With more facets to his talent than a chameleon on shuffle mode, Chilly Gonzales is a hard man to pin down. His new album, The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, just out, we caught up with the Canadian-born virtuoso in his Paris apartment to talk bathrobe fetishes, wannabe industry poseurs and paying for you own Guinness World Record title.
Is the Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales really the first ever all-orchestral rap album?
I have no idea. Abd al Malik probably sung with an orchestra, there’s been a lot of orchestrated hip-hop but there’s always those crashing beats in there. I’m sure there have been special projects but as far as a whole album? I’ll stand by that for now…
It’s definitely your most intimate to date. Every song’s lyrics read like a page torn from a diary. Having stressed the difference between “the artist as a masturbator” and “the entertainer as a love maker” in the past, do you feel you’re tilting more towards masturbation on this one?
I hope not. I just try to avoid putting anything on stage or on an album that I feel would not be entertaining. I think the only difference with this one was that I was really thinking about the people who know me, who follow me on Twitter (@chillygonzales), who are regularly at my shows. It could seem like masturbation to someone who’s not interested, but I do consider it to be a fundamentally communicative album because getting really personal is something I haven’t done yet.
You seem to feel very strongly about the notion of an entertainer as a servant – does the audience dictate a lot of what you do?
Yes, based on what I can provide. There are a lot of things I know audiences like but which I can’t do, such as dancing or singing in the way that some people get shivers at the back of their neck, like Leslie Feist or something. But the things I can do – my piano skills, talking skills, ability to have fun in a deep way with the audience – I put that in service. I don’t think I’m a rap genius or a cinematic genius. I’m a musical genius – it has to do with the scientific knowledge of music. That gives me the confidence to try other things.
Having studied music in such a deep and thorough way, do you ever feel the intellectualization of every note and chord might come in the way of instinct and spontaneity?
During my teenage years I was conscious that I had no taste. I’d listen to a lot of musician-y music like classical and jazz, and analyse the structures, just like a toy. And I wasn’t afraid to break the toy and go on to another one. Only later did I develop a taste, and it’s still hard to know what I like. Either it touches me or it doesn’t. It has to do with the image of the person, how they chose their name… Just like anyone else I wanna feel cool when I listen to music. And it goes both ways. I recently saw this Metallica documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, and suddenly became a Metallica fan, even though it’s not my cup of tea. I generally like to nod my head to music, not bang my head. But they had this really weird group therapist who’s like a sports psychologist trying to get them to get along. You saw them in these sessions and they become humanised and all of a sudden invested in the Metallica story.
You’ve been strongly influenced by rap – which names would you recommend to someone who has no real background in that genre?
My mini-mission especially with people who aren’t into this stuff is to get them into the rap of today. Everyone loves Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Wu-Tang and A Tribe Called Quest, but a lot of them have lost track. If they like crazy rap, I’ll get them to listen to Lil Wayne. If they like really good funky rap, then Rick Ross cause he’s kind of the Biggie of today, with a big huge voice. There are a lot of guys, but these ones are up there, in the NBA of rap. It’s the only meritocracy left. The most successful rappers are considered the best, which isn’t the case in other genres like French chanson.
It also has a lot to do with the Anglo-Saxon vs. French way. You have these dinosaurs that get to the top and are never brought down.
Yes, they get that “tenure” as we say. In the US you have to fight for your place until you die. I come from that capitalist continent so of course I always think competition’s great. I love pressure and I love risks. I like failing too. Soft Power was a big failure but I learned so much… It put me on the right path so I’m grateful.
You mentioned your education played a big part in your over-achieving nature and drive. Has it mellowed down over time?
It’s like people who grew up catholic – you may get out, but it’s always there and there comes a point when you have to accept it. “You’re nothing if you’re not successful” is the kind of sentence that’s hanging over my head all the time. The Ivory Tower movie was a bit about the moment where I was fighting it in a way. I think being a pure sell-out is not good and being a pure artist neither. My whole life will be reacting to this brainwashing I had.
“Unspeakable” sounds very intriguing and mysterious – yet it seems unspeakable because it’s just plain honest. Subjects like money and ambition have become very taboo. Is that why you chose this word?
Yes, those are the things you can’t normally say in conversations. But mostly it just has this supervillainous feel. When I heard the epic quality of the music my brother was making it just came right away. The supervillain imagery is something I’d always had floating around. I never dressed up with a cape and a mask, it’s more about the idea of being someone who’s very gifted but uses the gift more for himself. But of course a supervillain just wants to be loved so I’ve always seen myself in that character.
For how long were you part of Puppetmastaz?
Very briefly, like 10 years ago. I only performed a couple of times in its prototypical phase, back when there were only a few puppets. To be honest, I’m not a great puppeteer and I love to be able to see an audience and react to them so it was a little bit like torture performing with no idea of what the audience was like.
In Never Stop, one of the tracks from Ivory Tower, you refer to music as being a joke on two occasions. Is it better to laugh or cry about it?
Both I guess. Jewish humour is a bit about the “no difference” between laughter and crying. I think the first reference was about signing autographs… That’s the part that makes me laugh. The second reference was about a groupie situation, which is maybe more sad.
There’s a strange dimension of humour in what you do. You nail it pretty well in Crying: “I know it’s tempting to call me a sad clown, cause my mouth tells jokes, but my fingers make sad sounds”. But what puts a smile on your face? Are you a happy man?
Yeah, very much. I really like my job, I get to make a living doing pretty much what I was put on earth to do. A good gig, a good interview, a good listening session, a good meeting, a really well written email to Drake – so that I know that I can work with him again – all those things will make me a happy man.
Anything not work related?
Of course, like my friends. But in that case, I guess the friendship and the work is very blurry, because I’m part of this musical family with really wonderful people that happen to be great musicians too like Peaches, Feist, Mocky, Jamie Lidell, Tiga… That’s part of what makes me happy, everybody is doing so well, we manage to collaborate, still be friends and there haven’t been a lot of clashes that we couldn’t handle over 10 years. And you know, everything else that a normal person could enjoy, like relaxing.
Do you get to do that a lot? You definitely come across as being very productive, hyperactive and workaholic.
A lot of it usually comes at the end of a period of really heavy work. When all you want to do is just do nothing. And I can be quite good at that when I want to. I can watch an entire season of Mad Men in three days. You’ll know the kind of stuff I like cause it’s all in the songs.
He lives in all of us. That little petulant, completely manipulative creature of pure ego and insecurity. I see myself and everybody else I’ve ever met in Eric Cartman.
Any good joke you heard recently?
I follow this guy called The Fat Jew on Twitter (@FATJEW), he’s really irreverent and funny. (Gets his laptop and reads a few jokes):
“This joke will never be not funny: What’s brown and rhymes with Snoop? DR. DRE”
“Hate is a strong word. Unless you’re comparing it to murderfuck. Murderfuck is a strong word.”
“Owen Wilson’s nose looks like a dick that was run over by a tank.”
“If hot people don’t stop pretending they’re funny, I’m going to start pretending I’m hot.”
“Ladies, sex with me is about as thrilling, magical and breathtaking as watching ‘Avatar’ on an iPod.”
“If everyone walked around with their orgasm face, nobody would ever get laid.”
This guy is actually LOL. I actually laugh out loud.
You’ve got strong views on wannabe artists/ poseurs. Who seems sincere to you these days?
I don’t know about sincere, but who seems like the real deal? Someone who is larger than life but manages to find something very poetic in it. Anyone from Daft Punk, with their robot costumes, to a million rappers whom I love, or someone like Philippe Katerine in France.
You moved from Canada to Berlin ten years ago and have spent the past eight years in Paris. What prompted your exile?
Total career frustration. When I signed a record deal in Canada, I thought my problems were over but that was just the beginning of my hell ride through the music business. I was grossly underprepared for being on stage, being in interviews, knowing how to act in meetings, so I made a bunch of mistakes and it was a disaster. I felt like a zero, I was going nowhere. So I just moved to Europe, as it was better for what I wanted to do. I signed to Kitty-Yo, this tiny Berlin label, and they released mine and Peaches’ album within a month of each other and it just blew up. We sold about 5,000 records but for them, we were like platinum artists!
Could you describe home?
Canada is a wonderful place in terms of quality of life and I am proud to come from a place that seems to have a little bit of the best of Europe and the best of America. Unfortunately the set of priorities there doesn’t really match mine. Musically, it’s more this indie rock that thrives, with bands like Broken Social Scene or Arcade Fire, who were the apex of it. I really respect those guys for building this whole Canadian scene but musically, it’s not something I can nod my head to. Humour and musical accomplishments are not a big part of it so I’m kind of fucked.
What made you kill Jason Beck “the purist artist” to give birth to Chilly Gonzales “the pragmatic capitalist entertainer”?
It happened right around the time I came to Berlin after the whole Canadian experience. One of the biggest problems was that I felt I had to suppress a lot of real character traits, like my egomania, the part of me that could seem arrogant but is really just a precise confidence in one certain thing I can do. My wanting to use humour didn’t really work out so I ended up acting like all the other indie rockers, for lack of a better plan, and I hated myself for doing so. Saying whatever everyone else says like “you know, I do what I do for myself and if everyone likes it, it’s a bonus,” which is stuff I don’t believe now and didn’t believe back then. So I just picked a name that was a bit far away from me. A Hungarian Jew with a Cuban name is impossible in a way but I like the impossibility of it. There are a lot of musical geniuses called Gonzales too, so it seemed like a good pedigree. Another thing was that people warned me about being too all over the place musically and that it could work against me. I was really not intent on repeating the same thing over and over so I decided to make the personality so intense that it could link it all together and people would understand how I can rap and play the piano.
It’s very hard to pigeonhole you as an act. You’ve been described as “Berlin underground prankster rapper”, “workaholic Grammy-nominated producer”, “melancholic piano virtuoso”, “Guinness World Record holder”…
I’ve had such a great life. Doesn’t that sound like a cool guy? See, my teenage self is now going like “yeah, cool!”
Those definitely are all very cool and accurate titles to have, but what would your epitaph read?
Oh jeez, you’re making me envision my death? I have no idea. I often think about what the title of my autobiography would be but I don’t have enough distance yet. I’d love to become the official piano guy that all rappers go to when they need piano parts. That would be a real achievement. I got a bit closer now with Drake, with whom I performed at the Juno Awards, which are like the Canadian Grammy’s.
Are you still in touch with Pharrell?
He came to me after I played at a Louis Vuitton show and he just gave me his number. I ended up calling him thinking it would be some answering machine but he did answer, so I just dropped off my Solo Piano album at his Georges V suite. Then every once in a while he’d just randomly text me “man are you in New York?!!!” But that’s when I realised that a lot of shit happens in North America and it’s just about being at the right place at the right time.
So that would be the next step – being accepted and solicited in what you call the “NBA of rap”?
Yes, because all the other solicitations, which are very nice for the resume, only fill me up to a certain amount. I didn’t even really grow up with rap, I discovered it more towards my 20s. Rap really came after the Canadian problem and I thought “who I think acts cool in interviews? Who says cool shit?” and then I realised it was rappers. The way they act like themselves but very exaggerated, the way they’re very honest about ambition, at the same time they’re also very artistically ambitious too, but they don’t really have to say it. In fact it looks a bit stupid when a rapper tries to be too artistic. Look at Kanye West: he’s overreaching a bit. He’s not Matthew Barney… He’s not Alejandro Jodorowsky…
You broke the world record for the longest solo-artist performance. Playing piano for 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds, how did you manage practicalities?
You know Guinness lets you have breaks, right? You get five minutes every hour, which you can cumulate. I did 15 minutes every three hours, but it’s still very short. I had a bit of everything; some muscle cramps three hours in, but Guinness has doctors on site. To get the Guinness stamp you have to be very formal. You have a notary, a witness, they don’t really fuck around and it’s also a bit expensive because you have to pay for the guy from Guinness to come down on a first class Eurostar.
So you actually paid to get your own record?
Well with selling tickets I think I lost a bit of money but yeah, a totally worthwhile investment (gestures towards the framed certificate hanging in his living room). That was some of the most poetic branding I could do. After the Soft Power feeling of dilution, it was about re-establishing the two most important aspects of me: musical genius and crazy competitive guy.
Could you describe what was going on in your head during the 27th hour?
There were some hallucinations as of hour 24, forgetting where I was, the piano,… this was during a three-year period where I had stopped smoking weed by the way, because if I had, I surely couldn’t have done it. I wanted to go one hour further than what I had announced. Because I thought that would be cool – that when I got to 27 and everyone was going crazy, I could still continue… I couldn’t though. I did four minutes more and then my hands stopped playing by themselves. Most importantly I saw the reaction the day I woke up. It had become the number two topic on Twitter that week. I didn’t even have a Twitter account! I called my manager straight away and said I had to go to the States to work asap. I would not be sinking further into the crust of this quiche in France. It’s a really funny period because I also gained a lot of weight so now when I see photos it feels like “my weird fat French exile.” Now I’m back to how I looked before, Ivory Tower was a huge success for us, I’m my own boss, I can put out a new album eight months after the previous one and do crazy shit like that – it’s wonderful.
What instruments do you play?
A bit of everything, but mainly keyboards. Drums were my first instrument and then I switched to piano a little bit later.
Is it true that you played drums for Iggy Pop?
Well yeah but I wasn’t in the studio with him. Motor Inn was an instrumental track I had done with Peaches and another friend in Berlin, and Iggy ended up hearing it and just sang on it – almost like he got a rap beat and did a song on it. I also played on their Kick It duo, which is on Peaches album. So yeah, you can hear my drumming behind Iggy Pop on two songs.
Is there an instrument you’re absolutely not familiar with but would like to have a go at?
It would be nice if I could just pull out brass and string instruments and play. But I like to delegate a lot. Boys Noize basically produced the whole Ivory Tower album, my brother took care of this whole album. I didn’t direct my movie, even though it looks like I controlled everything but I gave the most important job to someone else. I’m through trying to do everything…
Which is funny because you tend to project this image of a control freak…
Well, newsflash: I’m growing up and improving on my character defaults, very slowly.
You crowned yourself “President of the Berlin Underground” at one point. Do you still feel underground?
I’m a bit of a Where’s Waldo? I just pop up in weird places. As Chilly Gonzales, the albums I put out are still absolutely underground but a lot more people know about what I do, and who don’t necessarily know my music. I try to do most things like press and shows because I’m basically still hustling. On the other hand I’m mentioned so often in the same breath as Feist, Peaches, Tiga, do weird things like the Juno Awards broadcast, or the iPad commercial... Can I really say I’m underground when millions have heard my music?
You’re performing a Piano Talk show in Brussels, what can we expect?
That’s the way to see me. It’s the best thing for sure. When I have a group, it’s good, but is also always a bit of a compromise for me. When I’m alone on stage I can just really take it anywhere, like do something crazy in the middle of a song.
At what point did it become clear you’d only perform in a bathrobe and pyjamas?
Mainly since early 2009. I did it a bit on Soft Power circa 2007, but before that I had the rap costume, the pink suit, the safari suit,..
Could you explain the statement?
Like a lot of things I enjoy, it’s a really convincing illusion of intimacy. Seeing a guy in a bathrobe playing an upright piano is different than seeing Richard Clayderman in a smoking jacket playing on a white grand piano with a dove. I know it’s weird for French people, because a bathrobe and slippers are something you wear when you’re sick at home.
Which might explain this mental image we could have of you as a grumpy old man…
Hey I’m aware of the cranky uncle Gonz’ persona that I emanate but it’s more acute in France. In England, people would say: “he comes on in a dressing gown,” which has a very different connotation.
The Dude is definitely another big signpost cause he was a great character, but I don’t know to be honest. For this album, because it seemed so close to Ivory Tower, I didn’t feel like changing the look and suddenly become the parody of a rapper. And I think that given everything, it’s probably best to stay consistent for a while.
How many bathrobes do you currently own?
Only three. There’s a tartan one I sometimes wear around my house and two from Old England. A Swiss designer approached me because he wants to create a custom-made bathrobe with a monogram CG print all over it. That’s definitely how I see the future. With matching slippers.
The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales comes out on 6th June on Gentle Threat.