Q&A: Feist/Drake Collaborator Chilly Gonzales On The Surprise Success Of His Solo Piano Albums And Turning Classical Into Pop
Chilly Gonzales is one of those rare people in the music business who apparently can do a little bit of everything — and does. Though most people might have first discovered him due to his work with Feist or Peaches, Gonzales has released solo albums in a variety of genres and even moonlights in a hip-hop group (the Berlin-based Puppetmastaz). Though he’s had a hand in helping craft some of the most beloved indie rock albums of the past few years (namely Feist’s The Reminder) and he’s currently a go-to guy for folks like Drake and Daft Punk when they need a little boost in the melody/harmony department, the most famous of his own records is somehow the most unlikely — 2004’s Solo Piano, a record of instrumental tracks that highlights his training as a classical pianist. Earlier this year Gonzales released Solo Piano II, a beautiful companion piece to Solo Piano eight years in the making. I called him up in Germany to discuss why it took him so long to unleash a little more piano magic and how his music could be the equivalent to marijuana for those looking to dip their toes into the world of classical music. Solo Piano II is one of my most-played records of 2012, so I was happy to talk to him about it.
STEREOGUM: Is this Gonzo?
GONZALES: Yes it is.
STEREOGUM: Is that the right thing to call you?
GONZALES: That is the right thing to call me. That’s pretty much what everyone calls me, including my family.
STEREOGUM: Well that’s good. It just occurred to me as I was about to dial the number that there are a variety of ways I could address you: Mr. Gonzales, Chilly, Sir …
GONZALES: I’m used to the confusion, but I’ve pretty much trained everybody to call me Gonzo, which was a nickname I’ve had since I was quite young, and that nickname predated any thoughts of being Chilly Gonzales by twenty years or so. Gonzo is definitely an authentic name for me.
STEREOGUM: Where are you right now?
GONZALES: I’m in Cologne, Germany, in my apartment.
STEREOGUM: How long have you lived in Germany?
GONZALES: I moved back here to Germany this summer. When I first left North America in ’98 I was in Berlin, and I had a brief hiccup in Paris. Well, ten years is a long hiccup. And strangely, when I got to Paris in 2003 I did Solo Piano 1, and I pretty much left when I finished Solo Piano 2. It kind of bookends the whole Paris experience with those two records.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about that today actually. I was looking for my copy of Solo Piano — I have a battered copy from when I first got it. I think anything that happened in the 2000s as having happened, like, a year ago … and then I realize that was a long time ago. 2004, that’s a long time. What made it feel like this was the right time to do another one?
GONZALES: I was conscious of wanting to do a second one since the surprising resounding success of the first. It kind of expanded my idea of who could be a Chilly Gonzales fan, and it just really set me on a course of becoming a specialist of the piano in various ways. Even the electronic experiments with Boys Noise and the rap stuff — the piano was always there. That was sort of what Solo Piano 1 kind of drummed into my head — I can be a man of my time and do it with the piano 100 percent. Up until that time I’d done hidden piano records, essentially, and just thought, “This is kind of an anachronism, I should just focus on my sense of humor, and that will sort of connect me with my generation the most.” And I was sort of impressed by the fact that the piano seemed to be something that could survive the present and really take me to the future, so I really spent that whole time in the back of my mind thinking, “I’ve got to do a second solo piano record, but only when I’m good and ready, and mostly when I have something new to say on the piano.” It was a risk to do the first one, and it was paid off by having the surprise success, but to me the lesson was: Continue taking risks and continue following where my fancy takes me, and eventually I’ll get there — rather than trying to repeat it consciously, which probably wouldn’t have worked in my case. I’ve never been good at that. Any success I’ve had has generally been by accident, and has been a bit counterintuitive. I just waited until I really felt like I had the material and felt like I had something new to say, so people would hear it and say, “OK so this is the update, this is where we are now, and not necessarily trying to photocopy it.”
STEREOGUM: I was looking over your collected discography and all the different kinds of records you’ve made and worked on. It must be really satisfying creatively to engage all of these different impulses. Not a lot of people have the opportunity to do that — or the ability, which I think is amazing.
GONZALES: Well thank you. It’s not such a conscious desire on my part as much as I see these opportunities, for example, making the Piano record, it’s kind of a close-up. It’s the only kind of record I make alone. Everything else I have the fortune of being nicely surrounded by interesting people. I’ve had the opportunity to make an album with Boys Noise, for example. But if you had heard my contribution to the Ivory Tower album without Boys Noise, it would sound pretty much like Solo Piano with some synthesized strings here and there, and a little wayward clarinet that I brought in here and there. In the end he’s contributing all of that and I’m not an electronic musician. I don’t make electronic music, but I was lucky enough to work with an electronic producer on that album, and the result was this hybrid, and I’m very glad it worked. But I don’t want to take credit for necessarily having made electronic music myself. I collaborated with people, and it was a very deep collaboration. I have ideas, I listen to that music, and I sort of suggest things, but most of it was pretty much me trying to turn the piano into a modern instrument and him taking cues from that and sort of going into more Steve Reich territory on the piano, for example, multi-tracking my piano tracks instead of playing both hands — literally playing one finger at a time, over and over again. Finding new techniques that suggest electronic music on the piano, but I didn’t make a single beat for Ivory Tower. It’s the same when I do rap music. I try to find a way of doing it that’s very much me. In this case it was no beats at all; it was orchestral instruments. I had my brother do the arrangements, because he’s a real expert in that. And then I was able to suggest the feeling of rap through what I gave him as demos, and then he was able to turn that into very dramatic, orchestral music. But I didn’t do those arrangements myself, and that’s why when I finally make a record alone, there’s very little else I can do other than play the piano, and that’s why I do solo piano records, because it’s a way of sort of reminding me of why the rest is all possible — kind of a close-up of when the rest of the albums are a bit more cinematic idea, more people involved, more ambitious conceptual ideas. But in the end, it doesn’t seem so different for me. I don’t feel like I’m making a rap album or making rap. I’m just kind of at the piano, writing my lyrics. But like I said, I’m not an electronic producer, I’m not an orchestral arranger, so I kind of stick to what I know, and with the rest I get people to help me out.
STEREOGUM: Piano was your first love. Have you been playing piano since you were a kid?
GONZALES: Yeah, totally, totally. Right away it helped me find my place in the world in various ways — socially, it was an escape, it was a way to impress girls, to spend my time, to avoid my family. It was very positive.
STEREOGUM: The first piano record you mentioned being a surprise success, and now with some distance from that particular record, why do you think it was such a success? What were the factors involved with that?
GONZALES: My gut feeling is that it has something to do with purity and the way that it’s a document of something that happened in a room, one person, one instrument, over the course of a few minutes. That’s fairly normal going for the classical and jazz world, but that’s not really the world I’m in, though I borrow from those worlds. I think it has to do with the combination of me fundamentally being a man of my time and making music for my generation, being in that world and forever being associated with people I work with, like Feist or Peaches, and the Berlin underground and all that. To sort of really be in that world, but at the same time being one of the only people in that world who does these documents. The only other people who do it are maybe singer/songwriters who play guitar and sing. Probably Bon Iver could just go with his voice and a guitar and make an album that would be very pure if he just recorded it completely live. That might also have a way of traveling very far because it probably stands out amongst most of the music our generation listens to – Frankensteins, for better or worse, but generally for the better. It’s the times we live in; I think it’s great. The music I listen to most is rap music, which is hardly a document of something happening in a room in three minutes. It’s something artificially put together in its own way. I love to make music that way too. It’s more stressful to make music in the pure way, because you either get it or you don’t. A slight hesitation on a piano take I have to throw the whole thing away and start again from scratch. But it’s more rewarding. It’s definitely less fun. It’s more fun to toss ideas back and forth with Boys Noise online and kind of hear and go, “Ohh that’s cool with the clap song. Hey I have something I can do there.” It’s kind of like hanging out with Boys Noise long distance — Christmas Day every time you open up the latest version of the song. So it’s more fun, but there’s never a moment when I’m sweating when I’m doing an album like that. So the closest thing I can think of, to really have that stress close to what live performance is, is doing an album in this very pure way. The microphone is on and I have three minutes to tell the story convincingly or not. So I think that amount of stress and purity was something that not a lot of people do in that world of music that I inhabit. It probably just stands out.
STEREOGUM: Recording in that way, where you’re doing these long piano takes, must be very difficult.
GONZALES: Yeah, it’s really stressful for that reason. It has to sound easy and off the cuff as a result, but what goes into it is so much preparation. And then you have to kind of undo the preparation — I’m quoting Miles Davis, but learn everything and forget everything. You have to learn the whole song so well that I’m not worrying about where my fingers are going, but at the same time, it has to seem fresh. It has to seem as if I’m playing for the first time. All kinds of psychological games and a lot of time go into it. But like I said, when you press record, it’s extremely stressful because if you get three-quarters of the way through and you’re like, “Whoa I think I’m doing an amazing take.” You don’t want to have that thought, because “I think I’m doing an amazing take” might be a slight hesitation, and three-quarters is just not good enough in that business, when you’re doing a solo recording of an instrument. There’s a lot of psychological factors, and like I said it’s the most stressful way to record, because it approximates live performance, but there isn’t an audience to react off of, so it’s that much more difficult.
STEREOGUM: It must involve a million takes.
GONZALES: Definitely hundreds and hundreds, absolutely. A lot of false starts. A lot of ten seconds in “Nah nah” and then a “No no” and then an “Oh oh” and even being convinced for a few days that you’ve got it and then realizing “No no.” That really does happen a lot.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting — thinking about the appeal of these records specifically. I consider myself kind of lucky that when I was going to college and was really deep into listening to Pavement and early-‘90s indie rock, I lived with someone who was a classical musician. It sort of forced me to be exposed to all this classical music that I wouldn’t have sought out on my own, but ended up loving. And I thought about that when the first Solo Piano record came out, I would play it sometimes and people would be super into it, but not have any context for that sort of music. They loved it but would never seek it out because it’s like “Where do I begin?” If I were to walk into a store and buy a piece of classical piano music, I wouldn’t even know where to start.
GONZALES: Well you start with me, hopefully! I wanted to be that entry point and that ending point. I’m proud of the fact that some hipster might only have one record of piano playing, and it might be mine. I would be very proud if that were the case, or if he had two now. I do approach it, whether it’s piano or not, as a modern-day pop musician. I’ve taken a lot of the chaff away from what I think is wrong with classical music and why it doesn’t connect with my generations. I’ve really thought about long structures that I think are completely opaque that classical musicians have held onto as a badge of honor — to the point where when I was in school I completely shut off and said “Hey, this battle was won by MTV twenty years ago, guys.” It’s verse/chorus, verse/chorus. Do we really have to discuss this?
It’s the same with classical music, there are certain harmonics and ways of playing that are established forms that are pretty much timeless. So let’s keep that, let’s keep these colors that were developed from the beginning of romantic music to the end of impressionist. There’s a really solid hundred years of harmony developing in amazing ways, and colors of music being developed. Let’s keep all that. But let’s forget the whole war of structure. Michael Jackson won that — it’s over. I cut that out, and it’s essentially pop songs using the color, and specifically harmonically my real specialty is that I try to understand the secrets of harmony, because they have such a huge emotional power, but you don’t come upon them that well instinctively. You do have to know a little about harmony to be able to play it effectively. That’s not the same thing with rhythm where you can instinctively have an amazing rhythmic sense and get by in modern music. But harmony is much less used precisely because you have to train a bit. So I have this crazy advantage. I look at it as a leg-up that I have over my colleagues. I have harmony, which can really tell a musical story. You can have a song that builds up in a certain way harmonically that gives a sense of getting somewhere hopeful, and then you pull the rug out and all of a sudden it’s dark again. That’s a great story to tell that you can tell with harmony. That’s what I try to do on those piano songs — just keep the best of what’s in classical music that can still work today, but really throw out the rest. It’s the same with jazz. Jazz, for me, is a way of touching the instruments that can sound nonchalant and has a certain quality to it that can surprise people and relax people. But I’m not interested in improvising or swinging. There’s a lot of the religion of jazz that I’m just not interested in. Same with classical composition. Real classical musicians will look at this and say, “that’s just pop music with fancy chords.” I’m proud to wear that badge. That’s not my religion either. My religion is pop music, that’s what I grew up with. It’d be a stretch to say that I’m a rapper sampling bits of what I like in classical music, but it’s almost like that. There’s not a lot of fundamental respect in a way. To me it’s just some nice colors to grab and research and find out why does that make me feel this way, but I have a very spotty knowledge of classical music. There’s a lot of composers I love, but there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know. I hardly have an all-around knowledge of classical music. I’m not the kind of guy who can just throw on a piece and right away can tell you who the composer is. I still have a lot of trouble with telling the difference between late Mozart and early Beethoven. It’s very spotty, and that’s why I can be trusted by my generation, because it’s not my generation, I didn’t go that deeply into it. I only grabbed enough to survive as a pop musician.
STEREOGUM: Having this history of having had these amazing collaborations, do you get hit up by people wanting to work with you as a producer?
GONZALES: Well specifically for harmony, all my great collaborations — especially my A-list collaborations like Drake and Daft Punk. In each case, they’re asking me to play the piano and provide some inspiration, and they describe, “I want it to be a bit like this, or like this,” and I come up with something, and then I can leave it with them, so I’m not really writing the song with them. I might get some writing credit because I came up with some chords, but they work on it later, and six months later I kind of hear the results, and it’s a thrill to be able to inspire people — especially people like Daft Punk and Drake who I happen to really admire. Drake didn’t ask me to co-write rap or make beats with him, that’s for sure. Daft didn’t ask me to come up with ideas for their video. It’s pretty clear that I’m there as a pianist, and more specifically as someone who knows how to wield harmony.
STEREOGUM: What will 2013 be like for you? Will you be playing a lot of shows specifically for this? Do you have other projects on the horizon that you can talk about?
GONZALES: Yes, I’m trying to play with orchestral formations as much as possible. I had the great opportunity of premiering my piano concerto with the BBC symphony at the Barbican two months ago. The show at Lincoln Center is with a chamber orchestra – playing some new material that I’m working on and doing new arrangements of my older material for that formation, as well as some solo stuff. That’s kind of what’s interesting to me now, kind of can I take those instruments whether it’s string quartets all the way up to a symphonic orchestra, and kind of do what I did with the piano – do that with orchestral instruments and find a way to bring them kicking and screaming into the present. I think that’s going to be at least a few years’ work to see if that can happen. I spend my time now just trying to teach myself about orchestration. I got frustrated because I was relying on others to realize those arrangements for me, so I’m slowly teaching myself that. My touring schedule goes right ahead into next summer, but otherwise I’ve been popping in in the studio here and there with songwriting and studio stuff.
STEREOGUM: That sounds like such a fun way to work and not have to be always mired down in one thing.
GONZALES: Yeah well I did larger-scale production for a few years there, when I moved to Paris. There were a couple of years there where I really did album after album, a couple of months on each one. I did Feist albums that way. The last three Feist albums I was right there in the swamp with her in the three to six months that it takes to put together an album. It’s so refreshing to be able to pop in, call up my buddy Tiga when I’m in Montreal and we just spend an afternoon coming up with some chords, a few lyrical ideas maybe, hang out, listen to what else he’s working on, give my advice, pop in and pop out. That can be great. I work that way with Peaches quite a bit, and the people I quite admire. I was lucky enough to be in the studio with Drake again just a couple of months ago when I passed through Toronto. We’ll see if it makes it onto his album or not, but it’s great to just go spend six hours and literally coming up with dozens and dozens of ideas and waiting to see if his face moves when he reacts to it, whether he’s enjoying it or whether it’s something I should continue or just move onto the next thing or not. I really learn a lot. But to be mired down in the studio for months and months, it’s hard for me to keep the belief in anyone else’s project for that long. In the end I’d rather just be working on my own.
For more on Chilly Gonzales, check out his site.