Musician, rapper, comedian, film producer and pianist extraordinaire, Chilly Gonzales is a pretty solid candidate for one of the finest, most dedicated entertainers of our time. He was in London town to play at HMV’s Next Big Thing festival so we managed to take thirty minutes out of his busy schedule to talk to us on the phone about his latest album (one of our many favourite albums of 2010) and it’s film companion ‘Ivory Tower’, the rumoured beef between him and James Blake over the ‘Limit To Your Love‘ cover, why girls in normal clothes should be fixated upon and amongst other things what muppets would accompany him for a Broadway performance. You know, serious business.
Oh, and his upcoming orchestral rap album. Digest that notion for a second, then read on as he explains all…
You were in London recently to perform at HMV’s Next Big Thing Festival and we were wondering about why you were selected for this considering you have been making music for over a decade?
Well, I’m a slow learner, it’s taken me this long! I guess it’s the phrase ‘Next Big Thing’: it’s a wonderful phrase obviously and who wouldn’t want to be considered as someone who is going to traverse? But the secret is, I didn’t really want to leave my bubble, to be totally honest. I had kind of built my own little planet, my own sort of universe that I could loom over. I’m a little bit more demanding of people who follow my career in that the more you pay attention to it the more you’ll enjoy it. If you look at it from afar, it’s not that rewarding and when you break into the mainstream the first thing you have to do is to shave off the rough edges and become more universally appealing in the way that people can identify with… and I don’t want people identifying with me to be honest. I want people to respect me and to do that I don’t need people to identify with me. I don’t want to shave off the rough edges as in order to be respected you also have to make people scared of you and that’s probably the part I wouldn’t want to give up.
You frequently describe yourself as an entertainer rather than a musician, which makes more sense to us as a lot of your music’s purpose comes from the entertainment of others.
It’s because of how audience-orientated my work is. I understand people in a pretty traditional way as I have all these old-school skills of playing the piano and bringing my humour into shows. Like, Daft Punk are great entertainers, full on; in a pretty orthodox way let’s say. I don’t think everyone has to put on a bathrobe and slippers or whatever to be an entertainer, it’s just about putting the audience first.
You feel it when someone has thought of you, it’s kind of like being a spouse… you want to demonstrate that you’ve put in that effort; you keep manners alive and it’s how you manage to keep a relationship with fans alive as well. I just want to service my client and give them a reason to keep paying attention.
You’ve now extended your work into film with ‘Ivory Tower’. How far into the realm of entertainment will you go to bring new methods of entertaining your audience?
I kind of always had a Hollywood approach to music because people always want a little more than just what they hear, let’s put it that way. When watching movies you generally only react to what you see and all the people and everything involved is put up there on the screen and that’s not really the case with music. It’s a world in which you live and die by your wits like a military operation and there are huge amounts of money and people involved compared with making an album and I like that because it ups the stakes. Every morning I would have to wake up and be the producer of that movie and strategize, ensuring that all the money went to the right place as none of it was my own.
How strong is the connection between the album and the film? With your roots being in music how important was it for you to embed your music within the context of the film and vice versa?
Most of the album was done and recorded so we really wrote around the music actually for certain set-piece scenes. As we wrote the movie there became a need for two or three further pieces of music so there are a few things that you will hear in the film but not on the album and vice versa. ‘You Can Dance’ is not in the movie for example, there wasn’t really a spot. That gave us the opportunity to make a video for the song – a positively titillating video that shows a different side to the album and that was great, we also did a video for the rap version of ‘Never Stop’ which also wasn’t in the movie. The album and the movie… they’re more like companions to one another really.
The video for ‘You Can Dance’ is notable for the amount of ass it depicts. What is it about a hot piece of ass that makes it compliment your music so well?
We were thinking about dancing and what dancing really is I felt that the experience of being in a club and seeing attractive women dance has weirdly never really been captured in a way that seems real and simple. I was thinking about Sebastian Tellier’s videos and tried to go with a sort of erotic installation style video but he was using all these skinny, 14-year old looking American Apparel style models and I don’t like those kinds of bodies. I don’t know, the kind of girl I would normally fixate upon in a club would dress in a fairly normal way, they’d have their own personality and that for me is what’s great about being in a club. I don’t go to clubs often but when I do, that’s what I get from it. So I think it was more about getting the right kind of girls and getting them to dress themselves; there was no stylist for the video, we didn’t have a casting either it was just friends. Just a real concept of what you’ll find in a club circa 2011. It’s that simple.
I read a comment from the video’s director Jonathan Barré who said that the idea of the video spawned from a mutual fantasy he shares with you about being able to have sex with clothes on. Have either of you achieved this or is it purely fantasy at this point?
Hahahaha, well… you know… who doesn’t remember the days of dry-humping when you were a teenager? So we’ve all done it really. I think that the video has a sort of innocent appreciation for the female form in a teenage way. I hope that comes across. I think it does.
The album has been out for a while now so can you tell us a little about working with Boys Noize and how you feel about how the album was received by listeners?
I’m thrilled! I haven’t had this feeling from an album since ‘Solo Piano’ back in 2004 where I really felt like expectations and reality were right there in the same place. I owe a lot to Alex Boys Noize of course for just saying yes and making it all so easy. We both had the same impression that it was very easy to make. I think he’s a great producer, not just a great remixer and DJ and that’s not the case for a lot of his contemporaries. I sent him finished songs and said ‘OK I want you produce these. You can’t just sample a few piano chords and make a club banger because I’m trying to make an album that fits in with everything I’ve done, and then you can do some remixes sure…’ but he responded by saying ‘Hey! hey! No, I don’t even have to remix it’. He hasn’t remixed a single song off ‘Ivory Tower’, he just wasn’t interested. He saw himself as a producer and as a separate thing from his other work; he doesn’t DJ those tunes because they don’t go off in a club for the most part. We were really realistic about that aspect and he really did a great job as a producer.
He can produce a lot of good pop and vocal music; his remix of Feist’s ‘My Moon My Man’ was one of the first things I heard of his and I was like ‘Wow!’, he did a surprisingly good job as the song is pretty delicate really; you have Feist’s voice and you have to rise to the occasion in order to make the remix work. Then I heard ‘Power’ which had a lot of piano in it and that sort of led me to think ‘Hmm… what if I send him a few of my piano songs and see what happens?’ I started multi-tracking the piano and then it was very much a back-and-forth sort of thing and being inspired by one another and all that great stuff.
His presence compliments the album really well. Speaking of Feist and remixes… I understand that James Blake refused to remix your own ‘Never Stop’ while obviously the cover of a song you were involved with Feist in happened recently with ‘Limit To Your Love’…
It’s not like he actually owes me a remix! He actually did me a favour by covering a song I wrote and making it break out in its own way. I think that the truth of the matter is that I probably owe him a favour and not vice versa. I like the way the story happened because at the time of looking for remixers for ‘Never Stop’ I didn’t know who this Jimmy Blake fellow was so I was like ‘Oh some great new guy said no to the remix’ and then six months later I heard the cover and thought ‘Oh! This is an interesting guy’. I didn’t even know what dubstep was at this point but thought it was cool. Then another six months later I put two and two together and thought ‘oh that’s funny’ and went off on a phase but of course, I owe him a favour.
You’re known for doing fantastic covers yourself, my favourite being your piano re-work of Daft Punk’s ‘Rollin’ & Scratchin’ and I’ve always wanted to know what led you to pick that song in particular as it seems the most difficult to translate into a piano cover…
Well I didn’t cover it! I just added to it. It’s off the mixtape called ‘Pianist Envy’ and the idea behind it was very simple: I chose all my favourite hip-hop and electro songs that have almost no musical notes, harmony or melody in them. Essentially songs that were either just drums or songs with little melodic elements but basically no instruments. So I chose hip-hop beats like ‘Grindin’ by Clipse which was just drums, ‘Rolling & Scratchin’ which is just drums and then all I did was add instruments on top. So they’re not covers really I don’t know what you’d call them, remixes I guess. It’s just me playing over a drum track, but these are fucking amazing drum tracks programmed by some of the greatest producers of our time. The point is that I can do my job, and it’s similar to what I do when I produce; Tiga will put a drum beat and some melody together and I’ll just put the music in. That’s what I do whenever I work with DJs or electro producers because they want me to bring that sort of old-school flavour so I did just that with some of my favourite empty songs.
So it’s sort of like a sandwich and you just put in the filling?
Yeah! Exactly that.
Seeing as a lot of James Blake’s stuff is pretty minimal and stripped of lively music would you ever consider doing a similar thing with him?
If I ever had the chance to work with him I’d have to be in the studio with him, I would want to play piano and he’d probably want to sing. I think that would be something that would obviously be fantastic for me for sure. Consider my beef with James Blake as a cry for help! Hahaha. Like a desperate plea for attention from the man himself perhaps… y-y-you just have to give me a call or something you know… I’m a sensitive guy.
Let’s move back to the album for a bit. One of my favourite tracks is ‘I Am Europe’ which obviously has that magnificent monologue with all the metaphors that describe the sort of grandiose personification of Europe with some surreal observations and stuff…
By the way, nice one on the proper use of the word metaphor because a lot of people use the word metaphor when talking about similes; you know the type who say ‘I’m like this, I’m like that’ and they’re like ‘Oh! That’s an amazing metaphor’ and you always want to correct them and say ‘Errrr, actually a metaphor is when you say you ARE something’.
Ha, I admire how pedantic you are on this. What I wanted to know is how different the song would be if you were to specifically talk about the UK, particularly that monologue…
I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable writing that song unless I had lived in England for at least a decade or fifteen years like I had in Europe, specifically between Germany and France who are the main drivers of the EU, as we know. I wouldn’t feel confident writing a parody of the UK and saying stuff like ‘I am a Ribena tooth’ or whatever. I could do that but I hope that my song about Europe is a lot deeper than that, it’s not just about dogshit on the street or rude waiters – the reason why I wrote that is because I see a lot of those things in myself and it’s part of the reason why I’m still here. So it’s not critical except in the sense that I’m part of the family and can make it a full portrait, you know?
I noticed this year a growing trend in musicians extending their music to incorporate cinematic qualities, most obviously with the amount of producers making soundtracks like Daft Punk and Mr Oizo, who also makes his own films. Can you see this becoming more of, you know, a thing?
Funny you should say that actually, as my next album which should be out in the summer is an orchestral rap album with me rapping over a full straight-up orchestra, no beats. So it’s very cinematic and on top of that the arranger of the music is my brother, Christophe Beck. He wrote the music for The Hangover and all sorts of big-time Hollywood movies and stuff like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, he did a few seasons and he’s won Emmy Awards and all that crap. So there are moments where I’m rapping over some Phillip Glass like stuff, some Prokofiev type stuff, some soundtrack stuff; really a full orchestra pallete. We’re now in the process of getting some live gigs hooked up with the full orchestra and we’re really looking forward to that. So yes! Yes to a love of the cinematic which has always been a part of what I’ve been doing for a long time now; the term ‘cinematic’, be it positive or negative, I always compare my albums to soundtracks, especially the instrumental piano-based stuff. And orchestral yes, absolutely.
Let’s talk about your live performances briefly… you’re known for not doing a conventional set and your Piano Talk shows have been extremely popular. Other than the full-orchestral stuff you just mentioned have you anything else in store?
The last performance at The Scala was with the Double Penetration band which is a two-piano, two-drummer band pretty much faithfully doing the Ivory Tower album. With that tower-house sound you needed two pianos and two drummers to do all the parts and make it as hypnotic and dense as possible. So there are a lot of variations on the show depending on the city of course. I also have some usual suspect type guests; if I play in London there’s a good chance you’ll also see Thecocknbullkid or Jarvis Cocker and it’s great to come back to places where there are musical family members. So each show is just a little bit different from one another. It’s a pretty flexible thing.
Will you ever be having a live re-match with Andrew WK?
Yeah! In London actually! Obviously I’m kind of in the middle of ‘You Can Dance’ and he’s doing other stuff so it might have to wait until the fall or something but London really is the best place to do it as it’s in between Europe and America both conceptually and geographically and as far as our respective fanbases go we’re pretty evenly matched. London is definitely the place, it’s very exciting for us.
Do you plan on breaking any more world records anytime soon?
No. Well… with the last one, many people have played longer than me before and after I did that but without the Guinness seal of approval so I never claim to have played the longest show ever, I just tell people I have the Guinness record. Every so often I get a few emails with someone saying ‘Hey, I was in Cleveland and a guy just played a piano in a mall for 36 hours. The same song for 36 hours’ and I’ll respond by saying ‘That’s amazing! That sounds like a crazy performance. He doesn’t have the Guinness World Record.’ End of story. It’s like when people say to Barack Obama this and this and that and he’s like ‘but I’m the fucking president!’
Of course all this is just a waste of breath, I’m not even really thinking about it. I’ve already talked about it too much hahaha!
Haha, ok. Quick question about the internet, you expressed in another interview your love of it and this is refreshing to see when so many musicians or industry heads rant against it and claim that it’s killing music. What led you to your more amicable embrace of the new technology and using it to help your music?
Who thinks it’s bad?!
I don’t! I think it’s really helped musicians get their music out there and keep a good relationship with fans but with leaks being inevitable and a constant demand for content quite a few have expressed negative opinions on the matter…
I don’t know, with me, I had a good year. I made my money back on a feature film… the internet kind of lets me interact with my fans more, like I said earlier, people have to follow my work closely to get it and the internet can be used by someone like me in that case so that people can find all of my stuff and follow the story so of course it’s better for me now than it was ten years ago. I can have an on-going relationship with my audience when there’s not a constant stream of live shows or albums coming out. Nobody I know has a problem with the internet and I find it hard to believe that people do, unless you’re like, a huge pop star. Or maybe someone like Feist: she’s had more success than she could have ever wanted and so she’s trying to figure out what sort of relationship with her fans she should have when so many of them don’t really know her stuff that well. So far, she’s completely uninterested in Twitter and she doesn’t read anything about herself but then she’s on a totally different level where you can afford to be that way. So I can understand why someone like her would be against it.
What about leaks… recently James Blake’s album leaked way ahead of it’s scheduled release… not that he’s expressed any beef with the internet or anything but you can imagine it would be a bit of a blow…
I don’t know, you have to be smart about it… put new songs on the album that weren’t on the leaked version, make mixtapes, put out lots of free material… he seems to be handling it pretty well.
Moving away from that, out of curiosity… how many bathrobes do you own?
Three. I’m sort of thinking of making an extension as a lot of people are reacting to the tartan one…
Have you ever considered getting a sponsorship deal or maybe being involved with an advert for a bathrobe brand?
Absolutely. But then, companies have approached me in the past and when they get a little bit closer to my work and read some of the lyrics and see how I behave on French chat shows and stuff they backtrack and think ‘OK maybe we should just use your song but get someone else to be associated with the brand.’ I suppose they must think I’m a potential loose cannon.
I was on-stage in LA and I didn’t even think that there were five high-up guys from Apple in the audience and I was clearly taking the piss out of Apple, the iPad and the whole ad and everything… ostensibly playing ‘Never Stop’ on the iPad very badly. But then I spoke to them after and they loved it!
One final question… one of the first tunes of yours we got into at Crossfire was ‘Take Me Up To Broadway’. The Muppets obviously belong on Broadway so if you were invited to play on Broadway what three muppets would you take with you and why?
Obviously Gonzo. We could do lots of routines about ‘who the real Gonzo is’ and that sort of thing. I got the Gonzo nickname when I was thirteen because of how my nose was pronounced. It still is, but then even more so. They started calling me Gonzo because of the muppet, so Gonzo… and obviously Animal, it would be great to have him on drums. And erm…
[Chilly falls silent for a moment]
I’m just trying to take this question seriously, bear with me…
I’m thinking about Miss Piggy but are there any other prominent female muppets that you can think of?
Just Miss Piggy…
I guess I would have the band. So get the piano player in as well and we can have a mini-orchestra to play the orchestral rap album!