Notes from a modern-day lord who does piano battles
Egotistical, manic, self-obsessed and clearly brilliant – Chilly Gonzales was dealt quite a cocktail of personality traits for a professional pianist. But apparently it’s a cocktail that’s allowed him to succeed in a wild range of pursuits.
Since the early ‘90s, Gonzalez – a Canadian whose real name is Jason Beck – has had made a career for himself doing everything from making minimalist electronic piano music, to laying down keys for artists like Peaches and Feist, to performing outlandish stunts like challenging Andrew WK to a piano battle and earning a Guinness World Record for the longest continuous piano performance. Just thinking about his life is exhausting.
Get a chance to speak with Chilly, however, and it’s clear he has plenty of energy left over. Grand theories about the nature of music and performance spill out of him a mile-a-minute. In fifteen minutes, we got a chance to talk about fantasy in hip-hop, why jazz is like masturbation, and how come Chilly prays in the church of pop music.
Hello Chilly. In his press release, your publicist tried to hook me in by writing about a recent concert in Poland,where you were doing the dance from Thriller on top of the piano while bleeding from your head, while an orchestra behind you was playing a mash-up of Britney Spears with Queen. It totally worked. But is it true?
This is totally true. Somehow I managed to cut my temple on the tiny corner of a piano key, and started to bleed. We stopped the concert and asked if there was a doctor in the house, and had a doctor come up to tell me if I needed to go to the hospital. She confirmed it was fine, and I ended up on top of the piano, as often happens, and I was taking advantage of some of these orchestral instruments to make an ultimate pop song. I took the greatest bass line of all time (“Another One Bites the Dust”), followed by some Michael Jackson and the violins screeching the riff from “Toxic,” which is one of the great classical motifs of the last decade. And we made the symphony orchestra an instrument of its time.
You often work with orchestras in unconventional ways – what draws you to them?
The orchestra is the world’s most expensive synthesizer. You have 20 people per patch, it’s amazing. You can create such drama with the orchestra. But I use the orchestra as man of my time. Despite what my grandfather taught me, Richard Wagner is not god. Pop music is god.
Speaking of Wagner, I went through your twitter today in preparation for this interview, and noticed your last two tweets, in a single day, were about Wagner and French Montana, which kind of tells the Chilly Gonzales story right there….
I happened to be playing at a theater where Wagner once played, and it just happens that French Montana’s Mac and Cheese 3 mixtape came out the same day. I don’t do it on purpose.
I’m sure, but it does show how you seamlessly draw connections between classical music and hip-hop.
Well, I think classical music and hip-hop are separate; I’m not really trying to draw connections between them. I love rap, though I’m not of rap. I do rap as an amateur out of love and respect for it, I do it to reflect my personality as a musical genius, but rap doesn’t flow out of me. It takes me forever to write eight lines. It’s not like when I’m composing for the solo piano, where hundreds of melodies just flow out of me. When I’m doing one of my rap albums I’ll write ten songs and say, “Thank god that’s over.”
Why do you do it then?
Instrumental music is the world I come from and have started to master, hip-hop is my fantasy and I indulge my fantasies because I’m in a position to do so. I love to see other people indulge their fantasies too. I’d rather see what a person would like to be than what they are, and I love that about hip-hop. Nobody thinks Rick Ross is a drug dealer. He even says, “I think I’m Big Meech.” He’s openly delusional and admitting it’s a fantasy. Turns out we don’t want real. We don’t want fake. And that’s one of the reasons I rap. I’ll never really be a rapper, but seeing me struggle with it is part of the fun.
You’ve piano-battled (and defeated) Andrew WK – and I’ve seen the guy play, he’s got some serious skills. Who else would you like to take down?
I keep challenging people, and most people say no. They’re either scared of losing, or scared to indulge their competitive side. They don’t want to show their openly ambitious side. Only in rap music where you wear it on your sleeve is ambition part of the narrative for artists. I think other styles of music could benefit greatly from showing that side, and that’s why I do the piano battles. Everybody I’ve met from indie rock to jazz – once you get to know them – you realize they are motivated by wanting to prove something to someone. Everyone who gets on a stage to perform, we’re all psychopaths. And I’m just championing it. We need people, but don’t want people to know we need them. I try to put it front and center in my personal narrative.
NPR called you a “provocateur.” What’s your response to that?
Well, don’t they know some fancy French words. But sure. In the world I’m in, the indie/electronic, aging hipster world, a lot of what I say is somewhat provocative. I like the idea of surprising people and not playing into stereotypes. I’m a pianist, and when most people imagine a pianist to have this poetic, introverted nature. I like to play against that and play with it. I’m purposefully very aware of the public perception of me, and that alone is provocative.
You’ve played piano for a bizarre range of people, from Feist to Drake. Why do people call you in?
People call me for my harmonic superpower, which is the least developed part of pop music today. There’s a good number of years that I researched that, and to deploy it properly you do have to be somewhat of a scientist. So yes I’ve worked with Fiest, with Peaches, with Daft Punk, which was a great honor.
Drake was the one time I got to work with the NBA of music. I swooped in to play the outro for “Marvin’s Room.” When I showed up, they had no piano in the studio. They had a crappy M1 synthesizer, and I was just trying out some ideas. I did a little minute of noodling around on the scale in the song. And it was this moment, where they pressed stop and everybody was like, “Wooooah, that’s the take.” It just felt right to them. And we did it on this tiny cheap little M1. I was like, “Next time guys, you should rent a piano,” and they were like, “Sure, maybe…”
A lot of your work seems to blur the lines between hop, experimental electronic, and classical music – do you feel like those lines are just totally arbitrary?
Actually, I’m not interesting in blurring the lines. I point out the lines. Sometimes I deconstruct – playing one finger at a time and applying some of the rules of electronic music to how I play the piano, but I don’t really blur. I think my music is about music itself; I’m not creating anything new. I’m working to draw attention to those lines.
You recently released Solo Piano II, a sequel to your most successful album to date, Solo Piano (2004). Why did you feel it was time to do it now?
I probably would have done it sooner if I felt like there was something new to say at the time. I knew I wanted to come back the purity of one guy on one instrument, doing a documentary of what happened in that room for two-and-a-half minutes. It’s rare today, when most music is put together on a computer in this Frankenstein way.
But I think you have to respect your generation when you do it. Most pianists are stuck in the past, trying to preserve something and don’t respect younger audiences. I respect them, and I might be the only piano record in a lot of people’s record collections. They won’t have Brad Meldau, but they’ll have me, because he doesn’t speak to them. He’s too busy with the true religion of jazz, of self-expression and improvisation. Even if he’s doing Radiohead covers – that’s not a real step into the present, it’s cosmetic. I don’t take solos in my music. The fundamental religion of jazz is masturbatory.
Then in classical music, there are some parts of the language that are relevant today, its colors. But the religion of classical music is about structure. That battle was lost long ago and the winner was Michael Jackson. Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Out. I’m not interested in the classical religion of structure.
So what’s the religion of pop music then?
The religion of pop music is the joy of the perfect, economical haiku statement of Verse-Chorus-Verse. It’s about something very simple, and very slight variations, and delivered in a way that’s extremely enjoyable. It’s about being addictive. Jazz and classical musicians never think about doing something simple and addictive.
You are a Canadian who has long ago decamped to Germany. Is Germany a better place to be doing what you are doing?
Europe in general is a great place for me. Berlin specifically is like Montreal, a city that proves you can have a really cheap lifestyle and not have to suffer through the cruel survivalist mode of London or NYC or Paris, and still have all the advantages of a cosmopolitan city. As a result you can spend time as a creative person without having a job, without that cruelty that you can get in the bigger cities. There’s a flip side though; you can get caught up in the vortex, caught up in partying, and years later you haven’t finished your album/film/painting, because there’s no pressure. Now, I’m in Cologne, which is a whole different thing. I’m 15 years into my career, and finally made a decision about where to live for more personal reasons and not just where I need to be hustling. But for me, Berlin or Montreal is perfect if you are just starting out.