Chilly Gonzales Interview: Planet Gonzo, Making Music For Steve Jobs And Playing Solo for 27 Hours

Chilly Gonzales has worked with everyone from Feist and Peaches to Daft Punk and Drake, made music for Steve Jobs and once played solo for 27 hours straight. He's also a classically trained pianist, comedian and cabaret artist whose work spans rap, rock, electro and beyond. I catch up with him ahead of his performance at Latitude Festival next month.
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Chilly Gonzales has worked with everyone from Feist and Peaches to Daft Punk and Drake, made music for Steve Jobs and once played solo for 27 hours straight. He's also a classically trained pianist, comedian and cabaret artist whose work spans rap, rock, electro and beyond. I catch up with him ahead of his performance at Latitude Festival next month.

You recently moved to Paris. Before that you lived in Berlin. Would you say the city you live in influences your work?

Yeah, sure. A lot of things influence, but I think that's one of them. There's a lot of superficial things that can affect what you're doing and the fact that you're in a new place to begin with is probably the biggest influence. Then, the details of that place they sink in or they don't; maybe you find things that you don't like that you react against. So, it's not so easy to say you make music that sounds like techno when you go to Berlin, you make music that's sounds like Erik Satie when you go paris. There's a bit of that – I did make more electronic based music when I was there. But then when I decided to do another electronic album, I was still in Paris but I did ask Boyz Noize to produce it – the Ivory Tower album. And he's a guy who was in Berlin and I went back to work with him, so, in a way, yeah. If you do find something of yourself in the city, it will be drawn out. If you go somewhere and there's nothing for you, you're just going to think: 'I'm not going to go out of my way to take two days off when I play there.' It's more about whether you see something of yourself in that city.

Same goes for every show, every show you're in a new geographical place, a new culture, cultural stuff specific to that city or that region. And so other things get brought out: when I play in England, it's tends to be a lot more verbal than when I play in France or Germany, for obvious reason – I'm an anglophone. But also, I think, because there's such a great comedic tradition in England, people tend to appreciate that's part of what I do and I end up playing places like Soho Theatre in London, playing at the Festival Fringe, playing where I'm going to be playing at Latitude – that seems to be the way people get into what I do. Where as in France it's much more based on my connection to older music, and what they hear of classic and jazz in my music. Even just where you're playing really changes the concert, just as living in a place will influence what you write. That's the case with an entertainer like me because I'm very sensitive to my audience – I do change my show based on where I am and, of course, I do that on the fly based on what the audience is giving me. But if I'm going back to a place I already have some inside information: I know when I play Glasgow they like this, where as if I play in London it's this; it can even come down to the region of the city depending how the show will go.

Latitude is your only UK festival this year. How do you find performing your show at festivals compared to smaller venues?

All festival share one thing: that they're difficult for me. It's a little bit selfish and I'm a bit of a prima donna for saying this, but when people are going to festivals they're kind of in a shopping mall of music; there's a lot of things happening and it means there's a lot more lazy curiosity than passionate fandom going on in typical festivals. That's one of the reasons the labels love to have you play at festivals, because many people can check out in a way in which they wouldn't normally.

Then what it comes down to is are you a suitable act for open air or tent situation where people have already heard a lot of music. And that's why it privileges bands with high-octane performances, intense light shows and all that kind of stuff. What I do is so miniature compared to that, it hasn't always gone very well for me when I've had to play outdoors, on bigger stages or in tents. It's always been very difficult for me and I've never really done great festival shows. I don't know how to do it. And I think my act is so clearly made for a small theatre that it's a bit difficult and I have to do more work on it.

For the Ivory Tower album it was a bit different, because the album was a very powerful album, produced by Boyz Noize, and I had a band with two drummers and two piano players. It was kind of taking that electronic music and bringing and it with live instruments, and that worked out really well for that project.

So you prefer more boutiquey, left field festivals, like Latitude?

Latitude really seem like they take care, and we did our research on the place where we're playing. It's not really all snobbishness on my part, the snobbishness is masking the fact that I'm just not very good a playing in that context. So until I'm really good, I don't think I'm be doing a lot of festivals. I'll be just trying to play festivals where the people who come in have a chance to come into my world. Otherwise, for me to come into peoples world, it just seems so small compared to what else they're experiencing. That's just how I'm built: by being a big guy, my planet is small. But I'm very, very optimistic about Latitude.

There's a lot of good music coming out of Canada at the moment. What was it like growing up there?

I left Canada partly because, musically, I felt all the things I was hinging on and really betting on, things that are important to me – the atmosphere around there was completely antithetical to what I wanted to do. So I disowned Canada, kind of. I'm interested in beauty, fun and the mastery of music. The only possible characteristic of those shared by the indie-rock and electronic music world of Canada is possibly beauty. And not always. Definitely not fun and definitely not mastery.

That's why you left?

It seemed like the deck was so stacked against me. After a few years of trying and never being more than just a curiosity to the Canadian music scene, I decided to leave for Europe and it started to go much, much better. At least there was a small planet Gonzo that was brewing. Some encouragement. And it built very slowly and started very small, and it's just been continuing since then, very slow and steady. So it's been fantastic – what I've always dreamed of happening to me.

Otherwise, that's some superficial stuff in how we want our music to be presented. What's interesting is that, since I left for Europe in '98, 15 year ago, I feel even more Canadian and spend much more time there and realise the things I could never realise. It's a little bit like when you say you're not like your parents, because of some superficial reason. And then, with a lot of time, you start to realise you're exactly like your parents, in some ways. You always just told yourself that because it was easier. That's exactly what happened with my Canadian-ness: in a superficial way I said, 'Ah. There are all of these serious indie-rockers playing one chord at a time and they think musical education is ruining music.' And then I went to Europe and realised I had much more in common with those people. I think it's great because Canada is great mix of North America and Europe.

You've had a very diverse career. Tell me about your new record, Solo Piano II, and how it compares to your production and remix work?

The reason I can do all of that, the reason I can do an orchestral rap album, make a movie with Peaches and Tiga for Ivory Tower, the reason I can collaborate with Drake and Feist is because I'm trying to be a piano player of my time. And I have a very old-fashioned skill that I'm doing my absolute best to make relevant today's pop music – so I try to make pop music on the piano.

After the orchestral rap album I think I'd been all talked out, all concepted out, and was ready to focus on … two and a half minute pop songs on the piano. Trying to get the best take in a two and half minutes, realtime moment. You either make it or you don't. And I feel like I made it.

So are you moving away from the production side of things?

Performing is what I do. Making albums is part of my job description but the reason I got into music is performing. Because I want to be a performer of my time, that means having a musical identity that can actually travel without me. That's why I'm not, for example, a Tim Minchin, or a cabaret performer. You could say: 'Just be a performer, then, don't make albums.' But for the performances to work, people have to know me outside of that world of being a performer.
Producing for other people … it's not my main job, it comes along with it … If I go and work with Drake, it's not as a producer, it's a piano player.

Do you find it difficult working in that way, with other artists, as opposed to working alone?

No, no. What's great about it is you can let yourself do so many things you don't normally do. You have a very clear idea of what Chill Gonzales is allowed to do. But as soon as I'm with Feist or Daft Punk or even just something as banal as replacing a piano part that Boyz Noize has said, 'I can't clear this sample. Can you do something very close to it?' And I sit there trying to find the riff on the piano – it's very small, minute problem to solve but it helps out my friend Boyz Noize. And that's an incredible pleasure-giving experience for me.

Tell me about your music being used by Apple.

The iPad thing just kind of happened to me. They chose Never Stop from the Ivory Tower album, a song with a very distinctive piano riff, and they used it for the very first iPad commercial.

You just get an email one day saying: 'Can we use your music for our ads?'

Yeah, yeah. Their guy is very plugged in … he happened upon the digital version of the song. It's a very secretive process; I had to sign a bunch papers at a very high level. They wanted me to work on the song and change a very, very small detail. I did the work and in the end they went with the original. It's fantastic to be a part of something that is so iconic.

You broke the world record for the longest solo-artist performance – over 27 hours. How did that come about?

That's the opposite, that didn't happen to me, I made that happen. By sheer force of will I wanted to change the subject from one of my failed albums, back in 2008, Soft Power. I felt like I'd jumped the shark on what Chilly Gonzales is all about and I managed to centre it back on not an album project but an event that was all about my musical athleticism; the competition and the sheer prodigiousness of playing 350 songs over those 27 hours, and just to be able to really focus in on the core element of the Chilly Gonzales brand, or whatever you want to call it.

Whatever it was, in the end, that was good for marketing, was also poetic marketing. Because it really resonated with the core element of what I do. I just wanted to centre in on what was important and then everything flowed from there: that's when I started my label, added the “Chilly” back into my name, started spending a lot of time working in the UK and North America and getting out of my latin countries and Germany, and just waking up to the world through that world record. And decided from that moment to become more and more like myself. Not to smooth out the rough edges, but to sharpen them.

Follow Gary Evans on twitter: @GazEvans

Chilly Gonzales will be playing Latitude Festival, Suffolk, Jul 12-15. For information and tickets visit latitudefestival.co.uk

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