Having reinvented himself in Paris as Eric Satie Mark II, the eccentric, prolific and hirsute Chilly Gonzales has worked with Peaches, of course, but also Feist, Angie Reed, Jamie Lidell, Jane Birkin and Boyz Noize. And now he’s rapping again – with orchestra – on The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales (Wagram), an album that deals with the trials and tribulations of being an eccentric, prolific, hirsute musician. He and the orchestra deface the Volksbühne on Sunday, June 26.
I haven’t had a chance to listen to your new album.
That’s okay. I’ll answer all your questions with lines from the rap album so you’ll know what it’s about.
Okay, how do you feel about the Canadian elections?
Uh...I would say, ummm...I got nothing: it’s harder than I thought.
Harder than working with an orchestra on Unspeakable?
Actually, it’s a fake orchestra, arranged by my brother [Christophe Beck], who is a Hollywood composer. We heard the tests with the real orchestra in London, and all of a sudden it sounded like Peter Sellers’ spoken word, which is not bad, but it was missing the rhythmic vulgarity crap. You won’t be able to tell that it’s fake. Violinists, conductors, producers: I fooled everybody, to the point that I don’t even want to fool anyone anymore. I just tell them that it’s fake.
Your audience is mostly European now. Do they even understand what you’re saying?
Yeah, that’s a lot of the reason that I’ve been spending more time in the English-speaking world. I realized that the verbal side of my albums had fallen to the wayside: Solo Piano (2004), Soft Power (2008)... this was also a time when I stopped smoking weed. I realize that I go much further and say basically what’s in my head on stage when I smoke weed.
That’s why you went back to rap?
I’ve always been very inspired by the approach rappers have to finding a third way to the reported battle between art and commerce, which I think is a false battle. They seem to have this way of being ambitious artistically and financially – being larger than life – and at the same time having humor and being very sincere. These are things that seemed like big existential questions about having a musical career around 10-15 years ago. So I decided to kind of emulate them. Then coming back 10 years later now to do it, I was basically encouraged by a couple of spoken-word-type rap songs I put on Ivory Tower (2010). They’re basically piano-rap songs. The new album is rap without beats. I took great pains in doing this album that it was reflective of my status. What kind of rap does someone from a privileged environment, who’s a musical genius, make? It’s rap with an orchestra.
But you don’t feel you’re really a rapper?
Rappers basically remind me of my dad, who kind of was a self-made hustler from Hungary, and his life is really a bit of a capitalist perfection from a guy who came from nothing and really decided to embrace the Canadian Dream – a slight variation on the American Dream. I’m, like, the son of a rapper. That’s how I see myself. I’m grateful that I came up in an environment that exposed me to a lot of great things, like how to arrange an orchestra and how to handle business meetings with the minimum of efficiency that inspires confidence in people. I’m lucky that I have those skills on top of my musical genius.
Are the raps ironic?
They’re sincere: I’m not interested in irony. I’m interested in making people guess whether something is sincere or not. I know more than the audience. I want the audience to be in the dark as to what my true intentions are, like Borat or Stephen Colbert. Those are heroes of mine. They dare people to wonder whether it’s sincere or not. There’s a lot of exaggerated truth and a lot of personal stuff on there – some of the more supervillain-ish and dark, petty emotions that I think a lot of people can relate to. I don’t see a lot of rappers going there. Some – Drake goes there. Eminem goes there. Like Charles Bukowski: tough-love truth. It’s not reality.
But still, why are you rapping again, exactly?
There’s a song that explains why I rap: “You don’t like rap/You probably hate this/You’re probably racist.” It’s a way of provoking people. I don’t necessarily think that someone who doesn’t like rap is racist, but there’s obviously a racial element to why people say now, “I don’t like rap anymore, I liked it when it was Tupac, De La Soul, now it just seems way too superficial.” That’s all I’m saying is that we live in superficial times. Every rap music had its time. We can’t have A Tribe Called Quest anymore, because that’s not the time that we’re living in. It’s not aspirational anymore: they got there. Now it’s about what happens to teenagers. To rap about having a Gucci watch is now more political in 2011. “Fight the Power” was the political message for then. Today how do you fight the power? Get a Gucci watch. It’s true.
It’s a political statement to show over-orthodoxy in the capitalist regime. This is a way of saying, “This is something that was kept from us, and now we’ve got it on our own terms, and we’ve rendered it useless.” It’s like what Andy Kaufman did with celebrity: anyone could become famous. It’s a wonderful magic trick. That’s why I’m obsessed with rap – it’s the only cultural magic trick that’s happened in the last 20 years, and what else has really come along that’s new and harnessed the insanity of race and economy?
But you’re not doing it for the Gucci.
The last song on the album, “Shut Up and Play the Piano”, explains why I rap and why it’s not easy for me to replicate the success of Solo Piano. This song is about me telling myself how to get back to the solo piano because that is probably what my existing fans want the most from me. I don’t think that they were clamoring for an orchestral rap album, so I thank them. It’s like I say in this song, “Solo Piano is Musical Cocaine”. I tell myself, “Make another/Don’t be so vain/But imagine if I just tossed it off/Imagine if the cock was soft/Imagine if I tarnished the image of the one and only album that people really cared about/That would be a problem/So bear with me/I’ll be right with you/Thank god I have another personality to switch to.” I will finally go back to playing piano, after I’ve finally gotten this all off of my chest.
THE UNSPEAKABLE CHILLY GONZALES & ORCHESTRA Sun Jun 26, 20:00 | Volksbühne, Linienstr. 227, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa- Luxemburg-Str.