Q&A: Chilly Gonzales On Chambers, Poptimism, And Life As A Musical Genius
Chilly Gonzales has lived so many musical lives it’s hard to keep them straight. Born Jason Beck, he’s a classically trained pianist, composer, and self-proclaimed musical genius (hey, somebody has to say it, right?) who has co-authored musicals; pursued the alt-rock path as the frontman of Son; set Guinness records for piano-playing; tried his hand at rapping, soft rock, and electronic music as a solo artist; and collaborated with Peaches, Feist, Daft Punk, and Drake. Recently, Gonzales has been lauded for his Pop Music Masterclass series, in which he uses music theory to break down exactly what makes pop hits so addicting.
As if all that weren’t enough, the Canadian expat who is now living in Cologne, Germany has just released his new album, Chambers. Gonzales did a similar piano composition record in 2012, Solo Piano II, but Chambers was his chance to compose and arrange for a string quartet — the Kaiser Quartett are featured prominently throughout. Each song on Chambers is dedicated to different public figures who evoke the feeling or mood of the music. Two of the 12 tracks are dedicated to rappers — Rick Ross and Juicy J — and when I spoke to Gonzales, he was particularly interested in discussing hip-hop and its profound effect on the way music has progressed over the past half-century. Gonzales argued that rap helped spur poptimism, effectively killing indie rock’s stranglehold on highbrow hierarchy. He also talked about the thought process behind his new album and his masterclasses, the state of the music industry, and whether or not he’s really a musical genius.
STEREOGUM: For Chambers you’re re-imagining classical music with influences from today, and playing off this idea of chamber music being the pop of today. Why did you want to bring that back into popular consciousness?
GONZALES: Personally, it’s just sort of where musical circumstances brought me. I met this quartet from Hamburg, the Kaiser Quartett, in 2011 when they were backing me up for The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, sort of my orchestral rap stuff. Those guys just seemed to get it, and rhythmically it was much more how I heard the music. After meeting them, I thought if I could develop a relationship with those guys that I could slowly do something I’ve always wanted to do; I’d take two or three years and teach myself to write for string instruments. Before this, my experience with string instruments — though I always loved them — was when they’d come into a Feist session and I’d write something up quick or improvise. I always knew I would like to do it for myself. When I moved to Cologne in 2012 I had a much calmer life — more time for actual music and musical reflection. So the projects I’ve done since I got here weren’t possible in the more distracting atmosphere of cosmopolitan Paris or Berlin. I was also able to meet this quartet and teach myself by writing little experiments.
STEREOGUM: Even though all the Chambers songs except “Myth Me” are instrumental, you’ve emphasized that the structures are very much pop, that there are choruses and verses. But it seems like within our current cultural frame of mind, when music is purely instrumental people find it much harder to connect to. Why have lyrics become such a focus of 21st century musical culture?
GONZALES: I guess it has to do with celebrity. Maybe it’s the nature of what a celebrity is. One of the greatest new things that people never point out is that rap changed the game from singing — all of a sudden there was this musical speaking that started to dominate everything. I think that’s really important, because it means that music kind of turned into a representation of how people are when they’re in a public sphere. To me, the reason that rap has so much boasting and exaggeration is because that’s how people are when they talk to each other. Singing was always your secret thoughts, but rap is your face to the world in a way.
STEREOGUM: Rap was created with a completely different purpose than other kinds of music.
GONZALES: But I think back even to when Frank Sinatra first realized, “Oh, we don’t have to sing so super loud to get to the back of the hall.” Because there was this thing, this microphone — this is a musical instrument actually — that he took advantage of, and he created an intimate space with the listener. I think we needed our musical icons, singer-songwriters or rappers of today, to be half reality stars and half entrepreneurs. They don’t just spend their time making music. So it just seems like the words need to be more and more direct, more and more literal, to the point where we’re meant to believe that rappers are speaking 100-percent autobiographically. It’s the idea of keeping it real or the construct of keeping it real. I think lyrics used to be more abstract, and what the music did was abstract. Lyrics aren’t so abstract anymore. Here and there you’ve got people carrying the torch for it, who write really weird and cryptic lyrics, but mostly the hits we have are extremely literal and don’t use a lot of abstract imagery.
STEREOGUM: What’s your perspective on people who still won’t acknowledge rap as music in the same way as, say, the classical music that you play?
GONZALES: I don’t know. It’s extremely tempting to just call them racists, isn’t it? I feel pity for them, they’re missing out, but what can I say? It’s kind of the only musical game in town, to be honest. I just don’t really see much happening anywhere else.
STEREOGUM: I noticed you wrote that the second part of “Freudian Slippers” should be rapped over. Has anyone done it yet?
GONZALES: I haven’t had anyone try it, but I did send some of the music of Chambers to some rappers that I’ve worked with here and there, and to some people who sometimes help me promote my music with the rap world. I hope something [rap-related] will be in the works with a few of the moments on Chambers, but that will probably happen naturally of its own accord.
STEREOGUM: All the songs on Chambers are dedicated to people, but did those people inspire the songs first or remind you of the music afterward? What was the process there?
GONZALES: Generally after. The way I write is, I turn on my recording equipment and improvise. I’ll do that as often as I can, and then approach it later on, maybe some weeks or months later. I’ll listen to a bunch of those sessions with more of an objective ear, try to be my own A&R person in that moment. I listen for when my hands and brain get into lockstep on something that just grabs me, a little like how a rapper/producer probably listens to an old vinyl where he’s looking for that break. I’m looking for that little moment, and then all of a sudden I hear it! Then, I go back, mark it, and then I maybe go back to piano and try to see if I can work it out and remember what I was doing, see if it will go further.
The piece writes itself slowly over weeks and months in that way, and then at some point when I know what project it’s for, that’s when I really start to think a bit more about what the song’s title will be and think back to my first impressions when I first started working it. What was I thinking? Okay, I think what I liked about “Switchcraft” is that it had the same chords as the Mike WiLL Made-It beats that he did for Juicy J. It reminded of that, and then I can dedicate this to Juicy J, because some people are going to know what I’m talking about when they hear those chords. In almost every Juicy J hit, there are those same exact chords.
STEREOGUM: There’s been this kind of a shift back toward poptimism of late. Rock dominated for decades, and pop was considered almost a dirty word; it was like the only “real music” was rock. But that’s not the case today. What’s your take on that shift?
GONZALES: As a guy who does pop music masterclasses and literally tries to find the connections between musical tools from the canon of Western art music and those tools in today’s pop music, obviously I’m interested in taking a sort of humanistic view of music, as there are more similarities between all styles of music and all cultures than there are differences. It’s an inclusive idea that what unites us is stronger than what separates us, and it also applies to music, in my opinion. But the thing you’re talking about: I think it’s rap, again. I come back to my thesis that rap changed this. Rap was a style of music that reconciled the contradiction of being avant-garde and being extremely commercial, about being extremely materialistic and having a deep message at the same time, not having to make a choice between high culture and low culture.
To me, when rap came along and rappers were the first to grab onto, let’s say, Justin Bieber, and everyone was shocked for a brief second — like what? What? This rapper wants to work with Justin Bieber now? Now I have to look at Justin Bieber differently? Because rap can appropriate and make everything into rap, that’s the magic trick of hip-hop. It’s just a huge bear hug around all previous culture and all concurrent culture. I think that’s what made people take pop seriously again: Rappers finally made it okay to get rid of this indie-rock reverse snobbery against openly ambitious music.
STEREOGUM: As far as the pop masterclasses, you have been talking about pop music in this really amazing way. It’s almost like people think it’s okay if someone like you tells them, “Look, this is why pop music is smart.” Why did you chose to explain pop in those ways?
GONZALES: Again, it’s my musical humanism message. It’s the idea that people can make a bunch of false assumptions. When they see a pop music masterclass of mine, sometimes they say, “Yeah, but it’s not like Taylor Swift knows what music symmetry is.” I’m like, “But that’s the point! It’s universal!” Whether it was a German guy who put it in a textbook or whether it’s someone who’s just rediscovering it, because it’s a natural thing that the ear wants to hear, that proves that this is something the human ear wants. So whether it’s in the context of a bubblegum princess you secretly want to hate, or whether it carries the official stamp that it was in some German textbook, both of those are irrelevant. What’s relevant is that fucking musical symmetry was there in 1400 and it’s going to be there in 4000. Isn’t that amazing? I don’t want to get caught up again in saying this is a high art treatment of something that’s low art; that’s not my point. It’s not low art or high art to begin with. It’s that music that’s considered low art and music that’s considered high art are very similar and use the same tools. That’s my message.
STEREOGUM: How do you choose the songs that you break down?
GONZALES: I just need to be fascinated by them in some sort of way, or at least interested enough that my musical curiosity is awakened in some way. The ones that I really do like as songs always feel a little bit different. It has to be a curiosity bordering on fascination. But to love the song is not that important; there’s only been two or three in that case where I really, really love the song. When I go deep into ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” for example, I really, really love that song, so I could take the time and it’s more like, I really like this, and I want to share this with you. I’d love to analyze a French Montana or Owen Pallett song that I love, but that isn’t necessarily going to touch a nerve in the same way.
STEREOGUM: You often refer to yourself as a musical genius. When did it first occur to you that you were one, and when did you first publicly start acknowledging that for yourself?
GONZALES: First of all, I’m not a musical genius.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know, man, I think maybe you are.
GONZALES: I like that it makes people choose a side a little bit about how they take the idea. The way I’m trying to get away from the idea that musicians are some sort of special class of people that have some sort of secret. I like the idea that anyone can become the musician, that everyone understands there’s this magical thing. So calling myself a musical genius is aspirational. A rapper lives out his fantasies rather than keeps it real, but the point is that he’s living out his fantasies, and that’s where you find truth. This is why we like Björk, or David Bowie, or Daft Punk — these aren’t typically authentic “I wear what I wear everyday on stage” kinds of musicians. They aren’t falsely modest indie rockers that are allergic to the appearance of artifice. They understand that in artifice there is the word “art” — that’s where it comes from. Artificial. It’s like you have to admit that there is something highly unnatural about performing and presenting yourself as public person, but this is where you find the truth: in people’s fantasies. So I really want to be a musical genius. That’s why Chilly Gonzales is a musical genius. Because Chilly Gonzales is my fantasy.
Chambers is out now via Gentle Threat LTD.