumph contrasting with a president in the pouring rain without umbrella. It was just perfect. Perfect!

Solo Piano III is out on Gentle Threat Ltd.

Shut Up and Play the Piano, a documentary about Chilly Gonzales, will screen as a Q&A on 12 November as part of London’s Doc’n’Roll Festival.

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