Interview with Chilly Gonzales

Ian Lamont
Posted December 3, 2012 in Music, Music Features

Jason Beck, known as Chilly Gonzales (or simply Gonzo to his friends), released his Solo Piano album in 2004. This elegantly simple document of how he fell back in love with playing the piano was initially meant perhaps as something of a tangental addition to his catalogue of jokerish electronic music, ended up winning over a new swath of fans. The music of that album itself brought to mind another musical prankster, Eric Satie (in particular, his now almost omnipresent Gymnopedies), with the spare and intimate recordings of Gonzo’s keyboard works sounding almost as if they belonged to an older, more genteel world. The interim years have seen him collaborate with numerous musicians, from Marina and the Diamonds, to Drake, to The BBC Symphony Orchestra, while making soft rock records (Soft Power), electronic records with Boys Noize (Ivory Tower), an orchestral rap record (The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales).

August of this year saw Gonzales produce a follow-up record of more recordings of his piano pieces, Solo Piano II. This was ground he felt daunted treading on, but at the same time magnetically drawn to. Ahead of his not-to-be missed show in the Sugar Club this Thursday, Totally Dublin spoke to Canada’s favourite self-proclaimed musical genius about his love affair with the piano, the background to his new record and of course, Canada’s own Glenn Gould.

Where are you based now?

I’m based in Köln, Germany now but I lived in Paris for about the last nine years and that’s where I recorded Solo Piano II and when I finished Solo Piano II, I pretty much left Paris, which is quite fitting because the first Solo Piano album in 2004 I did right when I moved to Paris so these piano albums came at the very beginning and end of my Paris adventure, which was about nine years.

Looking back, I couldn’t believe it was eight years since that record [Solo Piano] came out. How did you decide to come back to that concept? Was it because you were leaving Paris?

I was waiting to do it, I was chomping at the bit since the first one, to be honest. Something about the purity of that first album, I realised how powerful it was. People really reacted to it beyond my wildest dreams when I made it. It was a real runaway success compared to what I thought it might be, which was a slight curiosity for my hardcore fans. It ended up being something that earned me a whole new fan-base actually. So I was ready and willing to do a second one but not unless I really had something to add. And what took the eight years was, y’know, experiments in all kinds of other musical styles with lots of great collaborators and then I felt really ready to say something new alone at the piano. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just photocopying the first record and made sure I really had something new to say, new techniques, new ways of playing the piano. The fans of the first Solo Piano, I feel like I owe it to them to really say something new and take it further.

Did you feel like it was a big risk when released the initial one? That it might ostracise people?

Well, in that case, not really, because I could always go back to doing what I did. It’s a bigger risk to do a second one now and to call it Solo Piano II because of all the people who feel so emotionally connected to the first one. And I wanted that challenge, I wanted people to compare these two albums and hear the evolution. All of us are eight years older, not just me, the people who know the first one, so I feel like people are also ready to listen to it differently, as well as me to have played it differently and wrote [sic] it differently. So no, I think it’s a bigger risk now to ask people to compare the two albums, but the first one really was more of a lark and if it hadn’t worked, I could have just moved on. It doesn’t really ostracise people when you go off on a tangent and they don’t react. That happened to me with my Soft Power album [Gonzo’s 2008 soft-rock pastiche/homage album] and I recovered pretty quickly from that! It’s definitely a bigger challenge for me, in my case, to go back to territory that people really preferred me on and ask for people to compare it to that and I hope I will, and have, survived.

Could you tell me about some of the styles and ways of playing that have influenced the second record as opposed to the first record?

Well, the first record, I was re-discovering the piano, I must say. I hadn’t really taken it seriously for the preceding years and I think what you can hear on the first record is a certain naïveté, a real innocence and its very much the chords pumping in the left hand and then the melody going for it, without a whole lot of nuance in the right hand. And since then, I think I got more interested in pianism in general. I did my 120 shows a year in all of those eight years in between, I would say the main techniques I worked on, a big part of it came from doing an album with the German producer Boys Noize. We did an album called Ivory Tower, which includes Never Stop [from the iPad commercial].

On that [record], I started to split my piano paying into little cells of one or two notes at a time and started to multi-track my piano parts. And that was a way of sort of creating a musical pointillism that I thought would work together with the electronic production. And that was a great discovery but then it came time to play those songs live and I had to reconstruct that pointillistic effect live with just my two hands, without the luxury of just being able to multi-track myself, clone myself live, and work on these ideas of interlocking patterns, that normally would have one or two notes in each of them, creating eight to 10 notes and doing that all with my fingers. So I developed a way of playing electronic music on the piano, the approach of making electronic music but on the piano, with my two hands and that I think led to a lot of the songs on Solo Piano II like White Keys, Train Of Thought, songs like that that really, clearly could not have been on the first one, more minimalist inspired. It has a more modern and poppy sound as a result, I think.

The work I did with Feist probably had a bit of a role, the work I did with the rapper Drake probably played a role, again, trying to stick the piano into more modern styles and then coming back to playing the piano alone and secretly having those styles in the back of my mind I think is something that is new compared to the first record.

The way you described the first record, a more simple division of melody and chords in the left hand a right hand, I thought that was almost the concept of that album.

Well it was, whether it was intentional or not, that’s what my piano playing was in that moment and I think that’s part of the reason that it connected with people, absolutely. But I can’t pretend to go back to that. I think that the music of Solo Piano II, hopefully, it’s as direct and as simple but I am interested in the “invisible third hand” that maybe pianists are always trying to find. It doesn’t mean to make it more complex or more virtuosic but it does mean that there is a sort of middle player of the piano that’s there to be exploited that fills out the sound and comments on rhythm, melody and harmony and in a way, fills in the space between those three elements. It’s a bit more of a holistic approach to those three elements of music, which on the first album were a bit more contrasting and you could hear those separate parts. Here it’s a little bit more melded together I would say.

Is it a fairly solipsistic environment when you’re making a record like that? Where you’re just playing that you’ve built up over time, over and over again until you get them as you want them.

Yeah! It’s like the great Miles Davis quote of learn everything and then forget everything. It’s so much practising, so much focus-grouping and testing out the songs. Whenever I would have a good friend with me or a good musical colleague, I would play through some of the songs and just see their facial reactions, to see what seems to grab people and what doesn’t seem to grab people. And when you choose to go to the studio of course, the result has to be something that sounds a bit fresh and spontaneous but of course the only way it can sound that way is if you don’t have to concentrate on the actual technical details. That involves a lot of practicing and a lot of muscle memory so that you can roll the dice and hopefully at some point over those 10 days / two weeks [of recording] you get a useable, coherent take of each song that tells a story. Its not a perfect take I would say, there’s always the imperfections that make it addictive, but it has to be telling some story and you have to be in that story in the present while you played it.

You’re a piano player, I don’t know how much recording you’ve done, but it’s extremely stressful to do takes of solo music. It’s not the same as putting together a song with a producer which of course happens over the course of months. You can exchange files online, you can replace the snare sound and you can add back-up vocals. Nothing is forever when you’re building up an album like a Frankenstein, everything can be changed or tweaked and that’s how most modern music is made these days in the pop arena. So to go into the zone of this is the document of one person on one instrument in one room, it’s much more of a walking on hot coals [experience]. It’s extremely stressful, but more rewarding. There’s a nothing more satisfying than getting home and a few days later you’re listening back to the takes and you hear, “Oh my god, there’s a real story being told here, I think this is a take, I think I’ve got it!” And then you really feel as if you’ve made a musical statement against all odds. So it’s more fun to make an album back and forth with a producer lets say, but there’s never one moment where you’re really tested with your feet to the fire and making a solo piano record is that, it’s only that.

It sounds very intense.

It has to sound fresh and almost as if I’m improvising the song. People say, “I had the impression you just walked into the studio everyday and were like ‘What do I feel like playing today?’ and improvise a bit until you get it” and I’m like: that’s a huge compliment if somebody feels as if that’s what the process was, but the truth is, it’s just a hundred per cent sweat.

Are the germs of a songs when you get a melody, is it something that comes into your head, or do you work at it on the keyboard.

It mostly comes to me on the actual keyboard. I generally find that I get new ideas from playing new pianos. Because of my constant touring, and I don’t travel with my own piano obviously, I’m in a position, at least a hundred times a year to just sit down and play a new piano. I go to the radio station to play a few songs, there’s a new piano; I go to a friend’s house, there’s a new piano; going into a studio to do a quick check…. These new pianos tend to inspire, as you check them out and say “what is this piano all about?”, as you know, they’re all different, generally it leads to some area of the piano or some sort of chords. It can really be just the mood that you find on each new piano that inspires you. You can be playing and find it almost reminds you of another piano, I don’t know which one it was, but I can remember my hand being in this position and “ah, here are those chords again.” And over a really long period of time, which is why it takes years, you wait for the ones that won’t go away. They’ll just be there, they’ll keep on being there, they’ll be the last melody standing. A lot of them you’ll forget and those are the forgettable ones. The way I like it is to never have the pressure to say: I’m writing a perfect little piano miniature today. I like to realise that I’ve written it without really having tried to.

Speaking of different pianos, I watched a clip of you playing on Glenn Gould’s piano – is that correct?

Yeah that right. Well… I have to give you a bit of a [caveat] there because when you go to Canada, there’s about ten different places where they’ll say “this was Glenn Gould’s favourite piano!”

I’m not sure which clip you were referring to, was it Studio Q? I tweeted a link to that recently.

Yeah it was.

If you go back a couple of months I actually played a very short little TV thing for the CBC on Glenn Gould’s home piano, which is a Chickering piano, which is a very obscure American brand of piano and that was the piano he had at home at his cottage in Lake Simcoe where he recorded a few albums and that can safely be said is his favourite piano because it was what he owned. And all the rest of them, they’re just various Steinways that he played either recordings on, or would ask for whenever he had to do something on the CBC but the Chickering is the real Glenn Gould piano and I did have the honour of playing that very very briefly back in September when I was in Toronto. It would have been his 60th or 70th maybe 80th birthday, I can’t remember, it was a milestone birthday, and they allowed me to play a version of Happy Birthday in a minor key and that piano was craaazy to play. It really does sound a bit like a harpsichord and you really did feel why he would play with so little pedal and with that dry, extremely rhythmic style he had, it really was brought out on that piano, much moreso than the various eight or nine Steinways that people will tell you were Glenn Gould’s favourite.

Was Glenn Gould the guy who was really particular about the stool he would sit on, or am I thinking of someone else?

That’s right, he had his father build him a very low chair and he was obsessed with it to the point that even when all the upholstery was gone he would just sit on the metal underpinnings of the seat, just on the cross, because he absolutely didn’t want to interfere with it. He just got used to it as it became barer and barer

There’s actually an artist in Switzerland who recreated fifty of them and to solve this problem he made the top of the seat, a before and after. You basically have it when it was new and then you have it, when you take the seat off, how it was at the very end of his career.

When I played a Glenn Gould tribute concert back in Berlin, they bought me one of these chairs, which I think was €800 at the time, so I have in my apartment, a one-of-fifty replicas on the famous Glenn Gould chair.

How did you come back to the piano, when you said that you were “rediscovering” it during the first solo record? Was it a coincidence of just owning one and sitting down at it, or was there something that drove you to it specifically?

Well a little bit the situation of it. I had lived in Berlin for 5 or 6 years and I’d done those more conceptual, electronic performance based albums and was touring in that configuration and then I moved to Paris and I started doing full-time producing and I was in a studio and they had a room kind of off to the side which just had a piano in it, it was like a writing room I guess. And I would take breaks from the producing, I was producing a Jane Birkin album actually. And there was a lot of people around her speaking French, very stressful, exhausting for me. I had never really spent time in real professional studios before that often, so I would just go and let my musical energy out, which was pent up. I wasn’t really touring so I just had to vent musically speaking, and so I went in there and started to play and I thought “ahhhh…..” and then I brought it a little DAT recorder and started to record what I did and I was thinking “Maybe this will become a Feist song, or maybe these will become electronic [songs]” and slowly I realised “Hmmm, this is very pleasing to listen to like this” so I started to listen to them and started thinking maybe this could be a real musical project for me. That was about a 6 to 8 month process that ended up becoming the first Solo Piano album.

So it was about needing to vent in relation to suddenly being taken off the road and taken out of the bohemian context of Berlin and the futuristic aspects of what I was doing there. Berlin is all about that harder edged sound and being in a place like Paris, which is a little more romantic and does have that history of great salon music and precious aesthetics, all of that played a part. Me being new in the city, not speaking French that well, there was a lot of solitude in my actual lifestyle and that just translated to making an album that was full of solitude and silence also.

Chilly Gonzales plays a Solo Piano show in the Sugar Club on Leeson Street, Dublin 2 on Thursday 6th December at 8pm. Tickets cost €16 and are available here.


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